If you’re reading this in the dead tree version of Business Day, and that is the version you prefer, there is a good chance the word Twitter will evoke an inward groan. Everybody seems to be talking about it, people are telling you you need to do it, but to the extent you can get your head around it, the whole thing seems, well, somewhere between silly and unseemly, not to mention an enormous waste of time. A brain-suck, to use a current American phrase.
I would urge you to reconsider, especially if you have something nice to say about South Africa in 140 characters or less. In that case, your country needs you to sign up for a Twitter account. This can be done from any Internet-connected computer and will take less time than a round of solitaire.
Then you can start communicating with the world. Tell it what you think about South Africa, being always sure to include in the message the code #SAis. This is known in twitter-speak as a hashtag. What it does is permit visitors to Twitter.com to locate your thoughts on South Africa via a simple search. The search will turn up not just your insights but a constantly updated compendium of the wisdom of everyone else who has used the #SAis hashtag. The compendium can be inserted as a feed onto any website, blog or Facebook page, multiplying its visibility.
The #SAis hashtag is not, let me hasten to say, my idea. The credit belongs to Simon Dingle, a Johannesburg-based technology writer and broadcaster who can be heard on Radio 702. Last Friday, he tweeted to the 940 twitterers who follow him: “Want to start a new trend. #SAis – we’re constantly told what South Africa isn’t. I think it’s time to tell the world what SA is. Thoughts?”
There are a lot of trolls camped on the Internet in a seemingly relentless search for opportunities to say something nasty about South Africa and to attack anyone who does not share their bilious Afro-pessimism (to use a polite term for it). Happily, they seemed to be napping when Dingle launched his idea although it may well be that these are people who find the short form difficult. Ranting haikus are an oxymoron. At all events, the response to Dingle has been overwhelmingly delightful.
Hfordsa, self-described as “a South African-born web queen”, said “if SA was a restaurant, it would be the noisy one with the home-cooked nosh and people laughing and shouting in different tongues.” Karin “I embrace my inner weirdness” Botha, mother of two cherished little boys in Durban, said “SA is one happy hard-working nation who love to party-hard when all is said and done! We’re cool, that’s the bottom line.” Blindcripple, from Cape Town, said SA is “the country with the most beautiful women in the world”, prompting several to ask how he knew.
Karnaugh, a Python (the computer language not the snake) programmer in Sandton: SA is “free, vibrant and void of much nanny state legislation.” Justmoney: SA is “more economically stable than most of the world. Come invest here with us (great scenery included free).” Dominique Pienaar: SA is “second worldwide in terms of transparency surrounding its budgets-just behind the UK, tie with France ahead of New Zealand and US”. Myself, tweeting as Izwi, I took the opportunity to link to a lovely blog post by the Daily Telegraph’s rugby correspondent in which he describes South Africa as “a place with an intoxicating buzz, a place to feel alive.”
The South African Twitterverse is as yet small. Some 3 000 twitterers list South Africa or a major South African city as their home compared to the 28,000 odd who list London. Nor are they particularly representative. South African twitterers are overwhelmingly white and in some segment of the marketing, media and IT biz. Nor, unless you count someone who may or may not be the musician Dave Matthews, do any of them boast the six figures plus armies of followers that certain American celebrities, presidents and news organizations have attracted.
It would be nice to have Charlize Theron or rocket man and electric car pioneer Elon Musk or the real Dave Matthews join the chorus. Nice to have, but not essential. The sentiments Dingle has elicited are, to my mind, far more powerful than celebrity endorsements. They are real. They are persuasive to influential audiences in the rest of the English-speaking world because – fact of life – they are voiced by people with whom those audiences feel an affinity and whose judgments they instinctively are prone to trust.
Am I worried the trolls will show up? Bring ’em on. The South African Twitterverse I’ve seen – smart, young, entrepreneurial, talented and loving where they are – will make the haters feel, or at least look, out of place and small.