The revolution will be tweeted

30 January 2012 - 03:28 By Toby Shapshak
Toby Shapshak. Stuff editor. File photo.
Toby Shapshak. Stuff editor. File photo.
Image: Times LIVE

The revolution is being tweeted. But it's not the revolution you're thinking about. Though Twitter played a prominent role in last year's Arab Spring uprisings - but not quite as prominent as it was made out to be by a keenly observing outside world - it's the increasingly rapid connectivity shift embodied in cellphones that we're witnessing.

The revolution I am talking about is the technology revolution that is fuelling a communications revolution. Twitter is accessed 60% of the time on a mobile device, according to a survey, reinforcing the mobile-first nature of our continent.

The majority of users are young and two-thirds of them are looking for news. And that is good news for freedom of information and democracy. And bad news for dictators and restrictive governments.

The first survey of Twitter use in Africa revealed how widespread it is: 11.5-million tweets sent in the last three months of the year, according to the How Africa Tweets report by Portland Communications.

Not surprisingly, South Africa, with the largest economy and most mature mobile market, showed the most tweets, with 5million. It was followed by Kenya (2.4million), Nigeria (1.6million) and Egypt (1.2million).

There was a nice happy glow about Twitter and its new role as a news and information disseminator for all of two days. Then Twitter shot itself in the foot and announced, proudly, that it had found the technical ability to delete tweets on a country-by-country basis, instead of only globally as before.

As bad timing goes, it came a day after the anniversary of Egypt's Tahrir Square-centred revolt, in which Twitter played a prominent role (at least to the watching world, but more of that in a moment) and seemingly contrary to Twitter's own Dune-inspired rallying cry at the time that "the tweets must flow".

Before anyone could yell "censorship" the #TwitterCensored hashtag was trending on Saturday. This situation will continue to play itself out like Google's self-censorship-wracked foray into China and other tech firms' tussles with censorship issues.

Additionally, Twitter's role in last year's Arab Spring was a mite overplayed, as its CEO Dick Costolo admitted when I asked him about it last February at the Mobile World Congress, in Barcelona.

"The current events [in Egypt and Tunisia] are a little bit different than how it was used in Iran and how its use was perceived in Iran. There was certainly an amplification outside Iran [about Twitter's role]. That's a perfectly valid point," he told me.

There are a few subtexts in this Twitter in Africa usage that need to be unpacked.

First, the rise in Twitter use is mostly due to cellphones - 57% of tweets were sent from cellphones, say Portland, using monitoring software called Tweetminster.

Second, those would have to be smartphones, able to access the internet or use the plethora of Twitter apps - meaning both that there are more of these more powerful handheld computers and greater penetration will increase internet use.

Africa already has more cellphones than computers and as smartphones proliferate they will drive access to information, internet services such as banking and e-commerce, mobile commerce (not just M-Pesa), and general communication (including e-mail and social media).

Third, 60% of the most active tweeters were between 20 to 29 years old (compared to the global Twitter average of 39). The young are always more active adopters of technology and, with most of Africa's population under 30, there are going to be more and more youngsters online. They are the ones likely to ferment revolutions if they find themselves jobless, disgruntled and restless, as those in the Arab Spring did. Also consider that an estimated 14% of the world's population lives in Africa.

Fourth, Twitter is being used for finding news (68% of those polled) and finding jobs (22%). I think of Twitter as an intelligent RSS feed - like the automatic Really Simple Syndication service used by websites, but intelligently filtered by real people with a real sense of what's newsworthy, or interesting, or just plain fascinating.

However, lest we forget, SMS is still the dominant form of mobile communication, used by 4.2billion people in 2010 who sent an estimated 6.1trillion texts. And it works on every single cellphone, of which there are said to be 649million in Africa.

Thursday was the day of the launch of Corruption Watch (corruption.org.za) in South Africa, cleverly using both SMS (45142) and Twitter (twitter.com/corruption_SA) to report corruption - a significant development in South Africa's democracy.

Combine all this with a youth market eager for opportunities and jobs, hungry for news, able to use technology to their benefit, tired of the old, sometimes corrupt order; with the lack of censorship online and the future looks a little brighter for Africa, which The Economist last year relabelled "the hopeful continent".

  • Shapshak (twitter.com/shapshak) is editor of Stuff magazine
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