First Monday

Technology hype versus enduring uses: A longitudinal study of Internet use among early adopters in an African city by Jenna Burrell

This paper considers a set of early adopters of the Internet first encountered by the author in the Internet cafés of Accra, Ghana. The analysis draws from long–term ethnographic research and paired interviews with key informants separated by a six–year interval to identify and explain different trajectories of changing use of the Internet over time. Changes in use followed one of three general patterns: (1) intensification, (2) reorientation, or (3) discontinuance. These changes were linked to the life circumstances of individual users, their immediate social context of use, as well as broader societal shifts in the perception of the Internet in Ghana. This article critiques an implicit theory of technology in society in socio–economic development work targeting low–income countries like Ghana by showing how assessments of technology’s efficacy by users are culturally shaped and prone to change over time.


Trajectories of changing use
Methodological approach: Longitudinal analysis and unfolding life histories
Internet cafés in Accra, Ghana: A baseline




The study of any novel and promising technology in its early stages of diffusion and uptake presents the challenge of separating its consequential and enduring new capabilities from more faddish and transitory enthusiasms. To this point, historians of technology offer accounts of the early marketing schemes, promised transformations, and popular uses that accompanied now obsolete or mundane devices (i.e., the telegraph, the bicycle). In retrospect, such promises often look exaggerated, unlikely, or misguided. To give one example, the telegraph was once thought to exert a moral influence, yielding global cross–cultural understanding. For example, in articulate prose, a Scientific American article noted after the assassination of U.S. President James Garfield, “it was the touch of a telegraph key ... the civilized world gathered as one family around a common sick bed,” marking a new era when, “the feeling of universal kinship shall be, not a spasmodic outburst of occasional emotion, but constant and controlling.” [1] Such hindsight is instructive for contemporary studies of technology, especially, as I argue here, for studies of the role digital technologies could play in socio–economic development. This reflection suggests that reserved judgment in the face of panacea–like promises is warranted especially in the period just after a technology is first introduced to a new population or in a new domain.

There is not yet a subfield that studies the history of technology in socio–economic development work. Yet technology has been integral to the pursuit of goals of poverty alleviation from the founding of the United Nations. In Truman’s inaugural address of 1949 that marked a transition out of an era of colonial exploitation into a new kind of relationship between affluent and poor nations, he called for helping the poor of the world by making “... available the benefits of our store of technical knowledge in order to help them realize their aspirations for a better life” — a goal to be pursued “through the United Nations and specialized agencies.” Many decades into this effort, the impulse in socio–economic development research (as in many research fields where intervention and application is emphasized) is to chase the bleeding edge of new applications, new systems, and new ideas. What were once regarded as promising solutions for poverty alleviation in prior decades are not regularly revisited to consider how they fared in the long run [2]. The funding and structuring of research is such that technology interventions once implemented are evaluated almost immediately, a practice evident in the current enthusiasm for randomized controlled trials that seek to rigorously prove (or disprove) the efficacy of such interventions [3]. Yet, the period just after a new technology is introduced is known to be especially unstable, as documented in scholarship in the history of technology as well as science and technology studies (STS). In this period a given technology is often used for a wide range of more varied, exploratory, and ultimately transitory uses (Bijker, 1995; Kline and Pinch, 1996; Marvin, 1988). While a technology is scarce or expensive, users may employ it for status display and social differentiation (Kuriyan and Kitner, 2007; Mercer, 2005; Spitulnik, 2002). Such a dynamic is prone to change as it becomes more ubiquitous and mundane. Whether the demands of maintenance and repair can be met are also critical to a technology’s longevity in use (Warschauer and Ames, 2010; Akrich, 1992; Malkin, 2007) but such demands take some time to emerge. The time period to achieve some kind of stability of technology form and patterns of use can be very lengthy — the classic case study of the invention of the bicycle is shown from archival evidence to have unfolded over 62 years from the first two-wheeled human–powered vehicle to the bicycle we are familiar with today with its pneumatic tires and gearing system (Bijker, 1995).

Technological artifacts introduced as part of socio–economic development interventions have been studied through snapshots of technology–in–use, generally in the immediate period after implementation. Consequently, it is likely that the more settled role such a technology may attain, its most enduring uses, have not been sufficiently extracted from the unstable ‘hype’ that accompanies this immediate period. Positive evaluations in this context may be overly optimistic. On the other hand, among vulnerable and risk averse groups often targeted as beneficiaries of such projects, a new technology may take longer to register an impact (such as the delay among small–holder farmers adopting modern agricultural technology in India; see Prahladachar, 1983). The acquisition of technical knowledge and other learning processes, particularly given the complexity of computer technologies, also takes time. This is one explanation offered for the empirical evidence of a “productivity paradox,” a decline in productivity immediately following the widespread introduction of computing technologies into U.S. firms (Brynjolfsson, 1993). Under such circumstances, evaluation may underestimate a technology’s true potential. To better understand the matter of initial hype as well as learning processes, how a technology–in–use changes over time requires closer attention and examination.

