When Mark Zuckerberg is singing the praises of Free Basics, Facebook’s controversial, restricted-but-free internet service, he often likes to talk about farmers. These are usually named individuals (like Ganesh and Aasif Mujawar from Maharashtra in India), who use Free Basics to look up things like weather forecasts and health information. They’re real people with real concerns who are benefitting from Facebook’s largess, but they’re also, undeniably, symbols. Zuckerberg mentions them because they're authentic, sympathetic, and they bolster his arguments about the importance of Free Basics. This is why it’s important to remind ourselves that these people are more than just a rhetorical trope.
In a feature for The Atlantic this week, journalist Craig Mod visits "the Facebook-loving farmers of Myanmar." The piece, written in an impressionistic style that might not be to everyone’s taste, does a good job of highlighting the technological concerns of the newly-connected agricultural poor in the country, as well as making clear that despite the tech world’s obsession with "the next billion," there are larger factors at play. As Mod explains:
"Myanmar is a country of farmers. Fifty three million citizens, approximately thirty million of whom are farmers. Many of them are now coming online. Rushing online, really. Because of the military junta, mobile SIM cards in Myanmar have historically been prohibitively expensive. In 2014, the cost of a SIM card dropped from about $2,000 USD to $200 USD and then once again, to $1.50 USD. Mobile shops were swarmed."
These are people who don’t have electricity, but charge their phones by wiring USB cables to car batteries; who can’t afford a data plan, but buy pre-paid top-ups measured in megabytes; people who wait until nighttime to use their phone, because the data is faster and cheaper then thanks to carriers’ shifting rates.
Facebook is widely used because it compresses data so well
They also all love Facebook (primarily because it compresses data so well), but don’t always use it for the reasons you'd expect. Mod describes a farmer who wants to show him something important on the social network, and wonders, will it be "A new farming technique? News about the upcoming election? Analysis on its impact on farmers?" Instead, it’s a cow with five legs. "[The farmer] laughs," writes Mod. "Amazing, no? Have you ever seen such a thing?
To the people Mod meets, Facebook is more of a news feed than a social network. They don’t use their own names to sign up, they don’t have email addresses linked to their accounts; instead, they just follow people who share things that interest them, like "the weather, Buddhism, pretty girls in swimsuits." To many of them, Facebook is also the whole internet — a phenomenon that’s been documented before in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand, where more people say they use Facebook than the internet, because the former is more important, more dominant.
People will use Facebook for what they want — not what they're told
All this should remind us that when Zuckerberg uses farmers in developing countries as rhetorical flourishes that help justify his goals, there's more to the story. Firstly, although, of course, people do use the internet (and Free Basics) to find useful, even life-saving information, first and foremost, they use it for reasons that they define — not just what Western tech companies think they need and want. Sometimes, that just means sharing a picture of a cow with five legs. Secondly, Facebook is doing a very good job of becoming the gatekeeper for the internet in parts of the world. Is it a good idea if it also provides the internet connection, and decides what information is accessible?
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