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For the youth of the West African nation of Ghana, a country on the margins of the global economy, the growth of the Internet in the 1990s was full of promise — the promise of sharing in the prosperity of the information age, and of forging meaningful connections with the rest of the world, politically, economically, and socially.But when Internet connectivity finally arrived after the turn of the 21st century, many of these optimistic youth struggled to form connections with the foreigners they encountered online.
Burrell’s book , based on seven years of ethnographic research in Ghana, is being released this week.Burrell tells a story of a burgeoning online friendship between Fauzia, a young Ghanaian woman, and an Egyptian man.While chatting online, Fauzia mentioned “ok, my phone is giving me problems and I will be very grateful if you could send me money to get a better phone or if you could send me a new phone.” After repeating the request, “I didn’t see him online again,” said Fauzia.“He stopped chatting, he disappeared.” Although such a request might seem suspicious to a Westerner, “small transfers of funds between friends are a regular feature of relationships among youth in Accra,” explained Burrell.“As the Internet was growing and spreading in the US in the mid- to late-90s, Ghana simply didn't have the bandwidth,” Burrell explained.“And it certainly didn't have the public access facilities or Internet cafés that most Ghanaians needed.
More widespread Internet access didn’t become available until the early 2000s.” As a result, subcultures of the Internet and ‘netiquette’ — rules and expectations about how to relate to people online — developed in the US in the 1990s and were cemented before most Ghanaians ever encountered the Internet.
“Once ordinary Ghanaians began coming online, they were coming into an already organized and formed subculture, not knowing what the rules were,” Burrell explained.
When Burrell began studying the youth Internet culture in Accra, Ghana, in the early years of the 21st century, she found a widely-shared fixation on making foreign connections and specifically on possibilities for travel overseas.
Although Ghana’s elite already had Internet access and international connections, the more widespread availability of public Internet cafés provided the first opportunity for many ordinary Ghanaians — especially youth — to interact with the wider world.
“The Internet provided opportunities for making faraway places very tangible and personal,” said Burrell.
“This thrill was evident in the most popular of Internet activities among youth — collecting pen pals.” Burrell observed young Ghanaians pursuing a variety of relationships with foreigners online, including same-aged platonic friendships, romantic relationships, older adults to appeal to for advice, patrons offering financial support, and even business partnerships.