Mobile Warriors: Costa Rican Youth, Mobile Phones and Social Change

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Oct 04, 2008

This article was written by Lisa Campbell of the Youth Action Network and is reprinted here with permission.  Lisa's research and articles are on her blog Mobile Revolutions.

Globally 1.5 billion people have access to televisions, and 1 billion to the Internet; yet overall the most actively used electronic gadget is the mobile phone, with over 3 billion users worldwide. Reaching the 4 billion mark before the end of 2008, that equals to approximately one cell phone for every two human beings. Under 30-years in existence, cell phones are one of the most rapid developing technology the world has ever known. According to Touré, Secretary General of the ITU, “The fact that 4 billion subscribers have been registered worldwide indicates that it is technically feasible to connect the world to the benefits of ICT and that it is a viable business opportunity.”  According to Touré, “Clearly, ICTs have the potential to act as catalysts to achieve the 2015 targets of the MDGs.”

Mobile phones are the first telecommunications technology to be more popular in developing nations, than their developed counterparts, far outnumbering internet coverage (Zuckerman 2007). More and more people are using their phones to access the internet instead of computers.  Soon there will be more cell phone users than literate people on the planet. This signifies a shift into a new age of digital literacy, where avatars, emoticons, pictures, sounds and videos often hold more power than names and numbers.

Economists around the world are hailing cell phones as the solution for ICT development and a ray of hope in bridging the digital divide. At the London Business School it was found, “for every additional 10 mobile phones per 100 people, a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) rises 0.5 percent.” With the power of decentralized networked communication, fisherman are able to monitor market prices in the next village over, and new applications are being brainstormed from the grassroots up.

Once again on the front lines of this new revolutionary technology are youth. According to the MSN/MTV Circuits of Cool report, “The mobile phone is ingrained into young people’s everyday lives, with 42% claiming it’s the first thing they look at in the morning and they last thing they do at night.” Mobile phones have been used by youth around the world as a tool for political mobilization, from getting youth out to vote, to organizing protests through social networks, blogs and text messaging. In Howard Rheingold’s book Smart Mobs, we are reminded of the incredible social ramifications of crossing hand held mobile devices with networked technology, allowing activists to communicate instantly through a variety of media.

Yet despite the range of global examples from Asia to Africa, little research has been produced about the potential of mobile phones as a medium for social change within the Latin American region. One of the only available resources online is’s ¡Acción Móvil¡ Guía de Móvil Activismo para Latino América, highlighting a series of efforts from both NGOs and grassroots groups to harness the power of mobile technology for social change.

Yet what is missing in this document is the ways that everyday youth outside of formal social organizations are using mobile technology in their own lives.  There is a vast difference between Greenpeace sending out mass SMS campaigns, v.s. a Costa Rican youth recording riot footage on his/her cellphone, or a Panamanian youth blasting a banned reggaeton song calling out government corruption as a ringtone.  These are examples that fall beneath the radar of the mainstream; those which have no representation in peer-reviewed journals, nor newspaper publications. In the following paper I will expand on the activist potential of mobile technology, focusing on how mobile phones can be used to increase media democracy in Latin America and beyond, creating access for a new generation of young global citizens.

The mobile phone is now approaching the functionality of a computer; yet unlike a computer, users keep their mobile devices by their sides powered up 24/7. This provides unheard of access for marketers looking to target users with commercial messages, yet also creates opportunities for NGOs and grassroots activists to interact in meaningful ways with their supporters.

A cell phone is no longer just a phone, it is a multimedia tool used for social communication. Users can interact with music, pictures, videos, games, Internet, email, text messaging (SMS), and so much more every day. Globally 82% of youth use their cell phones to take pictures, and 66% of youth send pictures and videos to their friends. As well, 20% of youth globally are interested in viewing “Clips From Other
People on Sites Like Youtube.” Cell phones are now multimedia mini-printing presses, capable of authoring and sharing content.  Engineers and programmers are quickly developing new applications, such as solar powered smog indicators, as well as social network tools for providing sexual health peer-education, or reminders for HIV+ patients to take their anti-retroviral drugs. Grassroots activists are combining SMS technology with internet applications, creating mashups that can map election violence, as well as distribute text messages to multiple users at a time. They have been used to monitor elections from the ground up, as mobile phones have turned into the next handicam for human rights monitoring. Governments are aware of the power of this new technology, and a new anti-protester tactic has been to cut off cell phone signal during protests. 

