Re-Imagining Social Norms on the Internet

By Tess Wandia
iHub Research
  Published 01 Oct 2018
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(iHub Research's session script from #FIFAfrica2018)

Since the mid-1990s, the Internet has had a revolutionary impact on culture, commerce, and technology, including the rise of near-instant communication by electronic mail, instant messaging, voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephone calls, two-way interactive video calls, and the World Wide Web with its discussion forums, blogs, social networking, and online shopping sites.

With over 4 billion people on the internet, this number is only set to grow, especially with the age at which users are getting online steadily decreases.In Africa we have over 464 million users, with more male users than female.

Before we proceed let’s take a closer look at culture.

Culture is the totality of socially transmitted behaviour patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.  The internet’s genesis may not be African, but the very essence of having Africans on the internet, makes the internet African. Our unique identity marker, being african through our African culture, naturally spills onto the internet, making it unique to our own African reality.

What is African culture? How do we define it for ourselves?

Africa, a continent of 54 countries and over 2,000 tribes and languages spoken boasts a diversity unique, the world over. Clearly, Africa is not a country. However, our culture brings us together. Central to African culture, is the existence of values. A value here being a point of view or conviction; to live by and even in some cases die for. If we look at African values, they fall in different categories:

  • Social Values
  • Moral Values
  • Religious Values
  • Political Values
  • Aesthetic Values
  • Economic Values

Culture is passed on from generation to generation. The acquisition of culture is a result of the socialisation process. Culture is not static, it is dynamic, over the years coming from external as well as internal influences and humankind progression, as development occurs. If we look at African culture today, it has definitely expanded and contracted to accommodate the people we are today.

Cultural norms should seek to include rather than exclude people from participating in it, and hence the reason why these norms evolve over the years as people do across generations.

The year is 2018, African culture today is an integral part, when it comes to online interactions. The conversations had by Africans online, are for the most part informed by our culture. This is exhibited by the languages used, discourse on religion, arguments regarding gender roles and even enjoyment of art amongst other topics.

In our research conducted on Kenyan Women’s experiences online, we found out that:

  1. Women of different profiles experience the internet differently
  2. Women of different profiles get harassed online
  3. Women of different profiles respond differently to harassment online
  4. Women of different profiles need different support to be safer online

Another very important hypothesis that we validated from our research was that, women are harassed just for being women and this unwarranted abuse, often takes an ugly sexual turn. Patriarchal systems (those controlled by men) are pervasive in our schools, in our workplaces, our churches and even in our homes. So it it only natural that the internet wasn’t left behind.

But how does this serve us? Apart from preventing women from participating online and reducing the potential of connecting the next billion?

Negative and harmful traditional practices that dehumanise people and portray them as unimproved and backward people without future, should as a matter of urgency be discarded since culture is an adaptive system together with values that play a central role in giving the society its uniqueness. (Idang 2015)

This is what patriarchal systems do, they dehumanise and portray women as less than.

Using the example of FGM, this was a part of african practises, it is a practise that has been abolished because it risked the lives of women and took away their autonomy over their own bodies. Our beliefs regarding Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) evolved, why can’t we re-imagine our position when it comes to other cultural norms and practises that harm rather than add value to our collective identity?

In this room we have a group of digital rights stakeholders, keen on securing internet freedom for all, regardless of sexual identity, age, religious beliefs and occupational identity. Our goals are pretty audacious, realistic, but audacious all the same:

  1. Connect the next billion?!
  2. Close the gender gap online?!

Cultural norms are inhibiting us from reaching our goals as digital rights stakeholders, so how are we addressing that? Beyond increasing infrastructural coverage, digital literacy, policy reform how are we fixing the disconnect between our cultural norms and digital rights goals?

At the iHub we are taking the time to address these cultural norms that are inhibiting our progress online one user at a time, by providing young people with informal spaces to challenge these beliefs.

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