Over the past 10 years, development agencies have begun to direct their attention to digital technologies. One key event was the World Summit on the Information Society that ran from 2003 to 2005 and was sponsored by the United Nations and the International Telecommunication Union (I.T.U.) (Boas and Dunning, 2005; Mercer, 2004; Kleine and Unwin, 2009; World Summit on the Information Society, 2005). While the Internet was an initial focus, attention has shifted to the promising new possibilities of mobile phones for poverty alleviation (Zuckerman, 2010). Throughout much of the Global South mobile phones have been widely adopted, an outcome of market processes in the context of favorable government policies (Aker and Mbiti, 2010). New services specifically targeting poverty alleviation goals have been implemented on the mobile platform often through partnerships between academic researchers and NGOs (Banerjee, et al., 2007; Cole–Lewis and Kershaw, 2010, Eagle, 2009, Patel, et al., 2010). The case considered in this article is the use of the Internet, primarily by youth, in public Internet cafés in Accra, Ghana as part of the author’s long–term ethnographic investigation into various digital technologies in circulation in urban Ghana (Burrell, 2012). This article presents a longitudinal study situated in this ethnographic work and focusing in particular on 12 individuals who were frequent Internet café users at the initiation of this project (in 2004) and were revisited and re–interviewed in the summers of 2010 and 2011. The purpose was to explore the subsequent changes in their Internet use and life circumstances over a six–year interval. This time period between initial and subsequent contact offered ample opportunity for exploration and learning among users and for them to see a pay off in any long–term investments of online efforts or, alternately, to experience disillusionment with the technology’s potential.



Trajectories of changing use

In much of socio–economic development research and practice, technologies are considered as “instruments of technical rationality” [4]. One result is that questions of efficacy and productivity are prioritized above other concerns by analysts and, more problematically, presumed to be the prevailing motive for use among technology adopters (i.e., Rogers, 1995). For development objectives, technology serves as a means to a well–specified end. Yet, establishing that a technology brings about pragmatic, measurable effects (i.e., reduces maternal mortality rates or increases farming output per acre) does not mean that it escapes from processes that imbue it with broader cultural meaning. Rather than technology as solution to an existing problem, the case considered here shows how the aspirations and aims of technology users are a component in the way function is constructed from the material form of the technology. Function is not a fixed and a priori property of a technology (as instrumentalist treatments assume) and cannot be definitively identified prior to and apart from its situated use. Rather function is the outcome of exploratory processes of technology–in–use. Technology viewed through the aspirations of users is seen as offering new pathways for “normative” or “expansive” realization (Miller and Slater, 2000). Aspiration is also a focus of recent work in the development field that goes beyond base–level survival needs and the economic calculus of idiosyncratic individual wants. Instead aspirations are “part of wider ethical and metaphysical ideas which derive from larger cultural norms” [5]. This is a matter of how individuals envision ideal future selves navigating the structure of broader norms and notions of morality.

While an instrumentalist theory of technology has been serviceable for the focused evaluation of certain kinds of technologies [6], special characteristics of these new digital technologies make the continuation of such a theoretical treatment untenable. In particular the flexible multi–functionality and peculiar malleability of such technologies require a reoriented approach. The many possible applications made available through the Internet’s layered and modular design — including chat, blogging platforms, e–mail, file transfer, e–commerce, media streaming, and a huge variety of other applications — sets the stage for unanticipated configurations and combinations. Scholars argue that technologies are never neutral tools, but rather cultural artifacts inscribed with norms, values, and beliefs (Ginsburg, 2008; Hine, 2000; Nissenbaum, 2001). Computer and even mobile phone interfaces are rich in language and metaphor, specifically that of office work with its reference to files, folders, and menus. Text, image, and all matter of message and representation flow through digital network connections. Network technologies enable shifts and evolution in form over time closing off and adding possibilities through backend infrastructural configurations and application upgrades pushed through the network [7]. The Internet is constituted by user–created social and interactional spaces the produce changes through content, online membership, and participation. For the group of Ghanaian users considered in this paper, the Internet had changed in noticeable ways between initial and subsequent fieldwork in 2004–2005 and 2010–2011.

In the context of this multi–functionality and malleability, it is clear that analysts cannot assume stability of use over time. Nor can the functions and uses of the technology be derived from the technology’s material form in isolation from the context of use. Yet the information society rhetoric among development agencies (including the U.N., World Bank, I.T.U., joined by bilateral organizations such as U.S.A.I.D.) reflects this work of abstractly simplifying digital and network technologies considering their features in isolation. From the perspective of these agencies, digital technologies have become platforms for information delivery on development themes (education, agriculture, health, government services, etc.). I refer to this as the informational–mode of use, a mode that was little evident in urban Ghana’s Internet cafés. The present empirical case looking at the technology in use over an extended period of time demonstrates several different trajectories of use. Over time, an individual user’s life circumstances, the social context of use (including public perceptions of the technology), and the composition of the technology itself all change. Different material possibilities, in this light, become more or less compelling and different functions thereby become more or less prominent.

One of the few examples of scholarship that considers technology in terms of its temporal unfolding is Everett Rogers’ diffusion of innovations (DoI) model (Rogers, 1995). The DoI model remains the most enduringly influential source on questions of technology uptake specifically in the context of socio–economic development. However, in keeping with the dominant approach, the DoI model reflects the prevailing instrumentalist theory of technology, thus function (and its discovery) is treated as relatively unproblematic. The variable aspect of technology uptake in Rogers’ model he locates instead in processes of communication about the technology (through interpersonal exchanges or the mass media), in the personalities of different potential users (making some prone to adopt early while others delay), and the diverse circumstances under which such users are persuaded to adopt. Rogers describes an innovation’s temporal unfolding across five phases. Focusing on user activities and individual decision–making, he identifies the innovation–decision process as (1) gaining knowledge of an innovation; (2) forming an attitude about it (where processes of persuasion come into play); (3) making a decision about whether to adopt the technology; (4) implementing it once adopted; and, (5) confirming the decision. The present case draws from several concepts in Rogers’ model, but offers a reconsideration of two key aspects of the model. First, the way Rogers treats communication about a technology/innovation as the neutral circulation of factual information. The present case demonstrates alternately how influential communication about technology can include works of popular culture, can employ myth and morality tales that are aimed at something other than demonstrating the efficacy of the technology (Burrell, 2010; Meyer, 2011; Pal, 2010; Smith, 2006). Second, this article reconsiders the way the agency of prospective users is limited by Rogers’ model primarily to the decision to adopt or not adopt. The present study delves into the practices of users in what Rogers’ model would identify as the ‘implementation’ and ‘confirmation’ stages, stages elaborated in only a dozen or so pages of his lengthy tome. The variation in what follows an initial adoption decision is far more substantial in the empirical case considered here than Rogers’ DoI model accounts for.

