By Jude Serbeh-Boateng
Recently, I discussed the effects of our over-reliance on social media with a friend. I told him all the measures I’d taken to ensure I reduce my reliance on social media. I considered these measures my righteous rebellion, and so I was surprised when he said I was fighting a losing battle. He said it’s only going to get worse, and I’ll be left with no room to navigate the world without it. But he is probably right. The alteration of human communication didn’t start with social media. We have been through different phases where technology has mediated our conversations with others. Each period increased our reliance on an external medium for human interaction, but none has been as menacing in its interruption of traditional human contact as social media.
My earliest memories of this evolution were communication centers—my aunt owned a communication center in the area where I grew up. I’d watch people come in to make calls on numbers carefully written on crumbled pieces of paper. I never got tired of seeing the gasp of surprise when they heard the voice from the other side. They didn’t know how it was happening, but they were amazed by it. They had never seen anything like it. The only people who were happier than those who came to make calls were those who received calls. Their relatives would have promised to call at a specific time, so they would come and wait until an attendant gave them the phone. That was when you would hear the shrill voice of an adult saying, “Hello Kofi, wo te me nka?” They just couldn’t believe they could be heard on the other side, standing outside of all places. That’s how communication centers in Kumasi came to be known as “megyina abonten na merekasa yi.” People said this with fascination every time they were sure the other person could hear them. When landlines came along, the craze about “megyina abonten na merekasa yi” died down.
I was there when mobile phones were becoming a thing–back when sim cards cost one million cedis, and mobile phones looked like bar soaps. I also remember when they became relatively widespread. When most parents had phones and their kids sneaked around to use them. Fast forward to when young people came to own phones. The first time I used a phone of my own was after junior high school. Back in the day, Tigo had a promotion called “free day” that allowed subscribers to talk from 6 am to 6 pm. Every young person I knew was on it. We’d talk to each other all day without hanging up, even when we didn’t have anything left to say. After that came MTN free night calls for the young love birds.
I was there when Facebook first came around. I was in SHS then. Everyone cool had a Facebook account. After school one day, my friends and I went to ‘buy time’ at an internet café close by. We all created Facebook accounts. And every day after that, we’d go to this café to check for who had accepted or sent us friend requests. Back then, the prestige was in the number of friends you had on Facebook. It also mattered who your friends were. In my high school, this young lady—who was Miss World in her head—was notorious for not accepting friend requests on Facebook. I remember how Johnson suddenly shot to fame when she accepted his friend request.
I was there when ‘WhatsApp phones’ started coming in. They were called WhatsApp phones because they supported the WhatsApp app. The app was such a big deal because before it took root, there was the Blackberry. One of the selling points of the Blackberry was something called the Blackberry Messenger (BBM). The way it worked was that you needed the Blackberry pin of another person who also used the phone. Whether intended or not, it quickly created an exclusive social club of the haves and the have nots. Many babies were born on the backs of “I’ll buy you a Blackberry” promises. I imagine those kids are old now and don’t understand why Blackberries were ever a big deal.
WhatsApp was not discriminatory in that regard. All you needed was a phone that supported the app. The first WhatsApp phone I used was the Nokia C3, just when I started college. I was so attached to that phone that I fell sick when it was stolen. When I eventually got enough money to buy another one, a friend told me that C3s were no longer cool. He said the real deal was the Samsung Galaxy Pocket, so I got that. Shortly after the Galaxy Pocket, I could no longer keep up with new phones. The brands, the types, and the sizes were all through the roof. What stood out was the iPhone, the most popular of which was the iPhone 5s. It was said that a Hollywood movie was shot with the camera of the 5s. Many wondered if anything could top that. But as you may well know, someone is ‘tasting history’ right now to have iPhone 13 money wired to them.
In a nutshell, I was there for all of it: Viber, Instagram, Twitter, Telegram, Snapchat, Tiktok, etc; and I have engaged actively on all of them, but now, with years of that experience under my belt, it seems to me that social media-mediated communication is probably the most impersonal and often brings the worst out of human nature. The excitement in people’s voices when they used the phone in my aunt’s store, the jumpy days of free night calls, and the early days of WhatsApp phones are totally at odds with the constant rage on Twitter, the fake news on Facebook and the self-esteem-shattering feeds on Instagram.
Also, the social media generation may be robbed of the luxury of reminiscing on the good old days and spicing them with the necessary untruths. And this is because our lives are being documented in ways that have never been seen before. For most adults today, records of their past lives are only limited to a few old pictures and what memory or honesty permits. Brett Kavanaugh, for example, may not have gotten away with the allegation against him during his confirmation if his high school party had selfie cameras pointing in all directions covering the night. Perhaps it is good that people can no longer get away with lies or sexual misconduct, but there will be many things that fall in the middle of the extremes. And for a generation that does not believe in redemption, we may just have to wait and see how these videos and comments that freeze people in time play out, hoping that my friend’s prediction is not as ominous.