West African virtual spaces as urban assemblage?

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.

Further readings:

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.

Photo Credit: Jeff Attaway via Compfight cc


I think that you post gets to one of the things that I keep reminding myself of as my research into digital culture continues and that is that there are digital cultures, not culture. For instance, in western cultures we see a diminished use of Facebook by youth and young adults in favor of smaller social media networks. However, this is not true anywhere and considering the cultural context is key. I also like the metaphor of the amalgamation as the the binding that makes up any urban area, for which youth social media use is one bond in a network of bonds and structures.

As you look at this research question from what seems to be an interdisciplinary and multi-factor approach, I actually wonder about what methods you are using to discern meaning making within the process. By which I mean, if everything means something as far as constructing Guinean urban space, where do we begin to pull apart the strings and analyze to find meaning? I would love to hear more about this research in the future!

Hi Jamie and thanks so much for your comments.  I think the questions you raise regarding methodology are key, especially as online environments can generate a lot of data - I mean the amount can literally be overwhelming -, for us social scientists to analyze.  We then need to make hard and hopefully somewhat tactical choices in approaching this kind of cyber or online research.  One specificity of social networks which I think has been perhaps not mobilized enough methodologically is the research opportunity created by their multimedia dimensions.  My plan is therefore to deploy visual research methods, photo-elicitation, etc.. in order to get at some of the meaning-making embedded or crystallized around the images that Guineans post and circulate online.   For me these are key to the emergence of new visual cultures, as well as their participation in what I call the politics of (in)visibility i.e. what they decide to show, how they go about presenting themselves online.  But clearly, there are many other aspects of social networks including sounds, videos or linguistic dimensions that also require scholarly attention. And yes, you are right to point out that I am approaching this from an inter-disciplinary perspective.  I am based in the Childhood Studies dept. at Rutgers-Camden, so focus on children and youth from multiple perspectives is key to what we - and therefore I - do!

Lots of great ideas here, and as someone working on digital cultures in Anglo-phone (really?) West Africa, I am intrigued what's going on in Guinea. Certainly, Simone's more recent work has been very interesting in this regard. Here are a few of my thoughts re: analysis and research design.    I think the notion of an assemblage is very useful when thinking about social forms, especially technologically mediated cultures. I tend to use it in the ephemeral sense that Bruno Latour and others in ANT have deployed: That literature offers conceptually rich ways for understanding and talking about technology and users. But I agree with Henthorn: From which point of the assemblage do you analyze the network? Which artifact/actor is most useful to examine? At what level of abstraction of the entire sociotechnical system/"ecosystem" do you operate from analytically? Maybe it's more about the particular points of observation you are discussing in a certain paper or project. The specific phenomenon may elucidate what's happening in a wider system/network: child users, scammers, network engineers, corporate stakeholders... Certainly they all play a role, but not equally, all of the time. Can I also recommend O.F. Mudhai's more recent work on Civic Engagement, Digital Networks, and Political Reform in Africa.

These are good questions.  



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