Stephanie Lusby is a PhD Candidate at ANU. Her research focuses on how public health messages are translated and applied by men in Papua New Guinea.
The two papers released recently by Danielle Cave and Sarah Logan are part of a growing body of work on information and communications technology in the Pacific. I'd like to offer some comments on mobile and internet use, using examples gathered during my work as an electoral observer in East New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea during the 2012 national elections.
The expanding on-line citizenry of Papua New Guinea employ the same 'Web 2.0' tools of self-publication and collaboration used around the world. Here, as elsewhere, these allow Papua New Guineans to adapt global models of digitised political and civic engagement to local contexts and needs. This is seen in the growth of Facebook, Twitter and blogs, and creation of groups such as Act Now! PNG (which uses a similar model to Australia's GetUp!) and associated campaigns like Papua New Guinea Minewatch.
As Logan and Cave both point out, membership of online political and social forums in PNG is growing but far from universal, as most participants live in urban areas and have a relatively high level of education.
The ability to afford credit and differing levels of literacy shape how Papua New Guineans engage with communication technology, but they're not absolute barriers. For example, SMS allows people to subvert illiteracy. SMS language is typified by its use of phonetic spelling, abbreviations and numeric substitutions for words (eg. '10x' means 'thanks'). Using numbers and symbols (such as emoticons) means that one needs only a basic knowledge of phonics and numeracy to become SMS literate.
SMS language has also spilled onto the comments pages of blogs and community Facebook pages used by Papua New Guineans. In PNG, where 2011 census data recorded that only 50% of the population could read or write in any of the three official languages of Tok Pisin, Motu or English, this is potentially significant. Improving literacy and access to education across the country is critical, and it's an area where SMS has helped in other developing countries. Mapping how people otherwise classified as illiterate are using text-based ICT may provide important insights into how to better target literacy programs in PNG.
Across East New Britain and many parts of PNG, mobile phones are a ubiquitous accessory for men and women in most age groups. People who lack knowledge of or confidence with new technology are sometimes jokingly referred to as 'grinred man' or 'grinred meri', a man or woman who can only use the green button on their phones to access calls or text messages, and the red button to end calls. Even so, these people still have phones. And as Olivia Wilson notes, 'even if someone doesn't own a phone, they will know someone who does'. Equally, if a phone doesn't have internet access or if someone can't access the internet on their phone because they don't know how or don't have enough credit, someone else will help.
This means phone and internet use is not necessarily only about single users congregating in online communities. It may be several people sharing a password and/or collectively authoring a comment or text. With the rollout of initiatives such as mobile banking, this is important to consider, as it raises issues of privacy and the potential for theft and misuse of funds. These risks are higher for less educated people, and particularly for women. However, group or proxy user behavior may also be harnessed and targeted to disperse information via peer education programs for initiatives such as electoral education and health.
These brief examples indicate that new literacies and ways of using ICT are evolving endogenously and organically in communities across the Pacific. It is vital that any attempts by development partners to help generate ICT-for-development initiatives prioritise understanding and working within the trends set on the ground before attempting to apply lessons learned from other countries.
Photo by Flickr user Scallop Holden.