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Tagging as Social Expression June 29, 2007

Posted by matthewweber in appropriation, co-opt, language.
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When the Internet first exploded into households and office, bookmarks provided a convenient way to save favorite Web pages without memorizing URLs. No more than a decade later, the combined evolution of Web 2.0 and the growth of online tagging systems brings us a new concept: tagging as social expression. As UCLA researcher Alla Zoellers writes in a paper she presented at the WWW07 workshop in Banff, Canada, users have appropriated tagging as a forum for social conversations, political debates and collective action. Amazon.com’s new tagging system provides a good illustration; Barack Obama’s Audacity of Hope listing on Amazon is tagged with both “hope and redemption” and “check his voting record,” among other less-flattering comments. Of the 138 tags, most represent two sides of the polarized debate surrounding the 2008 elections.

While an interesting forum for debate, this also represents what I consider to be a “viral” course of appropriation. Bookmarks were first used as an organizational tool, but as more and more consumers have come online it became a venue for passing references back and forth. Bookmarks evolved to include tagging capabilities, allowing individuals to categorized and comment on saved items. But tagging was rapidly appropriated by the blog community as a term for social commentary. Hence today we have tagging as social expression. Sites such as del.icio.us provide forums for sharing your online “identity” through the digital trace of sites you’ve visited and the associated tags.

Looking forward, online and mobile social networks offer an interesting forum for trading ideas, evolving concepts and collectively discovering new uses for existing technology, much like an everyman’s USENET group.

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Creative destruction: izi killed the public phones June 15, 2007

Posted by François in africa, appropriation, co-opt, cycle, re-make.
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Senegal’s télécentres are disappearing and it seems “izi” and “seddo”, the new micro-recharge services from operators Tigo and Orange, are to blame. These télécentres are not what we typically think of as “telecenters” –roomfulls of public access computers. In fact, “the majority of them would more rightly be described as telephone kiosks or phone shops.” This unfolding story of creative destruction is very significant because over the past 10 years, such public phones have been key to economic development and information access throughout the developing world (recall Grameen’s village phones.) The disappearance of Sénégal’s télécentres fits a broader pattern currently emerging in several parts of Africa. It also maps very nicely onto our appropriation cycle and illustrates the related tug-of-war between suppliers and users, that drives innovation.

The often-told story goes like this:

  • Step 1 (roll-out): mobile phones were introduced, but were too expensive for many people to afford.
  • Step 2 (re-make): entreprising individuals get a phone and offer ‘fractional phone service’ to others by reselling their minutes on street corners. These ‘public phones’ come in many flavors: some are just individuals looking for extra cash, others may be informal micro-enterprises or more substantial ventures.
  • Step 3 (re-claim): phone companies (and others, like Grameen) co-opt this practice with micro-loans, enhanced public phone booths, accounting features to help manage the public phones, etc.
  • Step 4 (new roll-out): a changed business ecology supports multiple avenues for the provision of phone service: personal or shared, bought directly from the phone company or re-sold through intermediaries.

But now comes this new African twist:

Step 3-bis (“assertive” re-claim): Phone companies (like Tigo in Senegal), seeing that there is a market for small increments of phone credit and shared phones, introduce much more granular offers. For example in Senegal, Tigo offers billing-by-the-second (10 seconds for 20 Francs CFA, or $0.02), electronic recharges (“izi”, in Tigo’s Senegalese franglais) as low as 100FCFA ($0.20), and free unit transfers between consumers (available on the “Tigo Jeune” plan).

All of a sudden, users don’t need the ‘public phones’ any more. In Senegal most of these télécentres have gone out of business. Bassirou Cissé, the general secretary of Unetts(*) says that “In 2000, there were 18,000 télécentres in Sénégal, accounting for 33% of the Senegalese operators’ revenues and 30,000 jobs. Today, most of them have closed down.”

Any guesses as to what “Step 4” will now look like?

(*) Unetts is the Union nationale des exploitants de télécentres et des téléservices du Sénégal. The ‘public phone’ business may be informal at times, but certainly not dis-organized.

Recommended reading: Olivier Sagna’s Batik newsletter, a great source of information on African ICTs (in French.) I ran into this article while poking around OSIRIS (Observatoire sur les Systèmes d’Information, les Réseaux, et les Inforoutes au Sénégal), where Batik is hosted. No RSS yet, but Olivier tells me this is coming soon.

Vehicle/phone mash-ups (1): bike-phones and boat-phones June 8, 2007

Posted by François in co-opt, creolization.
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Accounts of cell phone appropriation in developing countries are filled with tales of ingenious mash-ups combining public phones with a variety of vehicles. Here is a sample:

These are often told as user appropriation stories. But in fact (with the possible exception of the wheelchair phone) they are cases where suppliers re-claim earlier user innovation. In many African and Asian countries, when cell phones first appeared, enterprising individuals appropriated the new technology as “public phones,” reselling their minutes on the street. Mobile phone companies were quick to co-opt this innovative practice. They provided micro-loans to the public phone entrepreneurs and rolled-out accounting features that helped them manage their retail business. Some went further and came up with public payphones mounted on various kinds of vehicles.

These phone/transportation mash-ups make for striking pictures, underscoring the phone’s mobility. However, beyond this symbolic value, I wonder what real need they serve. Has anyone examined the details of the bike-phone business? The Rajasthan article cites a 75,000 rupee ($1,641) cost for the rickshaw set-up. This only works because Shyam Telecom gives the rickshaws away, as charity. And is the guy on the boat calling his family so they can pick him up as soon as the boat docks, just like impatient frequent-flyers do as soon as their plane has landed? These may well make sense as publicity stunts by phone operators, but it isn’t clear they constitute useful innovation.

(click on pictures for credits and additional information)