From a virtual to a real community

2014-08-20 18:45

“Number 20’s doors are open. Does anyone know if all is okay? I received a call concerned about the property,” queries Nancy.

Ahmed responds: “Will be in the area in about 15 min only, but can drive by.”

Before too long, Ahmed reports: “Seems fine. Worker there says gate is jammed open. Called ADT patrol, who will keep an eye.”

“Aaaah that’s me!!!” Nicci pips in. “Thanks guys! I’m in hospital with my little one?–?thank you, will send my partner to close it. It’s very annoying, brand-new motor and keeps opening by itself. Thanks again everyone.”

“Is your little one alright?” Mary-Anne follows up.

“Thanks Mary-Anne, got pneumonia but we’re in good hands.”

“We hold you in prayer,” someone says.

“Good luck,” says someone else.

“May God bless your little one with a speedy recovery and u with peace in a stressful time,” another says.

This is an event on mobile messaging application WhatsApp between members of a neighbourhood in Blairgowrie, northern Joburg. It shows the potential of social media to build community rather than necessarily undermine it as has been feared.

Among the concerns that have accompanied the advent of social media is that it would substitute face-to-face interaction. A UN Children’s Fund survey in 2011 showed that South African teenagers would rather chat on Mxit, a mobile social network, than actually meet friends in person.

Dr Seth Masket of the University of Denver observes: “We are, perhaps, too wired?–?more attuned to events and friends thousands of miles away than to what’s going on right in front of our faces, more likely to share cat videos over smartphones than to play catch in our backyards.

“Perhaps these technological changes are compelling us to withdraw from the physical world, promoting antisocial behaviour and undermining our true relationships.”

But as Masket notes, studies show that while technology has affected relationships, it hasn’t undermined them.

He quotes research by Barry Wellman, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, which shows that the use of social media has augmented personal relationships.

This is being borne out in the experience of the Blairgowrie neighbourhood to which Ahmed moved just over two years ago. Until the establishment of the WhatsApp group that linked them, he had no relationships with members of his community.

“It’s interesting,” he says. “I used to drive past people in the area without any kind of acknowledgement between us.

“Now we have a sense of connection. The person I pass in the street may very likely be someone I engage with on WhatsApp.”

WhatsApp allows for the real-time exchange of messages between cellphones and users are able to create interest groups of up to 50?–?as in the case of this neighbourhood.

Started as a measure to mitigate crime, the WhatsApp group has evolved to support community efforts to maintain the local park.

In the process, neighbours in the former whites-only suburb are getting to know one another in a way reminiscent of many black township communities, or the closely knit pre-Group Areas Act communities, such as Fietas and District Six, from which the townships were wrought.

In research I had undertaken on social cohesion for the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection, Shadrack Motaung, who lives in Orlando West, Soweto, typified the way in which neighbours know one another.

Describing his neighbourhood, he readily named all its families and their occupations.

“The Maseko family were merchant dealers and supplied coal to Soweto,” he said. “Mr Shabalala owned a string of shops. There was the house of the inspector of health, Mr Ngwenya, and behind him lived Mr Jafta, a businessman.”

Such knowledge of his neighbours escaped Ahmed in Blairgowrie until the WhatsApp group was established.

As the skills and talents of members of the group become known, to benefit community projects and private service needs, the high walls behind which members of the community are isolated are being breached.

Ahmed now knows that Gareth at Number 7 is a plumber, Gerard on the corner is a retired electrician, Shirley?–?who lives opposite him?–?cooks and caters and Nicci’s little one is in hospital with pneumonia.

The concern about social media laying bare private lives is being fulfilled with a twist. Knowledge about the circumstances of members in the neighbourhood is fostering solidarity and cohesion.

Fridge space is offered to former strangers who suffer power outages and the professional skills of members of the community are being circulated to service private needs, fostering something of an integrated local economy – an important dimension of local social cohesion.

A virtual community is promoting real community on other platforms too. A Facebook group started in support of the Barcelona football team now meets at the Zoo Lake Bowling Club to watch matches live.

News just posted on WhatsApp in Blairgowrie is that Christine is looking for someone who can give “a bit of maths assistance” to her domestic worker’s son. He is battling in particular with “trig ratios”, she says.

» Mamdoo is a heritage, arts and culture worker

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