Web 3.0: Social Software in the 3rd World

What is Web 3.0? After the social software revolution ushered in by web 2.0’s architectures of participation, we’re all eager to think ahead to the next mind bending advance. But while many of the new web manifestos talk about the next step for web technology, the target market for those technologies is equally important. I believe the third generation web will be about finding ways to make social software relevant to those who have benefitted little from it to date: web 3.0 is social software in the 3rd world.

But here’s the thing: the next social software revolution has already begun — spurred by the massive uptake of mobile phones in developing nations. 68% of mobile phone subscribers anywhere are in the developing world. In Africa, mobile subscribers have jumped from 10 million to 200 million in the last four years. The growth is stunning. And it’s accelerating.

Why the explosive growth? One reason is sheer need. Africa has 12% of the world’s population but only 2% of the global landline network. Building wired infrastructure is far more expensive than wireless alternatives. But that’s just the beginning. The recent IBM Global Innovation Outlook put it this way:

African use of mobile phones has been far more innovative than in Europe, largely because meeting the specific needs of Africa requires innovation.

And the cellphone is empowering because it provides what Jan Chipchase calls a “fixed identity point,” that is, for people displaced by war, floods, drought, or faltering economies, having a way to always be in touch is essential for both maintaining community and for doing business.

Economists say this will be huge. As a recent New York Times article put it, mobile communications enables the “just in time” business. In the 1930’s, Toyota radically revamped how its supply chain worked. No longer did it stock parts, instead encouraging assembly plants to order from the factory only when parts were needed. The company became decentralized, incremental. Waste was reduced, efficiency increased, defects were corrected more quickly — and profits rose. Economists believe that the cellphone can enable this same kind of radical shift in developing nations, largely because they don’t have the technological baggage we do.

Some examples:

  • When Indian fishermen got cellphones, they started calling around to prospective buyers before reaching shore. The ability to negotiate at a distance increased profits by 8% and reduced consumer costs by 4%.
  • SMS is used in Kenya to allow anonymous questions about culturally taboo subjects like AIDS, breast cancer, STDs and more. Answers come back quickly from health professionals at no charge.
  • A live-in housekeeper in China who was essentially an indentured servant got a cellphone and suddenly a whole new set of customers were able to reach her and book her services, allowing her to grow her business.

Of course difficult questions remain. How do you design for people who are illiterate, making $4 a day, and with no access to electricity? Design for the Other 90% provides important answers, repeatedly demonstrating that these challenges can be overcome when folks get creative — and at a profit, too. Paul Polak puts it this way:

Thinking of poor people as customers, instead of recipients of charity, radically changes the design process.

But here’s the central point: little attention has been paid to the role social software can play. And that seems strange since these little connected devices are in so many pockets. It’s a huge opportunity, especially since many of the approaches used in the west can’t be applied, at least not directly. For instance:

In Cameroon, bankers complain of loan delinquency rates as high as 50 percent. But tontine payments are taken so seriously that borrowers faced with delinquency have been known to commit suicide. (nyt)

How, then, do you design to support informal economies in places where the formal economy isn’t as important? What features can help communities that are widely dispersed by war maintain their bonds? What role can social software play in helping steward social change and stability? These are the big questions. And that’s why there’s no better place to test the true promise of social software than in the developing world. Confronting these challenges requires a radical rethink of what social software means. Web 3.0: social software in the 3rd world.

Jan Chipchase holds design studios in poor communities, asking participants to design their perfect phone — with all sorts of revealing results: a landmine detector, GPS to help orient prayers towards Mecca, the ability to monitor cheating boyfriends and husbands. But perhaps the most telling was just two words: “peace button.”

While the idea of a button that instantly invokes peace might seem ridiculous, the power of mobile phones to affect social change is quite evident: be it energizing protests or spreading divisiveness.

If the third world is already doing amazing things with basic mobile functionality (texting, voice), imagine what they will do when the real dreamers of social software apply themselves in this new venue. I don’t know what that future would look like but, with so much of Earth’s population still unaccounted for in current designs, it’s an opportunity that will be increasingly difficult to ignore.

images via ibm and nyt

4 Responses to “Web 3.0: Social Software in the 3rd World”


  1. 1 wonderwebby

    Hey, nicely written. Found your blog through Eightbar.

    The mind boggles at the possibilities.

  2. 2 Jason

    Thanks! Yeah, I’ve been really floored by the potential for radically new applications of technology in Africa. Hoping to travel there again in the next year to explore the possibilities further.

  3. 3 Peter

    Good start at some thought provoking ideas… I wonder how we can use these concepts to provide just in time education?

  1. 1 Linux/Nethead Injokery : gordsellar.com

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