“Twitter is going to change Kenya!” I declared in my presentation. We’d just set up a “Twitterfall” behind me, glowing on one of the plasma screens. It scrolled up with a clockwork flow showing the 25-odd attendees their tweets in real-time. Trickling down one after the other it featured the tweets and responses from those caught in traffic, those in their seats in the audience ahead of me and those joining in virtually as we began our Twitter gathering.
It was February 2010, I was co-convener of Kenya’s first Twitter conference – #140ConfNairobi. Along with a great team we’d brought together brands, influencers, businesspeople, media, mavens and members of the public come and sit on the 2nd floor of the Westgate Mall, between a cocktail bar and teppanyaki grills at Onami. Questions streamed from the floor and online and our morning was well spent listening, learning and lecturing on Kenya’s state of social media and its potential.
In the 4 years since then Kenyans on Twitter have gone on to characterise and shape the perception of not just the country but the continent. As they are more often referred to, #KOT can be difficult to fully describe. More than just the over 1.5 million users on Twitter, #KOT shun other social networks, naming Facebook, the country’s #1 social network after a Kenyan slum.
Digital class warfare aside, #KOT exercise calm and restraint in the midst of chaos or poise and purpose when shaping what could likely become a national movement or voicing an outcry – seen most recently in #MyDressMyChoice. In that same breath, or tweet if you like, they’re able to polarise the timeline with talk of gender and femininity and/or feminism.
Kenyans on Twitter are the ones to be rallying behind a hashtag, making light work of creating a global trending topic. Be it to bringing CNN to apologise for a story, correcting misperceptions of the country with #SomeoneTellCNN or to celebrate the humour behind the national education and final examination system with examples such as #KCPE2010, #KCPE2012 and others.
In another fleeting moment they will wage virtual war on another African nation (be the reason sparked by football (Nigeria), politics (South Africa) or foreign policy (Botswana). Again the war cry of #SomeoneTell beckoning them. And #KOT won’t stop with just trading barbs and insults, they’ll take any misperception and stereotype they can find and using what seems to be a growing lexicon of African-made memes as when attacking Nigeria.
In 2009, the buildup to #140confNBO was slow and steady. We’d had a global viral sensation that year in Just A Band’s hit single gone viral video “Ha-He” and its unmistakable antihero Makmende. Particularly for those who had been on Twitter the past 1 to 3 years it was a time to celebrate our humble beginnings as (we thought) Twitter got mainstream. With that our attempts began in earnest to decipher what Kenyans online were saying just as the fibre-optic cable made landfall some months prior in September 2009 bringing lower-cost connectivity.
I’ve been part of this digital citizenry for those years and #KOT are now an inimitable, unapologetic and inspiring colony. The A to Z of Kenyan Twitter is the first in a number of publications to understand Africans online with their habits, trends and its impact on society, media and business.
I still agree with what I said at the dias of Onami’s dimly-lit restaurant floor, and feel that Twitter has since lived up to its claim of changing the country. Over 5 years of monitoring, studying and capturing the essence of African digital society has been an exceptional journey. For Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt and not forgetting Francophone and Lusophone Africa the potential to pull, probe and publish is exciting. Only thing is that this time we’re surfing Kenyan and African cyberspace trying to ride the wave as well as record it.
The project launched in October with a website, Slideshare.net presentation, an audio MP3 download/stream on Soundcloud.com, a direct PDF download (here), 27 videos on Youtube (here), a board featuring 27 pins of the images on Pinterest, 27 images on Instagram, and, of course, a GIF (at the top of this post).
Here’s the intro video: