Those old enough will remember the sound of a dial-up internet modem, the anticipation you felt as it played like the introduction to your favourite song, albeit where the selector made you wait too long for the drop.
After a wait, the static-like sound came to an end and we were then free to enter the name of the webpage or search. We pressed the RETURN key, and then this too would prompt another wait to connect.
Speed of connectivity is something younger Jamaicans who have grown up with smartphones, mobile data packages, broadband and WiFi will take for granted. Similarly, those who can afford higher-end devices and connections, may assume that theirs is an everyday reality.
So how are Jamaicans using the Internet and what possibilities does it provide the population? According to the Hootsuite/We Are Social Report 2019, 54 per cent of the Jamaican population use the internet; and 50 per cent use mobile internet – powering devices on-the-go; social media and the love for capturing, sharing, viewing and streaming content.
“It’s night and day,” though, says Gordon Swaby, CEO of online learning platform EduFocal.com, when considering the devices and connectivity he enjoys, compared to students at the more than 100 schools his company serves.
“We’ve found that the search bar (Google) is most times used in lieu of the address bar. This is applicable to around 90 per cent of the people that visit our website. You start an online platform and you never think that would be an issue, but these are some of the realities you learn,” he pointed out.
Swaby would like to see people island-wide have access to training facilities where they can get hands-on experience with computers and digital equipment to learn new skills.
“When a Jamaican is technologically proficient it touches every aspect of their lives and the lives of the people they interact with,” he reasons.
“Many people have access but they do not know what else is out there. For example, there is nothing wrong with using a platform like YouTube to stream music, but there are other uses, such as learning from instructional videos that will help you actually make money!”
Money, or rather financial services, can be a challenge for many Jamaicans online. According to World Bank Global Financial Inclusion Data, it is only 14 per cent of us who have a credit card, and, therefore, unsurprisingly 10 per cent who use e-commerce and pay bills online.
However, transactions are growing as anyone who has queued to receive packages at peak periods from online shopping services can agree. The Bank of Jamaica (BOJ) reports 20.2 million credit card transactions processed via local deposit-taking institutions in 2018, totalling a value of J$469 billion. That amounts to an increase in credit card volumes and value increased 15.6 per cent and 36.9 per cent compared to 2017.
Business operators, even those whose customers might be expected to be more comfortable with e-commerce, must deal with the realities of what consumers are prepared, or not prepared to do. @vanitytrunk is a Jamaican fashion business selling via social media, whose owner, Nardia McLaren, estimates cash versus online purchases to be roughly 50/50.
“Some consumers are scared to conduct business online,” shrugs McLaren. “A lot of my customers are skeptical, afraid and not knowledgeable about online banking. Some do not have online banking and do not want to have it. Some complain of the tedious process of signing up to some online systems and just can’t bother. This attitude is reflected across every age range. I guess cash is still king.”
It is an especially rare Jamaican who, similar to Swaby, can claim to have downloaded and tested every available local banking app. However, more are embracing the convenience of skipping queues at the Tax Office and paying online, and being rewarded with the reassuring message: “Thank you for contributing to national development.”
A popular meme once adapted the famous Maslow Hierarchy of Needs, by placing ‘battery’ and ‘WiFi’ ahead of ‘food, water, shelter and warmth’. The Church has been among those which has recognised this shift in human priority. Reverend Al Miller of the Fellowship Tabernacle Church in St Andrew, recently called for the Universal Service Fund (USF) to give churches free internet access.
The rationale of Miller is that churches can then attract youth on to their premises and use the access to educate themselves. Not unlike the suggestion by Swaby, perhaps.
Jamaicans want to be educated and empowered to use the internet, and safely so. According to a survey by the Broadcasting Commission, 82 per cent of Jamaicans want it to educate themselves and their families about online safety. The Commission now wants the government to extend its powers to regulate traditional broadcasters to social networks also.
Many people, especially after well-published breaches of privacy at companies, such as Facebook (which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp), might therefore be interested in government efforts to protect them through the passing of the draft Data Protection Bill later this year.
A parliamentary Joint Select Committee is being reconvened to consider recommendations, such as the competing consideration of balancing individual rights of privacy with the abilities of Jamaican organisations to collect their data, such as a phone number.
Matthew McNaughton, principal of local non-governmental organisation the SlashRoots Foundation, believes that the bill is more significant than the better-known National Identification System (NIDS).
“We strongly believe in every Jamaican’s right to privacy and commend the Government for trying to ensure that legislature to guide what this right should look like, keeps pace with today’s technology,” says McNaughton. “The hard part is finding a middle ground that does not stifle innovation or place unreasonable regulation on individuals and businesses across Jamaica (or ‘data controllers’ as they are called in the bill).”
Despite such concerns and challenges to keep up with the pace of change, the future can be bright online, concludes Ingrid Riley, known on the Jamaican tech scene for hosting events and her Silicon Caribe blog which launched in 2005.
“Fact is, each Caribbean country has its own unique culture, digital and creative talent, unique ways of innovating and things that they do better than any other country in the world. They need to own all of that and have the courage to disrupt,” says Riley.
“I am a big believer that our emerging #DigitalCaribbean must be created by us to the world, not fed to us by the world.”
10 ways Jamaicans use online, that we did not a decade ago
- Home sharing: rent an unused room or property to visitors, using platforms such as Airbnb
- Social media influencer: trade your personal brand into celebrity and income.
- Social good: mobilise friends and followers for a charitable cause.
- Freelance income: platforms to register your skills and apply for projects.
- Content creator: self-publish your creative work: music, videos, books, arts etc.
- Fundraising: get support from a community of investors for your startup idea.
- Learning: build skills and careers using free, ‘freemium’ or paid platforms.
- Social business: using social networks as both storefront and marketing.
- Online safety: access resources from local and international organisations.
- Take screenshots of jokes made on Twitter and post them to Instagram.