As online social networks gain a larger and larger influence on our lives, it is easy to forget that even though Facebook has over a billion users, that means there are still over 5 billion people that are not part of Mark Zuckerberg’s empire. And while some of those people may deliberately avoid Facebook out of fear for their privacy or other considerations, for most of those people there is a far simpler reason not to use social media: they can’t read, and even if they could, they’re not connected to the internet.
Take rural India, for example. In remote villages, literacy may be as low as 35% and if there is a computer with an internet connection, it’s probably shared by the whole village and mainly used to exchange data about the farmers’ crops. Coupled with a similar lack of access to television or regular newspapers, this means members of India’s farming communities often lack access to any mainstream media at all.
At the same time, many people do own a mobile phone: and if they don’t, a family member or neighbour who owns one is never far away. This is where CGNet Swara comes in. This initiative, founded by the International Center for Journalists, comprises a community-based voice mail-like service where villagers can easily have their message recorded. Contrary to an ordinary voice mail service, though, the “mail box” can be listened to by any other villager; this way, they can share news and record reports of events with villages that are further away even though they can’t do so in writing.
While one might expect that such a service would go the way of Facebook and Twitter and get used mainly to share the news of a wedding, childbirth or the latest craze in sari fashion, it is in fact also put to a more constructive use. As Swara translates and records most of its messages on its web site, the service can give even people thousands of kilometres away insight in some of the more serious issues in rural India:
“Mohammad Afsar from Raigarh district in Chhattisgarh is telling us that in Kelo river people are witnessing dead fish from last 3/4 days. The dead fish also include big fish of 4/5 kilograms. First we thought it was a natural process but it is continuing from last 3/4 days so it needs investigation. More than 10 quintal of fish have died so far. This could be for pollution from nearby factories or someone may have put poison in water. For more Afsar Ji can be reached at 09981763123″
Giving such issues exposition that, for lack of access to media, would not be attainable otherwise, Swara allows villagers to effectively spread word of local troubles and united themselves against these problems. Their site lists several examples of how this has lead to tangible changes: for example, a villager recorded a message about how his daughter’s school was not serving meals, and within a week many others had joined in the protest, prompting officials to make sure meals were being served.
Though such problems may seem trivial compared to the petitions and calls for action we routinely see on our Facebook timeline (occupy Wall Street! stop SOPA! Kony 2012!), we should realize that we can easily go to a local newspaper or community web site if a social or legal issue isn’t appropriately handled by the government. The rural Indian villagers that use Swara, on the other hand, had no way to call attention to such issues apart from quite literally telling each other at the village pump. Considering this, Swara is quite a beautiful way to use modern communication technology in a social way in spite of constraints such as illiteracy and lack of internet access.