I was recently reading the report entitled How Africa Tweets from the Portland Communications, which can be downloaded here. It is a very ambitious effort with both quantitative and qualitative segments that provides some rich data. In 2011, Portland and Tweetminster conducted a study to see how Twitter was being used on the African continent. They analyzed 11.5 million geolocated tweets and surveyed many of Africa’s top tweeters and came up with some encouraging results. Encouraging if you are like me and constantly looking for durable, accessible, freely available communication technologies and services to network academics in particular disciplines in Africa.

Some encouraging trends include the following. See infographic above; my comments on the findings are in italics below. My comments on implications for academics are below the image.

  • The usual suspects in terms of countries are dominating the African twitter volume, but we see considerable uptake elsewhere. South Africa is the continent’s most active country by volume of geolocated Tweets (5,030,226 during Q4 2011), Kenya is next (2,476,800). Nigeria (1,646,212), Egypt (1,214,062) and Morocco (745,620) make up the remainder of the top five most active countries.
  • 57% of Tweets from Africa are sent from mobile devices. This one was supportive of existing trends towards designing for mobile, but not surprising.
  • 60% of Africa’s most active Tweeters are aged 20-29. This might actually work against me in terms of my academic argument unless young academic (budding doctoral students and professors) have impressive clout, which I suspect they don’t.
  • Twitter is becoming an important source of information in Africa. 68% of those polled said that they use Twitter to monitor news. 22% use it to search for employment opportunities. This is actually encouraging as I see the gradual embrace of these services for non-social reasons (information gathering, news, employment, financial information even) actually is a precursor towards using them for ‘serious’ activities. Networking of professionals, scholars, academic groups, research opportunities. I think we see this gradual evolution elsewhere with the adoption of Twitter (from fun to serious to fun/serious medley) so I find this use of Twitter for news encouraging.
  • African Twitter users are active across a range of social media, including Facebook, YouTube, Google+ and LinkedIn. Good, but not terribly revealing for my purposes as a savvy social media audience doesn’t inherently lead to an embrace of social media for activities considered traditional/formalized/process-oriented (this is all speculation on my part). I would classify most academic work as practiced in Africa as being a process-oriented, highly formalized field and therefore I doubt social media has made tons of penetration, especially at the doctoral/faculty level.
  • Some penetration by high-profile Africans from all walks of life. This is an important development for my research. We need influential individuals using these tools to grant a sort of implicit permission for academics to do the same. So, for example below, in an image taken directly from the report (click on the image to go directly to the report), we see some indication that some public figures are taking to Twitter to spread their message, get involved, or demonstrate their willingness to get involved. Positive steps. How about some high-profile researchers or faculty do the same? Then we have a (role) model to build on.

Implications for Academics

I am working on some research on developing robust, sturdy networks of researchers, scholars, and doctoral students in communities of practice via mobile devices in East Africa. This project would employ highly accessible technologies, SMS or otherwise, to network these scholars towards some of the following goals:

  • reduce redundancy of effort. A common problem with communities working independently is a duplication of effort. While it is good to investigate effects of variables with local environments, if replication of effort can be avoided, that is for the best. It frees up brainpower towards other projects. Presumably, an interconnected community of practice functioning with good information flow would be less likely to replicate effort. Presumably.
  • promote cross-institution research projects. More communication across institutions, more research opportunities, more connections and greater impact. Once again, presumably.
  • identify new research areas that need geographical spacing. Effect of government educational initiative A. Fallout from elearning agenda B. That sort of thing. Research that requires a localization of effort across multiple districts/areas.
  • Increase output/knowledge construction. A connected community tends to produce more than individuals working in isolation.

I have written about this research several times before. I had thought that Frontline SMS would be the best tool as it is relatively accessible, SMS-based, and can be centralized in simple servers (ie laptops). But

  • Does this research indicate a general shift towards social media with dual purposes (both personal and professional)?
  • Can Twitter be considered an effective dialogue tool for academics in select communities in Africa?
  • Are there cultural, social, professional, or even political inhibitions for participating in such an open conversation?
  • Will Twitter be perpetually a young person’s game or can we envision a future in Africa (I think South Africa can) where academic dialogue is this open, this participatory?

These are highly significant questions. If the answers to these are not a conclusive no, I suspect my research would be better supported by a layered approach of communication for building networks. One employing tools like Frontline SMS for regional efforts or where trust and authority need to be established, with Twitter serving as a broader ear towards best practices for academic research?

The report, as you can tell from my word count, is worth a look.

By Michael Gallagher

My name is Michael Sean Gallagher. I am a Lecturer in Digital Education at the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. I am Co-Founder and Director of Panoply Digital, a consultancy dedicated to ICT and mobile for development (M4D); we have worked with USAID, GSMA, UN Habitat, Cambridge University and more on education and development projects. I was a researcher on the Near Futures Teaching project, a project that explores how teaching at The University of Edinburgh unfold over the coming decades, as technology, social trends, patterns of mobility, new methods and new media continue to shift what it means to be at university. Previously, I was the Research Associate on the NERC, ESRC, and AHRC Global Challenges Research Fund sponsored GCRF Research for Emergency Aftershock Forecasting (REAR) project. I was an Assistant Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (한국외국어대학교) in Seoul, Korea. I have also completed a doctorate at University College London (formerly the independent Institute of Education, University of London) on mobile learning in the humanities in Korea.

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