From a vir­tual to a real com­mu­nity

CityPress - - Voices - Feizel Mam­doo voices@ city­press. co. za

‘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 so­cial­me­di­aisthatit­would­sub­sti­tute­face-to-facein­ter­ac­tion. 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.

In­the­p­ro­cess, neigh­boursinthe­former­whites-only­sub­urb 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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