Re-Engineerig Talk

While the protests were relatively meager compared with similar ones in North Africa and the rest of the Arab world, there has been immense activity on Twitter and Facebook.
These websites provided a platform for people to express their thoughts, emotions, as well as communicate to others in any part of the world without worrying about possible side effects (of involvement) like injuries and teagas.

But during political uprisings, it is even more helpful for journalists, both professionally, and personally – in case of injuries.
“It is becoming more and more obvious that journalists who don’t tweet today are the [year] 2000 equivalent of journalists who insisted on using typewriters [and/] or rejected email,” wrote Simon Kaheru on his blog.
“But they are not just for journalists; Tweeter and Facebook should be considered tools of work for almost all professions – especially the politicians who made the hashtag #walk2work useful for me today. I believe Nobert Mao sent a couple of tweets, but he lost the plot by not handing his phone to a sharp, young assistant to stay ten metres away and keep up the tweeting…” he explained.

FACEBOOK: The African perspective According to Alexa statistics, Facebook is one of the top two most visited sites in most African countries. The social networking site has been witnessing high growth rates on the continent and so it is not surprising that Africa is Facebook’s fastest growing continent according to Facebook analytics site, Social Bakers.

In many parts of the continent, user numbers have doubled in the last seven months. Egypt is currently Africa’s leading country by number of Facebook users with about 6.8 million users and an 8.5% penetration rate. The country is followed closely by South Africa, Morocco and Nigeria which have a 3.7 million, 3.3 million and 3.0 million userbase respectively. Nigeria’s Facebook adoption rate is an interesting case though as despite its high user base relative to other African countries, its Facebook penetration rate is quite low at 1.97%. Facebook is however the country’s most visited site according to Alexa.

Given the high mobile phone subscription rate in some regions in Africa, Facebook has focused heavily on mobile for its user adoption strategy. Facebook’s Head of International Business Development, Christian Hernandez, noted this in a recent conversation with Balancing Act Africa when he said, “We know mobile is an important tool to drive engagement and in developing countries we start with mobile.”
Despite the fast growth rates in Africa, according to Social Bakers, overall, the continent has a Facebook penetration rate of about 3.06%, the lowest of all regions in the world. As such, there is substantial room for user growth rates in Africa.

The “Artificial” Conversations I didn’t give much thought to it until a couple of weeks ago, but The Wall on Facebook is pretty much a dual-purpose entity. It serves as a linear narrative of all its members’ activities, sort of like a three dimensional pin-up board where messages, conversations and external links are posted and commented upon; these comments and conversations transform The Wall into a ‘real-time’ interactive space.
As Facebook evolves, and with it its league of users, we have come to see the changing dynamics of conversations online. One-on-one conversations are slowly overtaken by a lot of posts: videos, comics, audio and music clips, images and personal photographs, and predominantly, news links which are topical. Secondly, commenting has received a huge fillip via Facebook. The presence of the ‘comment’ button is an ‘incentive’ to use it, to speak your mind, make your presence felt and contribute to the Facebook universe of one-liners or mini-thesis.

Facebook is all about transparency and the ensuing culture of participation that underpins open systems. If you are open about your life, you engage with people more often and gradually post increasingly greater bytes of information as well as the minutiae of your life. You feel the minutiae carry relevance or ‘value’ on the message board as seen by the anticipation and eagerness with which we reserve for responses, comments and the ubiquitous ‘Like(s)’. Could there also be an ‘obligatory’ response stimuli engineered in the whole process? A friend posts a link and we feel ‘obligated’ to acknowledge its presence.

Critically, it has given rise to a new breed of conversationalist: the lurker (to borrow from Prabhas Pokharel – The Right to Lurk post). Offline, you do have the odd person in the group who does most of the listening and chips in with a laugh or just nods her head during conversations. However, lurking as a defined ‘online’ behaviour, as characterized by consistent lack of engagement, is quite peculiar to the world of Facebook-like platforms. With multitudes of posts and links, lurkers engage with virtual material through the process of ‘observances’ aka non-engaging participation.

If obligation is the obverse, then the reverse asks equally relevant questions. What does it say about a system’s values when half the posts, comments and conversations pinned on the online board – The Wall – are subject to only being read, scrolled over or worst, manually hidden / deleted as if the words never existed? What sort of a system consciously engineers a space where a person’s output – her words, ideas, opinions – are not subject to a response. What are the implications of subscribing to and evolving towards a culture of inconsistent response to stimuli?

There is no barometer to measure and ascertain whether your presence is ‘valued’ in the ‘corporeal’ sense – you are present as a body on the other side of the screen, but only really represented through your posts, links and status updates. Offline, a look, gesture or nod conveys fully well a ‘response’. Similarly, when you post a status update, you essentially are ‘talking’ to an audience, the Facebook universe comprising your ’2889 friends’. Silence or deletions are not the usual responses to a ‘spoken’ word. How do you measure the impact of a ‘read’ or ‘Like’? In simple terms, I think Facebook does away with the offline value of ‘courtesy’.

