..thoughts on the internet and social media
I first discovered the internet as an undergraduate.
Luckily, I could find my way around a computer so navigating the net was not as challenging. The internet fed my curiosity: I was excited about the speed and ease of access to information of all kinds and qualities.
With the advent of the internet came cybercafes: rooms filled with desktop computers where people would pay to access the internet. Back then, connectivity was quite expensive, mainly by dial-up access or satellite, so only very few people had internet in their offices or homes hence the proliferation of cybercafes.
I would go to any one of the cybercafes at the Student Union Building, and end up getting lost online, searching for random nothings. I eventually found some use for it when I had to do research for class assignments and ultimately, my undergraduate dissertation. I would book all-night sessions and sit glued, gazing at and reading as much of the information that the internet had to offer. Instead of spending time in the dusty library looking for material that probably wasn’t there, I could search online and at least find some useful research material I could reference.
Searching for information was not the only thing I did then, I also spent time sending and receiving emails from both old and new contacts. It was so thrilling to know that you could shoot someone an email and they could respond in minutes, very unlike our snail mail. If I remember correctly, most people had Yahoo email addresses. Hotmail and AOL were also favourites, and Gmail, which is all the rage now, didn’t make an appearance until a few years later when it debuted as a by-invitation only email provider.
With a Yahoo email address, one could chat on Yahoo messenger in real-time with contacts, much like how we use WhatsApp nowadays except it was solely on the computer at the time. You could also access chat rooms focused on different things and meet new people. Once you got into a chatroom, someone would ask: “ASL” requesting for you to state your age, sex, and location. And then came Yahoo Groups: people with similar objectives or needs could join a group, and you could send one mail to the group and every member would receive it. Looking back though, I would say Yahoo was pretty much our first social media platform as it offered so many options to connect with people.
Once the internet became available via mobile devices rather than just computers and laptops, access became much easier. I recall seeing some statistics a while back that quoted mobile internet access penetration as being much larger in sub-Saharan Africa than computer internet access. It pretty much makes sense considering that more people have mobile devices compared with computers.
Social media was a natural offshoot of the internet, if I can call it that, and it quickly became a tool for connecting people in different kinds of ways. Each platform has its unique features that appeal to diverse people, so let’s take a quick look at some of the more popular platforms:
Facebook: it started off as a means of connecting old friends, classmates, and family members. I think slum books was the inspiration for it. I remember back in secondary school when we used slum books to get basic information about friends and responses to whatever questions one had asked. Facebook made that experience instant and interactive. It also championed the online “friends” term, so even if I had just met you yesterday, we could be Facebook “friends” today without really knowing one another.
Twitter: it took a while to get a hang of Twitter as it seemed so fast paced (it still is fast paced); I wonder how people keep up over there. I would probably need to make it a full-time job if I ever had to become fully accustomed to it. It has been perfect for breaking news, and tracking and receiving real-time information. It has also been great for exposing people’s skills, projects, businesses to a greater audience in a much shorter amount of time. On a side note, I wonder when the twitter “ban” would be lifted.
Linkedin: it is designed for professional networking but some people have turned it into a professional “Facebook” by conducting their personal affairs. It’s been a great resource for connecting people directly with job opportunities, access to industry leaders and company executives, and personal and career development opportunities. You may have to ignore some of the boasting and packaging though.
Snapchat: I joined in the early days because my master’s classmates were always going on about it and I was curious. I probably spent about three weeks on the app before deleting it as I didn’t see the need for it. Ironically, practically all of the more popular social media platforms have copied its key offering of disappearing messages after 24 hours. I am not sure how people interact there these days but I hear it’s got great picture and video filters.
Instagram: I would say most social media influencers owe their rise and relevance to this platform. Once upon a time, we could comfortably post our basic pictures about our day, where we went, and what we ate. Nowadays? Each photo or video is heavily edited to fit a certain perspective or narrative. For many, a preferred image is curated throughout all of their posts, where are all the real people?
Social media and the internet have democratised access to information and connections but they definitely have also had their bad sides. Not that they are bad in themselves but as always, people will find a way of extracting the bad from the good. With one social media post, influential people can command attention for their personal or sponsored objective, leading many people to act in various unpredictable ways.
The spread of fake news has been a major downside of social media, leading to misinformation either deliberately or by error. Some have also used social media to whitewash themselves and portray an image that may be inconsistent with their true nature and intentions so they can gain advantage in whichever areas they seek. Even corporates and nations can’t be spared for attempting to control social media. China, for example, has limited its citizens access to a few non- Chinese social media platforms as a means of controlling the kind of information they can be exposed to.
The future is now moving towards the Metaverse, an alternate universe of some sort, and I can only imagine what challenges that would present. How would we interact with one another? What about children and how would they perceive the world when they didn’t know it before social media existed?
The internet and social media have helped to improve life as we know it but sometimes, I wonder whether all of these advancements aren’t creating more problems for us. Anyway, one can only be open-minded and that is the way I see things today.