Examining Internet café use over this six–year interval I found users demonstrated three general trajectories of changing use:

  1. Intensification when users continued to pursue their original aims and aspirations through largely the same types of online activities, but with greater dedication of time and/or increasing efficacy.
  2. Reorientation when users adjusted their larger aims and aspirations as well as their uses of the Internet in conjunction with evolving ideas about the technology and its possibilities.
  3. Discontinuance when users abandon the pursuit of their aims and aspirations through the Internet.

In the case considered here, divergent individual experiences contributed to the trajectories individuals followed, including perceptions of personal efficacy with the technology, time and financial pressures, and stage of life transitions (i.e., education, employment, marriage and children). Additionally, the media environment, family relations, the setting where the tech is engaged and what one sees others doing there, and the changing online environment also came into play. Beyond individual users, there were broader shift in aggregate trends around use in Accra’s Internet cafés.



Methodological approach: Longitudinal analysis and unfolding life histories

This case is a true longitudinal study [8] with original primary data collected at two points in time through in–person interviews and ethnographic research. In particular I carried out paired interviews separated by a six–year interval with 12 key informants, the second interview covering much of the same subject matter as the first. In total, I sought to reconnect with 13 individuals and was able to successfully locate and contact all of them. Only one contact, a young Muslim woman in the midst of her marriage planning, could not arrange a time to meet. The selection was from the initial and much larger set of 76 individuals interviewed during the initial nine–month phase of fieldwork carried out in 2004–2005. These 12 were selected for their diverse backgrounds and varied technology uses and their committed and enthusiastic engagement with the technology in the initial period of fieldwork, making them in Rogers’ terms “early adopters.” The second stage of research was carried out during seven weeks in the summer of 2010 with one final interview completed during a five–week visit in the summer of 2011. Beyond interviews, the 2010 revisit also involved continuing ethnographic work including returning to several Internet cafés, observing public urban life, and collecting media content (newspaper items, VCD copies of locally produced movies) that made reference to the Internet.

These Internet enthusiasts were not representative of the Ghanaian population as a whole just as Internet café users were not representative of the Ghanaian population. Users are, by necessity, among the more educated, literate, and more English fluent. They were also young, generally less than 30 years in age. Nonetheless, such users cannot be characterized simply as “elites” and the group included those who had migrated on their own from poor rural areas [Joyce [9]], been orphaned and taken in by extended family [Gabby], lived in politically marginalized areas of the city deprived of basic infrastructure such as Mamobi [Farouk], and put their educations indefinitely on hold while hawking in the streets to make money [Kwadjo]. Yet, all had overcome the initial barriers of access and motivation and thus represent the greatest promise for a kind of emergent success with the technology. In this diverse group of key informants, I sought to explore the full range from what may well be typical uses to the more idiosyncratic. By reviewing these practices and how they changed over time I hope to provide some answers to enduring questions about the kinds of gains that are possible, if not necessarily typical, for populations marginalized from the global economy who acquire access to the Internet.

Interviews with these selected informants focused on changes in their lives and their shifting patterns of Internet use over a six–year period. The tradeoff of such small numbers is a much deeper and richer consideration of the individual, his or her life circumstances and aspirations. There is precedent in the literature for such an approach that attends to particular sites and to individual lives followed over many years (Thorne, 2009; Clark, 2010; Burawoy, 2003). Entering into the lives of these key informants also provided verification through other means (largely observational) of some of what was self–reported in interviews. Beyond interviews other research activities included observing as they navigated and interacted in online spaces, visiting their homes and their families, going to church or to other religious activities, attending meetings of social clubs they belonged to, and studying their online presence through personal Web pages or (in recent years) Facebook profiles and groups. This broader contextual understanding is incorporated into the findings below as well.



Internet cafés in Accra, Ghana: A baseline

In keeping with the notion of technological function as indeterminate, the value and utility of the Internet described in this section is as it is defined by the users themselves. Likewise, an emergent definition of development comes from this population rather than being measured against external standards such as the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals. I offer a brief summary of the Internet café scene in the 2004–2005 period to establish a baseline for comparison with interviews and observations from the later period. What predominated in the Internet cafés across all four areas of Accra that were field sites for this research was the use of the Internet to make contacts abroad, to collect foreign “pen pals.” The term “pen pal” reflects how the Internet as an innovation was made sense of through analogy — the practice of communicating with foreigners via postal mail was a prior experience young users were familiar with from their school days. This term, however, was applied to a vast range of types of relationships — romantic partners, friends, older mentors, business partners, or patrons. By considering what the Internet was to young Ghanaians (in terms of its function and value) we can also see what it was not. Notably, the Internet was not primarily valued or understood in this context as a tool of information delivery, a major divergence from the circulating discourse of development institutions that has rested upon a problem–framing around information poverty [10]. The forays of youth online were nonetheless development–minded in the sense that Ghanaian youth saw their personal advancement in life as related to social connectedness. Seeking pen pals was not just an activity they pursued for fun, but with an eye on advantages and opportunities that could be acquired through such social ties. The use of the technology for cultivating a more cosmopolitan identity, to know something about and be connected to abroad was at the same time rooted in long–standing ideas about patronage and of reciprocity within social ties as critical to unlocking financial flows, a cultural logic others have similarly noted (Horst and Miller, 2006).

