Wednesday, May 15, 2013

How we behave online

By Teklu Abate, May 13, 2013

Thanks to advances in information and communication technologies, people overcome spatio-temporal limitations. We communicate in real time regardless of where we live. Traditionally, communications and collaborations were made between people and organizations that somehow know each other well. These times see communications of all sorts being made between entities that do not know each other in person. In fact, we use technologies to conquer new grounds- to create, expand and sustain our international online presence. Technologies are also places where to make retreats to- people who are denied of their natural rights (such as freedom of expression and association) consider technologies as powerful remedies. Thanks to Internet-based social media, the oppressed are claiming their lost identities. Although 1) some dictatorial regimes aspire to curtain the move, and 2) the technologic infrastructure in several places is still inadequate, people worldwide are building online/virtual identities and presences.

The Ethiopian Diaspora enjoy conversing using websites, broadcast media, Paltalk, Facebook, and blogs. Issues discussed touch nearly all the contours of life in Ethiopia, from politics to economics, society to humanity, religion to culture. However, a limited number of persons are content developers (writers) whereas the majority are users or consumers (readers). What seems to be interesting is that users tend to have a significantly different take of the issues considered by papers.

A closer look at how people react to published papers including those found in blogs is extremely important for several reasons. One, it would help us to discern to what extent readers rightly understand the intentions’ of writers. Two, the analysis would indicate the degree to which published works are relevant to the general community. Three, based on this, editors/writers could identify and suggest topics for further discussion. Four, based on comment analysis, writers could improve their style of writing for maximum impact. Five, the analysis could inform us to narrow down the gap between writers and readers in the end.

In this paper, I categorize readers based on the comments they leave to papers they read. To do the analysis, I reviewed threads and threads of comments provided about papers published in major websites. An unscientific qualitative content analysis of comments resulted in the identification of eight major categories of people. It is found that we have people who tend to hold extremely opposing viewpoints in relation to the issues discussed in the papers. More interestingly, there are people who tend to bring extremist groups to a middle ground. The categories are succinctly described below.

The sympathetic

These people generally tend to identify with authors and support their arguments and conclusions. They express their sympathy in various ways. They generously thank writers for their contributions and request them to keep writing. They also forward papers to their networks and they leave behind tens and even hundreds of “Likes”. Even more interestingly, these people ask writers to turn their ideas into workable strategies. A typical comment of this type is: “This is a very timely and constructive idea; I appreciate if you are interested to form an interest group based on your idea”.

The assassin

The assassin are the exact opposite of the sympathetic. Their viewpoints are in sharp contrast to that of the writers’. They throw away nasty terms (insults and curses) to the writers. Worse is their attempt to go after writers as persons. They try to assassin the identities, fames, and dignities of writers by resorting to the latters’ perceived or actual weaknesses, shortcomings, and/or limitations in other areas. Examples of comments of this category include: “This person is a remnant of the fascist Derg”, “This writer must be a cadre/from Tigray,” ”This guy was fired from his job because of his incompetence and work ethic”. Generally, the assassin usually tries to assassin the writer as a person and not the idea conveyed in the paper.

The delusional

Delusional people are those who consciously or otherwise dissociate themselves from reality, evidence, truth, and logic. They deny that the Ethiopian Diaspora is a huge potential for real social change. They also deny the imprisonment and persecution of those who dare to talk their minds. They deny that the regime in Ethiopia is dictatorial. Others of this category deny that the government there did and could do something good to the country. To these people, the roads, schools, universities, health facilities, dams, and condominiums built are nothing but mere mental constructions. The delusional are extremist if not terrorist people.

The developmental

The comments of this category of people indicate that Ethiopia is a truly developmental state comparable to some of the fastest growing economies and democracies worldwide. To them, the infrastructure built and the double-digit economic growth reported are more than adequate evidences for that. They describe how fruitful, relaxing, and empowering were their visits to Ethiopia. They list mega stores, luxury hotels, lodges, and restaurants built in Addis Ababa and in major towns and cities. And to demonstrate the improvement of the lives of millions, they mention how busy these catering businesses are. They also try to ascertain that Ethiopia attracts more than ever a great number of foreign investors with a bid to bolster agricultural transformations. Stated simply, these people tend to define the quality of life in Ethiopia by their comfort zones.

The gradual

These people hold that economic development and democratic governance could not be brought about overnight. “Rome was not built overnight” is their motto. They narrate how slowly the western world developed both economically and in democratic governance. To cover up all the socio-economic odds and evils in Ethiopia, they tell that even New York and Washington DC host beggars, criminals, the extra wealthy, and the excluded. Simply, they are overwhelmed by the economic and political changes taking place back home and count on time to witness even beyond-imagination changes.

The west phobic

To these people, all the problems in Ethiopia occur simply because of the invisible and evil hands of international organizations and the governments of the western countries. They argue that globalization and the Internet are powerful ways of exploiting the resources (both material and human) of the South- Africa. They believe that in order for Africa to prosper, the west must engage with them proactively and out of sheer good will. They believe that the IMF, the World Bank, the EU, the US and other multi-and bilateral organizations must make a policy change if we want to see Africa uplifted to the next higher ‘stages’ of development. To these people, African governments are servants and resource bases of the west.

The fighter

These people firmly believe that genuine and lasting socio-economic and political change could be brought about by armed struggle. Their rationale is that the government in Ethiopia does not understand peaceful discourse and discussions and the only language intelligible to them is force. They as a result consider online communications including papers as a waste of time and energy. To them, armed struggle could bring change to the scale of a full-blown revolution. That means, all the armed struggle must be waged from being within Ethiopia.

The police

These people tend to play a mediational and police role. They have a huge concern for the wellbeing of the country and they would like to see a common platform where the regime and the opposition could stand and converse. Their comments are intended to create such extremism-free zones. They highlight the perceived-to-be-good points of other commenters and advise others to cultivate good online morale. They are against people who leave nasty words against writers.

Concluding remarks

The aforementioned categories of people are just the major ones. One could come up with lists and lists of other categories. Plus, the eight categories are not mutually exclusive; a person could behave differently in different times and to different papers. A reader of a particular paper, for instance, could simultaneously be sympathetic, gradual, and police. Or, s/he could be an assassin, fighter, and/or west phobic. The most important question to ask is however related to the potential contributions of these categories of people to the advancement of democratic culture and social change in Ethiopia. There would not be a clear answer to this but one thing remains crystal clear. That a civilized online behavior (commenting) that entirely focuses on the ideas discussed in publications/papers is a demonstration of self-worth, mental health, moral responsibility, and accountability. Anything other than that is a saddening waste of precious psychic energy.

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