Killing Time: Internet Usage

In Latin America and developing countries

Tandela is a newsletter about the intersection of technology & entrepreneurship in Latin America. From time to time, I digress into some topics of interests to draw comparisons to Latin America.

I recently read an article on The Economist that shines light in the fact that leisure drives internet usage in India and other developing countries around the world where internet adoption trends are similar.

The author points out that already developed countries (think the West) expect those from developing countries to use the internet to further their lives professionally speaking. In other words, that access to internet is expected to be used primarily by the less educated and poor to become both more educated and wealthier instead of using it to entertain themselves and other leisurely activities.

Research, however, proves this is not the case. People in developing countries are far more likely to use the internet to entertain themselves and to communicate with others, but not necessarily use tools to enrich their lives professionally. Above all, the dominant applications used in these countries are for consuming content rather than apps that would specifically help them with their work or further their knowledge. Empirical data also proves that most people in developing countries are drawn to videos more than anything. Other forms of entertainment like games, are also as popular as ever.

Connectivity has, of course, made everything more ubiquitous.

As mentioned in the article, smartphones have unlocked access to knowledge but it’s mostly used to do “timepass” – the Indian-English word for “killing time”. Killing time is now a popular term among consumers in countries like India, where “boredom” has been replaced with apps on smartphone usage.

Consumers’ daily lives are being shaped by internet access as internet access is shaped by whatever apps consumers have on their phones

This phenomena is spread worldwide as smartphone adoption is higher than ever. But researchers, economists, and historians are concerned by how leisure activities are predominant in countries where poverty is higher and education less prioritized.

Latin America

I looked at AppAnnie’s data, and analyzed the top 10 apps for Latin American countries (from Mexico all the way south to Argentina) in the past few months. Of the top 10 free downloaded apps the distribution often goes as follows:

  • 30-40% communication

  • 40-50% entertainment

  • 10-20% games (entertainment but big enough category of its own)

  • ~20% transportation

You can see that about 50-70% of the apps are predominantly entertainment in nature – be it YouTube for watching videos or Sand Balls, a game. This trend also hasn’t changed much overtime, what usually changes are the apps they use, specifically games as their popularity fades when new games come to market.

If we take a step back and analyze how consumers are downloading these apps in the first place, we’ll see that in different countries the distribution of apps is influenced by one, or all, of the following characteristics:

  • wireless carrier’s deals with global tech companies (i.e. Facebook + Reliance Jio in India)

  • access to data (packages and their affordability)

  • income levels / social class (often driven by location)

  • social influence (friends/family/colleagues)

Internet access is complicated and very fragmented depending on the characteristics above how they have been executed in a country.

Wireless Carriers + Global Tech Companies

Global tech companies, and owner of different apps, often partner up with wireless carriers to reach more customers and give them more access to a wide range of different apps. While often good in their intentions, in practice the approach is questioned as they become proxies for their own apps and have much control of what is consumed via smartphones.

Access to Data

Access to data is also fragmented, although it’s been improving dramatically over the years, some consumers still have trouble gaining access to reliable and fast data. In some countries, for example Cuba and Peru, Android users share their content via bluetooth or share popular apps via a service like Zapya, in order to save on data or having to download them which uses data. They have to spend data wisely. This also means that smartphone users limited to access data means choosing between doing some things and not doing others. If given the decision, would they rather watch YouTube videos or use the limited data to access online courses?

Income Levels

Income levels also affect internet usage and those of apps. Smartphone users with low income levels often only download apps that are free from their respective app stores. Free apps tend to have ad-driven business models and are, unfortunately, large data-hoarders.

The poor and less educated get the end of the stick. As this research paper from the Washington University Law Review on Privacy, Poverty, and Big Data: A Matrix of Vulnerabilities for Poor Americans, argues:

The Article…discusses three scenarios in which big data—including data gathered from social media inputs—is being aggregated to make predictions about individual behavior: employment screening, access to higher education, and predictive policing. Analysis of the legal frameworks surrounding these case studies reveals a lack of legal protections to counter digital discrimination against low-income people..

If poor Americans are the least protected regarding data privacy, imagine those in countries where legal protections are, perhaps, non-existent.

In Latin America, we see the distribution to be quite similar to developing countries in other parts of the world. Since between 50-70% of the top apps in LatAm countries are in the entertainment category, we could argue that time spent on these apps is really high and inevitably contributing to the “killing time” phenomena.

Historically speaking, entertainment has been extremely important for shaping cultures. Arts, music, and games have transformed how a society evolves. We’ve seen this in ancient civilizations from the Ancient Egypt to Chinese dynasties, where entertainment played a huge role in shaping their economies and development of their cultures.

But the question is, ¿does entertainment nowadays translate into professional and/or economic growth?

I’m not sure. But it seems that it’s now easier to spend copious amounts of time killing time than before smartphones arrived.

We also know that access to internet in developing countries is happening at a faster rate when compared to developed countries at the same point during their adoption of similar technology.

I would argue, however, that the issue with new access to mobile phones and internet usage is a lack of education regarding usage of these to further lives. I remember growing up in school we were introduced to desktop computers first by learning from educational programs that would teach anything from math to English grammar. We were conditioned to think of a computer as a “bicycle for the mind”, whereas I’d be surprised if there were any sort of curriculums in developing countries as how to use a computer/smartphones to expand knowledge and make work more efficient.

Perhaps, the fast spread of smartphones has led us to take internet access with regards to education, for granted.

Additionally, it is known that major tech companies are investing in their own product adoption in developing countries. Unfortunately, many of their business models are to optimize for engagement, potentially without any accountability of the harm it may be causing. It may also be leading to very little understanding of the opportunity cost of humans utilizing smartphones for entertainment.

I’m optimistic however that internet access for the less developed, generally speaking, is best for humans. I rather have users with access to any sort of information at their fingertips than not.

But, if every person with this tool in their hands would have the opportunity to learn the ways to use their devices to find new opportunities and further their knowledge – technology would be even more ubiquitous than it is today.

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