When thinking about social media and digital technology in our class, it’s likely that most of us first think about them in the ways that it affects us: autonomous cars limiting the need for car ownership or how that new geofilter will make your next snap look amazing. Next, we probably think about the way it affects those around us, including our friends and family: using Instagram stories to share your day with friends or donating to your brother’s Kickstarter campaign that you just know is going to fail. Lastly, we might think about the way it affects our own communities and ones similar to ours: artificial intelligence replacing jobs in first world countries or Facebook making access to local politicians easier.
With our class discussions, however, I have begun thinking about ways that social media and digital business has the potential to dramatically influence and change the trajectory of developing countries. When we think about the developing world, I think one of our first instincts is to think about abject poverty and lack of resources. What might not immediately jump to mind is Internet accessibility. According to a Pew Research Center survey, in 2015 a median of 54% of people in developing countries reported using the Internet and 37% reported owning a smartphone. This is as compared to the median Internet users and smartphone owners in the developed world, which are 87% and 68%, respectively.
While this digital gap may seem large at first, I was actually fairly surprised at how the penetration rates of the Internet for some of the developing countries. But what kinds of impacts can one expect from social media and/or digital technology in the developing world?
I think one of the primary gains from the Internet in the developing world will be in medicine. It’s not difficult to see the application of software like Teladoc (what Gabrielle presented on last week and wrote about in her blog post) in rural areas of developing countries. For rural communities with Internet connectivity but without doctors close by and without fast modes of transportation, how valuable would it be to immediately connect to a doctor locally or even abroad? What happens when bandwidth is no longer a real issue and something like Skype Translator works for every language? All of a sudden, some level of quality healthcare is accessible to everyone that can connect to the Internet. Even something that we take for granted, such as using social media as a way to alert citizens about potential health hazards (e.g. disease outbreaks), could make a real difference in areas where information doesn’t currently travel as quickly.
Another area that could potentially see major advancement from the Internet is access to financial and human capital. With regard to financial capital, companies like Kiva.org are already helping connect borrowers in developing countries with those willing to make microloans to them. While Kiva currently has to use “Field Partners” in non-U.S. countries, once they establish a safe and effective way for lending directly through their website to non-U.S. borrowers almost anyone in the world with Internet access will potentially be able to access capital that wouldn’t have otherwise been able to reach them. In addition to financial capital, developing countries could also make huge strides with access to additional human capital. The breadth of knowledge available on the Internet for digital citizens is staggering and has the potential to make drastic change for many people. Farmers should be able to utilize collective intelligence to increase the yields on their crops or access worldwide commodity trends and prices to negotiate from a better position with buyers. Even programmers in the developing world can use platforms like Stack Overflow to access knowledge from users around the world to contribute to their own communities.
A last notable area for social media and technology to affect the developing world is in the advancement of social justice and human rights. One great example of the way that social media can reshape developing countries is the Arab Spring back in 2010 and 2011. Citizens of countries with varying level of Internet connectivity were able to leverage the use of Facebook and Twitter to organize and plan in an effort to drive social change. While there were varying levels of success within the movement, it’s understood that much of the progress and concessions that the movement caused likely would not have happened without the use of social media. In other circumstances, digital technology can give the developed world a firsthand glimpse into what it’s like to live in a developing country and thus build empathy in a way that wasn’t possible before. A great example is something Danni tweeted about a week ago:
Using a 360 degree camera and virtual reality, the New York Times was able to create a video experience that ends up being decidedly more impactful than a standard video might be.
Social media and digital technology have been responsible for major changes in the daily lives of citizens living in the developed world. I would argue, however, that the real measure of the success of both will be in how they can successfully enact positive change in the developing world.