Indonesia’s first vice president Mohammad Hatta once famously said, “Indonesia will not shine because of one big torch in Jakarta, but because of many small candles in the rural”. Today, 45% of the Indonesian population lives outside of urban areas, and a bulk of the current city dwellers were born and raised in rural areas. Many still return to their hometowns to visit relatives or simply escape from the city bustle, and enjoy what people would call as a ‘simple’ life.
The Changing Face of rural Indonesia
However, much has changed. Improved infrastructure has allowed previously dispersed towns to connect; villages have become busier with more goods and people flowing in and out. But there is one significant area that is changing at a much faster rate than others: Internet penetration. Access to low-priced hardware and data packages opened doors for many rural inhabitants to own a smartphone, and for the very first time, access the world wide web.
Rural areas now feature a familiar and ubiquitous sight—people glued to a smartphone—at the market, at the mosque, even when farming in the field. This new wave of users has leapfrogged computer desktops and web browsers, going direct to smartphones and apps. It is tempting to assume rural technology adoption will evolve even faster, with users as savvy as their urban counterparts, fully integrating their lives with smartphones.
The technology challenge
But this is not the case. Many new technologies still do not work in favor of rural users. Difficult terrain constantly challenges supporting infrastructure. Low spending power and poor networks prevents rural from fully utilizing the internet’s potential. Unfamiliarity with broader computer systems limits experimenting, as rural smartphone users remain wary that one wrong move can cause their prized possession to stop functioning.
Village life is mostly centered around home and work so technology and information needs revolve mostly around stay in touch with friends and family members nearby or far away.
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Plus, most online content is urban-centric—produced in cities around urban topics often irrelevant to the rural user’s daily needs. Finding information about an upcoming dangdut concert in rural Java is much harder than finding news about upcoming concerts in the Jakarta area.
Mastering the Internet, on their own terms.
These challenges haven’t stopped the rural user from using a smartphone to serve their daily needs, however, thanks to popular social media platforms like Facebook and Whatsapp.
In Klaten, an agricultural regency near Yogyakarta, residents turn to the Facebook group Info Cegatan Klaten for all of their local news and updates – from cultural events, accidents, obituaries, to traffic information. As members post, respond, and share this information with their community, the interactivity humanizes the distribution of news in a familiar way.
In fact, many versions of these groups cover not only news, but also specific interests such as Grup Petani Klaten for all things farming related, and Bursa Motor Magelang for motorcycle hobbyists. There is also Info Prambanan Manis, yet another Facebook group, focusing on buying and selling; group members would post their goods, and use the Facebook Live feature to present their goods in a manner similar to that of a TV shopping channel. It allows them converse with a wider audience – sometimes up to 3000 viewers, instead of door-to-door. WhatsApp groups are also used by mothers to exchange recipes, by religious leaders to distribute verses daily, and by merchants to keep track of their employees’ attendance.
For many of these first-time smartphone users, Facebook and Whatsapp, which function with limited data, are sufficient. They allow them to connect with others, seek information, conduct business and consume entertainment in a way reminiscent of how these rural users would normally interact.
Lessons for technology brands
When it comes to adapting technology for the rural audience, many of today’s brands have focused on technical barriers; phone brands presenting bigger RAM at a cheaper price, apps down-sizing to use up a smaller amount of memory. But rarely do brands pay attention to these users’ emotional relationship with technology, shaped by their cultural upbringing.
In 2017, YouTube launched YouTube Go, a video sharing platform targeted primarily at rural users. The biggest barrier was the perception of data consumption, a big turn off to this low spending group for whom data packages are considered expensive, and patchy internet connections discourage them from trying.
YouTube understood that the biggest issue was an emotional one: that people fear what they can’t control. Through YouTube Go, users needed not to fear. They’re able to preview and select the size and quality of video before watching, giving them control. It was also launched as a separate offering, differentiated from its data-munching predecessor.
The communication was packaged in a manner that speaks to rural life; borrowing local elements such as dangdut music enjoyed in rural areas, and the idea of a shaman. Shaman is a popular term used in rural areas to describe someone powerful and in control of certain conditions. A medical shaman for example, is sought after when someone is sick and is believed to be able to heal their pains. YouTube Go positioned their users as data shamans, being in complete control of their data consumption.
The campaign garnered more than 60 million downloads within a year, leading towards YouTube Go becoming the number one free Android App in Indonesia across all categories during the launch period.
Seeing rural technology appropriation in a new light
For many years, unsure of the rural market potential, brands have been designing products with an eye focused on the urban, with the hopes that everybody else will eventually catch up in one way or the other. While some people may view rural methods of appropriating social media as lagging behind, it needs to be understood that it is often a choice made due to design incompatibility.
Cultural upbringing plays just as big as a role in dictating how Indonesians decide to use, adapt, and eventually appropriate the technology presented to them. Rural users adapt on their own terms, as a natural response to answer unmet needs.
Maybe it’s time for a new perspective, to learn from them for a change. Having room to appropriate has allowed these users to build something from the ground up, instead of depending on information from urban centers. Beyond that, it's no longer a matter of developing technology that suits them, but about giving the user the opportunity to be involved in the development – to modify and well, appropriate.
For many years, popular culture has pushed the notion that the future is urban, with some of the most popular science fiction movies, such as Blade Runner and Back to The Future, set in densely packed, technology-infused modern cities. By giving a chance for technology to evolve naturally in the rural context, we’re opening up new possibilities. Maybe one day, instead of having homogenic scenes of high rise buildings as our future, we’ll see something more like Wakanda, where technology, culture, and nature, can peacefully coexist.
Annya Suhardi is a senior researcher at research firm Nation Insights, with offices in Jakarta and Singapore.