Recently I got a peek into the world of teenage communication via social networking services and sites. Because of the hard economic times, I thought I should start using the MXit service (www.MXit.com) to check out the super-low costs of text messaging.
While investigating how the service worked on my cellphone, I thought I would stop by a soccer-related chat room to see what was being discussed. I isolated one conversation thread in what initially looked like total chaos, but was in reality a number of different conversations running concurrently. I did not contribute. I was immersed in trying to work out what was being said and by who.
On reflection and further monitoring, this thread proved not to be a case of happy families, but rather a group of friends
“lording” it up as a royal threesome. Comments posted by the chat room’s other users revealed King General, IR and Queen General to be minor celebrities within the chat room environment. And soccer? Not a word for the duration of my time there.
Later I posted a comment about who was going to be the favourites to win the World Cup next year, but my perfect spelling and sound grammar marked me out as an alien, an imposter … a weirdo? My question was ignored.
MXit is a global phenomenon with a presence in Malaysia, India, Indonesia, the United Kingdom, The United States, Nigeria, Brazil, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain. Its popularity as a messaging service among teenagers is because it offers a cheap deal. It bypasses SMS technology by using GPRS internet to forward chat messages. Consequently, a MXit message costs 1c compared with 75c for a normal SMS. It’s not a small concern either.
According to ITWeb, MXit has a registered user base of more than 11-million and sends more than 250-million messages a day.
MXit has, however, not escaped controversy in the past. In 2006 MXit was blamed in the media for enabling access to pornography and allowing paedophiles to contact minor users. This seemed to be confirmed when the news-actuality programme, Carte Blanche, broadcast a segment in which a young girl told how an alleged paedophile contacted her via MXit.
The reality is that any internet-enabled phone can access undesirable sites, including pornography sites. This is compounded because, unlike a computer, there are no filter programmes available to screen internet content on cellphones.
Parents and teachers who are concerned that their charges might go astray should consider getting the service provider to block data services to a particular number.
The paedophile charges are possibly more concerning and MXit has created rules to protect both the users of its system and itself.
As a user you are encouraged to obey the rules and are exposed to various safety tips.
For example MXit advises users not to reveal their cell number, never to give their real name, not to tell anyone where they live or where they go to school, not to reveal personal details of their friends and to keep online relationships online and not to meet anyone offline.
MXit also has built in some safety features:
- All teenagers’ chat rooms have profanity filters. Swear words are replaced by ##### symbols.
- A network of MXit and community moderators monitors the rooms on an ad hoc basis.
- No user profiles are shared.
- Users are anonymous while in the chat room and, as long as they don’t reveal personal information, they remain safe.
- Users can report abusive behaviour. By typing .rat the previous 30 lines of the conversation are sent to a MXit moderator to review and act upon, if necessary.
My short visit into the soccerzone chat room revealed no obvious threat. It’s true there were some suggestive comments made by the learners, but the conversation was mostly innocent. My real concern was that I was the outsider and easily excluded, but perhaps more pertinent was that the conversations took place during class time. Keep an eye out for cellphones and dexterous thumbs during your lesson.
Andrew Moore is a former teacher. He has a MEd in computer-assisted education. He works for Neil Butcher and Associates, an education technology consulting company