While we tend to focus on the ugly side of social media - the hate speech, bullying, fake news – a silent but exciting revolution has happened in it.
Type “African history” in the Twitter search and Google, and you will be surprised at which offers the more user-friendly, though not richer, experience.
If you are researching the popular art movements in Africa, especially hyperrealism, the best two places to find it are Twitter and Facebook.
Interesting things also happen if you just stare hard at social media, and ask “what is the big story here?” You will see a fascinating social laboratory.
For those interested in the shifts in Africa, two very good cases are what happened with the Somalia legislative elections of October and November 2016, and its presidential election in February last year.
And then last November, when the Zimbabwe army and the ruling Zanu-PF choreographed a velvet coup and ousted strongman Robert Mugabe after he had been in power for 37 years, long enough to bring a once prosperous country to its knees.
Mugabe’s 94th birthday, by the way, is coming up on February 21, and this time, there will probably be no national cutting of a giant birthday cake, and hundreds of cows, goats, chickens, and wildlife will get to live because the days of feasting that accompanied the ticking of the clock on Uncle Bob’s long-life are gone.
Social media can be a very good indicator of the state of mind of a country’s people.
The people of Botswana are rich, don’t endure police beatings every day, and don’t worry that a president will change the constitution and cling to power.
They are generally laidback, satisfied, and not shrill on social media.
Somalia has been blighted by war, famines, and fanatic militia for decades, though it has seen considerable change since the African Union peacekeeping force, Amisom, set up shop there from late 2007.
The Somali elections went off remarkably well and served up Africa’s most unique legislature.
A third of its 275 members of Parliament hold foreign passports.
But most dramatically, nearly 60 per cent were between the ages of 25 and 50, the youngest on the continent.
Then the number of women in Parliament rose to 24 per cent, putting it ahead of countries such as Kenya, and above the sub-Saharan rate of 22 per cent.
That made Somalia the Muslim country with the highest number of elected women in a legislature, if my additions are not shaky.
Then, the Parliament elected a dual American-Somali citizen, Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo” Mohamed, as president, and Hassan Ali Khaire, a Somali-Norwegian, as prime minister.
It’s the only country on the continent where both the president and PM are dual citizens.
Somalis seem to see themselves as a window into what a young, diaspora-shaped African society, might look like, and to hold of the possibilities for women in politics in poor Muslim countries.
That sense of euphoria is still clear in the tone of Somalis on social media.
Many men changed their profile photos to ones where they appear in sharp suits, and a lot of women took off the chadors, the al-amiras, and in came with the shaylas – and, oh yes, brighter makeup.
The change in post-Mugabe has been even more dramatic.
First, Zimbabwe tweeps are less angry. They are prouder.
But the most noticeable shift is the sheer number of them who took down photos of footballers, models, movie stars, Nelson Mandela, and Thomas Sankara for their profiles and put up their real selves.
There are many obvious insights we can glean from this.
But the less obvious one is what it says about the architecture of national pride.
It seems that it is harder, and more humiliating, to see your country go down the drain through the incompetence and corruption of its leaders and officials and you are helpless to stop it – or even enable it through tribal voting.
It is easier if it goes down because of civil war, prolonged drought, or a massive invasion of locusts, anything but the folly of your fellow citizens.
At least that way, you have a good excuse, and can rely on the sympathy, compassion, and understanding of strangers.
Economist Robert Coase famously said:
“If you torture data long enough it will confess.” It seems if you stare at social media long enough, it will confess its secrets.
The author is publisher of Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. [email protected]