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Friday, 5 February 2010

State of the Zambian Internet

The Zambian Economist entered its fourth year this week. The time has certainly moved and so have the names. We have transitioned from Zambian Economist to Guardians of Our Time to New Zambia back to Zambian Economist.  It has been an exciting and challenging period of meeting Zambians and most importantly exchanging ideas on the many challenges facing the nation. Many thanks for those who regularly read the blog and find time to drop some ideas and keep the dialogue going.

I guess the third year anniversary of the blog provides an ideal opportunity to offer a few reflections on the state of Zambians' personal use of the internet, in particular in the area of blogging and the general exchange of information.

The Blogosphere

In 2007, I wrote a piece for Global Voices were I observed : "The Zambian blogsphere is growing. Two years ago one would struggle to find a regularly updated blog covering any meaningful issues. I am happy to report that is now changing. New blogs are being created at pace faster than I can count. And the good news is that what were personal entries are now being transformed into meaningful blogs that seek to encourage dialogue and trading of ideas. The fun blogs are there, but increasingly we are seeing more focused blogs geared towards Zambia's development....."

As I have reflected on this statement, I find that when it comes to internet usage prophecy is certainly not my spiritual gift. A strange thing has happened in the Zambian blogosphere. Rather than grow, it appears to have shrunk in recent times. In the early days of this blog we saw all kinds of other Zambian blogs popping up. Today very few Zambians blogs are update or maintained. Many people discovered that starting a blog is quick and easy. Few realise how difficult it is to maintain one. This incidentally is not a Zambian phenomenon. Today, millions of blog start-ups still exist on the web, but much of the blogosphere is beginning to look like a graveyard. Huge gaps in posts posted and the phrases “Sorry I haven’t posted lately” is the first line of many a front-page post.  Besides this blog, there's probably only the Zambian Union and Maravi that are regularly updated.  I suppose what makes it complicated is that nowadays it is very difficult to develop a focused following, especially with the rise of Facebook and Tweeter. Why read or start a blog when you can tweet? This brings us to the next development ...

Social Networking Sites

At the time this website was born much of the discussion took place either via email or Zambian dedicated social sites, most notably Bwanji, MSN Sossa, Zambian Online and Truly Zambian.  Bwanji was an interesting website which offered enormous potential but was blighted with negative forums. It portrayed a poor image of Zambia to the world. On Bwanji Zambian students from around the globe converged to exchange profanity and ignore the trade of ideas. Thankfully the site died of its own accord after a badly done update. All the other sites equally faded and where they remain, they are but a shadow. Why has this happened ? Its difficult to say but one of the factors must  Facebook which has provided significant critical mass that a social networker needs.  On facebook one can meet as many Zambians as he/she pleases. Within that forum you can form Zambian networks without severing your other interests.  Further more those who wish to offer quick views on news now have more specialised Zambian alternatives....

News Aggregators

The rise of Lusaka Times and the Zambian Watchdog have been one of the most important developments. Both sites are effectively news aggregators that reposts news from ZANIS (distributed via email to clients), ZNBC, The Post, Daily Mail, Times of Zambia, radio stations and foreign sources.  The primary role of these sites is not replace these established papers but to act as single portals for "breaking news".  I suppose we might say they reduce search costs for users. Why troll through each paper when you can find it all on Lusaka Times? Unless of course you have google reader...

But it would be wrong to suggest that is all they have done - I think they have also been successful in three ways. First, they have been able to offer real-time updates. Often when news break it takes days before various sites update. With the aggregators we see stories posted in quick time. Increasingly many websites are now beginning to appreacite the weight Zambian users put on immediate news. Second, the aggregators by offering commenting facilities have liberated users.  The ability to comment on news has allowed for diversity in opinion and encouraged the democratisation of dialogue. As more and more Zambians access the web, such forums would provide a good platforms to share divergent views. Finally, linked to the last point, these aggregators have offered an incentive to existing users to innovate and new users to emerge. Such is the threat that the Post has now departing from its erroneous policy of charging and is now offering comments and other wonderful features.  This brings us to another development...

Newspaper and Radio Online

Without doubt the most significant has been the increasing number of  radio websites. For sometime I had been puzzled why radio stations had not harnessed the website and offered services to Zambians abroad.    Thank fully we no longer have to ask this question. From QFM to Flava FM we are now seeing more and more radio stations take their place on the web.  Indeed such is the move in technology that now you can plug your iPhone in the dock and immediately pick Radio Icengelo via Wunderradio.  In the future I am sure these radio stations will create their own applications and be able to attract listerners that way.

At this point we should not that one thing has remained stagnant : government owned media. The Times, Daily Mail and ZNBC look like they are stuck in time warp. To say that these websites are pre-historic does not quite convey their poor management. For example, ZNBC radio stations do not even have websites. To some extent these websites are symptomatic of the entire state apparatus : "authoritarian incompetence".  Selling these organisations is critical if we are to ensure they are brought in the modern era. It is not right that tax payer funded organisations should always lag behind common developments.

Blogtalk Radio

There's another form of radio which is worth mentioning. James Mwape should be commended for initiating a process that now has led to multiple Zambian blog-talk radios. Many Zambians prefer to talk rather than write. Talking is extremely useful because it allows you to discuss ideas in real time. It also offers an opportunity to get Zambian politicians in on discussions. It is hard to get a politician to write a meaningful Op'ed but everyone one loves to get their voice heard!  The Blog Talk Radio forums have been particularly instrumental in spurring debate. Many important political players have appeared and discussed issues.

You can found out about future shows by following the leading market players Diaspora Voice and Zambia Blog Talk Radio.

Government Websites

Perhaps the most disappointing development in the last three years has been the failure by Government websites to step up to the mark. I remember once when I posted a link to the Energy Regulation Board only to get many emails that the website never worked. I am happy to report that since then it appears to be functioning correctly. Indeed, I have found that non-Executive bodies (e.g. Parliament Online, Zambia Development Agency, and other) generally perform better. The same cannot be said about Government Ministries and their mouth pieces (Daily & Times). These websites are need of much uplift.  I would like to think that by our next anniversary, we shall report such progress. Indeed, it is hoped that next year we shall have a more comprehensive Electoral Council of Zambia website with much more live information.

Honourable Mention

During the 2008 Elections, a temporary website was created called Zambia Elections. This website has now folded. I believe one of the radio stations created the site. It was a great development and was well received. Perhaps in 2011 we shall not only have one, but two or three such sites collecting information independently. 

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