The first full day of AoIR 2013 is about to get underway - and it starts with a series of plenary talks. Jenna Burrell is the first speaker, taking an ethnographic angle. Her recent focus has been on youth in the Internet cafés or urban Ghana - a sign of the global reality of the contemporary Internet. But this global Internet does not eradicate personal identity, contrary to some of the cyberutopian claims of the early 1990s which have now become unfashionable - the Net's userbase is increasingly diverse, but in different ways than originally envisaged.
What motivates young Internet users in Ghana, then? As it turns out, a key driver of Internet café use (as of 2005) was to find penpals in other countries - at the time, mainly through Yahoo! chatrooms. Such penpals might be friends, peers, potential romantic interests, patrons, sponsors, business partners, or philanthropists - following previous mail-based practices, which were translated online and became a way to envisage what the Net was for.
One example of a user group is the "executive club", whose (male) members competed for the material artefacts they could acquire from abroad - for example CDs, bibles, and other freebies. Another young woman found a chat partner abroad and developed a close relationship, but then asked him whether he could send an old mobile phone for her use - and her chat partner terminated the relationship. Yet another young man sought help from his Polish chat partner to acquire a Polish visa, and was surprised when she would not allow him to stay in her home.
These are variously successful and unsuccessful examples, then; they highlight divergent understandings of gender and communicative norms, of the moral economy of gifting, of reciprocal obligations about hospitality, which are further complicated by material asymmetries (e.g. the cost of using the Net in Ghana, which speeds up and foreshortens communicative exchanges) and simplistic perceptions of Western affluence, as well as the Western partners' misconceptions about life in Africa.
There is also a question of exclusion from participation here: the users in Ghana found themselves blocked and banned by their communicative partners, through the built-in technological means of the platforms, when relationships failed, showing that the online space is not necessarily a more permissive or tolerant environment than its offline counterpart; they were categorically excluded from some sites which blocked any African IP ranges - including many dating sites; or were treated with substantial suspicion because of the volume of spam and scams originating from some African countries. Indeed, there is a substantial amount of advice on Web developer and network security fora about how to block access from African origins.
Compared to the very widely discussed Internet blocks and filters, such as the Great Firewall in China, this is a much more invisible and insidious form of exclusion from online access and participation; it also reveals the parochialism and ethnocentrism in the network developer community.