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The online world is not the story of South Africa

We live in an age where real-time information is very accessible owing to the internet and social media networks. We hear people’s opinions on almost every major story as it happens as can be witnessed in the coverage of the Oscar Pistorius case. This has led to the increasing reference of social media networks in South African media. The Jessica Leandra saga is but one example of how something on the networks reached the online, print and broadcast media. “Twitter outrage” is the current favourite in headlines. It is clear that the way content is found and shared has been forever changed.

This comes as no surprise. Thanks to social media people are able to express themselves in real-time on breaking news. This has however led to many referring to the predominant topics discussed on the social networks as national discussions. As with Jacob Zuma’s perceived dog “faux pas”, some were admonished for making dogs the “national” topic of discussion when the nation faced severe problems such as poverty and a failing education system. And this is something that continues to happen quite frequently.

In my opinion though this is very problematic. Lest we forget as recently as May 2012 internet penetration in South Africa was found to only be nearing 20%, almost double a previous estimate, according to findings by research firm World Wide Worx and the Howzit MSN online portal. This was largely attributed to “the spread of smartphones and ordinary cell-phones with internet connectivity”.

What this means is that, in a country of 52 million people, only 7.9 million have access to the internet. Of this number, 2.4 million rely solely on a cell-phone for internet access. Despite the continued growth, it is still a very small number of people with internet access.

The current figures of social media network users, suggest that this number may have grown since the above mentioned study was released. Facebook takes the lead with more than 6.1 million users in the country, with LinkedIn having 2.2 million users. Twitter comes next with 1.1 million registered South African users of who 405 000 are active. The relatively “new” kid on the block, Google Plus has almost half a million South African users. The numbers make it clear that despite the possible growth in the number of people able to access the internet, the number of users still remains relatively low.

Considering that many of my Twitter followers are also LinkedIn connections, Facebook friends and are also in my Google Plus circles, I find it safe to assume that a large number of social media networks are being used by the same users. Meaning we have the same voices repeating themselves.

Considering all this, it is seems misguided that what dominates the social media networks is seen to be the dominating narrative of the country. What this leads to is that a certain sect — mostly an elite sect — of South African society dominating the narrative of the country, which only serves to further marginalise the already marginalised.

If indeed we are serious about increasing South African voices and really understanding the issues of the majority of South African citizens, not only will we stop accepting the views of a few as the dominant narrative but we will also strive to be advocates for universal access for all South Africans.