Facebook users thrive in an environment where all personal remarks are subjected to increasing non-formal responses, either one-on-one or one-to-many communication. These non-formal responses are new, novel, disparate from the communications we engage in offline and thrive on their own codices of conducts. In effect, these responses are not taught or borrowed, but mutate over every epoch of usage – which could be a week of activity or a month on Facebook.

Facebook cloaks itself as a platform that is alive and teeming with people all engaged and interconnected with one another. What I see, however, is an aggregate service, which culls minutiae of all its users and archives it. I fear the sum total of all my contributions will just be a footnote in the vast archives of The Wall. I am wary of a future where my body of work ends up representing a lot of news, links, posts and Likes, with no recall value associated with most of the inputs; how many of us recall even 1/3rd of our activity or chatter on Facebook? Real conversations do, and should hold non-computational value, in our memories and in our evocations of them. Never mind, if I don’t know how many ‘Likes’ or ‘Comments’ those memories never receive.


Facebook boasts a stuggering 600 million users, while Twitter’s 200million. But in addition to the social aspects, the two websites present product vendors and service providers with opportunities to reach out to such great numbers in targeted parts of the world. For news websites that make money through

advertising, revenue is generated (almost) instantly as the links shared through the tweets directly drive visitors to their websites, thereby generating impressions.
That is, however different for other product vendors who do not directly benefit from traffic on their websites.
Twitter, in particular, is no time waster. The fact that the tweets have to be 140 characters or less means users only post the title and link. Magically, everyone who wants to read details must follow the link provided. That might be a potential client.

In October 2010, Wired Magazine published a report suggesting that Twitter can predict the stock market.
“The emotional roller coaster captured on Twitter can predict the ups and downs of the stock market, a new study finds. Measuring how calm the Twitterverse is on a given day can foretell the direction of changes to the Dow Jones Industrial Average three days later with an accuracy of 86.7 percent,” wrote Wired’s Lisa Grossman.
The research was carried out by Johan Bollen, a computational social scientist at Indiana University – Bloomington.
According to Wired, Bollen and grad student Huina Mao stumbled on this computational crystal ball almost by accident. Earlier studies had found that blogs can be used to gauge public mood, and that tweets about movies can predict box office sales. An open source mood-tracking tool called OpenFinder sorts tweets into positive and negative bins based on emotionally charged words.
Wanting to build a more nuanced emotional barometer, Bollen used a standard psychology tool called the Profile of Mood States, a quick questionnaire that is used frequently in pharmaceutical research or sports medicine.

The original questionnaire asked people to rate how closely their feelings match 72 different adjectives, including “friendly,” “peeved,” “active,” “on edge” and “panicky,” and uses the responses to measure mood along six dimensions: calmness, alertness, sureness, vitality, kindness and happiness.
As a sanity check, the researchers looked at the public mood on some easily-predictable days, like Election Day 2008 and Thanksgiving. The results were as expected: Twitter was anxious the day before the election, and much calmer, happier and kinder on Election Day itself, though all returned to normal by Nov. 5. On Thanksgiving, Twitter’s “Happy” score spiked.
Then, just to see what would happen, the researcher compared the national mood to the Dow Jones Industrial Average. She found that one emotion, calmness, lined up surprisingly well with the rises and falls of the stock market — but three or four days in advance.


Not everything that takes place on these platforms is entirely nice. They sometimes host hate campaigns against groups or individuals in society.
Amid the public anger over rising food and fuel prices, the police office who arrested opposition leader, Dr. Kiiza Besigye found himself on the wrong side of the people power, when he was subjected to a hate campaign, both in local newspapers and online.

Gilbert Arinaitwe was forced to deactivate his Facebook account just hours after the arrest, as pictures and videos started circulating in Ugandan chatrooms.
A Facebook page named “Abuse Gilbert Arinaitwe Bwana” (see picture below) was created, accumulating over 1000 “likes” per day, and numerous comments per minute from angry Ugandans.
Earlier in 2010, Pages running hate campaigns against gays, including the account of a senior Ugandan Pastor had to be shut down by Facebook after complaints from users.
Pastor Martin Ssempa is known for his strong stance against homosexuality, and was utilizing his very popular Facebook account as a platform.
But in a more recent development, Darron Gibson, a Manchester United footballer had to close his Twitter account (@dgibbo28) — just hours after creating it—following a string of abussive messages from supposed Manchester United fans about his style of play.


The networking power of these websites poses a potential threat to unpopular regimes as seen in North Africa. Some governments have been attempting to regulate their usage, Uganda being the latest of such.


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