Taken from a Latin American perspective this resistance by activists lays manifest over the public domain of the internet, as videos are uploaded to computers of activist events, or alternatively forward to friends.  As well, the world of ring tones goes political, as youth blast out censored reggaeton or safe sex messages.  Twitter has turned into a portal for Costa Ricans, and has even been hacked to work on the local ICE Networks, in order to enable mobile micro-blogging.  According to a Standford Seminar on People, Computers, and Design, “Telecommunication products and applications have great influences on the ways people behave, perceive and construct their social identity and relationships.” Mobile phones are paths which youth often use to carve out identity, and express cultural resistance.  According the MSN/MTV Circuits of Cool report, “private form of connection and communication as it helps youths feel safe and is seen as a sign of being allowed more freedom from home.”  Youth around the world use mobile phones as both a private domain, as well as an expanded network which gives them autonomy over their communication networks as independent broadcasters.

Mobile phones are revolutionary in that they are not just a one-way channel of communication, as they provide users with the tools to both produce and consume media right from the palm of their hands. Traditionally media was captured on devices like handicams, transferred to a computer for editing, and then uploaded to the Internet to be shared.  Now mobile phones have the capability to bypass the computer and to do everything with one device. Networked, this mobile media can draw on Metcalf’s law and the power of social networks by aggregating data, allowing users to utilize the power of collective data. Zuckerman refers to the power of cell phones as leveraging capabilities that are, “pervasive, personal, and capable of authoring content.” These are just a few of the reasons that attract global youth into the mobile world, offering privacy away from parents, and allowing access to a multimedia world of social networks. In terms of relating to activism, ideas tend to spread rapidly.  Campaigns by youth critiquing political candidates, or lobbying for electoral candidates spread like wildfire as people rapidly exchange and share information, passing along videos, pictures, and other campaigns.

According to the International Telecommunications Union, “80 percent of the world population lives in cellular network range, which is double the level in 2000; and 68 percent of the world’s mobile subscriptions by the end of 2006 were in developing countries.” Many remote regions do not have access to regular home phone services, so a cellular phone is the only option. This technological trend is not reserved for those with higher economic resources. Prices are dropping on handsets, and many of the cell phones on the market are used and thus cheaper. Software developers are creating ways to create cross platform solutions that provide meaningful services for everyday users. Director of IBM India Research laboratory Dr. Daniel Dias reinforces the socio-economic potential of this new technology:

The world is entering the ‘Era of the Mobile Web.’ In many countries, the mobile phone has become an electronic wallet, the window to the World Wide Web, an education device, and more, and globally, mobile devices outnumber PCs, credit cards, and TVs.

Mobile phones are sweeping across the planet, and Latin America is no an exception from this trend, boasting 230 million active cell phone lines in 2005, representing 40% of the population. It is predicted that this number will rise to 80% by 2009.  Mobile phone services now extend wider than regular phone lines across the region of Latin America. One can easily bare witness to how widely mobile phones have infiltrated the region in such a short amount of time; from indigenous women pulling out their phones from their traditional dress, to gum-popping teenagers texting back and forth with their friends on their way to the mall.

Yet while mobile phones have been adapted all over the region, each country involves a different set of players in the telecommunications sector.  Not all countries experience the same levels of access, yet in many countries where access to broadband is double North American prices (around $50-180), cellphone prices are dirt cheap.  Where universal broadband internet access is a pipe dream for many regions, the low cost wireless internet access through mobile phones is becoming more and more popular as prices lower ($4-20).  While one-laptop per child is a noble goal worth fighting for, a more practical solution for bridging the digital divide might be adopting the current version of the internet to work in sync with mobile browsers, as well as new networked applications which provide services to remote populations, such as health care and banking. As well, lowering price baskets for goth mobile and internet services, as there is a great gap between countries which high mobile penetration rates and low price baskets, and countries which face the opposite (Barrantes et. all, 2007).

