There is no doubt that the advent of social media has revolutionised the communication landscapes and networks. Not only have the worlds apart been brought closer than ever before, with the barriers and bottle-necks that used to characterise free flow of information having been seemingly eradicated.
In a split second, through Twitter, Facebook, microblogging, WhatsApp or photo sharing, communication takes place. Yes, indeed, communication travels with the speed of lightning, social media looks like it’s everything communicators needed. But the main question is, how much is social media empowering and transforming lives of the marginalised.
In simple terms, social media is viewed as a new kind of online media that shares numerous characteristics, including the power to connect, participate, engage communities openly and manage conversations, among a host of many. Yes, these were the original expectations of social media when it invaded the internet.
Social media was supposed to be a utopian model where everyone would communicate anyhow, any time, as they would want and in an environment that gives one the opportunity to do as they like.
But above all, social media is about interactions, community engagement and sharing experiences online as opposed to simply consuming information.
In our societies, there are people who are surrounded by all forms of social media platforms and they don’t seem to know what to do about the information. In the same communities, they are also those people who have a bit of access to social media platforms and can use it in limited ways depending on the depth of their pockets.
We also have the marginalised and periphery lot, who to me, are important and special stakeholders; they have heard about social media, but they cannot access it; some have never heard of it before, but they also want to be empowered and transform their lives too. These are challenges and worrying issues, which need to be corrected. Communication for development through social media is supposed to transform lives, but some communities have been left behind in this unfolding discourse.
While all the people require empowering development information, to save lives, to improve their environment and for literacy purposes, some people never had the chance to access information even that which is outdated or substandard. In this regard, they have not only been left out, but they have been forgotten and thrown into the dustbin of ignorance.
Many development practitioners, government departments and institutions, farmers organisations and laypersons have access to Twitter, Facebook, internet, smart phones, laptops and other online services and platforms which are development-oriented, but they don’t reach out to isolated and marginalised communities. Despite social media for development purposes being assumed to be accessible to everyone concerned, there are lots of communication and procedural gaps involved.
Without the materials and services outlined above, marginalised communities are also expected to use the social media as primary sources of information but they are not even connected.
They cannot network, interact, share and participate, hence they become terribly exposed. Numerous social media users may not see this communication gap because in their majority, they have never used social media for development purposes, but for trivial and recreational purposes.
In this regard, social media for development is supposed to be sufficiently empowering and transforming the development agenda. Marginalised communities suffer the brunt of droughts, floods, famine, diseases and other social and natural vices which they need to have comprehensive knowledge of, before they even strike; but that is not the case.
They have been left out because of poverty, by design or miscommunication. In this view, the power of social media for reaching out and empower target situations, according to their target needs, has been exaggerated and downplayed.
Social media, by its nature, is supposed to be cross-cutting, inclusive, interactive and engaging. But the most important stakeholders who bear the brunt of natural disasters just continue to hear about it and they are yet to make any meaningful contributions. Social media for development is accelerating in other sectors while by-passing in droves, the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalised, and by the time these communities start to realise something on social media, the government will have come up with laws that govern its use and they won’t be in the know.
The other issues which make it difficult for these isolated and marginalised communities to participate in social media interactions, are that, despite the widely held assumptions that there are affordable mobile phones designed for the developing countries, these people are in the gutter and they can hardly afford them.
Even if they were to afford these cheaper mobile phones, they cannot also access solar products for charging these phones.These communities in the gutter are supposed to be nurtured through development-oriented socialisation and dialoguing and be able to connect with other users around them, engaging in critical development topics.
These fundamental issues are not only developmental and empowering in nature, but they need to contribute to the sustainable development goals.Social media for development is different from other ways in which the majority of privileged people participate in it.
This one is used in the backgrounds of poverty, marginalisation and underdevelopment as well as unemployment and biting effects of climate change.
The advantages of mobile phones is that they are powerful and versatile tools of communication with the ability to connect to radio broadcasting.
Radio is an important communication gadget which can appeal strongly to the less literate people, because it can broadcast in their vernacular languages.
In this regard, when we say that everyone is connected and is networking, it is also important to qualify our assertions.
We have communities in dire situations, who need our support and let us realise their existence and worth as well as their potential to contribute and make a difference.