Information parity, and the internet in Africa: A Poxy kink test

How we helped Poxy find a great coffee shop when Google was not loyal.

Poxy is a dynamic, smart and successful black woman in her 20’s working in corporate South Africa. She studied finance at university but always fostered her inner creative by doing amateur photography. Ever wondered if these squads on Instagram come with a free photographer? Poxy is the one who makes her squad’s photos shiny for the Gram.

Poxy is (or was) dating a black guy with a white name — no really, his name is actually ‘White’. He is a smart, creative,independent minded and belongs to an alternative culture — the township underground hip-hop and skater scene around the Johannesburg area.

Poxy likes her music and her coffee just like White. Her problem is that she still often struggles to find like minded people in the city and in her corporate environment. Her ‘discovery’ problem is also reflected in her struggle to find coffee shops and hang out spots that suite her taste and cultural preferences.

The internet in Africa inherited Poxy’s ‘discovery’ problem. This truth is reflected in the fact that she sometimes doesn't know how to leverage the internet to optimize her search for coffee, cool joints, great art and cool people outside of her social circle.

People often say that searching for something on Google is enough. But when they struggle to find and answer, they are often not aware of short cuts on the web such as going to Reddit and engaging a more specific community. Shouldn't a Google search be able to tell you to check Reddit? So if you are an underprivileged university student searching for high quality educational content to supplement your learning, and you have access to a WiFi and a laptop, shouldn't you be able to find EdX after asking Google?

The ‘discovery’ problem has multiple layers:

  1. No search license:

People are generally not taught search literacy at school or at work. Learning how to search Google should become the new driver’s licence. I got my license from affluent black South Africa.

2. Social capital trumps Google, the way Trump trumped Hillary Clinton because—[white male] privilege.

Your access to information often reflects your social capital. I wanted to learn how to code, so I eventually found a free MIT course on EdX. MIT is not invisible to me on the interwebs because my friends have access to these kinds of universities. Google may suggest a free MIT online course, but it’s pointless if the MIT brand means nothing to someone who could really use it.

3. Underprivileged people don’t inherit algorithms like rich people do:

I also inherited the following meta search algorithm from my friends and family.

[1] Diversify offline networks through default institutions such as university, work, professional networks etc;[2]If you struggle , try a search for your people on Meetup.com and get to know people; [3] Try Google the topic; [4] Curate by accessing a specific online community on Stack Exchange, Reddit, Quora, Medium etc; [5] When in doubt contact a friend from the network in instruction [1] and [2]; [6] If you struggle, then contact a stranger online by reverting to instruction [4].

4. Culture is hard to change

Tech is supposed to give a user super powers. I use LinkdIn to augment my networking efforts. I managed to score a trip to Hollywood CA to learn about the film industry just by doing a basic search on LinkdIn. You have seen how Professor X in the Marvel comics/movies would put a device on his head called Cerebro. Cerebro would extend the number of people that his psychic powers can reach by giving him greater visibility of the network on earth (the degrees of separation on everyone’s social graph, sick huh!). I ‘Cerebrod’ someone who knows someone who could get me to Hollywood. A lot of people in my professional network have a LinkdIn profile, only so they can be ‘Cerebrod’ by recruiters — why wouldn't you network like a mutant?

5. Bad votes have network effects in the Internet Democracy

You know how you only wanted to join Facebook because your friends were on it? Network effects make a platform more valuable as more people join. But platforms like Google often produce sub optimal search rankings because an important part of their algorithm is the number of links that link to a website. This means that after a website has reached critical mass, its easy for people to keep posting links to that site on the web — simply because its the first site they encountered when they did their search originally. Each link counts as a vote on the internet, and I would have expected more people to vote Khan Academy and the MIT Python course when I searched for ‘best online programming courses’.

***

We should not be surprised that Google or Facebook can’t solve this. After all , Poxy found a great and unique coffee shop by asking me because we share similar affinities and tastes. She did not go to a giant mall and ask the person at the front desk — she trusted me because we both like Alt J and Hiatus Cayote. Music in coffee shops matter a lot because it is a filtering mechanism — a barista cant control who walks in, but you can influence who stays and comes back. I don’t even like coffee, I just enjoy working from Motherland in Rosebank because of the people that I meet, and because their couches make me feel like myself.

Applications such as Spotify have algorithms that take advantage of the fact that you can access high quality music recommendations through the data combinations of the friends you follow, your likes, past listen’s, searches etc. I bet that the the most high leverage factor of this algorithm is your friend list (your social graph).

In a different world, you could optimize your online search by ‘Spotifying’ the topic if ‘Googling’ it did not work, the same way Poxy relied on my coffee shop recommendation, not the person at the information desk at a big mall. As far as I know, I am only one node in her social graph of ‘alternative black people’. What if she had 15 high fidelity nodes?

The paradox here is that the coffee shop that I recommended to my dear Poxy is actually located in a large mall built for Millennials — but it was invisible to her. Google is like this big mall in Rosebank and the free online MIT course is ‘invisible’ to many underprivileged people who want to supplement their education for free.

This issue is compounded by the fact that the most popular ‘retailers’ are the ones you see first when entering Google's mall due to the indexing algorithm that prioritizes the number of links to a website. Curation through a social graph or community channels such as Reddit and Stack Exchange, become more important.

The problem is that many underprivileged people in a developing country like South Africa don’t know about this ‘indie mall’ called Stack Exchange or Quora, even if they have an internet enabled phone.

***

I hate it when people say that we as a generation should be further in life because we have Google. These people come to this conclusion because they have not walked through the ‘Poxy Kink Test’ in their minds. The answer is more nuanced!

In theory, if there were enough black underprivileged people on Stack Exchange/Quora/Reddit/Medium etc, then there would be much more information parity (not perfect parity of course). But then this would be South Africa on an alternate timeline where Apartheid did not happen, or the one in this reality ~20 years from now.

How do we solve this using software in this dimension and in the next 5 years?

Photo cred: Jozichic.wordpress.com