The Power of Peers

Wednesday, 23 July, 2008 - 11:27

South African youth have “got the message” regarding the need for HIV prevention.  What continues to drive the epidemic, however, is not their disregard of the message, but rather the

South African youth have “got the message” regarding the need for HIV prevention.  What continues to drive the epidemic, however, is not their disregard of the message, but rather their response to their circumstances. Many young people who leave school face an uncertain future and feel excluded from opportunity. And not surprisingly, half the lifetime risk of HIV infection among young women is crammed into just five years after leaving school [1].

In response, loveLife - South Africa’s national HIV prevention programme for youth – has launched the “Make Your Move” campaign, designed to help young people build personal initiative, strengthen their ability to negotiate day-to-day pressures and to help find new links to opportunity.  An integral part of the “Make Your Move” campaign has been the creation of MYMsta - the world’s first cell phone-based social network dedicated to youth empowerment and HIV prevention.

loveLife has always recognised the importance of peer-to-peer networks in HIV prevention work.  loveLife’s groundBREAKER and Mpinshti programme form a youth service corps of 6 000+ peer educators that reach over 500 000 South African youth every month with direct face-to-face interaction. Although nothing can replace that interaction, MYMsta is designed to complement loveLife’s physical network with an inexpensive and easily accessible virtual network, as the proliferation of cell phones in South Africa allows for peer-to-peer education to happen on a much larger scale. (75 percent of 15-24 year olds in South Africa own mobile phones, and 60 percent report using them every day,[2]  whereas only six percent of all South Africans have access to the Internet via computers. [3])

While cell phone technology allows for many different tools, mobile-based social networking was chosen by loveLife for two key reasons:

1) Social networking at its core is a peer-to-peer tool, thus allowing for the very important peer-based interaction needed in HIV prevention.  Further, social networks, as a worldwide phenomenon, are about connectivity - breaking down physical boundaries, allowing like-minded individuals to find each other in the online or mobile space, and often, creating links to opportunity through the “network effect.”

2) Social networking plays directly into the three key triggers of behaviour change: sense of identity, belonging and purpose. Creating a public profile is an inherent exercise in identity. Users develop belonging and community by connecting to people through forums, groups, and messaging. MYMsta is designed with a sense of collective purpose.

Beyond the platform itself, MYMsta’s core content structure is designed to not only provide useful information, but to also encourage user-generated content - again acknowledging the power of peers.  An in-house content producer, herself a 20-year-old South African faced with many of the same difficult realities of her peers, provides educational and useful content to help young people “make their move.” The Up Your Game section in MYMsta provides knowledge-based content adapted from loveLife’s youth magazine, UNCUT, and Deloitte Touche’s career guide, Jumpstart.  Movers and Shakers are real people to provide inspiration. Coin It shows young people how close their dreams can be when they save money through small changes in their daily lives.  And most importantly, the Hook It Up section of MYMsta is a localised database of jobs, bursaries, learnerships, and volunteer opportunities providing direct links to help young people work towards their dreams and “make their move.”

Beyond the informational tools, MYMsta creates space for user-generated commentary through the forums and groups and in response to MYMsta’s content.  Even a brief look at the comments provides unique insight into the thoughts and minds of South African youth. For example, in the education forum we see a thread titled “insecurity in schools” beginning a discussion about violence in South Africa’s schools. One MYMsta user says: “its sad but tru that the most affluent skulz hv a safe environment & the least privildg r violent. nature o nurture?” 

In the relationship forum, we see young people supporting each other.  One user posed the question:“ur step dad is cheating on ur mom and u don't have the heart to tell her that coz she loves him so much. what would u do?”  A MYMsta member responded by saying, “da truth might hurt yet its gonna set u free coz u livin with sumwt of a guilt... just tell her gal.” The commentary is extensive and has proven to be one of the most successful aspects of MYMsta: nearly 40 percent of MYMsta’s 430 000 pages of activity in its first three weeks have come from forums, comments, and messaging.

This type of product design – strategic information plus a user-generated platform - allows loveLife to help guide the peer-to-peer conversation, but still creates space for young people to connect in their own way, and most importantly, in their own voice. This model in turn allows for trust, which is crucial when engaging with teens about the most important decisions in their lives. Further, trust is imperative when speaking with young people on their cell phones, the one device a person never leaves home without. There is a certain intimate relationship between youth and their cell phones which, when combined with trust, allows them to open up and ask the difficult questions they may otherwise be scared or embarrassed to voice.

Some may worry, however, about allowing an open community to discuss difficult questions without strict monitoring.  Yet Web 2.0 tools have shown that the community dictates the norms, which can be placed into the product design. Wikipedia, for example, was deeply criticized in its early stages: “How can the public create an accurate encyclopedia?  Surely only a handful of experts could create such a thing.”  However, the community dictated that it would not allow for misinformation and Wikipedia as a technology platform implemented tools for the community to report misbehaviour. 

MYMsta uses a similar philosophy.  Blocking and reporting tools are built into the product, encouraging the community to report inappropriate activity, which if necessary, will lead to action being taken, including dismissal from the network. Further, loveLife’s physical network, the youth corps of groundBREAKERS and Mpinshtis, serve as ambassadors for the tool. They train each other on its value and on the community’s norms of positive peer education – again reinforcing the power of the peer. Where needed, loveLife’s sexual health counselors and trained staff around the country are available for additional support.

The world of cell phone-based technology allows for many new and innovative tools for HIV prevention. loveLife, as a youth organisation, has chosen the peer driven route, understanding that young people are most likely to trust each other. By complementing existing loveLife programmes with this mobile tool, MYMsta aims to empower individuals, build solidarity amongst South African youth, serve as an organising tool amongst and for young people. Most importantly, MYMsta is a platform that enables the Love Life generation to work together for a better collective future for themselves and for South Africa.

1. Pettifor et al (2004).  HIV and sexual behaviour among young South Africans:  A national survey of 15-24 year olds 2003., Reproductive Health Research Unit, University of Witwatersrand  (secondary analysis)
2. Kaiser Family Foundation and SABC, “Young South Africans, Broadcast Media, and HIV/AIDS.” March 2007.
3. South African Advertising Research Foundation, All Media and Products Survey 2006.

- Trina DasGupta is the mobile marketing consultant at loveLife

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