I spent the last few weeks reconsidering social media and how to engage with it. Much of the science is out and I happen to agree: it is designed to prey on heightened emotions.
After Facebook was caught knowingly exploiting this feature amongst other ills of social media, they tried to reconfigure themselves to a new company, Meta, a brand name that they are bullying away from a woman. If that doesn’t tell you everything there is to know about the underlying philosophies of these new media, nothing will.
And yet, I still find myself a big fan of and proponent of social media, even though I haven’t quite figured out myself how to use them most wisely and to the best of my advantage. The beautiful thing is that there is a variety and they are not all created equal.
With over a decade under my belt now, I am a veteran. An older user as it were, perfectly content to let trends pass me by like SnapChat and TikTok — anything that might involve editing a movie can move right along. What I didn’t anticipate is the emergence of group talk facilities on social media and what that might do.
An aspect of social media that always gets corrupted, and fast, is the ‘social’ part of it. Platforms always start out with low barriers for entry and an openness to any individuals who care to learn how to use them and over time they do this thing called “monetizing” and almost invariably become obnoxious as a result. They also subtly raise the barriers to entry, which as a third-worlder I am always acutely aware of.
Podcasts are wonderful but they are like radio: you cannot interact with them, they are static. What if radio was open to the public through? Enter platforms like Twitter Spaces and Clubhouse, which depend on that kind of interaction to happen. In Tanzania these platforms have taken off quite spectacularly and had an impact in our politics that I would never have anticipated or even believed if I wasn’t watching it happen in real time.
The past few weeks have shown me what it looks like when a society is trying to go through a few decades’ worth of catharsis and conversation all at once. On paper, freedom of expression has been a right for a long time.
In reality, it is a right that Tanzanians are beginning to “rediscover” after a dramatic hiatus and reversal in our progression that ended with the passing of the late John Pombe Magufuli. I thought this wound was healing, I thought things were becoming exciting again as more humour and more information entered our public conversation, and issues rather than people became more topical.
What a serious underestimation of the healing process and the trauma that is being addressed.
In the lead-up to former Speaker Job Ndugai’s resignation, there was a sea change. Whereas formal politics used to be the niche interest of a few nerds, pundits, politicians and social commentators at present it is everybody’s obsession. We have absolutely exploded, at least in our conversations.
Job Ndugai resigned, then President Samia Suluhu made a speech, then the Cabinet got reshuffled and everybody has something to say about it. I mean: everybody.
Offline, in real life, our conversations have gotten more interesting to be sure. But the rules of acceptable behaviour apply here and we put quite the emphasis on politeness and a certain carefulness that stifles much conversation. Our online life suffers few of these restrictions, and right now it is a glorious melee. Chaotic, interminable, organic conversations that build and destroy simultaneously.
While there is a lot of speculation, my personal interest is the conspiracy theories that are emerging. It is unimportant whether or not there is any truth to them, what is important is what we Tanzanians will allow ourselves to believe in. Dressed in the sheepskins of talking about tones used in speeches, whom was picked for what position and why, the psychological make-up of various opposition parties and even the odd attempt at blatant misinformation I have found distressing wolfish currents of religious and tribal schisms, horrific misogyny and the most intense belief in “shadowy powers” — some out and out believing in the supernatural.
Every five to 10 years I feel like I get to meet my country all over again, or perhaps I am just reminded that a lifetime is not long enough for the study of her. But with all this, and thanks to some very open and timely social media campaigns I have come to confirm a strong belief and hope that the powers that be understand that the time has come.
Whatever else we might be yelling about, we overwhelmingly want a new constitution.
And after years of media repression, this absolutely chaotic bloom of a movement came from, like a lump of coal compressed into an industrial diamond.
Elsie Eyakuze is a consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report: E-mail: [email protected]