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Social secrets of the digital divide

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The annual SA Social Media Landscape research study, unveiled last week, also uncovered one of the secrets of South Africa’s digital divide, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Our society is held back by many digital divides. Those who have computers and those who don’t. Those who have Internet access and those who don’t. Those who create mobile apps in their spare time and those who are over 21.

Seriously, though, the digital divide is real, it’s a drag on the economy, and it exacerbates the gap between the haves and have-nots.

The one digital divide that has been crossed, however, is the gap between those who could afford a communications device called a phone, and those who could not. Today, 80% of South Africans have a phone. That’s the good news. The better news is that, as the average phone becomes more advanced, it becomes a tool to help users cross several other digital divides.

The findings of the South African Social Media Landscape 2012 study, released this week by World Wide Worx and Fuseware, reveals startling secrets of social South Africa.

The key findings of the research were that, at the end of August, 5.33-million South Africans were using Facebook on the Web, 4,6-million were on WhatsApp ,2,43-million on Twitter, 1,9-million on LinkedIn. A huge 9,35-million were active on Mxit.

Because Facebook does not measure mobile-only usage among those who have registered via their cellphones, however, the full extent of its penetration is significantly understated: primary research by World Wide Worx shows that 6.8-million people were accessing Facebook on their phones in mid-2012.

That was not the biggest surprise, however.

Among numerous statistics about the use of these services, the study analysed the breakdown between urban and rural users of social networks on phones. Those living in cities are classified as urban, and those in towns as rural.

The first surprise was the high penetration of social media in rural areas. While penetration is obviously highest in urban areas, it would be expected to be almost non-existent among rural populations. Instead, the typical penetration of most social networks in rural areas is close to half, and sometimes more than half, that of the overall user base.

So where Facebook has 38% penetration among all adults (aged 16 and over) living in cities and towns, urban penetration is a huge 45%, while it reaches 24% of rural phone users.

WhatsApp, with 26% of the overall market, reaches 32% of urban users and only 13% of rural users. Twitter’s 12% of the market translates into 15% for urban users and 7% rural. The new instant messaging service 2Go, which has 5% market penetration, reaches 6% of urban users and 4% of rural users.

Two networks at opposite ends of the scale buck this trend. For Mxit, penetration is almost the same in both markets: compared to 23% overall among adults, it has 25% urban penetration and 20% rural. By contrast, the most high-end social network (since it’s dependent on owning a smartphone), BlackBerry Messenger, has 17% overall penetration, but rising to 23% urban and falling to only 5% rural.

Clearly, Mxit, Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter have crossed the urban/rural divide. But the mere numbers do not tell the full story of the narrowing gap.

The most fascinating finding is this: for most social networks, the level of rural penetration today is almost exactly at the level where overall penetration was 18 months ago.

At the beginning of 2011, Facebook penetration of the overall market was 22% – almost the same as the 24% level where the rural market finds itself in mid-2012.

Twitter’s rural penetration reached 7% in mid-2012, which is lamost exactly where total penetration was 18 months earlier: 6%. Even BBM, with its strong urban skew, reflects this trend: its overall market share was 3% at the beginning of 2011, compared to the 5% rural penetration 18 months later.

This means that the rural market lags the urban market by 18 months in uptake of social networking on phones. And that, in turn, means the digital divide is as much about time as it is about technology.

* Arthur Goldstuck is managing director of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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