As part of this continuum of practices, what also deserves special mention are the Internet scam strategies that have come be associated with the west Africa region (and especially Nigeria) that observe the same logic of foreign connection–building. In these strategies referred to colloquially as 419 (the Nigerian police code for fraud), or ‘sakawa’ (Hausa for ‘to take’ or ‘to pick’) scammers misrepresent themselves as the powerful and corrupt, as deposed politicians, affluent professionals, or regulation–flouting bank employees or, alternately, as the impoverished and their advocates — as orphans, clergy, or philanthropists. An especially common approach pursued by many young male scammers I came to know was to pose as a woman in chat rooms and on innumerable dating Web sites to seduce a foreign romantic interest. In addition to the dominant bent towards connecting to foreigners in online activities in Accra’s Internet cafés in the 2004 and 2005 period, the Internet cafés were also used, to a lesser extent, for school–related research and exam preparation, for reading up on regional or international news, and for consuming religious content as well as local or foreign pop culture especially American hip–hop and rap music.

The Internet cafés themselves were commercial ventures set up by local entrepreneurs and were not part of development aid programs. In most cases, they did not offer much additional formal support beyond computers and connectivity. There was no formal training, custom content and supplemental resources, or subsidies for less privileged user groups. In these spaces there was also no filtering of access or content and no censure of practices that might, to some, be considered non–developmental. When fieldwork for this project began, it was estimated that somewhere between 500 and 1,000 Internet cafés were operating in Accra (Foster, et al., 2004). Most were small 10–seat facilities. These became important spaces for youth to inhabit outside the surveillance of family and other authorities. Informally, for those learning to use the technology in these shared, public spaces instruction, advice and coaching came from Internet café operators and sometimes from other users as well. Thus an understanding of the technology’s utility and relevance came, in part, through this proximate social influence. This social context, the public nature of use contributed to the technology’s culturally–situated adaptation.





Out of the total of 12 individuals I revisited, the changing use patterns of four could best be characterized as intensification. I have defined intensification as the pursuit of aims and aspirations through the technology with greater frequency, dedication, and/or efficacy. There were infrastructural changes in the intervening years that facilitated this intensified use among this group. In particular, GSM modems (provided by nearly all the mobile network providers) that plugged into the USB port of a computer enabled relatively inexpensive and accessible home Internet use over the existing mobile phone network. For those who had or could obtain a computer (often this meant a second–hand laptop, typically a gift) connectivity cost about the same as Internet café use, but was closer to the convenience of ‘always–on’ connectivity though with the ongoing limitations of metered use and low bandwidth. This still constrained the consumption of videos, downloading large files such as software, or playing graphics–intensive online games. Farouk was one who falls under the category of intensification. Once a fairly regular user of the Internet cafés in Mamobi, he had switched to home Internet use after obtaining a GSM modem that he used on a second–hand laptop gifted to him by his uncle. He noted emphatically, “I can’t live without the Internet. I have to be on it almost [all the] time.” As far as efficacy, he had won $1,000 in an essay competition he found online that paid for a semester’s tuition at the private university he was attending at the time. His use had expanded from maintaining some static personal Web pages and frequent online research activities (on politics, health, etc) to the formation of several Facebook groups — including a book group that discussed mass market titles on business strategy and economics. At 4,991 friends, he was operating just short of Facebook’s absolute maximum (5,000). His daily updates on that platform raised issues of politics, world events, and Muslim religious practice. Farouk’s energy for social organizing in 2005 was invested in a local youth group, an activity that took place principally off–line. After some time he passed leadership over to others and then left the area to attend university and to fulfill his national service requirement which all university graduates in Ghana are required to complete. His social organizing and leadership work were increasingly carried out online. His overarching aspirations — including getting a graduate degree, ideally abroad, and finally to pursue his political ambitions — did not change over that time and his Internet use continued to be in service to those aims. Farouk is notable for his atypical informational mode of use, but he had also, like so many others, maintained a few foreign pen pals for a short time and more recently incorporated a heavily relational component to his Internet use through his Facebook practices.

Another key informant whose changing use followed a trajectory of intensification was Gabby who pursued romance scam strategies with great dedication throughout that time period. Starting in 2004, I observed his efforts over the course of seven months throughout which he saw no gains. His main target at that time, a Chinese businessman whom he described as “serious” (meaning attentive, likely to be financially supportive), continually put off Gabby’s requests for money. Gabby was frustrated by these circumstances, but held fast to the cultural logic of his strategy, resting on certain gender norms that: “if I’m his girlfriend he should send something in order to help me, you understand? This is some of the things a lady would be expecting a man to do ... . You have to send me money if you are not yet in Africa.” With the assistance of a mallam [11], Gabby located his failures in that initial period in spiritual misalignments, specifically an aunt of Gabby’s whom the mallam identified as a witch who was blocking Gabby’s success on the Internet.

Despite such unpromising beginnings, upon my return, I found Gabby living a quite altered lifestyle in a nicely furnished room with new clothes and expensive Timberland brand shoes, a home computer, and two trucks he owned and rented out. This supported his claim that he had begun to find ways to scam effectively and gained somewhere around a few thousand dollars. Gabby attributed his eventual success to continuing adjustments to his scamming “format” as well as long periods of persistent use. Gabby had become more flexible with these formats, less reliant on fixed ideas about norms and behavior in romantic and other relationships noting, “I don’t have a single story for everybody.” He would try, for example, a heavily religious discourse quoting scripture with one who claimed to be a Christian, but not with a target who identified as Buddhist. On my second visit with him, I observed while he searched for contacts on, a dating site for lesbian women attempting to mirror narratives of social marginalization he picked up from reading the profiles of women there.

