If I hosted a dinner party for my 10 closest friends, the topics of conversations would undoubtedly include the expected ones: crime, the three Ms (Mbeki, Manto, Mugabe), the dollar, need for holidays and our kids’ lives.
But here is what we would not be talking about: Facebook, Twitter, blogs or Web 2.0.
And believe it: as diverse as my friends are, they are all successful, intelligent, educated and have a certain degree of financial freedom. They all have superb access to the internet, but that is aimed for the kids. They all use the internet, but mostly for sporadic emails to distant relatives and online banking. Oh, and they buy their plane tickets from kulula.com, Mango and 1Time. But if they plan to go further afield, they visit their travel agent.
And they just do not share my excitement for the online world. They worry about losing all rights to privacy. They don’t understand why anyone would use Twitter to tell the world what they are doing. (OK — I don’t understand it either, but I do enjoy acting out my voyeuristic tendencies legally.) If they want to stay in touch with their friends they will do it face to face, and not using Facebook.
What else do my friends have in common? None of them works in a corporate environment. In fact, all of them run their own businesses ranging from a one-man show to restaurant chains. Their time is their money. Blogs might be interesting to me, but unless I have a way of monetising the knowledge I pick up from my 150+ feeds, the effort really just turns into an afternoon off, reading. Every day. Facebook is fun, and I do use it to stay in touch with business contact, but my friends would just as easily pick up the phone. They get their news from DStv and radio, on the way to work. I get excited by the convergence of knowledge that the internet offers, and they get excited by being invited to my dinner party.
The point is that much is being said about how we need to bring down the price of internet access to make it — and therefore ourselves — more in line with the rest of the world. And that is still a valid fight. But what about the masses, the immense masses, of people who can afford to pay R1 000+ per month for broadband, and do for their kids, but themselves have no clear online presence or usage from that access?
And don’t think that I am talking about oldies. Out of 165 students from my high school class (we are now 34 years old), only about 10 are on Facebook. Some were pulled in kicking and screaming. And no, 34 is not old.
The question is: Are they worse off than they would be if they used the online medium to its best advantage? The quick answer is “duh!”, but the truth might not be as clear. Presumably, since they do have the PC and the access, they have played around with the web. And they found it lacking in ability to enhance their lives. Sure, a restaurateur could use the web to track food trends globally, get menu ideas, read tips on running an efficient kitchen or (yawn?) create an online community of loyal eaters. But he could also spend that time on the floor of his restaurant, interacting with customers, discussing ideas with the chefs and negotiating prices with suppliers. Which might be the very reasons he went into the restaurant business in the first place.
And what about his off time, you ask? What about spending time socialising with friends, keeping in touch, having some fun? Hey, he’s at my dinner party, isn’t he?
Perhaps, for my friends and the like, it is just a lack of knowledge. There are ways to fix that. Perhaps it is fear of the unknown. Ways to fix that too. Perhaps it is pure ambivalence. Difficult to fix.
Or perhaps, while I type this, my friends are sitting somewhere over coffee, wondering why it is that I am so into this internet thing. And discussing how they can fix that.