The Facebook-Loving Farmers of Myanmar

Fascinating article in The Atlantic by Craig Mod, who joined a team of design ethnographers in the countryside interviewing forty farmers about smartphones:

A design ethnographer is someone who studies how culture and technology interact. A common mistake in building products is to base them on assumptions around how a technology might be adopted. The goal of in-field interviewing in design ethnography is to undermine these assumptions, to be able to design tools and products aligned with actual observed use cases and needs.

Myanmar is especially fertile ground for this kind of work. Until recently the military junta had imposed artificial caps on access to smartphones and SIM cards. Many of the farmers we spoke with had never owned a smartphone before. The villages were often without running water or electricity, but they buzzed with newly minted cell towers and strong 3G signals. For them, everything networked was new.

Almost all of the farmers we spoke with were Facebook users. None had heard of Twitter. How they used Facebook was not dissimilar to how many of us in the West see and think of Twitter: as a source of news, a place where you can follow your interests. The majority, however, didn’t see the social platform as a place to be particularly social or to connect with and stay up to date on comings and goings within their villages.

What follows are a series of diary entries and notes culled from our interviews. The interview teams were composed of three or four people: a translator, a photographer, a notetaker, and sometimes a facilitator.