Modernity and the Mobile Phone

Exploring Tensions about Dating and Sex in Indonesia

How to Cite

Humphreys, L., & Barker, T. (2007). Modernity and the Mobile Phone: Exploring Tensions about Dating and Sex in Indonesia. M/C Journal, 10(1).
Vol. 10 No. 1 (2007): 'mobile'
Published 2007-03-01


As the country with the fifth largest population in the world, Indonesia is a massive potential market for mobile technology adoption and development. Despite an annual per capita income of only $1,280 USD (World Bank), there are 63 million mobile phone users in Indonesia (Suhartono, sec. 1.7) and it is predicted to reach 80 million in 2007 (Jakarta Post 1). Mobile phones are not only a symbol of Indonesian modernity (Barendregt 5), but like other communication technology can become a platform through which to explore socio-political issues (Winner 28).

In this article we explore the role mobile phone technology in contemporary forms of social, intimate, and sexual relationships in Indonesia. We argue that new forms of expression and relations are facilitated by the particular features of mobile technology. We discuss two cases from contemporary Indonesia: a mobile dating service (BEDD) and mobile phone pornography. For each case study, we first discuss the socio-political background in Indonesia, then describe the technological affordances of the mobile phone which facilitate dating and pornography, and finally give examples of how the mobile phone is effecting change in dating and pornographic practices.

This study is placed at a time when social relations, intimacy, and sexuality in Indonesia have become central public issues. Since the end of the New Order whilst many people have embraced the new freedoms of reformasi and democratization, there is also a high degree of social anxiety, tension and uncertainty (Juliastuti 139-40). These social changes and desires have played out in the formations of new and exciting modes of creativity, solidarity, and sociality (Heryanto and Hadiz 262) and equally violence, terror and criminality (Heryanto and Hadiz 256). The diverse and plural nature of Indonesian society is alive with a myriad of people and activities, and it is into this diverse social body that the mobile phone has become a central and prominent feature of interaction.

The focus of our study is dating and pornography as mediated by the mobile phone; however, we do not suggest that these are new experiences in Indonesia. Rather over the last decade social, intimate, and sexual relationships have all been undergoing change and their motivations can be traced to a variety of sources including the factors of globalization, democratization and modernization. Throughout Asia “new media have become a crucial site for constituting new Asian sexual identities and communities” (Berry, Martin, and Yue 13) as people are connecting through new communication technologies. In this article we suggest that mobile phone technology opens new possibilities and introduces new channels, dynamics, and intensities of social interaction.

Mobile phones are particularly powerful communication tools because of their mobility, accessibility, and convergence (Ling 16-19; Ito 14-15; Katz and Aakhus 303). These characteristics of mobile phones do not in and of themselves bring about any particular changes in dating and pornography, but they may facilitate changes already underway (Barendegt 7-9; Barker 9).

Mobile Dating


The majority of Indonesians in the 1960s and 1970s had arranged marriages (Smith-Hefner 443). Education reform during the 70s and 80s encouraged more women to attain an education which in turn led to the delaying of marriage and the changing of courtship practices (Smith-Hefner 450). “Compared to previous generations, [younger Indonesians] are freer to mix with the opposite sex and to choose their own marriage,” (Utomo 225). Modern courtship in Java is characterized by “self-initiated romance” and dating (Smith-Hefner 451). Mobile technology is beginning to play a role in initiating romance between young Indonesians.


One mobile matching or dating service available in Indonesia is called BEDD ( BEDD is a free software for mobile phones in which users fill out a profile about themselves and can meet BEDD members who are within 20-30 feet using a Bluetooth connection on their mobile devices. BEDD members’ phones automatically exchange profile information so that users can easily meet new people who match their profile requests. BEDD calls itself mobile social networking community; “BEDD is a new Bluetooth enabled mobile social medium that allows people to meet, interact and communicate in a new way by letting their mobile phones do all the work as they go throughout their day.” As part of a larger project on mobile social networking (Humphreys 6), a field study was conducted of BEDD users in Jakarta, Indonesia and Singapore (where BEDD is based) in early 2006. In-depth interviews and open-ended user surveys were conducted with users, BEDD’s CEO and strategic partners in order to understand the social uses and effects BEDD.

The majority of BEDD members (which topped 100,000 in January 2006) are in Indonesia thanks to a partnership with Nokia where BEDD came pre-installed on several phone models. In management interviews, both BEDD and Nokia explained that they partnered because both companies want to help “build community”. They felt that Bluetooth technology such as BEDD could be used to help youth meet new people and keep in touch with old friends.


One of BEDD’s functions is to help lower barriers to social interaction in public spaces. By sharing profile information and allowing for free text messaging, BEDD can facilitate conversations between BEDD members. According to users, mediating the initial conversation also helps to alleviate social anxiety, which often accompanies meeting new people. While social mingling and hanging out between Jakarta teenagers is a relatively common practice, one user said that BEDD provides a new and fun way to meet and flirt. In a society that must balance between an “idealized morality” and an increasingly sexualized popular culture (Utomo 226), BEDD provides a modern mode of self-initiated matchmaking.

