What happens when Internet use becomes ubiquitous in places characterized by general conditions of scarcity, such as urban Guinea in West Africa? Connections rates in Guinea's main cities such as Conakry or Labé are vertiginous with young people at the forefront of the change. Facebook, for instance, is currently adding over 25,000 new users from Guinea per month; over 50% are between the ages of 18 and 24 and over 80% are between the ages 16 and 34 (www.socialbakers.org). Why are urban youth in Guinea so strongly attracted to social media? What do they do online? What new digital cultures are emerging in these virtual spaces? These are just a few of the new research questions raised by Guinean – and perhaps more generally West African – youth's new found fascination with online social networking.
To date, academic research on the Internet in Guinea, and West Africa more broadly, has tended to focus on issues of access or on more marginal practices such as scamming or political activism for instance. Yet, as young Guineans’ digital lives become increasingly complex with cyberspace occupying an important part of their everyday lives, new conceptualization of youth's engagement with space, and in this case virtual space are needed. It is within this context that I want to ask: How can theorizations of space within urban studies help us make sense of African digital spaces?
In his 2011 article 'The city as assemblage: dwelling and urban space', McFarlane offers the “ House of Paraisopolis”, a house built by cementing together an intricate amalgam of just about everything its creator is able to get his hands on, from discarded plastic to old shoes or kitchen utensils, as a heuristic for conceptualizing the city as assemblage. For him, the ontological metaphor offered by this house is useful to understanding the city as “processual, relational, mobile, and unequal” (p. 649). Looking at the intricate juxtapositions of carefully crafted self-photographs, shared news stories, entertaining videos, football commentary, advertising and heavily abbreviated texts scrolled together in a continuous 'news' feed that constitute the Facebook timelines of many Guinean youth, parallels to the house seem warranted.
In answering the question above, I therefore want to tentatively suggest recent work on conceptualizing the African city as an assemblage (Simone, 2006; McFarlane, 2011; Fuh, 2011; Pieterse, 2007 for instance) - work born and concerned with non-digital spaces in African cities – as a fruitful theoretical footing from which to approach the virtual spaces of West African social networking.
In other words, urban studies as a discipline concerned as it is with juxtapositions, assemblages and complex spaces of multiple possibilities and unpredictability seem particularly interesting as an approach, or at least as a point of departure, a interdisciplinary footing from which to study cyberspace and emerging online cultures. Yet, just as the cities they describe, these theories also demand to be re-made in the process.
Fuh, Divine 2012 “The Prestige Economy: Veteran Clubs and Youngmen's Competition in Bamenda, Cameroon. Urban Forum 23(4):501-526.
McFarlane, Colin 2011 “The City as Assemblage: Dwelling and Urban Space”. Environment and Planning-Part D 29(4):649.
Pieterse, Edgar 2008 City Futures: Confronting the Crisis of Urban Development, London: Zed Book.
Simone, AbdouMaliq 2006 “Intersecting Geographies? ICTs and Other Virtualities in Urban Africa” In Fisher, M. S. and Downey, G. 2006 Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.