A new study shows that social networking is growing on the African continent, especially in South Africa, where the country’s Twitter-active population posted around five million messages in the last quarter of 2011, double the amount of tweets coming out of Kenya, the continent’s second most Twitter-savvy nation.
Now South African authorities are getting in on the action, using the micro-blogging site to gauge public opinion on important matters -- most notably, the country’s space program.
South Africa’s National Space Agency is reaching out to citizens via Twitter, asking for input on what its agenda should focus on over the next 20 years.
It’s a move that hasn’t surprised Arthur Goldstuck of World Wide Worx, an internet research company.
"The only surprise about the move onto Twitter and Facebook is that it took so long for a government agency to do it," says Goldstuck. "But it's appropriate that a high-tech agency like the Space Agency should take that step, because you would expect them to be visionary and forward thinking."
The main drawback of gauging public opinion via social media, though, is that it reaches only the internet-savvy market -- a small, mostly elite segment of South Africa's population.
"Initially, the internet user in South Africa, and therefore the social networker, was part of the higher income group," says Goldstruck. "But with the explosion of smart phones in South Africa, we're seeing the growth of the internet in the mass market through mobile access to the web and through apps and the like. And particularly because of the fact that any smart phone that you buy today will already have Twitter and Facebook installed on the device, or at least a logo or link to those services. As a result of that, the broader market is moving into social networks in this country. The fact that there's something like 4.8 million Facebook users in [South Africa] and as many Twitter users suggests that it's not only the haves, it's beginning to move into the arena of the have-nots."
To balance the scales, South Africa's space agency is also engaging citizens face-to-face, aiming to create an all-round robust public discussion on its planned space program.
To assess the power of social networking in Africa, one needn't look further than the Egyptian revolution, which began with a couple of Twitter messages. But how does South Africa measure up to other countries -- the United States, for example -- when it comes to engaging citizens online?
"There's a fundamental difference in the way government uses social networks in South Africa [as] compared to the U.S.," says Goldstruck, explaining that South Africa still has a way to go. "In the United States, social media and social networks played a major role in the last presidential election, and that woke up the entire landscape to the importance of Twitter, as both a campaigning and communication tool between government and citizens. In South Africa, it played a very small role."
But the government's first decisive step into the Twittersphere has got locals buzzing. It is only logical, they seem to think, that cyberspace would prove the ideal place to help plan the country’s journey into space.