On a crisp Friday afternoon, four young people - two boys and two girls- are seated in a coffee shop in Kigali. It is the ideal place and time for a double date or perhaps just youthful folk catching up. But they are not saying a word to each other, they are all engrossed in their gadgets, three have what seem like smart phones and the fourth has a tablet. Once in a while, one of them whispers to another while pointing to something on their screen.
Welcome to the age of social media and electronic communication, also called technological advancement.
Social media came as a channel for us to share details of our lives and thoughts with people we know and don’t know and a chance to call them friends. It created new levels of social interaction in ways never imagined before. But the revolutionary concept has been repeatedly mentioned as a cause of the barrier it set out to break.
Patrick Mutoni, a 23- year -old student at Mount Kenya University has an account on several social media; Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, and Instagram as well as a blog with Wordpress. All these social media platforms take up most of his leisure time if he is not in class or at his mother’s shop in Kimironko.
“Cumulatively I spend not less than five hours a day online. I don’t consider it a lot of time. It gives me a chance to reach out to ‘friends’. It is not about sharing every bit of my life, it is getting to understand and see things from other people’s point of view, engage in discussions and sharing jokes,” Mutoni explains.
He confesses that he always signs in online while even at social places like banks, taxis or even in between class breaks.
“Whenever I get into a taxi or walk into a bank, I pull out my phone; it helps me avoid idle chat with strangers around me. It lets me choose people I consider interesting and intelligent. There is not much I can discuss with a complete stranger face to face without invading their privacy or exposing mine,” Patrick says.
While Mutoni is scared of face to face interactions, 54- year- old Andrew Niyigena is a worried man.
He is worried of what is becoming of his son’s social skills and the young generation as a whole.
“Young men cannot talk to girls face to face without being tongue tied. At times you can clearly see they are interested in a girl but they can hardly keep a conversation going. After a few minutes they always ask ‘what’s your name on Facebook?’ Gone are the days when people talked face to face, you’d sit next to someone in a taxi and by the time you got off, you were acquainted. You’d meet a few days later and they would remember you. But social media took that away, there are less handshakes these days,” Niyigena expresses.
An article ‘Social media addiction killing real human ties and interactions’ published on businessdailyafrica.com showed that we need to understand that regardless of how much social media we incorporate into our lives, nothing can ever replace that smile, nod or hug. Our online engagement needs only to be a tool to foster more offline engagement.
The same article quoted Albert Einstein saying that, “I fear the day when technology will overlap with our humanity. The world will only have a generation of idiots.”
So is the world becoming a world of idiots?
Pauline Wanjiku, a counselor and a sociology student thinks that most frequent users of social media are not very comfortable with traditional communication.
“In a way, human contact is being replaced by electronic communication. People express themselves through posts, tweets, updates and blogs but not verbally. Facial expressions and other non-verbal communication forms don’t count much. Forging relationships and making decisions is at times based on phrases or emoticons. It is not my place to say which is better but in a way it is quantity versus quality. Face to face communication is quality,” Wanjiku reveals.
She further notes that most people monitor the impressions they make on social media outlets more than they do in real life.
“A growing number of social media users are very keen on the impressions made online than in real life. It is possible to learn the real character of a person by going through their timeline,” Wanjiku explains.
Tetha Dushimimana, a 25 -year -old entrepreneur admits to logging in on Facebook almost all day just like most youth or anyone else on the social media network.
“We are lucky to live in the interesting times where we can share bits of our lives with a lot of people in real time. But that doesn’t take away the point of human contact, we need it too. It is possible to make the best of both without either of them suffering. Neither of them can supplement the other.
At times people are carried away by social media, you may see a couple on a date but one of them is on the phone most of the time but that doesn’t mean we have lost it,” Dushimimana confirms.
Although most people claim that social media is killing the face to face interaction, there are people who have found love thanks to social media.
23-year-old Angie Ruterana, a receptionist, admits to meeting her current boyfriend on Facebook 15 months ago.
She narrates how they became mutual friends after he sent her friend request.
“I didn’t know from the start that we would one day become intimately connected but with time we got acquainted and began to exchange messages. So I believe that social media has changed the way we interact but not negatively,” Ruterana explains.
She says people tend to portray their real selves on Twitter or Facebook.
“Seeing someone’s tweets or posts on Facebook is at times more valuable than seeing any other credentials, you get to see what matters to them and how they think,” Ruterana adds.
She adds that, “If the young generation can prove that it is possible to strike a balance between normal human contact and interaction via social media, it would be proof that they both are important. If they can maintain authentic human interaction, then nothing will be stripped away. If not, then it’s too bad.”