Friday, December 30, 2011

I Tweet, Therefore I Am!

I Tweet, Therefore I am!

January Makamba - @JMakamba

All politicians have a common need: a friendly platform to communicate their ideas, to rationalize their actions, to defend themselves and, a favourite pastime, to attack each other.

Technology has made modern combat lethal, yet impersonal. Gone are the days of the Ngoni warrior up-close battles when the smell of your enemy lingers with you for as long as you lick your wounds or bask in triumph. With technology, you can kill with precision from 45,000 feet up above the skies - in the comfort of a Nintendo-like console.

Likewise with political communication. Technology has made public discourse so impersonal that you can now manage to debate, to offend, to dazzle or make a fool of yourself all in 140 characters – all from the comfort of your bedroom, boardroom, or even bathroom.

Here I am talking about Twitter, a powerful social media platform which no politician worth his or her salt can ignore. Presidents, Kings, Prime Ministers, celebrities and all sorts of journeymen are on it. Twitter has been so lionized lately to a point of suggestion that it facilitates revolutions.

In Tanzania, in recent years, and within a small but important circle of individuals, it has spiced up and opened a new venue for public discourse. But that has not come without pain and pleasure and without annoyance and great rewards.

I joined Twitter reluctantly after a good friend of mine - @chiume - decided to open an account for me in September 2010. And my handle is a safe and uncreative @JMakamba. Also, another good friend of mine - @zittokabwe – who is also a Member of Parliament and who has been active on Twitter for a while, inspired me. Before then, I was a Facebook boy and had figured that nothing could beat the illusory psychotherapy and awesome voyeurism in the Facebook prompt: “What’s on your mind?’

But I was wrong. Twitter proved to be a big hit for me for its sheer power of compelling you to reveal who you really are – no matter how long you try to pretend. It forces slips into honesty and true identity. My experience on twitter has been quite good. As a public figure, you will necessarily have a lot of people who want to hear what you have to say. Questions come in rapid fire - and on matters public and personal. Some with presumptions and insults, some with sincere desire for information and insight. I have learnt the hard way to treat all questions with the presumption of sincerity. I haven’t always been successful. The good thing about Twitter is that it empowers people on it to directly confront their politicians with their questions and ideas without the protocols and formalities. Some have abused this access but to a large extent twitter engagements are civil.

As a politician, you learn to accept and deal with both blame and praise, with ridicule and adoration – it comes with the territory. Because of impersonal nature of social media, questions and confrontations on twitter can be quite bold, visceral, unreasonable and irritating. I have seen colleagues in politics lose their cool on twitter upon provocation. I also have had to tell one gentleman to “get a life” after making a whole lot of meal out of lack of a certain information he thought should have been in the CCM website. One thing is certain on Twitter debates: you cannot win an argument there. And you must not attempt to. You debate on Twitter not with the view of changing someone’s mind but to state and put your views on record.

As a public personality, people read your words carefully. And mainstream press has in recent days been digging for news and quotes from Twitter and Facebook feeds. It places a huge burden to be forced to be always serious and careful on such an informal platform. But somehow Twitter offers this sense of security that it is alright to be frivolous at times, to be emotional in public, and that you must not always take yourself too seriously.

Some of us in politics have massive egos, and flashes of those can be evident on Twitter. You somehow expect those you follow to follow you back. In some cases, that doesn't happen. Depending on the size of your ego, you may take offense. I've learnt not to - and even not to ask for a follow back.

Civil society activists and entertainment industry people dominate twitter in Tanzania – not necessarily by their numbers but by the frequency and intensity of their tweets. As a Tanzanian politician on Twitter, you are more likely to be engaged by civil society activists. In many cases, they will not be asking questions but will be telling you what you should be doing or what is important or how bad things in the country are or, on occasion, peddling the latest negative report on whatever issue they are working on. That is understandable as the “industry” survives on a negative tone.

In general, Twitter can be like a family – and there are a variations of names to affirm this: twifam, twam, twitfam, etc. You start your day with an understanding of the moods of those you follow. You know people without really knowing them. Much as you may resist, you feel obliged to share news – good or bad, to offer sympathy, and to rejoice in the success of others. You witness fights and take sides – even quietly. You search for encryption keys to cryptic tweets. And you become nosy, digging up threads of conversations that have nothing to do with you. And you rejoice in a retweet as if it is an affirmation of your wit or wisdom.

Twitter has also been a good source of news and information for me. Somehow someone on twitter has updates on happenings around town: be it traffic updates, Dar floods, fuel crisis and so forth. And, depending on who or what you follow, you can get a very good aggregate of all news you need – sometimes as they break. I am personally interested in economic development issues and follow a lot of development people and organizations – and, from twitter, everyday I read some interesting reports, updates and news on development issues.

Twitter can also be a place to make real-life connections with people, create friendships and work for common objectives. I have met a lot of interesting people whom we have made connections through twitter. Few highlights includes during my recent trip to India when I tweeted Shashi Tharoor - @shashitharoor – former United Nations Assistant Secretary General, candidate for UN Secretary General post, and currently India’s foremost intellectual and Member of Parliament, and managed to meet and have a good long chat about global politics and development. I also tracked down my old friend Uhuru Kenyatta - @UKenyatta – Kenya’s Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister and had breakfast with him in Kampala early this year because he tweeted that he will be there. Through twitter, I got an intern, Economic Development student from Stanford University in California USA, who did fantastic work with the Bumbuli Development Corporation (BDC) last summer. Through twitter, I hired a PA and Administrator for BDC. I have managed to meet so many different people through Twitter and collaborate in undertaking worthy endeavours.

In the end, twitter, just like any other social media, is just a platform. The key is content. We must not celebrate politicians just for being on it – as is often the case – but for how they use it, and how and what they communicate. If you just come on Twitter to post links to your statements on your website, as one politician I know, then just don’t be on it at all. Twitter certainly doesn’t work as a propaganda platform as most people on it are somehow immune to propaganda.

One of the weaknesses of some of us in politics is that we always calculate and peg our actions in terms of votes and elections. Surely, if I am to run again for MP for Bumbuli, I will not be reelected because I am on Twitter or because of things I say on it. And most of my constituents, with almost zero access to the internet, are not on twitter. So, in terms of electoral calculus, I shouldn’t be on Twitter. But I have made a decision that I cannot afford to miss the opportunity to be intellectually challenged, to be quizzed, to be informed, to be annoyed, and to understand the psyche of the urbane and sophisticated segment of Tanzanians who are on Twitter. And I cannot afford to miss the chance to engage the global citizenry that follow Tanzania.

Moral of the story: tweet!

January Makamba is a Member of Parliament for Bumbuli constituency, Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Energy and Minerals, and CCM Secretary for Political Affairs and International Relations. He tweets using @JMakamba.