Beyond Gabby’s individual story, dramatic changes in Internet scamming practices and public awareness of them were evident in Ghana’s urban public sphere demonstrating how intensification can characterize not just individual use, but also categories of Internet practice in Accra. Speaking with members of the new population of scammers in 2010, I heard about the tweaking and broadening of scamming formats and the identification of new and especially effective ones. What they identified as the most effective approach was to claim a geographic location outside of Africa (but one still distant enough from the target to prevent easily meeting in person), pose as a white person, and then start and maintain for some time an innocuous dating relationship. This would eventually build up to some excuse about travel to Ghana whereupon a financial emergency (such as suffering from theft or arrest by the police) would be ‘staged’ through e–mail, phone calls, and supporting imagery and documentation. It was the domain of Internet scamming and these evolving strategies of social engineering geared at arousing sympathy, trust, and loyalty in scam targets that showed the strongest evidence of a process of collective learning in Accra’s Internet cafés. The mechanisms of communication that spread these insights among scammers took place online and off–line. For example, while observing Gabby seeking out scam targets from dating sites, I noticed that he was also chatting with and sharing tips with another scammer over Facebook chat. Other scammers mentioned going to Internet cafés to get information and advice even if they pursued their scams from home.

In 2005 scam activities seemed to circulate only as second–hand tales, as activities whispered about in rumors but not directly witnessed. By 2010 there was a much more public scamming subculture that could be readily observed at certain night clubs and drinking spots. Visiting these spots I saw first–hand the spoils of those activities — cars, clothes, jewelry, motorcycles, and other flashy gear. I also met in person a foreign scam victim, a British woman who took the very unusual step of relocating to Ghana. She was in the process of pursuing a court case against a crew of Internet scammers to whom she admitted losing the massive sum of $100,000. There were also multiple reports of court cases about Internet scams in the local newspaper. Such observations further reinforce the claims of the scammers themselves of the increasing efficacy of scamming practices.

Gabby’s online activities as tied to his larger aspirations, like Farouk’s, had not changed much in the intervening years, but only been further bolstered and eventually proven by his scamming gains. He commented on his personal skills that he thought made him especially suited for scamming, “... it’s easy for me to let an American to fall in love with me and my words. I’m very good with words,” but lamented the unpredictability and unsuitability of scamming as a permanent career path noting, “definitely you can’t use scam as a lifestyle ... it’s gambling. So if it falls for you, good, if it doesn’t you have something [else, other investments] that goes for you.” The risk he managed with other investments (producing a girlfriend’s gospel music CD and renting out his two trucks). Now habituated to this activity, even taking some pride in it, Gabby no longer mentioned transitioning into legitimate and legal work as he had back in 2005.


In practices of reorientation one can see additional ways that trajectories of changing use are shaped not simply by individual proclivities, but also shifts in the immediate environment of use including changes to who inhabits online spaces as well as the Internet café space. Additionally the broader social environment including the media environment comes into play. The tone of Ghana’s local mass media and popular cultural forms and their symbolic elements are also important. Reorientation I have defined as the adjustments users make to their larger aims and aspirations and their uses of the Internet in conjunction with evolving ideas about the technology and its possibilities. The multi–functionality and the malleability of the Internet (as already noted) are relevant especially in this trajectory. Speaking about reorientation, it is also possible to speak about users discontinuing certain applications while not quitting the Internet as a whole. In particular, the use of Yahoo chat to meet random foreigners declined dramatically over the six–year interval among this group.

A strong distinction must be drawn here between direct observations of the scamming subculture as recounted in the previous section (watching the online practices of scammers, going to where scammers socialize and display their gains, and hearing about practices as self–reported to me by scammers themselves) from a very different phenomenon — the mass media depiction and discussion of Internet scamming among the non–scamming public in urban Ghana. Once referred to as 419 scams or cybercrime, Internet scamming came to be labeled in public discourse with the Hausa term ‘sakawa’ making the youth who pursued these activities ‘sakawa boys.’ Coverage included regular newspaper items about court cases and scam losses, as well as tabloid tales about sakawa murders, locally produced movies with titles like “The Dons of Sakawa,” as well as glossy color posters sold by street vendors entreating the public to, “stop armed robbery & sakawa” complete with lurid illustrations of murder victims and related spiritual practices, such as the transmutation of humans into animals. The representation of scamming rapidly emerged as a moralizing discourse that linked the spiritual practices of what was called “blood money” to Internet gains. Sakawa came to be associated with the sacrifice of close family members and ultimately the scammer himself for short–term monetary gains. As these tales grew in the public imagination, sakawa became a widely circulating part of the urban vernacular referring to any and all forms of fraud, not just those tied to the Internet.

