Week 12: Invisible Users


In Jenna Burrell’s Invisible Users, Burrell relates the rise of the usage of internet cafes in Ghanaian youth to their cultural and non-elitist status. She describes, with much detail, the conditions of these “invisible users” both inside the internet cafes and outside in their impoverished towns. Burrell explains how their social and economic barriers make using the internet more difficult for them; their inequality offline affects their equality online. However, although this inequality can manifest itself online, through internet usage these young Ghanaians can pursue a sense of equality that before seemed so unattainable.

Through the use of the internet, these young Ghanaians are able to make global connections, which prior to the internet was only obtainable by means of travel. In Burrell’s introduction she introduces Joyce, a young Ghanaian woman, and her newlywed husband George, who is an older Canadian man. The two met via the internet, and began a relationship that “held the very real promise of liberating [Julia] from her state of geographic boundedness transporting her…as well as elevating her (through marriage) from a prolonged youth into respectable adult status.” This quote from Burrell clearly shows how the use of the internet has essentially freed Julia and in a way, put her on a more level playing field with the more elite users of the world. In other words, through the use of the internet in these lower-scale internet cafes, Julia become her journey to overcome the inequality she faces daily. Her marriage to George allows her access to a lifestyle that, prior to her internet use, seemed impossible to obtain.

Online dating site where Julia and George met
Online dating site where Julia and George met

Aside from Julia, Burrell elaborates on how these internet cafes have affected other young Ghanaians. She describes these new users as “decidedly non-elite, marginally employed, and had a degree of education that they had struggled to obtain and subsequently struggled to leverage” and “those for whom other avenues of similar enactment (particularly migrating abroad) were blocked.” These new users are now capable of making global connections. However, when offline inequality manifested itself online, these users could be shut out from making these connections. For example these youth “frequently struggled to decode the implicit social norms in virtual online spaces” and were frequently “met with silence, avoidance, and exclusion when they fell short.” This exclusion doesn’t take away from the fact that these young users still had the opportunity to create a more global and equal self, and in a sense, overcome the adversities that they face in their non-elitist status. Burrell goes on to say that, “in chat room conversations and online profiles, these youth constructed an alternate online self…seizing on the possibilities of altering race, gender, age, and location.” In a sense, these users felt equal to users all over the world through their online selves.

Inside an internet café in Ghana

The way these internet cafes have opened the doors to making global connections possible for more of the world’s population can relate to Tim Berners-Lee’s initial hopes for the World Wide Web. Berners-Lee wanted the internet to be a source that allowed people to make connections through text and links. These connections he dreamed of were not limited to, but included the connection of people. Through these sites like “plentyoffish.com,” where Julia and George met, these global connections can be made. The inequalities of people from around the world can be put aside, and through the internet, strong connections can be made.

Even though in some situations inequalities offline can manifest online, it is clear that online interactions can help overcome these offline inequalities. Examples of this are evident in my daily life. I went to a small high school, with a graduating class of 70 students. Coming to the University of Michigan, which is primarily made up of students from larger schools with a wealthier background, I can say without a doubt that I felt extremely intimidated. Many of my peers have obtained college credit from AP tests, which in my small school, the only AP class offered was Calculus I. Additionally, when I have asked some of my friends how rigorous a course was, they often reply with, “it was easy for me because I took the AP class in high school.” I have noticed that those who excel in the difficult classes I’m taking are at an advantage because they had these opportunities in high school. Coming from a smaller, poorer town, I did not. However, because of the internet, I have endless opportunities to self-educate and compete on a more level playing field. The resources for help I can find online can help me better myself and allow me to become more equal offline.

Discussion questions:

  1. In what ways does offline inequality of students manifest itself online?
  2. What are ways that this inequality online can be overcome?
racist meme
Meme portraying racism