In Central American countries where the government has recognized the power of ICTs and development, mobile phones and internet access is much more accessible.  For example, Costa Rica’s Institute of Electricity (ICE), is a national telecommunications firm which provides subsidized access to mobile services, with some of the most affordable rates in Central America for electricity, mobile phones, internet, and other telecommunications services.

Costa Ricans currently have one of the highest rates of media access in Central America, with a Mobile Price Basket $6.30 below the average in Central America.  This translates to Mobile Subscriber Rate of 227 out of 1000 people, 28 points above the national average for Central America.  Costa Rica has the lowest mobile rate in all of Central America at $4.20, with a Mobile Subscriber Rate only second to Panama at 227 out of 1000 people (Statistics gathered from

In Costa Rica telecommunications access to telecommunications services is seen as a patriotic right. Yet this right falls under threat by the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).  The Central American Free Trade Agreement is known in Spanish as TLC, and serves as a regional free trade agreement with the United States. According to one participant on a debate about a Costa Rican YouTube video on TLC and telecommunications:

Seamos claros, con todo y los defectos del ICE, uno encuentra a un chofer de bus, niños en las escuelas públicas y empleadas domésticas con celular. ¿Dónde en centroamérica ve algo similar?. Mejoremos al ICE. No al TLC.

Let’s be clear, with all the deficits from ICE, anyone can find bus drivers, kids in public school, and domestic employees with cell phones. Where else in Central America can you see something similar?  We’re better with ICE.  No to CAFTA.

TLC for Costa Rica means massive government economic reforms; the privatization of ICE, education, health care, and other social services. With TLC, national environmental legislation could be in danger. Costa Rica is around one third national parkland, which is part of it’s attraction as an internationally recognized eco-tourism destination. When TLC was announced by the Arias government, protests and strikes erupted across the country.  Protest numbers where downsized by the mainstream media, which the larger blogger community picked up on.  Ultimately, the country put TLC to a national referendum on October 7th, 2007, which drew out 73.6% of the electorate.  TLC was passed with 51.6% approval rating, but that did not stop the protests!  What the mainstream media did not pick up on, citizen media brought to life. With the upcoming CAFTA/TLC agreement passing, this means big changes for Costa Rica’s telecommunications nationalized industry in the upcoming years which will effect Costa Rica’s access to citizen media.  It is also clear that Costa Ricans have used their access to citizen media tools provided cheaply through ICE as a means of expressing their dissent as citizens through both mobile phones and the internet.

According to the case study done by,

In the following years, the cellular phone has the power to become the most chosen form of electronic media by activists in order to create public mobilizations, and to become a medium for social reclamation.

There is no doubt that Costa Ricans have not taken advantage of their increased access to citizen media to protest the slashing of these rights.  From blogs to SMS messages to online videos, Costa Rican No TLC activists have increasingly expressed calls to action both pre and post the national referendum.

One of the most popular and affordable functions of a cellular phone is text messaging (SMS). Cheaper than a regular call, and much faster than using the Internet, 500 million text messages are exchanged around the world per year. Text messages can be used to vote on reality TV shows, report crimes, or get information quickly, from your horoscope to what’s playing at the local cinema. In Costa Rica national media establishments like La Nación have used text messaging to delivery the news straight to their customers.  They also provide free text messaging services to Costa Ricans through their website.  Similarly, Costa Rican credit franchise El Gallo más Gallo uses SMS messages to deliver messages to their customers.  As mobile phone usage rates continue to rise, there is no doubt that services will increase over the next decade.

While larger public organizational uses of mobile phone technology are easy to chart, the majority of mobile usage is largely personal, away from the public domain.  This is beginning to change, as some of the top visited Costa Rican websites are beginning to go mobile.  Just in the past month of writing this article Hi5 has announced its new mobile version, in 26 languages.  Social networks like Facebook and MySpace have long been mobile enabled, and search engines like Google and Yahoo both have Mobile versions.

