The Aboriginal spring? Youth, mobile phones and social media in a remote Aboriginal community

The Aboriginal spring? Youth, mobile phones and social media in a remote Aboriginal community Book Section

Indigenous Australian Youth Futures: Living the Social Determinants of Health

  • Author(s): Kariippanon, Kishan
  • Secondary Author(s): Senior, Kate, Chenhall, Richard, Burbank, Victoria
  • Published: 2021
  • Publisher: ANU Press
  • ISBN: 9781760464448

Abstract: Introduction: The Field Site and the Project: Awakened to the events of the Arab Spring, in which mobile phones and social media became the conduit for a revolution spearheaded by young people (Eltantawy and Wiest 2011), the potential for an ‘Aboriginal Spring’ sparked my interest in what I assumed were the temporal tools of an ever-changing technoscape (Appadurai 1988). The location of the research and its objectives emerged as a result of a social marketing project that attempted to address scabies with the help of emergent technology in a remote Aboriginal community. Rather than just regarding this technology as a convenient vehicle for public health messages, in the early stages of this project, I became interested in its meaning in this location. Similar to Hinkson’s (2002, 2017) study of Walpiri new media, I was interested in how technology provides opportunities to extend and/or redefine sociality. This chapter explores the meanings embedded in mobile phones and social media for Yolngu youth in Yirkala in north-east Arnhem Land. The aims of the study were crafted in consultation with multiple stakeholders. This involved a series of meetings with government agencies and the Aboriginal Medical Services Board and their public health team, and leaders of the families whose land I sought to enter to conduct my work. As a collective, we agreed that this research could be beneficial to the community by providing a clear understanding of the role of mobile phones and social media in Yolgnu society, and insight into the prevailing attitudes towards mobile phones and social media in the community, particularly among young people. To enable accessible and translatable findings for a broad audience, I would conduct ethnographic research exploring how emergent technologies belong in the community, and how they affect young people’s kinship structure, social life and perceptions of community, including an account of how these technologies operate in their lives. Through my attempts at learning the kinship system of the Yolngu people—that is, Dhuwa and Yirritja moieties and their respective clans—I arrived at an understanding that a randomised method of sampling would be culturally inappropriate. Through my interactions with cultural mentors, I became aware that my responsibility was to seek guidance from my maternal uncles (ngapipi), brothers (wawa and gathu) and fathers (bapa) regarding the networks and individuals I could access for the study. Knowledge in this community, and in Aboriginal Australia more broadly, is often held by specific individuals. My adopted status determined my relationship to these individuals and enabled them to share some of their knowledge. Female members of this Arnhem Land community to whom I was connected via kin relationships were also interviewed to achieve a balanced view. These included senior, young and non-Indigenous women; the last worked closely with Yolngu families and were accorded the cultural authority needed to share their knowledge with me on specific aspects of the community. The study participants held multiple roles in the community, were of various ages and held various kinship relationships to me. My engagement with young people was guided by their personal interests and I was sensitive to their autonomy. I did not expect them to feel obliged to me, even though I was regarded as their ‘kin’. As the study focused on emergent technologies, and not Yolngu traditional knowledge systems, there was little need to intrude in culturally sensitive or inappropriate areas. The young people negotiated an intercultural or two-way approach (Marika and Isaacs 1995) to our engagement, balancing Yolngu law and non-Yolgnu culture. I quickly adapted to the new role of ethnographer, driving ‘family’ to and from funeral ceremonies or town, having the neighbours’ children over for a play, being a water boy for one of the footy teams, setting up new mobile phone connections and producing music videos for teenagers. After three months in the community, I approached my next-door neighbour, a Traditional Owner, to ask if I could apply for the installation of wi-fi ADSL 2 broadband, which could be made available to the community. With his approval, the Telstra man arrived (there was only one contractor in the mining town) and my house was connected with 100 gigabyte ADSL 2+ broadband. Soon thereafter, chairs showed up near my house, often on the veranda of my immediate neighbour, to access my wi-fi. Young people with mobile phones asked me for the wi-fi password and then added me as their friend on Facebook. They ‘suggested’ and ‘introduced’ other friends or family from different communities to extend their ‘friend list’ on Facebook. The wi-fi connection had anywhere between three and 10 users at a time. Depending on the ability of their phones’ connection, and their proximity to my house, some young people were able to surf the internet from the comfort of their own homes. Within two months, several mobile devices such as iPhones, Samsung flip phones and smartphones were joined by Android tablets as the arsenal of new technology in the community began to accumulate. Three months later, a brand new Hewlett Packard laptop was purchased by a neighbouring family who streamed movies and YouTube videos and downloaded music. As I began hearing different songs, I observed the transformative power of technology; however, it remained a technology that was wrapped in Yolngu culture, as I shall discuss throughout this chapter. The variety of expression and choices made via laptop, phone and the internet truly amazed me.

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Suggested Citation
Kariippanon, Kishan, 2021, The Aboriginal spring? Youth, mobile phones and social media in a remote Aboriginal community, Book Section, viewed 30 November 2021,

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