Love them or hate them, Facebook and Twitter are threatening to become our country’s most-used means of communication. But how does social media impact on our everyday lives?
There’s no escaping social media. Even if you don’t Tweet yourself, you’ll know people who do – frequently, and maybe even while you’re trying to hold a conversation with them, tapping at their mobile phones with frowns of concentration lining their faces. Or maybe you’re the frowner and tapper, making Facebook arrangements to meet a friend for a coffee, sharing important news or lining up a business deal. One way or another, most of us are being touched by the phenomenon.
The statistics are convincing. According to Communications Commission of Kenya estimates, the number of Kenyans using the Internet has soared from 2 million in 2007 to about 17 million this year.
The majority of Internet subscribers use it via mobile phones. Nearly 30 million Kenyans (about three-quarters of the population) own a mobile handset, which means that perhaps a quarter of those phones are used for Internet access – to surf the Internet, but also to access emails and use social media. The revolution, indeed, is beginning in bytes and soundbites.
There is huge enthusiasm in Kenya for using the Internet to communicate. Blogging has not only become a much-loved form of individual expression, it’s also been embraced by corporates as a vital segment of their communications strategies. Text messaging is still the norm: more than 4 billion SMS messages were sent in the last financial year – up 62.5% on 2010/11. That’s about 12 messages each month from every phone subscriber.
But social media is really exploding. Facebook is still the most popular platform, with about 1.5 million users. Tumblr is picking up slowly. But it’s Twitter that is capturing the imagination of hordes of Kenyans. A survey published earlier this year by Portland Communications found that, in the last three months of 2011, Kenyans sent nearly 2.5 million Tweets – nearly a quarter of all Twitter activity in Africa, second only to South Africa.
But what’s it used for? Part of the Portland survey asked that question of 500 of Africa’s most active Twitter users – and found that 80% of those polled used it mainly for communicating with friends. But more than two-thirds also use Twitter to monitor news, and over a quarter use it to search for job opportunities.
The survey noted that business and political leaders were mostly conspicuous by their absence from the Twitter debate – though again Kenya is different, with politicians becoming much more vocal on Twitter in an attempt to win over voters. Candidates such as Martha Karua, Peter Kenneth and Raila Odinga are actively pushing their agendas.
So, as some armchair analysts predict, will social media be the new battleground in the upcoming elections? And could social media be a force for change in society – as was demonstrated by the Arab Spring?
Agatha Juma, CEO of Kenya Tourism Federation, isn’t convinced. “Twitter is full of middle-class yuppies who do nothing beyond yap. Sure, they might help bring Zack back home, or maybe send an M-PESA to help an ailing boxer [Conjestina Achieng]. But beyond that we can’t take any action.”
Conversely, Leonard Mudachi – Director of Blanco’s Holdings, and very active on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn – is hopeful. “It’s a snowball effect,” he affirms. “As the number of users increases, change will come through social media.”
Blogger Jacque Ndinda (http://inkdrops.me) is optimistic. “We, as a country, are a frustrated bunch,” she says. “But we have realised that we have a new avenue to vent our frustrations, and even the politicians are turning to social media – that should tell you something about its influence now.”
Dorothy Ghettuba, a TV producer with Spielworks Media, disagrees: “I doubt it will make a difference. The users of social media, the middle class, are pretty apathetic when it comes to political and governance issues.”
Maybe so, but Lenny Nganga, CEO of Saracen OMD Media, thinks of it more as semantics: “Transforming elections? No. Influencing them? Maybe. But note that the vast majority of our voters are rural and hence not yet active on these forums.”
Away from politics, there are concerns that time spent on social media could impact on personal – as opposed to virtual – interactions. Psychologist Joe Omollo, of Crossway Psychological and Psychometrics Institute, thinks we should be concerned.
“Direct contact is waning among the young. The older generation are OK because they aren’t too techy, but the younger generation are heading towards social ineptitude. Their isolation is getting worse and social skills are not going to get developed.”
It’s also concerning when you see couples sitting together but, rather than looking at each other, they’re tapping away at their phones.
“That may be true,” says Mudachi, “But I also think content obtained from social media stimulates conversation on a wide range of topics.”
Perhaps, when all is said and done, we just need to remember the original purpose of Twitter, Facebook and their ilk. As social media consultant Jay Baer says: “Focus on how to be social, not on how to do social.”