I once asked my first year undergraduate students to stay away from social media (including WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc) for 24 hours and write an essay about their experience and lessons learned. I found one student's commentary particularly interesting. She said she is increasingly finding face to face communication superficial and less pleasant than communication on social media. "In my online space", she wrote, "I can afford to be myself, share my stories and the part of my life I am comfortable about sharing and keep the part I am not comfortable enough to share."
Now, social media is rapidly becoming a part of everyday cultures for young Africans. Rise in mobile telephony in Nigeria in particular, and Africa in general has boosted connection to social media. In January 2015, 76% of webpage views in Nigeria were accessed via mobile devices. With the proliferation of cheap, Asian-made smart phones, the future of social media in Africa looks even brighter. But what are the implications? Or more specifically, what are the impacts of social media revolution on the much vaunted communitarian values of Africans? Historically Africa has been seen as rich in communitarian values and dense social ties. There is also, historically, a strong oral culture in Africa – which is one of the reasons radio has over the years been the most popular medium across Africa. Indeed radio has been used as a key tool for development, peacebuilding and social transformation even in violently divided societies. There have been several successful transformational radio projects in crises states, notably Fondation Hirondelle's Radio Okapi in the DRC, Radio Miraya in South Sudan, among others. Gradually, however, radio is making way for the new world of social media. The opportunities are limitless as internet access increases along with cheaper smart phones.
Social media draws on the uniquely strong social ties in Africa. It is not uncommon to see friends and families exchange pleasantries several times a day or someone calling or texting a friend just to say 'thank you' for a favor done the previous day or even the previous week. It is also not uncommon for someone to call extended family members and friends to seek counsel concerning a decision that may appear mundane to non-Africans – such as what church to attend, where to rent a house or buy a plot of land, which school to enroll their children in, who to get married to, etc. Facebook thus provides a quasi-crowdsourcing sphere for counsel from friends, families and sometimes religious leaders. It also provides an agency for storytelling – telling personal stories and that of close others.
Gradually, but surely, social ties are moving from physical to virtual spaces in Africa. New media is not only providing a place for connecting and making friends, sharing visuals and passing on information, it is also providing a medium for self-expression for many young Africans. In a culture where young people are forced to silently submit to elders and authorities, this is significant. More importantly, social media is also providing an agency for young Africans to be more politically engaged, to form alliances and agitate for good governance and accountability from political elites.
There is a revolution going on in Africa, but it will not be reported in the local or international news tonight. Just as the new Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press in 15th century Europe unraveled the hegemony of priests and absolute monarchs, social media is opening up a new revolutionary sphere for Africa's young and vibrant population. The 2011 Arab spring and the social media-driven campaign of President Muhammadu Buhari were clues to the infinite possibilities of social media in Africa. The days of corrupt leadership and impunity in Africa are numbered. On the other hand, extremists now have more exponential tools with which they can reach out and influence multitudes. A recent research article I co-published explores how Boko Haram insurgents use the mobile phone as a force multiplier and the Nigerian military’s rather absurd response.
Dr. Jacob Udo-Udo Jacob is Chair of Multimedia/Digital Journalism at American University of Nigeria