“Facebook is a Luxury”: Social Media Use in Rural Kenya

As the growth of social networking sites (SNS) plateaus in developed countries, users in emerging marketsare becoming the next area of growth for services like Facebook.
Figure 1: As the growth of social networking sites (SNS) plateaus in developed countries, users in emerging markets are becoming the next area of growth for services like Facebook.

Facebook use is pervasive in developed countries. Computers, smartphones, high-bandwidth Internet, and electricity are ubiquitous. However, in Kenya, technological infrastructures are less developed. Despite limited technology use, social media participation is growing in Kenya. I conducted interviews at Internet cafés in rural Kenya (see Figure 2). My findings reveal that online participation is limited by:

  • costs associated with using the Internet
  • limited access to computers and smartphones
  • unreliable electricity

Study participants consistently told me the costs of creating and maintaining a Facebook account prevented them from joining. Westerners often regarded the site as free of charge. Kenyas earn the equivalent of $1.50 a day and incur many internet costs in order to use facebook such as:

  • using the Internet at a café costs $0.01-$0.02 dollars/minute (0.50 to 2 KSh/minute)
  • creating an email account costs $0.11 (10 KSh)
  • Creating, scanning, and uploading a profile picture has a cost

An employee of a cafe in Bungoma, Kenya, explains the cost associated with creating a Facebook account:

It is common knowledge like if you want to be on Facebook you must have a photo, when they come, they come armed with that photo, you have to scan and upload it for them and they get excited and you see like scanning one photo is thirty shillings, thirty Kenyan shillings. Uploading is ten shillings. . .

Once an account was established there were further costs associated with maintaining it. All participant lacked domestics Internet access, so in order to use Facebook they had to travel to town from a rural village typically by paying for a ride on a bicycle, motorcycle, or matatu.

In Kenya, using the internet for 30 minutes costs the same as feeding a family. The using the Internet at a café for 30 minutes typically cost 0.50 KSh ($0.60).  This would also buy enough maize porridge to feed a family for a few days. Participants who accessed the site described doing so as a luxury. They allowed themselves to use Facebook after “finishing other expense.”

Drawing on this finding and others,  I discuss the critical role of constraints in understanding social media use, to raise questions about broadening online participation and to highlight ethical issues HCI/CSCW researchers must consider when studying Facebook use in developing regions.

Figure 2: Sites Visited in western Kenya
Figure 2: Sites visited in western Kenya

For more, see our full paper, “’Facebook is a Luxury’: An Exploratory Study of Social Media Use in Rural Kenya” at http://www.susanwyche.com/.

Susan P. Wyche, Michigan State University, Sarita Yardi Schoenebeck, University of Michigan, and Andrea Forte, Drexel U.

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