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Growing Up and Moving Out

South Africans and The Internet

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Let's face it - South Africans suck at being on The Internet.
Perhaps there is a hint of irony in me blogging about this topic in a (generally) tech-savvy community such as this, but the South African attitude towards and reaction to all things "Internet" is definitely something that demands attention.

When we look at the level of web-based activity in the US, South Africans are cavemen in comparison! Although we are in the information age, it feels to me like we are still sending smoke signals while the rest of the world races ahead with digital communication and interaction.

Let's take a look at some of the areas where South Africa is lagging behind the rest of the world.

South Africans and e-commerce

South Africans just don't buy on The Internet!
It seems that a large portion of the people in this country are extremely reluctant to make purchases online. Regardless of how secure you make your e-commerce site and how carefully you protect your customers while they shop online, we seem to view the net as a gaping black hole into which your money and credit card are going to disappear and never return.

This whole issue became extremely apparent when I opened up my online store selling shirts. Despite our best efforts to assure our customers of their information and money's safety via our website, we had (and still have) many people contacting us asking for a physical store location where they could come in and purchase our products.
People couldn't trust the secure payment gateway created by PayFast (a really good South African online payment processor) and we saw many orders aborted as soon as they were sent to the PayFast payment screen.

In my opinion, this is a serious issue which is hindering the growth of e-commerce and discouraging potential entrepreneurs in out country who see opportunities via The Internet.

SA Web Design vs International Web Design

Perhaps the average Internet user may not notice, but you can generally tell the design of a US-based website apart from that of a South African website in a glance.

It seems to me like we are still concerned with getting it on the net, whereas in more "advanced" countries having an Internet presence is a given and they are concerning themselves with the science behind web design and making their websites appealing to their viewers, enticing more calls to action.

Many of the most popular websites in the US seem to follow a particular design trend: Lots of white space, with light grey/silver tones (think of Apple's designs) and they feature very distinct product showcases. They show their products alongside each other (similar to a comparison table) and draw attention to the one that is "most popular", the one that you are most likely to buy.

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An example of a typical US product offering screen.

Contrast this with the "colourful" designs that you find on the vast majority of South African websites and the cut and paste product showcases with little or no thought applied.

Similarly, international websites tend to feature big, clearly displayed buttons and call-to-actions in a bright green or red colour. We, on the other hand, seem to be concerned with making our buttons shiny and animated.

It's almost as if we are 2 years late on the adoption of design trends that take place abroad.
It's definitely frustrating for designers, in particular, because we can only follow a brief and it seems that the typical design client is not aware of the science behind web design.

Is there actually a science behind web design, big colourful call-to-action buttons and such things? What do you think?

South Africans and Social Media

I read a statement recently (can't recall where) that suggested South Africans are early adopters. If this is true then I must be confusing South Africa with another country in a parallel universe.

Similar to the trends in the web design industry, it seems that we have been extremely slow in the uptake of social media.

The blog industry has quite simply exploded internationally, with thousands of blogs being started every year. The blogging scene in the US has become a rat race in itself, while our bloggers seem to be comparatively fast asleep. Rat poison, anyone?

Likewise, ask an American whether he's on Facebook, statistics say that the answers will be yes around 50% of the time. Yes, that's right - half of the entire US population is on Facebook.

The percentage of the South African population on Facebook? Around 10%... I think the figures speak for themselves.

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I think it's evident from all I've mentioned above that South Africa has a fair amount of catching up to do if we want to take advantage of the many opportunities that The World Wide Web can offer us in the same way as other, more established nations are doing already.

Now there are many factors contributing to this sad state of affairs. I'd like to here from you in the comments what you think is the cause for South Africa being so far behind the rest of the world when it comes to just about everything on The Internet. Am I being too cynical or to hard on our country? Do you think that we are better at being online than I think?

Disclaimer: All references to South Africans and other nations are generalisations. There are, of course, exceptions in every instance. I am merely pointing out how I see the general state of affairs.

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  1. Dave A's Avatar
    My wife told me about a conversation she had yesterday with a guy who is using dial-up for his internet connection. He was complaining that the internet seemed to be getting slower and slower.

    I tried to keep a straight face (and failed), but as it relates to your blog, I suggest connectivity is a big part of the problem.
  2. Mark Atkinson's Avatar
    It's hard to believe there are guys still out there using dial-up Internet. So incredibly sad.

    As you suggest, though, connectivity must be a big contributing factor. Guess we have Hellkom to blame for that
  3. MadJan's Avatar
    Dial-up in vocab is profanity!!! I wish there was an 'erase' button to get rid of dial up :-)
    South Africans have trust issues, that is why they are reluctant to make online purchases. I have also come across a great number of people....mainly small business people that are not really pc or techno literate. I once tried helping someone navigate their pc (telephonic help).... firstly it was a nightmare, trying to locate the backspace key was like looking for a needle in a haystack, trying to navigate to the desktop....well....the phone and coffee apart from pens, etc were actually on the why would i want to know whats on top of the desk hmmmm??? lol
  4. rfnel's Avatar
    While it's sad that there are still people using dial-up, we should also consider the fact that almost half of the South African populace are living in poverty, and probably have no internet access whatsoever. If we exclude the 50% of our population living in poverty, that means that about 20% of 'internet-able' South Africans are on Facebook. Looking at the USA, where around 14% of the population lives in poverty, we can use the same logic to guesstimate that almost 60% of their 'internet-able' population is on Facebook. We're still lagging very far behind, but maybe not quite as far as it would seem at first glance.

    I should point out that I got the above stats from a quick search on Google, so I can't claim that I've done in-depth research.

    As for our reluctance to buying online, I think that South Africans (of all races) have always been very 'hands-on'. We prefer face-to-face interaction, because that's the culture that we grew up with. We'd rather deal with a person (with whom we can negotiate) than with a computer (that just crunches numbers and takes our money). Also, I don't watch much TV, but I can't recall that I've ever seen any televised ads for, WantItAll, or any of the other players in the online retailing market. Perhaps better marketing will lead to an increase in the number of people who shop online. For the record, I prefer online shopping over crowded shopping centres.
  5. Mark Atkinson's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by rfnel
    Also, I don't watch much TV, but I can't recall that I've ever seen any televised ads for, WantItAll, or any of the other players in the online retailing market.
    You definitely don't watch much TV. advertises frequently on TV. "Click click. Ding dong." ring a bell?

    Thanks for the comment, though, Riaan!
  6. Mark Atkinson's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by gordo
    i think in a few years all that will change.
    I think you are spot on, Gordo! It's just sad that we have been so slow on the uptake.
    Thanks for commenting!