Published online by Cambridge University Press: 01 August 2014
Mobile phones are spreading to remote areas of the globe, leading to the following question: “What is the potential of the new communication technologies for increasing individuals' access to information and the diffusion of attitudes and practices across rural areas of developing countries?” We have donated phones to 234 farmers selected by stratified random sampling in an agrarian region of Ethiopia and have tracked their main communication partners for six months. The panel data and qualitative interviews indicated that the phones were not typically used to expand the existing constrained social networks or to gain information from new sources but to call contacts who had been known personally and to individuals introduced through the experiment. Stochastic actor-based network models clarified that although agricultural information-seeking and casual calling are intertwined, the mechanisms underlying the evolution of instrumental and expressive communication networks are distinct. Acquaintances living beyond comfortable walking distances and individuals whom others call became preferred for information-seeking calls. Thus, mobile phones may accelerate information exchange within existing social networks and may support the creation of new information hubs that might facilitate more efficient information diffusion over long distances in the future. In contrast, the importance of geographical communities strongly prevails in casual phone conversations. Physically proximate community members who tend to be met frequently were preferred for sentiment-sharing calls. Preferential attachment was not evident for this type of communication. As a result, the network of these expressive calls was highly localized and fragmented, making it unlikely for personal feelings to diffuse across wide geographical areas through the new phone networks.