Ghanaians I spoke with dated this rise in the ‘sakawa boys’ subculture and the public attention to it to sometime around 2008. The consequence for my key informants (in the context of reorientation strategies) was twofold. Firstly, they mentioned a growing sense of mistrust online that left them questioning the authenticity of the people they encountered there. As Joyce commented, ”because of the 419 people, somebody can bring your picture, you will see and you will think oh, I like this lady, I want to be her friend, but when you go you are talking to a man. That’s why I’ve stopped going to the Internet.” Secondly, these Internet users began to face social pressure from family who were exposed to this widespread and alarming public depiction. Kwaku, a university grad, who admitted to pursuing (unsuccessfully) online credit card fraud activities for a short time period, noted, “It gets to a time when the media was always talking about cybercrime ... so even sometimes my mom prevented me from going to the café cause I think at the time she was expecting I was doing it ... . One time, it was around 10:00pm and one man in our house ... he came to wake me up and we went [to the café] and we came back at around 5:00am ... . My mom was very furious and she wanted me not to go to the café again ... so I became very cautious. So I decided not to engage in it again.” Negative pressure (to stop certain practices) where it was heeded evolved into reoriented Internet activities when other uses emerged to fill the void. There was also social influence and social pressure experienced in the café itself that lead users to adopt new practices. For example when Kwaku moved from the poor neighborhood of Mamobi where he grew up to take a government subsidized university spot, he entered a quite different social environment. On the impact of that move on his Internet practices he noted, “when I was in Mamobi sometimes if you go to the café, the only things people are doing [is] chatting online, shopping [12] online, so mostly that is what you also want to do. You also want to go shopping online and chatting on line, but when you go to school ... somebody is on Facebook, someone is listening to music. So if you go, you don’t feel comfortable doing those things. So you want to be accepted in that environment so you also do what they are doing.” Kwaku’s reoriented approach to the Internet reflected a desire for social acceptance. The changes in his life circumstances intersected with the immediate social context of use.

On the matter of the Internet’s malleability, the changing population of users who inhabit online spaces also shaped trajectories of reoriented use for some. This was most apparent in the case of Alexander, the senior pastor of a small Pentecostal Charismatic church he had founded. Alexander had once spent great amounts of time ministering to people he’d met online, often in Christian chat rooms. In our first interview, he had described in detail a couple of close relationships with individuals whom he often spoke and prayed with online. He had also set up a church Web site that, at that time, described goals of “mass evangelism,” to reach the masses through broadcast communication (specifically radio), and to “establish churches in all places.” Apparent on the Web site and in his description of ministering to foreigners in chat rooms was the hope that his good works would yield foreign (financial) supporters. An appeal on the Web site listing material needs (music equipment, chairs, computer equipment, plots of land) made this explicit. By 2011, however, he was no longer spending his time in chat rooms. Precipitating this change, pastor Alexander started to notice an increasing reluctance in the people whom he met there, “... you just want to invite the person to the private chat room, you send him ‘hi’ ... sometimes he may not even be writing you or sending you any message, he will just be there. [You will] just be buzzing [13] them, buzzing them and then they come and say ‘well I’m not ready to talk to you,’ you know?” After some time, he noted, “at a point I realized that well ... the people that I [was chatting with] are Nigerians <laughs>.” He added that the Nigerians likewise presented themselves as pastors, but the subtext was that they were not, in fact, pastors, only posing as such. His earnest offer of ministerial assistance was now drowned out by such fraudulent competitors. The population of foreigners (Americans, Europeans, and others) that he used to encounter in these chat rooms had consequently fled the space. As he explained, “... People were discovering a whole lot, so they have to be very careful who they chat with.”

Alexander persisted in connecting his Internet use with personal and church goals but through other applications of the technology and an adjustment in strategy. He described an active e–mail list of pastors that he belonged to as instrumental to pursuing his vision. It was through this list that he found opportunities to travel and minister in other African countries including Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. He diversified his media outreach by using other media platforms, specifically radio noting, “even if the radio is community radio, but with its attachment to the Internet, it gets you to reach the world.” Underlying his motivation was a sense of the Internet as the inevitable direction things were moving, “... on the Net now, everybody seems to be going there and that is the order for today ... .So soon and very soon, the world is going to become a global village that we have been seeing ... [in] Jesus time there was no microphone. If you say that well, I’m not going to preach in the microphone and I want to be barefooted and then maybe wear this long [robe], you’ll be walking about and you’ll have no one following you.” With reference to religious tradition and history pastor Alexander made his point about the new demands of his work as pastor in this modern age and the necessity of embracing new formats and systems of mediation or amplification for proselytizing. Despite some of the disappointments of his Internet strategies there was, in his mind, no going back.

The experience of pastor Alexander provides an example of a more general pattern of reorientation among these revisited Internet users — the geographic contraction of the social tie building that Ghanaians pursued online. The major exception to this trend was the Internet scammers whose activities remain broadly global in scope. However, for others, the pursuit of foreign contacts dwindled (with Ghanaians pointing to the mutual decline in trust) while developing connections locally, or within the Ghanaian diaspora or across the African continent became the more significant practice. Kwadjo a formerly active chat room visitor noted pointedly, “Yahoo is now spoiled ... for Facebook, I can say yes, but I mean I look for friends within. As I was telling you, my old school, my school alumni, you know ... . So like friends around or my past classmates ... see if I can get in touch with them, but not necessarily people in the diaspora I don’t know ... most of the people who [say] they are living abroad, they are scammers and they will just let you chat with them.” The rise of Facebook in Ghana, a site with an interface design that emphasizes not introductions between strangers, but re–establishing and maintaining ties with a network of known individuals fit easily with this trend.


Most of the key informants I revisited talked about greatly diminished Internet use. In a few cases, they claimed to have quit using the Internet entirely. Some form of discontinuance was evident in eight of the 12 individuals I revisited. The previously noted comment from Kwadjo, “Yahoo is now spoiled” from Kwame that “the Internet is now lacking trust, it doesn’t have the trust anymore,” and likewise from Francis, “it is not effective like before,” all reflect a sense of a negative change in the Internet over time, pointing to issues raised in the previous section about the quality of people encountered online and their lack of trustworthiness. Given their early enthusiasm, the trajectory from engaged and frequent use to abandonment of the technology deserves some careful attention in terms of what it means for socio–economic development researchers and practitioners promoting the potential transformational effects of connectivity, specifically via the Internet in the Global South. In what ways did the Internet fail to deliver on its promise for these users?

