When I have a question that might need some input from Kenyans, I have have limited options: I can make a very expensive call home, send an email that might not get answered in time, or take to the ‘net and hope for the kindness of strangers.
To be fair, I usually get a good response from those who I follow on Twitter. And if I’m honest with myself, I could probably make more of an effort with the Facebook groups that I’ve signed up to. What does seem to be lacking, however, is any real sense of collaboration or exchange of information.
Have you visited the Mashada forums recently? I remember when I signed up, I was so thrilled to have finally found a space where Kenyans at home and abroad could have conversations and interact with ease. Sadly, heartbreakingly, I was soon disabused of that notion.
The Computers & Technology section can be slow-moving, and the information given there can be found at numerous other websites with a far higher profile. The News & Politics section often descends into tribal and personal flame wars, with the Mashada moderators seemingly powerless to do anything. The Society & Culture section, meanwhile, is perfect, provided you are willing to overshare details of your sex life. All in all, I could find little that appealed to me, and I gradually found myself visiting infrequently, to the point that my first visit in months was for the purpose of this post.
This is not all the fault of Mashada. They have little choice over the kind of users they attract to their site, or the threads that the same users start. They could be more proactive, however, in shutting down behaviour that lowers the tone or violates their terms and conditions. If Mashada hopes to build on its popularity and continue to attract new users, the forums have to become far more inclusive than they currently appear.
For Mashada does have competition. Stocks Kenya, for all its outward focus on investment, does have a active discussion board and is adding a respectable number of users each month. With the ability for instant and direct messages, Kenyan Twitter users don’t need to visit forums to interact. Add in services like Twellow and Afrigator, and the incentive to visit a website for a discussion decreases significantly.
What’s frustrating is that there doesn’t appear to be a single exclusively Kenyan or African webspace where those at home and in the diaspora can come together to swap ideas and have meaninful discussions. Those that exist are either too small, obscure, or unpleasant to really take off. I don’t think I’m being overly fussy; I spend most of my life online and am a member of a number of forums, but so far only Twitter has provided what I need if I’m homesick or have a query.
It could be, perhaps, that Kenyan internet community is not “mature” enough. It takes a critical mass of participants before the webspace fragment into segments where people can pick and choose which forums they frequent. At present, the problems with this situation are threefold: first, those who want a forum for a specific niche are already signing up to established international websites; second, the number of regular internet users in Kenya and the diaspora is not large enough to support more than a few online communities; finally the business models for these online communities are something that even the likes of Facebook and MySpace have yet to master, and if a business can’t generate revenue, why would anyone bother setting one up?
Nevertheless, we are on the brink of what should be a great leap forward in technological capability and communications innovation for the country. As the cost of internet connectivity comes down, there should be an increase in the number of Kenyans able to access the internet both at home and the office; as they spend more time online, and as advertisers realise that they are online, there may be the impetus to provide a forum where Kenyans can congregate in numbers, without the petty concerns that currently dominate. It will be interesting to look back in five years to see if I still have the same complaint.
[Image by Loic Hay]