While BEDD was originally intended to aid in the matchmaking process of dating, it has been appropriated into everyday life in Indonesia because of its interpretive flexibility (Pinch & Bjiker 27). Though BEDD is certainly used to meet “beautiful girls” (according to one Indonesian male user), it is also commonly used to text message old friends. One member said he uses BEDD to text his friends in class when the lecture gets boring. BEDD appears to be a helpful modern communication tool when people are physically proximate but cannot easily talk to one another. BEDD can become a covert way to exchange messages with people nearby for free.

Another potential explanation for BEDD’s increasing popularity is its ability to allow users to have private conversations in public space. Bennett notes that courtship in private spaces is seen as dangerous because it may lead to sexual impropriety (154). Dating and courtship in public spaces are seen as safer, particularly for conserving the reputation young Indonesian women. Therefore Bluetooth connections via mobile technologies can be a tool to make private social connections between young men and women “safer”. Bluetooth communication via mobile phones has also become prevalent in more conservative Muslim societies (Sullivan, par. 7; Braude, par. 3). There are, however, safety concerns about meeting strangers in public spaces. When asked, “What advice would you give a first time BEDD user?” one respondent answered, “harus bisa mnilai seseorang krn itu sangat penting, kita mnilai seseorang bukan cuma dari luarnya” (translated: be careful in evaluating (new) people, and don’t ever judge the book by its cover”). Nevertheless, only one person participating in this study mentioned this concern. To some degree meeting someone in a public may be safer than meeting someone in an online environment. Not only are there other people around in public spaces to physically observe, but co-location means there may be some accountability for how BEDD members present themselves.

The development and adoption of matchmaking services such as BEDD suggests that the role of the mobile phone in Indonesia is not just to communicate with friends and family but to act as a modern social networking tool as well. For young Indonesians BEDD can facilitate the transfer of social information so as to encourage the development of new social ties. That said, there is still debate about exactly whom BEDD is connecting and for what purposes. On one hand, BEDD could help build community in Indonesia. One the other hand, because of its privacy it could become a tool for more promiscuous activities (Bennett 154-5). There are user profiles to suggest that people are using BEDD for both purposes. For example, note what four young women in Jakarta wrote in the BEDD profiles:

Personal Description Looking For
I am a good prayer, recite the holy book,
love saving (money), love cycling… and a bit narcist.
Meaning of life
Ordinary gurl, good student, single, Owen
lover, and the rest is up to you to judge.
Phrenz ?! Peace?! Wondeful life!
I am talkative, have no patience but so
sweet. I am so girly, narcist, shy and love cute guys. Check my fs
(Friendster) account if you’re so curious. Well, I am just an ordinary girl
Anybody who wants to know me. A boy
friend would be welcomed.
Play Station addict—can’t live without
it! I am a rebel, love rock, love hiphop, naughty, if you want proof dial
phrenz n cute guyz

As these profiles suggest, the technology can be used to send different kinds of messages. The mobile phone and the BEDD software merely facilitate the process of social exchange, but what Indonesians use it for is up to them. Thus BEDD and the mobile phone become tools through which Indonesians can explore their identities. BEDD can be used in a variety of social and communicative contexts to allow users to explore their modern, social freedoms.

Mobile Pornography


Mobile phone pornography builds on a long tradition of pornography and sexually explicit material in Indonesia through the use of a new technology for an old art and product. Indonesia has a rich sexual history with a documented and prevalent sex industry (Suryakusuma 115). Lesmana suggests that the country has a tenuous pornographic industry prone to censorship and nationalist politics intent on its destruction. Since the end of the New Order and opening of press freedoms there has been a proliferation in published material including a mushrooming of tabloids, men’s magazines such as FHM, Maxim and Playboy, which are often regarded as pornographic. This is attributed to the decline of the power of the bureaucracy and government and the new role of capital in the formation of culture (Chua 16). There is a parallel pornography industry, however, that is more amateur, local, and homemade (Barker 6). It is into this range of material that mobile phone pornography falls.

Amongst the myriad forms of pornography and sexually explicit material available in Indonesia, the mobile phone in recent years has emerged as a new platform for production, distribution, and consumption. This section will not deal with the ethics of representation nor engage with the debate about definitions and the rights and wrongs of pornography. Instead what will be shown is how the mobile phone can be and has been used as an instrument/medium for the production and consumption of pornography within contemporary social relationships.


There are several technological features of the mobile phone that make pornography possible. As has already been noted the mobile phone has had a large adoption rate in Indonesia, and increasingly these phones come equipped with cameras and the ability to send data via MMS and Bluetooth. Coupled with the mobility of the phone, the convergence of technology in the mobile phone makes it possible for pornography to be produced and consumed in a different way than what has been possible before. It is only recently that the mobile phone has been marketed as a video camera with the release of the Nokia N90; however, quality and recording time are severely limited. Still, the mobile phone is a convenient and at-hand tool for the production and consumption of individually made, local, and non-professional pieces of porn, sex and sexuality.

