Attending to Localized Internet Practices in Fieldwork

This article was originally written in April 2016.

One of the crucial points I take away from reading Brian Larkin’s Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria (2008) is that “technologies are unstable things” (3) whose uses and meanings do not necessarily align with those they are intended or anticipated to engender. As Larkin writes, “communication technologies share, with all urban infrastructures, the role of providing physical networks through which the goods, ideas, religions, and people to make up urban life are trafficked” (5). An appreciation for the materiality of infrastructures is something that I believe ethnographers, especially those from economically privileged countries, risk taking for granted and leaving under-examined when it comes to thinking about the relationship of the field and two of the most important technologies of our generation: the internet and the mobile phone. Drawing on my ongoing dissertation fieldwork related to Tuareg music in Nigeria’s more rural neighbor, Niger, I’d like to explore what we may miss if we forget to think carefully about how the differences in infrastructural environments we encounter during our research are more than background conditions of daily life (e.g., possible sources of frustration like poor bandwidth or dropped calls)[1] to which we must adapt in order to do our work.

 

As has been made clear during my trips to Niger, communication technologies are not completely limited to urban environments. Furthermore, I have been struck by how quickly Nigeriens have adopted smartphones (“tactiles”) since my last visit, not long ago in the summer of 2014. There is already a new cohort of young men belonging to the predominately nomadic Fulani ethnic group who walk the streets of the capital, selling mobile phones out of their backpacks. When mobile phones started gaining popularity in West Africa in the early 2000s, social scientists and NGOs remarked how much of a boon text messaging had been to literacy campaigns (the adult literacy rate in Niger is less than 20%). Nigeriens saw new value in learning to read and write.[2] Phone calls are expensive, and credit works on a pay-as-you-go platform for the vast majority of people, sold by vendors who walk the streets or set up kiosks where they sell cards for various amounts of phone credit or send it electronically via shap shap. Text messages, on the other hand, are cheap. Furthermore, there is no voicemail service. If you want to speak to someone, you call and hope they answer; or you “beep” them by calling and hanging up so that the receiver sees you’re trying to reach them, in the hopes that they call you back so as to spend their own credit, rather than yours. But the advent of smartphones and cheap data, mostly paid by subscriptions rather than by direct usage as with voice calls, is changing that.

While playing back a music video on YouTube, we hold the phone’s weak speakers over the pickups of an electric guitar in order to hear the sound via a nearby amplifier.

The mobile app WhatsApp, for example, has become a popular way to send not only text messages, but more importantly, short audio messages. These might be in the form of brief greetings, but WhatsApp opens a new path to longer conversations as well. This provides some relief, for foreign ethnographers and Nigeriens alike, from the occasionally opaque written worlds of the internet and text messaging, where one may encounter idiosyncratic French spellings and shorthand (e.g., “ksk c” for “qu’est-ce que c’est,” “what is it?”), while for most indigenous languages and their numerous regional dialects there is no written standard and, for better and worse, no autocorrect. As Facebook and NPR experiment with the ability to post audio clips in addition to text, photos, and video, one can only imagine how such changes to social media will continue to engender new practices and shape the trajectories of language and literacy in Niger, as elsewhere. It is already evident how Facebook’s silent autoplay video feature has inspired a new genre of web clips that rely on flashcards or subtitles to silently grab viewers’ attentions.

Actors perform a skit about the risks of sharing extremist messages via social media, one of several musical and dramatic performances animating a neighborhood gathering in Agadez, Niger that was sponsored by the Nigerien government, the International Organization for Migration, and US AID.

I’ve found through my research on festivals here that a WhatsApp Group Chat comprised of Nigerien festival organizers, for example, is a grand mélange of text and audio, in multiple languages and with frequent code switching within a single message. Whereas I was able to find dozens of Facebook groups of Nigeriens and Tuareg music fans relevant to my work from a simple search (highly recommended as a way to keep a pulse on what’s going on in whatever networks and social fields you may be interested in), the WhatsApp group remains something internet-based that no amount of independent web searches from abroad would have revealed without a friend telling me face-to-face. The point may be obvious, but as we become more comfortable with the increasing permeation of our daily lives with internet communication, it is easy to take for granted: expanded and easier access to research informants and texts (e.g., audio or written messages, social media posts, etc.) granted to ethnographers by the internet is not complete without our participation in those physical worlds where infrastructural limitations engender cultural practices that we may never imagine at home. An American’s internet is not entirely the same as a Nigerien’s internet, in much more interesting ways than obvious differences in download speeds or bandwidth (which are nonetheless important and generative qualities, too). The point is that as ethnographers we need to ask ourselves not only “What’s on the internet?” when it comes to our research, but also “What is the internet?” for the social fields with which we work.

 

References

Alidou, Ousseina D. 2005. Engaging Modernity: Muslim Women and the Politics of Agency in Postcolonial Niger. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Charlick, Robert B. 2007. “Niger: Islamist Identity and the Politics of Globalization.” In Political Islam in West Africa: State-Society Relations Transformed, edited by William F. Miles, 19-42. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Larkin, Brian. 2008. Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria.

Durham: Duke University Press.

 

Footnotes


[1] My perspective working in a country where communications infrastructure leaves something to be desired is of course not universally shared by all ethnographers. One colleague recently commented to me that, in terms of infrastructure, their life was easier abroad than at home in the United States. I believe the considerations raised here are still relevant for researchers in these environments.

[2] Since the early 1990s, many Nigeriens (especially women) have also become more motivated to pursue literacy in Arabic—not a widely used language in informal daily interactions—as Islamic reform movements have valorized the diffusion of knowledge directly from the Quran (see Alidou 2005 and Charlick 2007).

 

Eric J. Schmidt is a PhD student in the UCLA Department of Ethnomusicology. His primary research interests address music of the Sahara and Sahel regions of northwest Africa, particularly in Niger and Mali. He earned his MA from UCLA and his BA in Music (Jazz Studies) fron American University, and has been a performer of Scottish highland bagpipe, saxophone, and 'ud, among other instruments.

 

 

 

 

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