Question: Can you briefly tell us about yourself?
I am a Tanzanian with a legal background but I have a great interest in Web 2.0 ,which is a combination of the technology allowing nearly people to contribute and actually interact with the information before them. I am currently involved with Bongoline.
Q: Please tell us more about Bongoline
Bongoline is a new online community for Tanzanians. We are building a fantastic community of Tanzanians from a wide range of backgrounds in our groups, events, photos, videos, music, library, blogs, forums, marketplace, chat, etc. We publish and discuss contents on a wide range of issues that affect the Tanzanian community.
Bongoline allows members to organize themselves around relationships or interests, rather than that just focused on topic. Members that know each other (or want to meet each other) will connect by a variety of common interests. Bongoline has great tools to get members of like interest to connect to each other and share information.
Q: How are you involved with Bongoline?
I am the founder of Bongoline. I created Bongoline in July 2009 as a blog. However, later I became more interested into creating something different that would allow readers to actually interact with the web pages more like you would do with an application on your laptop. Something that would allow Tanzanians to actually interact with each other and share information more easily than they would do in the traditional media. Something that revolves much more around the ability of a Tanzanian to build a web presence and to create visible links with other Tanzanians in the network. Therefore, in July 2010, I transformed Bongoline to a completely social network focusing more on building and reflecting social relations among Tanzanians.
Q: How would you describe the current state of social media in Tanzania?
One could say that many Tanzanians are now using social media such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs. However, the number is not that high when compared with the developed world where the Internet is readily available or with other African countries such as Egypt and South Africa. For example, by 11 December 2010, there were only 194,920 Tanzanians on Facebook. It is also difficult to tell whether these users were actually living in Tanzania or in the Diaspora.
However, Tanzanians are increasingly using the social media to share all kind of information including video and photographic content, to keep in touch, to be kept up to date on politics, entertainment news and gossips. Many Tanzanians are blogging on issues pertaining to their interests. Local companies and media organisations are increasingly using various social media platforms to interact better with their customers and readers. Therefore, although the majority of Tanzanians are not currently using social media, the future looks promising.
Q: What are the main obstacles for individuals or organisations planning on using social media in the country?
Among the main obstacles are poverty, the scarcity and prohibitive costs of high speed internet connections and the limited number of personal computers in use. The Internet is mainly available in urban areas. Many rural areas don’t even have electricity. However, many Tanzanians are now using mobile phones to access the Internet, particularly social media sites. The widespread availability of mobile phones means that the mobile web can reach more people than the wired web. However, there still a long way to go.
Q: Tanzanians went to the polls last October. Can you tell us how social media tools were used during the campaigns and immediately after the elections?
During the campaigns, most candidates only toured towns and villages. Very few moved the contest online, posting campaign updates on Twitter and Facebook. There were bloggers blogging on the elections campaigns. Some bloggers were either candidates themselves or were blogging in favour of political parties or certain candidates. Others bloggers were neutral just reporting on the campaigns and election results.
However, it is important to note that the actual role of social media is not really about helping candidates interacting with voters, but voters interacting with each other. The whole idea of Web 2.0, and hence, the social media is about horizontal flow of information between citizens. So, during the campaigns, people were discussing and exchanging information in the form of video clips, photos, blogging, forum discussions, news, etc.
Q: Did politicians or political parties use social media differently from cyberactivists?
The primary benefit of having a social media presence is the ability to reach a wide range of like-minded people quickly and without much effort – social media is viral by nature – and to engage with followers and fans on a personal, one-to-one level. However, I think very few politicians did actually use social media. There were few who used social media such as YouTube to enable faster communications by voters. Most of the information arrived at the social media sites after it has already been published by the traditional media.
Candidates and parties did not ruthlessly exploit the outreach potential of social media to get their messages across for the right reasons. For example, parties and candidates were not promoting social media presence on the homepages of their websites, thereby missing a simple way to grow their online communities and seize greater control of the online debate.
Q: What were specific political functions that blogs, twitter, facebook, online forums served during the campaigns?
They all acted as a source of information and discussions. They showed us that the old days where politicians got away with the occasional gaffe as long as the mainstream media did not pick up on it may be coming to an end. Some of the campaigning activities of political parties and candidates were recorded and posted almost instantly on these social media sites for others to see and hear.