It is impossible to know how many such films are in circulation. A number of websites that offer these films for downloads host between 50 and 100 clips in .3gp file format, with probably more in actual circulation. At the very least, this is a tenfold increase in number compared to the recent emergence of non-professional VCD films (Barker 3). This must in part be attributed to the advantages that the mobile phone has over standard video cameras including cost, mobility, convergence, and the absence of intervening data processing and disc production.


There are various examples of mobile pornography in Indonesia. These range from the pornographic text message sent between lovers to the mobile phone video of explicit sexual acts (Barendregt 14-5). The mobile phone affords privacy for the production and exchange of pornographic messages and media. Because mobile devices are individually owned, however, pornographic material found on mobile phones can be directly tied to the individual owners. For example, police in Kotabaru inspected the phones of high school students in search of pornographic materials and arrested those individuals on whose phones it was found (Barendregt 18).

Mobile phone pornography became a national political issue in 2006 when an explicit one-minute clip of a singer and an Indonesian politician became public. Videoed in 2004, the clip shows Maria Eva, a 27 year-old dangdut singer (see Browne, 25-6) and Yahya Zaini, a married 42 year-old who was head of religious affairs for the Golkar political party. Their three-year affair ended in 2005, but the film did not become public until 2006. It spread like wildfire between phones and across the internet, however, and put an otherwise secret relationship into the limelight.

These types of affairs and relationships were common knowledge to people through gossip, exposes such as Jakarta Undercover (Emka 93-108) and stories in tabloids; yet this culture of adultery and prostitution continued and remained anonymous because of bureaucratic control of evidence and information (Suryakusuma 115). In this case, however, the filming of Maria Eva once public proves the identities of those involved and their infidelity. As a result of the scandal it was further revealed that Maria Eva had been forced by Yayha Zaini and his wife to have an abortion, deepening the moral crisis. Yahya Zaini later resigned as his party’s head of Religious Affairs (Asmarani, sec. 1-2), due to what was called the country’s “first real sex scandal” (Naughton, par. 2).

As these examples show, there are definite risks and consequences involved in the production of mobile pornography. Even messages/media that are meant to be shared between two consenting individuals can eventually make their way into the public mobile realm and have serious consequences for those involved. Mobile video and photography does, however, represent a potential new check on the Indonesian bureaucratic elite which has not been previously available by other means such as a watchdog media. “The role of the press as a control mechanism is practically nonexistent [in Jakarta], which in effect protects corruption, nepotism, financial manipulation, social injustice, and repression, as well as the murky sexual life of the bureaucratic power elite,” (Suryakusuma 117). Thus while originally a mobile video may have been created for personal pleasure, through its mass dissemination via new media it can become a means of sousveillance (Mann, Nolan and Wellman 332-3) whereby the control of surveillance is flipped to reveal the often hidden abuses of power by officials.

Whilst the debates over pornography in Indonesia tend to focus on the moral aspects of it, the broader social impacts of technology on relationships are often ignored. Issues related to power relations or even media as cultural expression are often disregarded as moral judgments cast a heavy shadow over discussions of locally produced Indonesian mobile pornography. It is possible to move beyond the moral critique of pornographic media to explore the social significance of its proliferation as a cultural product.


In these two case studies we have tried to show how the mobile phone in Indonesia has become a mode of interaction but also a platform through which to explore other current issues and debates related to dating, sexuality and media. Since 1998 and the fall of the New Order, Indonesia has been struggling with blending old and new, a desire of change and nostalgia for past, and popular desire for a “New Indonesia” (Heryanto, sec. Post-1998). Cultural products within Indonesia have played an important role in exploring these issues. The mobile phone in Indonesia is not just a technology, but also a product in and through which these desires are played out. Changes in dating and pornography practices have been occurring in Indonesia for some time. As people use mobile technology to produce, communicate, and consume, the device becomes intricately related to identity struggle and cultural production within Indonesia.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that while mobile technology adoption within Indonesia is growing, it is still limited to a particular subset of the population. As has been previously observed (Barendregt 3), it is wealthier, young people in urban areas who are most intensely involved in mobile technology. As handset prices decrease and availability in rural areas increases, however, no longer will mobile technology be so demographically confined in Indonesia.

The convergent technology of the mobile phone opens many possibilities for creative adoption and usage. As a communication device it allows for the creation, sharing, and viewing of messages. Therefore, the technology itself facilitates social connections and networking. As demonstrated in the cases of dating and pornography, the mobile phone is both a tool for meeting new people and disseminating sexual messages/media because it is a networked technology. The mobile phone is not fundamentally changing dating and pornography practices, but it is accelerating social and cultural trends already underway in Indonesia by facilitating the exchange and dissemination of messages and media. As these case studies show, what kinds of messages Indonesians choose to create and share are up to them. The same device can be used for relatively innocuous behavior as well as more controversial behavior. With increased adoption in Indonesia, the mobile will continue to be a lens through which to further explore modern socio-political issues.

Author Biographies

Lee Humphreys


Thomas Barker