In September 2009 I set out to answer the question: would South African teens read short stories, or m-novels, on their mobile phones? We knew that teens were “addicted” – as the media often claimed – to their phones, but this was mainly for chatting on MXit, the instant messaging platform that had millions of users at that time. Would they also stay glued to their phones to read a 10,000 word story, and even comment on it?
Back then I was the Fellow for 21st Century Learning at the Shuttleworth Foundation and sought to develop innovative technology-based solutions to the country’s pressing education problems. When speaking to teachers and parents I often heard that mobile phones were a major part of the low-literacy problem in SA. And so this Mobiles for Literacy, or m4Lit, project was born, setting out to challenge that notion. In such a book-poor society, where only 7% of schools had a functioning library, could the mobile phones already in the hands of youth be a new channel to reading material, albeit in digital?
The first story was Kontax, a teen adventure set in Cape Town. In less than a month 63,000 readers had signed up and 17,200 of them had read the full story. One of the first comments on the site was from dotty1: “It’s great … for me it really hard to pick up a book to start readin but i don mind readin on my phone”. It was clear that mobile phones are a viable distribution platform for longer form content and for enabling user participation, something not possible in print.
Encouraged by the response, I officially launched Yoza Cellphone Stories in 2010, which over time grew to 31 m-novels, 18 poems and five Shakespeare plays. The content was in English, Afrikaans and isiXhosa, and garnered more than 50,000 comments from our readers. Louise McCann edited the stories we commissioned to ensure they were mobile friendly: short, punchy chapters that we serialised every day. The University of Cape Town also published two research reports on the project.
Since those early days it has been exciting to watch the growth of the m-novel space. The clear leader in South Africa is FunDza, who not only share m-novels and run reader competitions, but also have these stories published in print, develop new young writers and constantly push the boundaries to instil a love of reading in our youth.
When looking for a home for the Yoza stories, there was no doubt that FunDza would provide a happy one. It’s active user base and substantial library of content would be fertile ground for the Yoza content and user comments. Interestingly, all Yoza content is either licensed as Creative Commons or is in the Public Domain. FunDza has indicated the license type for the content so readers are able to distinguish between the different licenses.
I have also joined the FunDza board of trustees, which is both an honour and the perfect way to remain active in the pioneering world of using technology to improve literacy in South Africa.
From now onwards, you can find the Yoza stories here.
I remain deeply grateful to the Shuttleworth Foundation for funding the project, as well as to Ian Harrison of the Content Company, and his talented engineer, Louan du Toit, for hosting Yoza in the years between Shuttleworth and FunDza.