While the middle-aged and middle-class have become ever more wrapped up in Facebook and Twitter, the rest of South Africa has been gravitating towards a low-tech and homegrown social network. It’s called MXit and it’s that thing that makes it impossible to part your teenagers from their cellphones.
Facebook may boast close to 3,5-million users in South Africa but MXit claims to have 26-million local users. That’s about half the population. In comparison, the 55 000-strong cohort of local Twitter users is a mere blip on the radar screen.
It’s not hard to understand the allure. MXit provides users with a cheap messaging service that works on even the most basic cellphones and it costs just one cent to send a message. Although it is used by rural grandmothers, university students and young professionals, its core demographic has always been urban teenagers for whom the always-connected world of MXit has become a way of life.
‘It’s weird for a teen not to use it,” says Odirilwe Mokale (16) from Mamelodi.
In the same way that many young adults check their Facebook or Twitter feeds first thing in the morning, teenagers catch up on MXit.
‘In the mornings the first thing I do is log on and check who’s online and see what’s going on. Then I get ready for school. After school, when I get home, I’ll log on from three to four-thirty. Then I’ll just chill with friends [in the real world]. After seven, I’ll log on again until 11 or 12,” Mokale says. Some nights, she falls asleep mid-conversation with her phone in her hand.
Packed digital social life
Despite this packed digital social life, Mokale says she is not really addicted anymore. A few years ago, she would spend hours chatting on MXit during school, her phone hidden under the desk or behind a strategically placed book bag.
Then two things happened — her school banned phones during school hours and Mokale, whose grades had started to slip, came to her own conclusion. ‘I realized MXit won’t get me anywhere, MXit won’t get me a job,” she says.
Now there are MXit-free hours in her life, for school, studies, family and friends.
Simphiwe Jiyane (17) of Pimville, Soweto, is just as much a MXit fundi as Mokale. ‘I can’t do just one thing and not the other,” Jiyane says. ‘I like multitasking.”
This could mean messaging while in the bath, while eating and while travelling to school. She uses MXit to maintain relationships with interesting people she has met at parties, church or music festivals.
Nkululeko Junior Makhanya (also 17) is an ‘equal opportunity” user of social networks. He uses Twitter, but only rarely. He doesn’t see eye to eye with its users, who he says are only into ‘glam” and following celebrities. If he is trying to find out more about someone he doesn’t know well, he may check their Facebook profile, status updates and pictures. But for everyday communication with his wide network of friends, there is only one tool — MXit.
For Makhanya, who rotates between his mother’s house in Soweto, his dad’s house in Pretoria and his step-dad’s house in Bassonia, it is the cheapest, fastest and most practical way to keep in touch.
For teenagers the key barrier to using platforms like Facebook and Twitter is a lack of internet access. If they want to upload a picture to Facebook, they need to go to an internet café — and then there’s the cost factor.
As Mokale says, R5 airtime can buy you a week of MXit use. The same amount of airtime used for Facebook would evaporate in a single day.
Though both Mokale and Jiyane have Facebook accounts, they seldom use them. Mokale says it is too expensive to use and Jiyane says that she doesn’t like Facebook’s lack of privacy.
But with a decent phone, you can do just about everything you would want to if you had access to the internet — take part in conversations, swop music or post videos. All you need is MXit and Bluetooth, which is a standard feature on most phones.
When the Jules High School saga, in which a group of boys allegedly raped a girl on school premises, broke in November, there was a national outcry over the fact that a video of the incident had been distributed via Bluetooth. But it seems the incident raised few eyebrows among other teenagers.
Makhanya says videos like the one from Jules High often circulate among teenagers.
‘Sometimes you send it on just to spite the person in the video — It’s mean but nowadays that’s just how we live,” he says.
A savvy social media user, Makhanya says he’s aware of the way the medium blunts the emotions.
‘I’d say things, horrible things, that I wouldn’t say face to face. And it will be easier to text the person than actually doing it or saying it,” he says. The same goes for positive emotions. ‘It’s easier to tell someone ‘I love you’ by texting than to tell them face to face. And it’s easier for them to say it back.”
Last year researchers at the University of Southern California released the results of a study, which found that some emotions may be missed in rapid media exchanges, such as texting or tweeting.
At the time, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, one of the authors of the study, said that some kinds of thought, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, need more time for reflection than was allowed for by certain digital media.
This would make people who use such rapid exchanges less empathetic to others.
Educators are often unaware of the digital worlds their charges inhabit. ‘MXit? What’s MXit? Let me ask one of my sisters [colleagues],” said a Soweto-based teacher when asked if his school had any rules concerning MXit.
Though teachers may not understand the applications their students are using, in general cellphone use is usually not tolerated at schools.
For Jiyane’s mum, Gugulethu Ji-yane, it is not really MXit as much as the internet that is a worry. ‘You only need a phone to phone and SMS. You don’t need to go through the internet — that’s where they get exposed to things,” she says.
‘I always worry that she’s being exposed to things that I wouldn’t want her to be exposed to. But other than taking her phone, there’s nothing you can do,” she says.
Juan du Toit, MXit’s head of international business development, says he believes that teachers, parents and caregivers should focus more on teaching young people about how to live with technology.
But he warns that there’s an inherent danger if parents and teachers see technology from their perspective and not from young people’s perspective.
‘Young people, 21 and under, don’t necessarily see technology as you and I see it — Phones are an intimate part of their lives. You and I would not feel threatened if we left our phones at home for the day but young people would feel claustrophobic without their phones.”
Du Toit has a point. Life without a cellphone was an alien concept for the teenagers I spoke to.
‘To me my phone is everything. My phone has all my contacts. Without my phone, I’m doomed,” says Jiyane.
Makhanya has had to live without a phone before.
‘I had a phone and it broke. Within two days I had to get a new one. I literally went crazy,” he says. ‘Without MXit, I’d die. Literally and emotionally, I’d die.”
Faranaaz Parker is a reporter for M&G Online