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Monday, May 29, 2017

Butabika lives on WhatsApp in #Uganda


It is said that the goodness of a gun depends on its holder. Rather a truism, this can be said of many other things around us. 
Like other social media, WhatsApp is one of the tools that can either be very helpful in our lives or utterly destructive. With it today, information flow between family, friends, colleagues and total strangers is almost getting faster than light.
Geographical boundaries are not as big a barrier as they used to be. Families that would hardly ever find time to physically meet can now have some semblance of a group conversation where they plan together, feed each other on jokes, and get updated about each other’s goings-on. Mobilisation has been made much easier – in politics, religion, business, office work, fundraising, name it.
I am reminded of how word about death of a village-mate (in a very wide sense) used to move around in our village in Masaka. A piece of paper carrying the unfortunate news would be passed from one home to another until it reached the farthest end of the village – sometimes carrying disease along with it.
Today, where smartphones have infiltrated, blue ticks are enough to show you that the message has reached and been read. Never mind that some of us deactivate the blue-ticking to have some fresh breath away from nagging ‘friends’. Eish!
And now the madness! The possibility of creating a group where you could virtually interact, exchange vital information, and kill boredom came with much excitement. So, we formed family WhatsApp groups, work groups, club groups, political groups, motivation groups, health groups, devotion groups, etc.
And, in most cases, the creators of the groups do not find the need to ask us for permission before adding us to whatever they deem worthy of grouping about! It is, nevertheless, consoling that, today, even a jobless person can at least have an online title of administrator.
So, before you know it, you have been added to some ‘Bakoowu group’ (a group of the ‘tired’!) You wake up to find 300 unread messages on a wide range of nothings. Curiosity may not always allow us to immediately dismiss them and quit; so, you find the urge to scan through. And, oh dear!
This one has forwarded a picture of a corpse; the other one is idly asking if anyone has a small pin charger; then the strangers break into a random argument over who truly owns Aya hotel... You exit the group and sigh in relief. Returning on your next check, you find that they stubbornly added you again and there are 900 unread messages!
In his book ‘The Digital Turn: How the Internet Transforms our Existence’ (2015), Wim Westera observes that the successes of social media are rooted in the human tendency to gossip. Gossip is explained by evolutionary biologists as important in preserving and amplifying solidarity in groups.
Little wonder that many WhatsApp groups that start as information-exchange forums often degenerate into yapping spaces preoccupied with ‘much ado about nothing’. It gets worse when a group has attention-seekers. They want to be the first to break all shades of news – of death, disaster, scandal, pregnancy, rain...
Even in a family group, there will always be that odd fella whose main business is forwarding all tribes of junk, constantly filling up others’ phones and wasting their time in deleting.
There is the self-exhibitionist who kills you with selfies in all angles and colour varieties; as if they think that their face is of some therapeutic value.
Then the creepy one who is obsessed with dead bodies, making you wake up to images of headless accident victims!
On a few occasions, conversation normalizes. You start talking serious business, imagining that the group is finally sanitized. Then, boom!
Someone’s porn intended for elsewhere strays into the group! “Sorry guys, someone was using my phone”, they dress up their embarrassed self with transparent rags. Silence engulfs the group. The picture came from the least expected member, the one who has always been sending prayers!
For some groups, it is too easy to end the pain; you just leave. For others, you are held captive by close attachment and politeness. You don’t want to offend the (mis)administrator and other members. Oh, damn you politeness! I sometimes wish I could respond bluntly: “thanks, but I found that joke in four other groups. It must be fatigued”.
But politeness sends us into simply ignoring. Yet still they pull our ears out of hiding, asking if we haven’t seen their message. We thus get cornered in this immense social pressure to be online all the time. “Hello, check your WhatsApp... I have sent you something”!
The solution to what used to be a challenge is fast turning into a problem. We found difficulty in communicating and finding information. Now there is too much of it, more than we ever needed. One has to literally dig through heaps of junk and disconnected fragments to find something useful.
Facts and opinions, fiction and reality, posturing and ideology get so mixed up, often producing a thick cocktail of nonsense.
In this wild wide web of groups around every imaginable identity and cause, everyone wants to add the other because they think you belong there. ‘Married talks’ added me the other day. All they talk about are problems and sex.
A soon-wedding friend has started a fundraising group, which has been discussing torture at Nalufenya in graphic detail for three days! Our LC-I chairman has also initiated a group for residents and is now choking us on pictures of his family!
Too bad that I need WhatsApp; I would have quit yesterday. Now they will ‘kill’ me for writing on this. I hope they delete me in anger.
DR JIMMY SPIRE SSENTONGO

The author works with the Center for African Studies at Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi.
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