One example of a mobile social network that has swept Costa Rica is Twitter. This social network has been around since October 2006, and is well known for engaging members by asking them “What are you doing right now?”  Users post their updates in under 140 characters, which are called tweets. Since its launch, Twitter has rapidly taken over the world as a micro-blogging portal.  Twitter is best known as an activist tool from American student James Karl Buck who sent out a one-word tweet “Arrested,” while in Egypt attending anti-government protests.  With in minutes of his post from his mobile phone friends and colleagues from home and abroad came to his aid.  This butterfly effect is what Twitter has become famous for, spreading ideas and alerts like wildfire.

Capable of mobile updates in Canada, the USA, and India, users can receive their friend’s tweets straight to their mobile device.  Yet mobile updates have proven costly to Twitter, and as such the social network has had to cut down on its services in foreign countries. Twitter Co-Founder Biz Stone publicly apologized to users explaining the cuts to services:

Even with a limit of 250 messages received per week, it could cost Twitter about $1,000 per user, per year to send SMS outside of Canada, India, or the US. It makes more sense for us to establish fair billing arrangements with mobile operators than it does to pass these high fees on to our users.

Twitter will continue to negotiate with mobile operators in Europe, Asia, China, and The Americas to forge relationships that benefit all our users. Our goal is to provide full, two-way service with Twitter via SMS to every nation in a way that is sustainable from a cost perspective. Talks with mobile companies around the world continue. In the meantime, more local numbers for updating via SMS are on the way.

In the past two years since its founding, Twitter has also made quite an impact on Costa Rican users, although technically not available through mobile updates during its growth period.  Community similarities are Costa Rican culture and politics, as well as high tech networked culture.  Twitter allows tech-savy ticos to forge a unique national identity.  To get a sense of the Costa Rican Twitter micro-blogsphere, look no further than Twittervision.  Micro-blogging encompases the things you do in between major blog posts, from the mundane to the profound merging locative technologies with social networks.  Blogger, web designer, and the first Costa Rican user of Twitter Josue Salazar comments on Twitters locative feature of creating virtual locative communities.

Personally, what brought Twitter to my attention was how easy it was to publish anything, to communicate with so many people, and to see what other people are doing.  The truth is that it wasn’t until this year that I found other ticos on Twitter, and I was always noticing how other communities used Twitter to interact with people from the same place, sharing more things, and in general relating to others from the same place (debating the local news, etc.).  Specifically, my Chilean friends took Twitter and they made it their own huge community, and had great conversations.  I was always jealous because it was all in Spanish, and because they were getting the most out of it.

Personalmente lo que me llamó la atención fue esa facilidad de publicar tonteras, de comunicarme fácilmente con tanta gente, y ver lo que todos hacen. La verdad, no fue hasta este año que encontré a algún tico en Twitter, siempre estuve viendo como muchos en Twitter eran del mismo lugar y compartían más cosas, en general relacionadas a que estaban en el mismo país (discutiendo noticias locales, etc), lo que fuera. En especifico, amigos chilenos tomaron Twitter y lo hicieron suyo hace tiempo, la comunidad chilena es grande, y tienen muy buenas conversaciones, siempre estuve celoso, porque hablaban en español, porque estaban sacandole el jugo a Twitter.

Many Twitter users don’t fit in on virtual or physical world, as their references don’t translate.  A video produced for a local Twitter Costa Rica meet up quotes scenarios where Twitter users swap comments that serve as a secret language that only they can decode:

Messages like “Have you written SMS messages that seem like they’re 140 characters or smaller?”, “Have you tried to explain how Twitter works to a group of non-users and they still don’t get it?”, “Have you converted atleast one friend to Twitter?”, “Have you run to your house with the urgent need to tell the world what you’re doing right now?”, “Have you tweeted from a party/concert/meeting/graduation/communion/church/batmitzva/mass?”, etc. Costa Rican Twitter users are marginalized on the web as it is dominated by English, but within their home circles their online social network culture is also misunderstood. While the Costa Rican Twitter community is still small, at around 150 people within the country, their is a strong movement of Tico Twitter users that is growing day by day.

