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The Social Side of ICT4D

By Lindsay Poirier on March 16, 2012

We all know that technology helps shape the way we work, learn, interact, and behave. We have also seen countless social issues come out of our own technology –online predators, pornography, piracy.

But is it safe to assume that the same social issues that we witness in our own culture will arise when implementing technology in other cultures? Definitely not, and let me demonstrate why:

Have you heard the term, What’s your ASL?

I hadn’t up until a few days ago. I asked this question to my Facebook network, and all the responses were basically the same – this is a question that has commonly been asked in chat rooms for the past decade. Apparently, I just wasn’t in the loop.

ASL refers to age/sex/location. Individuals ask this when they enter chat rooms in order to get a sense of who is on the other end of the conversation. It has actually become somewhat frowned upon in chat rooms as an Internet cliché.

Now, have you heard the term, What’s your ASLR?


This is a question that has become popular among MXit users in South Africa. MXit is a free mobile social networking platform where users can instantly message friends or talk to larger networks in chat rooms. It was developed in South Africa, and for a long time, it was considered the most popular social media application in Africa.

ASLR refers to age/sex/location/race. Recently UNICEF performed a study that asked users why they included race when posing this question. The most common response was ‘to know all of the info,’ suggesting that they consider the knowledge of an individual’s ethnicity to provide a more complete picture. The second most common response was ‘for safety reasons.’

The survey also looked at whether cyber bullying was common among MXit users. Results showed that, of the 26% who reported that they had been insulted on MXit, 28% reported that the insult had been based on race.

What does this all mean?

It means that there are now more questions.

Is MXit promoting racial unsettlement in South Africa?
Is racial cyber bullying an issue for the youth using the platform?

It also proves that there are different social implications for technology in different cultures. The issues that arise in one country are likely to be very different from the issues that arise in another. Because of this, social impacts should really be considered case-by-case and culture-by-culture.

Predicting these issues before the technology is implemented is close to impossible, and identifying them afterwards is also very difficult. Still, social impacts should be considered at each step when developing and introducing a new technology within a society.

Before planning even begins, there are many questions that should be asked. In education – What are the current teaching methods? How have students traditionally learned? How will the technology affect this? In governance – What is the history of the people involved? What is the role of government in their lives? How will the technology affect this?

After this, the opinion of the end user should be involved in every design decision. No one will understand the end user’s culture better than the end user. S/he is a key player in the process.

Once a project has been implemented, social considerations should also be included in monitoring and evaluation. The success of a project is not just about whether the technology is working; it is about whether a technology is working in a way that is benefiting a culture. Negative social impacts can counteract positive technological improvements – or what we consider to be positive technological improvements. We should therefore constantly be evaluating, adjusting, and improving to make sure that technology has its intended effects.


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I am an undergraduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute studying Information Technology and Science, Technology, and Society. The focus of my studies is on International Development. I have a particular interest in incorporating ICTs in primary education in Sub-Saharan Africa.
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2 Comments to “The Social Side of ICT4D”

  1. Lucderuijter says:

    Hi Lindsay
    You quote two percentages and they are unclear to me.
    And if 26% has been insulted ar some point, that means 74% hasn’t.

  2. Jan Herder says:

    very interesting article. But I don’t think we can control who uses technology for what. We have to focus on educating the user to use technology for good.