Tuesday, December 11, 2012

One Hundred and Forty

One Hundred and Forty

“Our children may learn about the heroes of the past. Our task is to make ourselves the architects of the future.”

One Hundred and Forty

“Kenya has become a country of ten millionaires and ten million beggars.”

 One Hundred and Forty

“It’s the little things that citizens do. That’s what will make a difference. My little thing is planting trees.”

One Hundred and Forty

These words spoken respectively by Jomo Kenyatta, JM Kariuki, and Wangari Maathai are similar in that they influenced millions. They also have something else in common. One Hundred and Forty. As in each of the statements is less than One hundred and Forty characters.

140 is the maximum number of characters that you can write on the social media website twitter. Kenyans are second only to South Africa in using twitter in Africa, sending nearly a million tweets a month. And 70% of these Kenyans on twitter are using it to monitor news. This is according to a study called How Africa Tweets conducted in 2011. For someone trying to get their message through, this represents a large and captive audience.

Next year in Kenya, we are going to have campaigns for the most intensely fought election with politicians targeting the highest number of elective seats and fighting over the biggest electorate ever. It is a year of superlative firsts.

Today, I’d like to know – for the first time, are we also likely to see the emergence of twitter as a medium of influence dissemination in Kenyan politics?

The prima facie test of the influence of a twitter account would be the number of followers it has – or how many people subscribe to receive messages from that specific account. Followers are twitter’s currency and users of twitter obsess on the number of their followers.

How does someone get more followers?

According to twitteranalysis.com my twitter account @startupkenya has been analysed as a perfect twitter user; which means I have just the right mix of interesting conversation, shared content, and engagement with other users. I’m sure you’ve all heard of @startupkenya, right?

The crickets confirm my suspicion. Despite my “perfect user” score and three years of tweeting I only have about 500 followers, barely enough to get on a ballot paper according to the Election Act. So how does one increase followers?

Back in 2011, an Indonesian filmmaker Joko Amwar with about 1800 followers tweeted that if he got his 3000th follower by a particular day, he’d walk naked on a public street. In a few hours he already had 10,000 followers and had to honour his promise. Let’s hope this does not encourage our honorable Minister Esther Murugi to take her unthreading threats to twitter in order to amass followers?

But does it mean that only voyeuristic tweets can earn one followers? And does having more followers really equate to more influence?

If that were the case, we would probably expect Martha Karua to be the next president in Kenya. As at December 2012, she is the Kenyan politician with the most followers – over 110,000 that’s 25 percent more than the next. However according to the latest opinion poll from Ipsos Synovate she is only popular with 2% of likely voters or put another way, statistically of all of you here, no one would vote for her.

But the number of followers is only half the story, what about the quality of followers and of the message? During last week’s Matutu crisis, Simon Oriko with less than 2,000 followers started a trend on twitter to help stranded Nairobians get free rides home. The trend dubbed CarPoolKE was a truly altruistic response to a commonly shared challenge. Not surprisingly the tweet was picked up by the Kenya Red Cross twitter account and shared among its 45,000 followers. It became a top trend that day and resulted in helping hundreds of people get home safely.

As far as elections go, a study published in September 2012’s issue of Nature magazine found that individuals were more likely to vote if they had seen a message indicating that their friends or friends had already voted. In countries with heavy media regulation, twitter has even more clout in shaping public opinion. The Arab Social Media Report by the Dubai School of Government gave empirical heft to the conventional wisdom that Twitter abetted if not enabled the historic Arab Spring.

So in conclusion we can see that for a message to have real influence, it does not need to be started by the most popular kid on the block, but it needs to have a message that resonates with the audience. The audience will then act as the conduit through which the message is shared with thousands or even millions of others.

So the question to ask yourself today is: How can I influence the elections in less than 140 characters?

This was the speech I delivered as part of my Competent Communicators project in toastmasters on December 10, 2012. Nairobi Toastmasters helps develop one's communication and leadership skills.