Take for instance the status comments. When someone on Facebook posted an observation or political view on Facebook, his/her whole friend network had the potential to see it. If people commented back, not only did the original person received alerts, but also everyone who commented on it did receive an alert as well. All of a sudden, what was thought about the process could be expressed and discussed more easily with much larger groups of people. Breaking down the physical and geographic barriers had huge implications, as we are not confined to hearing the prevailing beliefs of our particular corner of the world.
There were also some blogs, tweets, and online forums that appeared to be more open to discussing the elections and were not so galvanized. However, there were also some blogs, tweets, and online forums that were either preaching for or against certain political parties or candidates
Q: Did the use of social media influence the way people voted? (what was the general impact?)
Social media may have considerable potential to reach, engage and influence the thinking and behaviour of voters. However, it is difficult to measure if a particular candidate benefited from use of social media to attract more voters. This is because social media is interactive and requires an affirmative action on the part of the users, as opposed to a passive response from the traditional media users. It is therefore not surprising that the candidates would have to be someone people want to touch and interact with.
It is also important to note that social media users are not ducks. If you try to direct them to think in one way, you will rapidly discover that they are much more like cats, opinionated and indifferent to your needs; and that you cannot herd them. I felt that the majority of the voters in Tanzania relied on the mainstream media to follow the election campaigns. Social media really was not so significant in Tanzania’s election race as far as influencing voters is concerned. That is not to say it did not have some impact of course.
Q: How would you describe the Tanzanian blogosphere and twittersphere at the moment? Do you consider it to be a new public sphere with influence?
There has been a growth of blogs across the country dealing with specific to general issues. Blogging is becoming more and more popular to many Tanzanians. There are very good blogs out there; constantly being updated with interesting information. However, some blogs are not regularly updated or are dormant which raises some questions about the reasons behind starting these blogs.
I think many people go into blogging thinking they are going to make money and do not take the time to write about something because they are passionate about it. Sadly, you will not make money the first day, week, month, or maybe even years when you first start blogging.
Blogging should be about your passion. You should love it, not loathe it. If you blog for money you will quickly lose faith, money should not be your goal. Your passion should flow through your blog and your readers should feel your passion. Clearly define your goals, define your passion and make sure people feel your passion. Your blog will be a place that people will want to hang out. It is in this way that the Tanzanian blogging community will become a new and an influential public sphere.
As far as the twittersphere is concerned, it gives potentially perfect real time feedback to any political event. Twittering can amplify the impact of an event. It can spread suppressed information and humorous rejections of the official line. Twittering may help Tanzanian journalists to engage in collaborative competition. However, twittering may neutralise the ability of the corporate media to transmit the dominant political ideology. In addition, many Tanzanians do not tweet. This may lead me to argue that twittering does not yet have public influence in Tanzania.
Q: In your opinion, could Tanzanians have used social media differently during the elections?
The biggest problem we had in the previous election was that few people turned up to vote. Although social media is generally used by the young, people who vote again and again are generally the old. I think social media could have been used to get the young people to vote. Barack Obama's wildly successful campaign in the United States used Facebook and Twitter to get people voting. However, this would not have been possible in Tanzania given the fact that still very few number of people use social media.
Q: What do you think is the future of social media and participatory democracy in Tanzania?
The trend indicates that social media is now becoming an essential weapon in the battle for people's hearts, minds and votes. Those who ignore it or are slow to engage will truly be left behind. Facebook, after launching Swahili version in May 2010, will offer free access to its platform to mobile phone users in many parts of Africa. In October 2010, Google started testing a new service called “Baraza” for Swahili speakers in East and Central Africa. This service will allow people to interact and share knowledge by asking and answering questions, many of them of only very local or regional interest.
Thus, we are at an interesting junction in history right now, and it is fascinating to see how social media is shaping other parts of the world. Our leaders should now start to take note of the strength of social media, although it is still very much in its infancy. Tanzanian programmers should also design and launch new home-grown social media platforms and tools that will keep the Tanzanian online conversation going and growing in the years ahead. This would help to make a difference by getting more people, especially young first-timers to register to vote.
Q: Back to your project, Bongoline. What are the future plans of Bongoline?
To be the most comprehensive and intuitive online community for Tanzanians both home and abroad. Bongoline will be easy to use, but at the same time will be full of great features and information alongside a friendly, welcoming community. Catering to our users and members, will be our priority – not attracting big advertisers and filling our site with information that is distracting and irrelevant.