Now that Twitter has been hacked to work with mobile phones, and that sites like Hi5 have been mobile enabled it is sure that the activism that has permeated public domain online social networks and private mobile communication will soon emerge.  That said, what we share in public and private are clearly different, and it is important that we not generalize mobile media and the internet as one in the same.  Further studies must be done to examine how mobile phones are being used globally by youth as tools for resistance so we can better understood the effects. It is clear that mobile phones have clearly made their mark in terms of revolutionizing the ways that society lives, works, and communicates, creating previously unheard of access to networked communication and information transfer.

When looking at new media communication, it is clear that across class, race, and gender, the digital divide is still apparent. Yet everyday youth are working to bridge these gaps by seizing the means of communication, and creating alternative networks, brainstorming new functions that CEOs had never dreamed possible. Yet as innovations in Citizen Media continue to rise, many gaps still exist blocking people from self-expression and access to the digital commons. While it is obvious that both Costa Rican and Panamanian youth are using new technologies such as Social Networks and Mobile Communication, when one compares the two countries there is an obvious gap in access.

While Costa Ricans have a nationalized telecommunications network, ICE (The Costa Rican Institute of Electricity), Panamanians have to rely on private networks in order to participate in the digital commons. According to’s section of International Mobile Data (See charts), Costa Rica has way higher access to the Internet, and but Mobile phone use is higher in Panama. This data draws out the realities of the countries economic structure, with Panama having a huge gap between the rich and the poor, and Costa Rica having a more middle class economy.

The average Costa Rican cellular phone plan is $4.20, while the average Panamanian is $18.10. The Internet is on average $10 more expensive for Panamanians than Costa Ricans, even though the level of poverty in Panama is over 5% higher. While Internet use in Panama is popular in urban context, the majority of the country remains without access. While mobile phone subscriptions in Panama are at a rate of 28%, Costa Ricans are only at 22%. Yet in Costa Rica personal computer rates remain at 22%, with Internet use at 29%. In contrast, Panamanians have a personal computer rate of 0.4%, and an Internet use rate of 0.78%.

This data challenges us to look at the deeper structures to national media hegemonies. Costa Rica’s public electricity corporation ICE was created in 1949 as a part of a larger movement for national sovereignty, as well as a means to protect against the harmful effects of hydro electric energy. In the year 1963 ICE went into telecommunications. ICE boasts a 97% coverage rate for electricity, and a telephone network that covers 95% of the population, most of the connections home lines. ICE has a mission for the environment and to create access to marginalized populations.

The contrast for the telecommunications industry in Panama, a free market monopoly which is run by two main companies, Cable and Wireless, and MoviStar. Much like the Canadian situation of telecommunications, the lack of competition between companies motivated by a for-profit mandate drives prices up. The Internet, and computers in general are unaffordable for a country that has a 7.2% poverty rate.

With these statistics in mind it is important to postulate what are the implications of new media technology in constructing a functioning democracy:

  1. How does access to digital networks on computers, and cell phones allow people to act as citizens, creating community media that is instantly shared across the world?
  2. How can governments work towards providing their citizens with access to these new forms of citizen media?
  3. How can youth utilize these technologies to gain agency in society and participate in activism and advocacy?

These questions will serve well for further study of this topic, as academics work on creating measures. For this research to happen there must be collaboration between both public and private domains, as telecommunications companies can benefit from this data as much as social activists can.

On June 4th, 2008 Costa Rican President Oscar Arias passed new legislation in accordance to Central American Free Trade Agreement, making it legal for private companies to offer cellular phone and Internet services. This signifies a breaking of ICE, as corporations can use Wal-mart style tactics to drive out the state competition, and then raise prices once a monopoly is established. It is imperative in this time of change to examine the periphery effects affecting access to Citizen Media.


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