by Gregory Solik
I recently received a Facebook message from my 78yr old grandmother notifying me that she watched me speak live via Ustream last Friday at the launch of the Open Data and Democracy Initiative. She said that she watched online through Ustream’s video portal and that she hoped that I was well. She didn’t mention that I have failed to respond to her request to play online scrabble through a Facebook app. But she did say that she was happy to see that I had lost some weight.
My topic this afternoon, is on new media perspectives: and whether social media can enhance meaningful participation in democracy. I wonder about the proverbial woman that Steven Friedman spoke about yesterday and the kind of virtual conversation that she would have with my grandmother.
Who uses Facebook? As of January 2012 there are 4.8 million Facebook users in South Africa- 9.1% of users online have a Facebook account. If we break that number down, we could safely say that half are under the age of 25 and about three quarters are under the age of 35. So roughly 1.6 million people at best, over the age of 35 (this is an extreme estimate) use Facebook. And for what? Is Facebook social media?
What is social media? What is the difference between different platforms and how does it tie in with new media? Why is everyone so excited about social media? What do we hope for when we talk about “meaningful” participation? Will social media enhance it? I think a good place to start is by clarifying a few concepts.
First, new media is a broad term that speaks to interaction on any digital device, as well as interactive user feedback, creative participation and community formation around the media content.A promise of new media is the “democratization” of the creation, publishing, distribution and consumption of media content.We have seen this with the rise of bloggers for example, or celebrity tweeters – anyone with internet access can publish their thoughts and circumvent the need for publishing approval and publishing costs, and the success, or popularity of the content is determined by people from around the world. In other words, another aspect of new media is the real-time generation of new, unregulated content.
Humans have always created social networks (like sports clubs and book clubs for example) and so when the internet finally became powerful enough we were all able to build digital networks and communities that are no longer restricted by geography.
So what is the most powerful social media forum in SA?
Twitter, for example we are often led to believe (and advocated by the Hounourable Mahlangu, Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces), is an avenue for engagement. Is that true? Well, I looked at The Parliament of RSA’s twitter handle, which has 5112 followers that’s .001% of the population. Just over 1000 tweets. I looked to see what was trending this morning: #SheLeftYouBecause was trending just behind #pplpower. The most popular tweet, which was retweeted 7957 time was, “your D was too small”. I think that reveals something quite big. That social networks are exactly that, social – and the most popular topics of discussion? Dating and relationships; sex and sports. And that people talk about platforms quite loosly, without understanding the nature of the platform, or the limits of its offerings.
Through my user experience of Facebook, and by looking at the statistics of twitter, it becomes clear that the twin pillars of social media, twitter and Facebook, offer very little, as it stands, for engagement or discussion – never mind political engagement. Would you agree?
What are the other platforms? Do Pinterest, Flickr, Youtube, Ustream sound familiar? Perhaps the more important question is: what is the most popular social media platform in South Africa? It is Mxt. And how many users do They have? In 2011 Mxit had 10 million active users. And the make up of that group? Mostly young. And how do they access Mxit?
Web 3.0 is the mobile web: With mobile technology we have the ability to capture, create and send content instantly from almost anywhere in the world. Fifty-nine percent of South Africans have access to the Internet in some way. Twenty-seven percent access the online world on their cellphones, 5% on their PC, laptop or tablet, and 27% on both. More than 29 million South Africans have access to mobile phones. Parliament’s strategic plan is to build an effective people’s Parliament that is responsive to the needs of people and that is driven by the ideal of realizing a better quality of life of all people in South Africa. Simply Sending emails to their constituency’s probably isn’t going to get very far.
The upshot of this is that there are serious limitations of the potential of new media to facilitate meaningful engagement in South Africa. Instead, the corollary is that it opens avenues not for engagement, but avenues for abuse of power; for disseminating and shaping information, not discussion; for new markets to emerge (often packaged around seductive concepts like innovation and entrepreneurship), with opportunities for those with privilege and power to further exploit; a newness which displaces traditional, and so on.
If we are going to maximize technology advancements, including social media, we need to take a systems approach that ensures democratic spaces. And these spaces must be defined by accurate, easily accessible and usable information, including access to data. These spaces have to understand the resource constraints and otherwise of users in South Africa.
And the only way all of this will become meaningful is if we have an active citizenry. A citizenship that has faith in forums, traditional or technological. Without informed citizens who operate within a vibrant constitutional democracy, new media will become a new avenue for exploitation that will only widen the gap between the have and the have nots.Tags: Greg Solik, Open Data and Democracy Initiative, Social media, Uncategorized