Rogers’ uses the term discontinuance to refer to “a decision to reject an innovation after having previously adopted it” [14]. He distinguishes two reasons for this decision, one “replacement discontinuance” that occurs when a superior innovation becomes available and is adopted in lieu of the prior one. Two, “disenchantment discontinuance” that occurs when a user becomes dissatisfied with the technology. The latter is what prevailed in relation to the Internet in Accra. In light of the Internet’s multi–functionality (which makes possible partial as well as total discontinuance decisions) I identify this form of discontinuance more narrowly as those cases when a user comes to divorce their aspirational outlook from their use of the Internet. An additional form of discontinuance that was evident in Ghana and was not accommodated by either of Rogers definitions followed from changes in the convenience of access. This pointed to the significance of the material or economic context of access and changes in life circumstances that altered the demands on the time of the individuals considered in this paper.

Time demands and, relatedly, the spatial geography of access was also critical — moving out of the city to areas with sparse or non–existent coverage, perhaps unsurprisingly, led to discontinued use [15]. Fauzia, for example, moved out of the city due to family caretaking demands. Her grandmother first fell ill and then her mother, both dying after lengthy illnesses. Fauzia noted, “because I’m the eldest child of her I stayed there ... my mother is more important to me than anything in the world.” In the three areas where she had stayed outside of Accra she commented on the Internet café facilities “[where] I went to take care of my grandmother, there is no Internet café ... in [town #2] the machines are not, the systems are not all that good ... it’s expensive, it’s not like Accra.“ Time demands for her also played into her abandonment of the Internet. Her previous use of the Internet in 2005 as she described it then and again in 2010 was related to boredom, a way of getting out of the house.

Gender as it relates to aspects of use calls for some special attention. Though Fauzia stated that she was the eldest “child,” it may be noted that caretaking work (bathing, dressing, feeding an elderly person) in Ghana as in many parts of the world is not done by or expected of a son. By comparison, one interviewee Isaac also reported loss of Internet access when he moved back home to the Volta region, but this move was totally voluntary and the need for Internet access was one reason he gave for his subsequent return to a peri–urban area. For Joyce, her Internet use had one compelling purpose — to find a foreign husband. She accomplished this in 2005 marrying a much older Canadian man named George. After that the Internet held little ongoing appeal for her. With declining international calling costs, she shifted to the phone to maintain contact with her husband abroad. Thus her discontinuance highlights not exactly disenchantment, but a specific temporary goal that once completed made ongoing Internet use for her unnecessary.

In addition to the developing mistrust with contacts developed online that was generally commented upon by this group of users, women also commented specifically on the explicit sexual tone of online conversations they faced online in chat rooms and that they considered unwelcome. Both Joyce and Fauzia eventually became intolerant of this aspect of their online activities. As Joyce commented, “... the person is going to ask for a nude picture. That is why I’ve stopped chatting.” Likewise Fauzia noted, “the time I used to go to the Internet, the café, I had never had a female friend. All the friends that I had were male friends ... people that were not serious. Sometimes when you are chatting with them, they will be saying so many nasty things.” When I asked her what kind of “nasty” things, she added “oh, ‘are you sexy, I want to have sex with you,‘ ... they don’t make good comments.” Thus gendered obligations in off–line life as well as distasteful online encounters where comments targeted them by virtue of their gender shaped these women’s discontinuance of the Internet.

A substantial financial loss suffered by one user who fell victim to an Internet scam caps off this elaboration of trajectories of discontinued use by highlighting the reality of new vulnerabilities that, up to this point, I have characterized primarily as something perceived by these Internet users in Ghana. Kwame had been involved in developing a high–tech startup in Ghana, but as part of the business was looking to acquire some specific hardware, searching on the Internet to find a source. When he came into contact with a Chinese firm that offered the equipment he was seeking at a reasonable price. As the business deal unfolded he describes his dealings with a receptionist named “Jasmine” as he noted, “she was very nice and very accommodating and in fact she was good in everything in terms of business, so we interacted for some time.” After setting the order and transferring approximately 7,000 dollars he found it impossible to get back into contact with “Jasmine” and the Chinese firm seemed to evaporate. The goods he ordered arrived, but were non–working. Kwame was well–educated, English fluent, and highly literate. The fact that he subsequently went on to pursue a Ph.D. abroad [16] (clearly moving him into the elite in Ghana) challenges the notion that scams are fallen for by the naïve, or those without the language or technical abilities to vet sources. This incident reflects, I would suggest, enduring problems of market marginality in Ghana where many tools of e–commerce, reputation assurance, and recourse (PayPal and e–commerce sites of more reputable brands for equipment, services) are not available. This is in part because of Ghana’s own Internet security issues, cash–based economy (where very few citizens have credit cards), and outside perceptions of low commercial opportunity in the region. After this terrible experience, though he still used the Internet heavily for technology research and school–related tasks, he had entirely discontinued any online business pursuits. He noted, “if I’m doing any business with somebody on the Net and I have to part with money, I will prefer to travel to go and see the person which makes it redundant in terms of communicating over the Internet. Why will I have to travel and spend, waste money to go there because of the trust that is not there?” Kwame’s experience also brings focus to the broader global geography of fraud. New connections between regions of the world and the limits of legal jurisdiction make such activities potentially lucrative and extremely difficult to punish.

