While South Africa’s teachers were on strike in September, volunteers used the country’s largest social network to help students prepare for exams. If you think they turned to Facebook, you would be wrong.
They turned to the country’s mobile instant messenging and social network service, MXit.
MXit is primarily a Java-based mobile application giving users the functionality to exchange instant messages practically for free. Users are able to message in groups, called chat zones, functioning seamlessly across other platforms like MSN messenger and Google Talk.
In the early stages of the application’s development, it was a cheaper replacement for SMS among the youth. Now the service has evolved into a broader social network play.
“I think users just immediately saw a cost benefit to using MXit,” said the company’s spokesperson Juan du Toit.
“People saw that this is an easy application to get on a low-end phone… it made sense for them to use MXit compared to something more complex like Facebook or Twitter.”
For South Africans like 19-year-old Michillay Brown, the service almost renders ordinary text messaging obsolete.
“That’s why there are so many people on MXit, I think it’s like one cent a message or something,” Brown said. “They obviously want to chat with their friends for free, quickly.”
MXit is the brainchild of Namibian-born software developer Herman Heunis. The company is co-owned by Naspers, a US$15-billion South African-based media company focused on internet investments in emerging markets. Naspers also owns a stake in one of the world’s largest social networks, the Chinese TenCent, and now indirectly has a stake in Facebook via a Russian-based Digital Sky Technologies (DST) investment.
Since MXit’s inception in 2003, the service claims it has expanded to include almost 27 million subscribers, most of them South African, and is adding 40,000 more every day.
In comparison, less than three million South Africans use Facebook, which is why during the teachers’ strike, tutors chose MXit as a platform to answer questions from students and to provide study materials for download.
The system sidesteps a major obstacle hampering the spread of social media in developing countries: Internet access. In much of Africa, weak infrastructure limits access to electricity, phone lines and the Internet, making surfing the Web often an expensive luxury.
But cellphone technology has already entrenched itself across the continent, with 376 million subscribers across the region. A recent ITU report says that about 162 million of the predicted 226 million new Internet users in 2010 will be from emerging markets, where Internet usage is growing at a higher rate than anywhere else in the world.
Wallace Chigona, a technology professor at the University of Cape Town, believes cellular is an ideal platform for social media in Africa.
“For the majority of middle-income families, a cellphone is the only computer they have, and the low cost allows families to acquire them for their children,” Chigona said.
“Even cell phones that would technically struggle to support Internet connectivity would support MXit.”
The company hopes the same logic will apply in other developing countries, and hoping to grow in places like Indonesia, where it claims almost 2.5 million users.
Not everyone with a cell phone can use MXit. The application is powered by data services like 3G or GPRS, which require mobile Internet access to work.
MXit has its detractors, many of whom are concerned parents. They worry that teens are vulnerable online, recalling concerns that erupted over early versions of Facebook and Myspace elsewhere in the world.
“There is fear of the unknown, and as parents we lack understanding of what is going on on MXit and our natural reaction is to stop it,” Chigona said. “The media is partly to blame… most of the reports published about MXit were all these horror stories.”
One such horror story occurred in July when a South African man drugged and raped a 15-year-old girl he met in a chat zone. In response, the company installed additional safety features enabling parents to better monitor their child’s activity on MXit.
But Chigona believes demand for innovations like MXit could hasten the spread of mobile broadband in emerging markets.
“The product became part of the youth identity,” he said. “There was huge peer pressure for the youth to get on board, and in fact, a good number of them acquired cell phones so that they can have MXit.”