#YouKnowYoureSouthAfricanWhen: can hashtags shape a nation’s story?

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People love to laugh at themselves, especially at times when the country they live in seems at odds with itself. You just have to look at stand-up comedy and satirical cartoons in a country like South Africa to see that. But social media has provided a new medium for this, and this past weekend saw the hashtag #YouKnowYoureSouthAfricanWhen giving us the giggles.

Some of our favourites included:

Tweets were surprisingly lacking in the cynical tone that Saffas usually adopt when discussing the state of the nation. Predictably, though, most contained a dose of our local brand of affectionate mockery.
Our habit of caricaturing ourselves spawned another recent trend – #wordsthatchowblacks –which poked fun at some of the non-English accents in the country:

This didn’t mean any politically-correct hats were hung up though:

Hashtag trends, like rotation curation, where a country rotates its national Twitter account between users, can be a form of national storytelling that doesn’t prioritise the voices of journalists or marketing teams. If they can navigate the local dialects, international followers may even get a peek at South African culture that isn’t sterilised and packaged by tourism organisations or — even worse — badly produced foreign media.

For South Africans, such trends are, like good stand-up comedy, a possible nation-building device. They open up a space for inter-cultural conversations that most ordinary citizens don’t tend to have on the street. Twitter is a limited tool for nation-building, though, for the same reasons that it’s an imperfect tool for social change. It’s not a medium that is accessible (or useful) for many South Africans, and the tweeps participating in the trend are generally middle-class English speakers.

Its imperfections don’t render it useless, however. Identity-based topics like these are indicative of the way that the internet caters to niche markets that enjoy nostalgia, and South Africans could do with a bout of nostalgia that isn’t remnant of apartheid, poverty or crime. They get to look back and tell their own local stories, one tweet at a time. And laugh while they’re doing it.



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