29 March 2014

Ethiopia: Social Media + U.S. =?

One of the biggest culture clashes I had experienced was when I was in school in the US.

The newly-elected vice-president of the country, Joe Biden, was visiting my school to discuss women's rights. During his visit, anti-abortion groups gathered around the campus and held banners that had all sorts of things written on them, all alluding to him being a murderer because he was pro-choice.

As he entered the campus, these protesters were loud and held their banners high. He turned round and acknowledged them and continued his walk. I stood still and observed the whole interaction dumbfounded. Never have I seen this happen in reality. It was a form of freedom of expression that I had never been exposed to.

Where I came from, if something like this happened, one can be sure that it's either the beginning of a revolution or the protesters will be spending quite a few nights in a cell. What I kept thinking about after that experience was how we, in Ethiopia, express criticism and opinions about someone.

Confrontations aren't something we do often, in fact we avoid confrontation and express our criticism to others and very seldom to those concerned. What I think is the reason for this is that we do not make distinctions between a person and their opinion. Everything is personal, and everything will be taken as a personal attack and not a challenge to an idea or opinion.

I believe that this culture has inhibited us from developing a homegrown platform for idea-sharing and debating with regard to many issues ranging from social topics to political ideals. This in turn creates a group of people who are unable to express their ideas and entertain ideas shared by others. And when such a group meets social media, the outcome is interesting.

Social media came on as an alternative to government or "privately" owned media. Websites such as twitter became a place for everyday individuals to express their ideas and opinions about events in different parts of the world. And these ideas get widely circulated via these platforms, something that was a lot harder to achieve before their creation.

Even Facebook, a website primarily built to help college students stay in touch, has not only turned into the world's way of keeping up with each other but also a platform to express opinions, especially controversial ones. The extent to which we use these platforms is quite staggering.

According to internetworldstats.com, out of the 960 thousand Internet users in Ethiopia in 2012, 902 thousand have a Facebook account. This may not look like much when we consider that the population was approximately 80 million that year, but it means that almost every one who has access to the Internet has a Facebook account.

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