The small but growing literature on Internet “dropouts” is in almost all cases based on data from the U.S. and Europe, regions of nearly ubiquitous access and use (Wyatt, 2003; Lenhart and Horrigan, 2003; Rice and Katz, 2003). Non–use in this context is thus a non–mainstream practice and characterized in such analysis often as an iconoclastic or subversive decision (Clark, et al., 2004). However, in Ghana non–use of the Internet remains the norm. The dropout behavior of some of these early and enthusiastic users of the Internet in Ghana calls into question the foothold the technology once seemed to be gaining and casts the Internet’s mainstreaming in Ghana into doubt.




Through the detailed examination of Internet use, the changing lives of users, and evolving societal context through ethnographic fieldwork and paired interviews over a six–year interval, this analysis has offered a contribution to an evolving understanding of the Internet on the African continent from the perspective of long–term and former users. Technological artifacts often have more than one use and different uses may prevail or come to prominence at different periods and among different user groups. Rather than treat use and function as inherent to the technological form and something that is discovered by users, function is more aptly understood as constructed and as provisional.

Trajectories of changing use occur at both the individual and societal level. There was a geographic contraction in the online social ties of these long–term users in urban Ghana. Users who continued to use the Internet for social connectedness often began to focus instead on the Internet’s capacity to enable relationships with other Ghanaians at home or abroad or Africans elsewhere on the continent. This followed from mistrust related to the rising awareness of Internet scamming highlighted in the Ghanaian mass and popular media (including shocking narratives in tabloids and movies that tread an ambiguous line between fiction and non–fiction). For some, an interest in the Internet diminished altogether leading them to discontinue their once regular Internet café visits. Internet scamming was the exception to this trend, a practice that endured in the format of accumulating foreign contacts and the one domain of Internet use that most clearly demonstrated collective learning over the six–year period.

The long term view on technology and the evidence of these changes in the Internet’s use in Ghana raises questions about the practice of evaluating technology interventions aimed at socio–economic development shortly after their implementation. Randomized control trials have come to be enthusiastically embraced in development practice and intervention work in recent years (including studies of digital technologies — see Banerjee, et al., 2007; and, Karlan, et al., 2010) supporting the prevailing instrumentalist view on technology. The evidence of the complexly evolving use practices of the Internet in Ghana has called into question this notion that the introduction of a new technology yields to a fixed and stable state. What exactly the current case represents on a spectrum from constant flux to enduring use is difficult to determine in light of the overall paucity of longitudinal studies for comparison.

The specifics of this case highlight the emerging problems societies in the global South may face where the Internet has become newly available through public access points such as Internet cafés. This case illustrates that government involvement (or the lack thereof) is consequential in ways that are beyond those regularly considered. While considerable attention has been paid as of late to restrictions of open access imposed by a government against its citizenry (with China and Egypt as popular cases) the lax enforcement of Internet security that, for example, allows Internet scamming to go mostly unchecked in Ghana also has negative ramifications for broader accessibility. Ghanaians who find they are received with suspicion online conclude that new social connections are impossible to develop in this context of mutual mistrust. Prospective and actual Internet users in Ghana are thus dissuaded from using a system seen to create real, new vulnerabilities as well as negative perceptions of the morality of its users by the society at large. End of article


About the author

Jenna Burrell is an Assistant Professor in the School of Information at University of California at Berkeley. Her book Invisible users: Youth in the Internet cafés of urban Ghana was published last month by MIT Press. She completed her Ph.D. in 2007 in the Department of Sociology at the London School of Economics carrying out thesis research on Internet café use in Accra, Ghana. Before pursuing her Ph.D., she was an Application Concept Developer in the People and Practices Research Group at Intel Corporation. Her interests span many research topics including theories of materiality, user agency, transnationalism, post–colonial relations, digital representation, and especially the appropriation of information and communication technologies (ICTs) by individuals and social groups on the African continent.
E–mail: jenna [at] ischool [dot] berkeley [dot] edu



1. Marvin, 1988, pp. 199–200.

2. Though there are a few exceptions of retrospective and longitudinal work especially considering modern agricultural technologies of the “green revolution” in India — see Baker and Jewitt, 2007; Prahladachar, 1983.

3. For examples specifically of digital technologies evaluated in this way see Banerjee, et al. (2007) and Karlan, et al. (2010).

4. Noir and Walsham, 2007, p. 314.

5. Appadurai, 2004, p. 67.

6. Examples abound in Everett Rogers’ (1995) Diffusion of innovations.

7. See discussions of the shift to “Web 2.0” (Allen, 2008; Lessig, 2006).

8. I am drawing a distinction here with archival research and studies that look back through the use of secondary data.

9. Pseudonyms are used throughout.

10. See especially documents of the World Summit on the Information Society (2005).

11. A Muslim religious teacher.

12. “Shopping” in this context refers to credit card fraud.

13. “Buzzing” is a feature on Yahoo chat used to get the attention of the chat partner by producing a sound and visual disturbance in the chat window.

14. Rogers, 1995, p. 182.

15. A third woman, Bernice, who had almost entirely quit using the Internet when I returned described becoming busy with her teaching certificate program. Kwadjo likewise used the Internet less and less after his daughter as born and family demands took up his time.

16. It should be noted that Kwame’s admission to a foreign Ph.D. program was initiated by a face–to–face meeting (rather than online) when faculty from the program traveled to Ghana to recruit new students.



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Editorial history

Received 20 February 2012; accepted 26 March 2012.

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“Technology hype versus enduring uses: A longitudinal study of Internet use among early adopters in an African city” by Jenna Burrell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Technology hype versus enduring uses: A longitudinal study of Internet use among early adopters in an African city
by Jenna Burrell
First Monday, Volume 17, Number 6 - 4 June 2012