How Nigerians Use Social Media, Tolu Ogunlesi
Perhaps, we should start with definitions, for those not really familiar with this “social media” of a thing. Facebook is like the rowdy village square, to which everyone manages to bring their family albums. Twitter feels somewhat like a social club in the big city, thriving on a certain level of sophistication and exclusivity. It’s not as instinctive, for many, as Facebook; you need to “get” it to get into it. Instagram is that glossy magazine (remember Ovation?) we buy, not only to glimpse the lives of the rich and famous, but also – because it’s the age of social media after all – to edit and publish images of “rich and famous” incarnations of our typically ordinary lives.
WhatsApp (pronounced “Wussup” by Nigerians) and BlackBerry Messenger need no introduction. 2Go may be unfamiliar to many of you, but is by some estimates the most widely used platform in Nigeria; especially among the 15 to 24 age group. The edge it has it that it is without elitism; it works on non-smartphones, which may explain its relative popularity.
One significant trend on social media here is the practice of impersonation. If you’re a prominent Nigerian – businessman, politician, religious leader, celebrity – it’s safe to assume that there’s at least one social media profile in existence that purports to be you. Someone once showed me, on his phone, an image of a series of tweets from a profile purporting to be Mr. Obasanjo. He genuinely believed those views – and they were pretty controversial – came from the former President. I had to pull up the Twitter handle on my own page and show him that the profile was in fact a “parody” account, and labelled as such.
In many cases, it’s very difficult to tell what’s genuine or not. For example, there’s a Wole Soyinka Twitter account that regularly gets shared, even though the Nobel laureate has repeatedly said he is not a social media user. There are countless Facebook profiles impersonating Customs officers and offering cars for sale at discounted prices; you don’t need an expert to tell you they’re scammers.
The Central Bank once had to put out a newspaper advert complaining about the hundreds of fraudulent handles existing in its name. Nollywood stars have also been frequent targets; with impersonators using their names and profiles to demand for money and sexual favours from an unsuspecting public. We’re after all the country that made Internet fraud a global phenomenon. Sooner or later we will need to find a way to get our laws and law enforcement agents to move one step ahead of the Internet and social media, instead of the 10 steps behind that is the default mode at the moment.
Another important trend has to do with the ability of social media to lubricate the engines of personal and commercial promotion. For artisans and small business owners it is a life-saver, allowing them to advertise cheaply and efficiently. The cook, the baker, the tailor, the plumber, the carpenter, the fabric seller – BBM and WhatsApp and Facebook and Instagram have become efficient little virtual offices that support everything from advertising to product innovation to delivery and feedback.
Beyond business, Nigerians are finding fascinating uses for social media on a personal promotional level. We are natural show-offs – you only need to listen to many church testimonies to realise that they are less about gratitude to God than about ‘performing’ a new-found status or position. And that part of us has translated very well to social media, so that on Facebook, and Instagram especially, we now all own our own testimony pulpits, from which we can trumpet our exploits to the world.
Social media indulge our bombastic tendencies to the fullest. You also have to remember that this is a country in which, for most of our history, what one might call truly mass media was in the hands of the government (think television and radio, until the liberalisation that began in the mid-1990s), and what was passed for private or independent wasn’t really ‘mass’ in its distribution (the newspapers, newsmagazines). It is into that context that social media have landed, offering us something truly liberating: mass media in which we’re not only consumers but also producers and distributors as well.
Another example of how social media allows us to adapt our traditions: Every one of us knows at least one person living well beyond their stated means – the civil servant whose garage would make a car dealer envious; the “businessman” or “contractor” who cannot point to any substantial project, but changes his Range Rover every year; the university student whose allowance cannot justify the slideshow of designer bags and holidays abroad. Go on Instagram and Facebook, and you will find us still celebrating questionable wealth with the same fervour as always. There’s nothing new about this part of us as Nigerians; as things were before the age of social media, so will they continue to be, in the worlds we inhabit in our shiny mobile devices.
One thing I should also highlight is the phenomenon of “second-hand” usage of social media. This is the act of participating in a social medium without actually being present on it. It’s been made possible by what is known as “screen-munching”, which refers to taking a picture of the screen of your mobile phone. With the ability to “screen-munch” or “screen-shot” – a second-hand social media market has emerged.
As long as you’re on BBM or WhatsApp – which I believe are the two most popular personal messaging tools in Nigeria – you can partake in a steady stream of munched shots from Twitter or Facebook or anywhere else on the Internet. That’s the context of the narrative above about the parody Obasanjo tweets. The man who shared them with me is not a Twitter user, but he was aware of those tweets because someone sent him a static, munched version that was even more misleading in its appearance than the live Twitter feed
In closing, my view is that social media are neutral, passive participants in the drama of human existence. We come to them as we are, and use them in ways unintended by those who created them. It’s a bit like what often happens in the pharmaceutical industry, where a drug ends up being useful for things other than originally planned or intended. (Viagra for example started out life, in the research phase, as a drug for hypertension and symptoms of heart disease; it was during clinical trials that the researchers realised it was actually more useful doing other things).
And this is how social media will continue to play out in Nigeria. If there’s anything we’re wired or conditioned to do as a people – ethical or otherwise – we will definitely find a way to press social media into the service of that behaviour. The problem, if any, will be us, not social media.
Meanwhile there are still a lot of skeptics, and nose-squeezers; staying away because of their concerns about the unsavoury aspects of social media use: the invasion of privacy, the penchant for verbal and psychological terrorism, the potential for fraud. I need to point out that while I totally understand that point of view, and while I agree that you don’t have to be a participant in social media, you must realise that you at least have to try to understand how it works – or doesn’t, and how it might affect you, for good or for ill. In the 21st century, social media illiteracy will be as debilitating as conventional illiteracy was in the 20th century.
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