I have been on the internet for about twenty years, amazed at first by simply being able to send typed messages worldwide and to pay nothing for the service (since I was on a free community network). Now I pay to be online, of course, and though the ease and speed of e-mail continues to be of astonishing usefulness, and though it is still the activity on which I spend most of my online time, the internet has become a commercial hub, and the view on the screen is no longer typed letters but pictures and video. That's how the internet developed here in the US. There were those that thought that it would be the same story all over the world; after all, the internet was going to make us all global e-citizens inhabiting the same cyberspace, and especially the young users, whether from China or Brazil, would all be doing about the same thing. Even in Ghana, the predictions would have gone, young people would trot along the same electronic trail. Jenna Burrell, an Assistant Professor in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, knows different. Ghanaian youths did the internet differently, with their own aims and achievements (not all of which were laudable). Burrell has summarized her findings in _Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafés of Urban Ghana_ (MIT Press). This is the sort of sociological study we should be seeing plenty more of; it is a detailed and intricate look at a small segment of internet use. It will have to be a foundation for future studies; Burrell did her research in the internet cafés before there was extensive cable connection to Ghana and before the boom in mobile computing.
The internet was supposed to extend to everybody, and this seems to be happening, although slowly in the margins. In Ghana, the elites in and from universities were originally the only ones online. Eventually, through internet cafés, other young users were able to get online; they "were decidedly nonelite, marginally employed, and had a degree of education that they had struggled to obtain and subsequently struggled to leverage." The exposure of young people by mass media to a varied and global sense of possibilities led to aspirations of travel, romance, and income. The western misconception about Africa being "passive, poor, and strange" helped café users in their efforts toward material gain via scams. Burrell examines the way verbal rumors that fly through Accra help power the eagerness to carry out such scams. "There is something really about this Internet, there is something that is really making my friends rich," says one user. Or at least, many stories say they are getting rich. "The amplifying effect of rumor yielded the reproduction and overrepresentation especially of those dramatic and memorable stories of big gains and thus reinforced a persistent, go-for-broke approach to building a social network online and the enrollment of foreign contacts among young Ghanaian users." Paired with these beliefs were religious ones, and Burrell gives a brief history of the complex interplay of animism and the different forms of Islam and Christianity as users examined the morality and efficacy of the internet. "Religion, in a way similar to the Internet, was viewed as a system that individuals could operate to realize certain desired outcomes." Some users were happy to participate in religions that emphasized a "prosperity gospel" which promised earthly rewards. One of the users described here got a holy man to give him a potion to be sprayed on his hands before typing so that good effects could be transmitted through the keyboard.
Some observers of the early internet thought that cyberspace would organize itself without any governmental help. Scammers in Ghana benefitted from a weak local police, but the commercialization of the internet has caused policing within the internet itself. Many sites now simply block all traffic from West Africa, but work-arounds are of course not long in being devised. _Invisible Users_ gives a picture of how, in the early twenty-first century, "These invisible users demonstrated diverse capabilities for coping with and managing a novel technological system that was not designed with them in mind." The ethnographic approach to her subject makes Burrell's book a stimulating look at an initial clash of technology and culture.