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Africa's mobile Internet boom could revolutionise the way scientists, policymakers and the public interact, says Linda Nordling.
To most Africans, tweeting is still just what birds do. But as the Internet becomes more accessible across the continent, social media, such as the micro-blogging site Twitter and Facebook, are gaining popularity.
This development will open up new lines of communication between scientists, policymakers and the public.
But its benefits will come only if all parties are ready to start engaging each other as equals — and if African governments welcome the personal liberty and openness that social media promote.
A boon for science
Internet use in Africa is growing. Nearly one in ten Africans had access to the Internet in 2010 — up from one in 200 ten years ago, according to the UN's International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
Most Africans access the Internet through their mobile phones. The ITU reports that usage of the mobile Internet overtook fixed connections in Africa in the last quarter of 2009.
Mobile operators have teamed up with networking sites such as Facebook to offer data access, which is normally expensive, free of charge. Such marketing tools have paid off. Last year more than 17 million Africans were on Facebook, up from 10 million in 2009.
This is good news for science. Social media are a brilliant way to share funding opportunities and research findings. Many African scientists use them to keep in touch with friends and colleagues.
Facebook, Twitter and blogs are also useful for public relations — so it is not surprising that press officers and journalists make up many of Africa's Twitter pioneers.
"I use Twitter to circulate news items, and the response is usually quite good. We get people re-tweeting, and every time I post an item, we get a bunch of new followers," says Liz Ng'ang'a, communications consultant for the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (Icipe) in Nairobi, Kenya.
Opening up science policy
But social media are also a powerful arena for discussing science policy, and are especially useful for those who would otherwise not have a say in such discussions.
The strength of social media, particularly Twitter, lies in creating a level playing field. Unlike e-mail, the programme opens up conversations to whoever wants to engage with them, be they scientists, policymakers or the public.
The power of Twitter to network people with similar interests was showcased in the lead-up to the UK general election last year. Supporters of the country's science efforts rallied under the banner #scivote (the symbol # denoting a conversation thread on Twitter) to lobby for science to be spared from budget cuts.
"It takes some time, but once you have engaged ministers and an active community, social media can be a great resource for scientists and science journalists," says Brian Owens, a London-based science policy journalist.
A new discourse
Of course, the success of such campaigns in Africa depends on people with decision-making power, such as politicians and government officials, also joining in the debate.
This requires a new type of interaction between policymakers and the people they work for — the public. Twitter posts are limited to 140 characters so they are direct, blunt and leave no space for the rigid protocol that tends to characterize African policy gatherings.
This could be a sticking point in Africa. "I have doubts about the African technocrats," Ng'ang'a says. "I don't know if they can relax into Twitter etiquette, which requires them to strip themselves of whatever office they hold and basically just become another 'tweep' [Twitter user]."
Cecilia van der Merwe, an engineer who works on South Africa's Square Kilometre Array bid to host the world's most powerful radio telescope, agrees. "Social networking is still a bit of a foreign concept here in Africa and, in my experience, political agencies tend to prefer more formal channels of communication," she says.
An African science policy 'twitterati'
Some African politicians are leading the way. Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame, engages with his people on Twitter. Only last month he engaged with a critic on the subject of cutbacks to university student loans.
If more politicians would follow in Kagame's footsteps, Twitter could become the most direct way for Africans to engage with their leaders. With 45 per cent of Africa covered by GSM mobile-phone networks, people in rural areas as well as cities would be able to participate.
But that will become a reality only if African governments promote this technology. There are already concerns that social media might be limited in the continent because of their role in organising revolutions in North Africa.
Last month, the MTN mobile-phone network in Cameroon blocked a service that allows subscribers to update Twitter via SMS (short message service). According to the service providers, the ten-day ban was put in place on the instruction of the country's government, which insisted it was for reasons of "state security".
Such reports are worrying but should not discourage journalists, policymakers, scientists and the public from exploring how social media can help people rally around common interests.
So, to start building an African science policy 'twitterati', this column will be tweeted with the tag #Afriscipolicy. Join the discussion!
Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa, specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, the Guardian, Nature and others.