Mobile phones for social change – The changing media landscape

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Swati Chandak

Kolkata: Professor Thomas Tufte, Director for the Institute for Media and Creative Industries, Loughborough University, U.K. illuminated the minds of many by sharing his experience and research on mobiles phones in everyday life on the third day of IAMCR (International Association of Media and Communication Research) India Webinar Series on Media and Communication Research organized by Kolkata – based Adamas University, School of Media, Communication and Fashion. He has also collaborated with many organizations working for international development such as UNDP, UNICEF, UNESCO, World Bank, and many more.

The international webinar is being organized in association with the media partners ABP Education, India Real, and The Policy Times. The International webinar series is being organized over a period of 5 days from August 3, 2020 to August 7, 2020.

The joint conveners of this webinar series are Prof. Ujjwal Kumar Chowdhury, Pro-Vice Chancellor, Adamas University and Dr. Uma Shankar Pandey, IAMCR, Ambassador, India. The session was chaired by Prof. Sunil Kanta Behera, Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, Tezpur University. 

Professor Tufte is an internationally leading scholar in the field of communication for social change and writer of the world-renowned book “Communication and Social Change – A Citizen Perspective”. He discussed at length about his Nordic Kenyan Project and gave critical perspectives upon new media and social change. He also explored the sphere of media and communication as social practices and processes. His key research interest areas are qualitative audience studies and communication for social change research. Also, he has supervised works in the areas of media and conflict, media anthropology, communication for development and social change, alternative media, internet governance.

He acquainted the audience with the role of mobile phones in everyday life with the help of a case study of young men in the Rift Valley to understand negotiating identities, social relations, and life aspirations. Also, in the study, he attempts to study the livelihood, communication ecology, and acts of citizenship among young men of the region. He explained,” The field of audience ethnography emphasizes on how audiences make use the media, which in this study is the mobile phone, but in today’s world where the audience is increasingly engaged, media ethnography is a more appropriate term, as audiences are now not only receivers but they are also producers, and they are in many active ways engaged with the content”.

His research pointed out that Kenya is a pioneer in mobile banking technology and mobile phones are fundamental in the lives of these young men to communicate with customers and get business and work opportunities. This research is social-centric rather than media-centric and the main focus of the study is not the media but the people, to analyze what the people do with the media. Thus, it is more about social identities, social norms, social processes, and social practices.

He also spoke on changing media landscapes and moments of ‘rupture’, and said that while we are appropriating new technologies, there is a lot to be nuanced; there is a need to study the embedding of mobile phone use in everyday life. This study explores the role of phones in the production of locality, a sense of belonging, acts of citizenship, and processes of participation in public life or politics and empowerment in the life of ordinary citizens.

He also discussed the concepts like ‘cultures of governance’, ‘trajectories of disposition’ (Gonzales, 2014), and ‘politics of hope’ (Stade/Appadurai, 2016) and the processes of becoming (Dahlgren, 2013) at a time of substantial change. “Mobile phones have a ‘capacity to aspire’ and also play a phenomenal role in mobilization in social movements. The new technology significantly inspires one to pursue their aspirations and exercise their voice”, he remarked.

He mentioned many other projects with which he is associated on African Audience Studies in the digital era – decolonizing, de-essentializing and provincializing like Everyday media cultures in Africa, Mobile Telephony and Gender, New Media Practices in changing Africa, Media Empowerment and Democracy in East Africa, and many more.

His study primarily focussed on finding the answers on the following research questions:

1. How ordinary citizens engage with and consume media in the new media environment?

2. What patterns of everyday media practices at individual and household levels emerge in such contexts?

3. What are the implications of emerging media cultures on people’s social and economic identities and local processes of social change?

He conducted focussed group interviews of several young men to analyze their use of media and found that there are coexisting new and old spaces to meet and interact and these embedded spaces are enhancing social interaction, recreation, business, etc. Also, there are coexisting temporalities – the rural-urban and the traditional – modern.

He informed that his research found out that the people who have internet access are actively engaging with online platforms like Facebook/Whatsapp and they use it for varied purposes. These social platforms reinforce existing processes and create novel spaces where individuals can socialize. Professor Tufte said, “The sheer volume of SMSs shared daily by the people he studied is a strong indicator of the networked society and it shows how embedded texting has become an important means of communication within both private and professional networks. Also, worth mentioning is the idea that the purchase of these technologies is an indicator of development to many. It seems to give a sense of pride to the owner for becoming a member of the modern lifestyle or the urban society”.

The new media offers new opportunities and articulates new social dynamics that potentially challenge existing power structures, redefining relations to decision-makers. Professor Tufte is currently researching on ‘Alternative media in India’. He also engaged in an active discussion with the audience about the role of the ritual in communication. He noted that the ritual  is sometimes more important rather than the content of the media in integrating the society, e.g. the ritual of playing games on mobile phones with friends can be more appealing to youngsters and can be the primary reason to use mobile phones. Also, he observed the effect of the COVID – 19 pandemic in popularizing the use of mobile phones in e-commerce, education, and other activities.

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