Zimbabwean, Facebook and the changing meaning of "friend" and "community"

WHEN WE were little children on the dusty streets of the township you knew who your friends were and where your “enemies” lived. You played soccer with your friends. You had running battles with your “enemies” – normally boys from a different street. The rules were clear – you could not be close to the “enemies” as you could be labelled a “spy” and face ostracism from your group.

Now, in my adult life I get perplexed when I receive an e-mail from someone I barely know asking me to be their friend. The word friend seems to have mutated to the point where I am lost. Apparently there is something called Facebook and those who have been there tell us this land is a land where everyone connects to everyone. I am told it’s like Mahenya village where everyone greets everyone but this one is much bigger. 500 million people live in this village. 500 million and still counting!

The headman of this village is a little boy named Mark Zuckerberg. He is only 26 (aay, in my time chiefs were always old and wise). In the village I am told, you simply ask "Can I be your friend?" and someone can just click a button and, behold, you are friends. Magic. If you no longer want to be friends (a very rare act given that in this village you compete on the number of shamwari you have) then you "de-friend" that person. In my days we used to break up friendships using fists. But the Facebook village is very civilised, I am told.

During the December holidays two young women met at the Beit Bridge border post. They had last met twelve years back in High School but one exclaimed, "But it’s like I see you every day. Aah Facebook yakazouya iyi (oh, the arrival of Facebook!)" I knew then that this village was another kind of village. The village was connecting friends, former schoolmates, family, former and current lovers and all sorts.

Now this Comrade Zuckerberg’s village is worth 50 billion US dollars (not Kwacha, sisi) – 50 billion greenbacks. I am not sure how much the Chiadzwa diamonds are worth but can you imagine that much money created without digging the ground with your bare hands? But there is a catch I am told – this valuation is based on what some Wall Street bankers have said after investing 450 million in this big village. Apparently, some say, those with short memories have forgotten something called the dotcom crash of 2000 when all sorts of useless online companies that had been formed went under.

But maybe this village will survive but a few cool heads are asking what would happen if some other better village is built. It has happened before. A town called Myspace.com is now deserted and looking forlorn. But the used car salesmen tell us Facebook is the real deal and that it will even be bigger than that funny-sounding thing called Google (it has nothing to do with water going down the toilet basin).

The killer was my father asking me what Facebook was. His reason, "Everyone is telling us that they heard this or that on Facebook." Mark Zuckerberg, Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2010, would be mighty glad to hear about my old man’s fixation with FB. He would also be pleased to come across a commuter omnibus that plies the City-Glen View route that bears, in bold letters, the legend: facebook.com.

So what could the smart bankers be paying for? What they are paying for scares me a bit. All of you who live in this village are "clients". You have given very valuable information about yourselves. Your name, sex, age, education, interests, family, pets…All this is very valuable information to different constituencies.

Consider just two sets of constituencies and their different motives to know more about you:

Advertisers: If I would like to sell sweet potatoes I would like to know who could possibly be interested in mbambaira. Now Facebook allows me to target my adverts to "faceful" people (as opposed to faceless masses). The social network can give me the location, age and interests of the people I wish to target. No more fembera-fembera (abracadabra) here. You then have to ask yourself, if the FB people have so much information on you where do they keep it? Who will they give it to? How will they use it now and in the future? Don’t tell me about privacy agreements – commercial imperatives trump that.

Employers: Now if you want to know more about the people you employ, Facebook is just the platform. Increasingly job interviews in some parts of the globe are preceded with checks on a candidate’s social media profile. Those killjoys will scour Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter etc and collect the nuggets that sum you up and then laugh as you try to lie in the interview about your sober and Christian habits.

Then, of course, there are many other people that will want to know about you and your activities – current and former lovers, creditors, scammers,"player-haters"… There are also people who want to be "friends" with your child…

Still, having played the bogeyman I would say enjoy the big village called Facebook and what it offers but just exercise the same caution you would display in ordinary life. Like keeping your passport, bank cards and your family safe. – 

Publisher: Chris Kabwato (chris@digitalartsafrica.org) 

  Editor: Levi kabwato (levi@zimbabweinpictures.com)

Newsroom: editor@zimbabweinpictures.com, +27-73-212 0629