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Teddy Ruge and the online African diaspora

Teddy Ruge of Project Diaspora explains the complexity of the African diaspora on the Ars Electronica stage. He includes in the diaspora all people of African origins, both the descendents of people kidnapped in the slave trade and the more recent, voluntary diasporans, who he calls “neo-diasporans”. Using this broad definition, the contemporary diaspora includes 40 million in the US, 9 million in Europe, 22 million in the Caribbean and over 100 million in South America. There are complex cultural dynamics in this diaspora, a 150 years of cultural separation between slavery and colonialism, during which very few Africans had opportunities to migrate.

In a pre-internet age, Teddy tells us, it was very hard to communicate with fellow diasporans around the world. Myspace is widely used to share African music in culture, while Twitter is increasingly becoming the space for direct connections between diasporans who are geographically separated.

Diasporans having an influence on international conversations isn’t a new phenomenon – Teddy references Filippo Marinetti, an Egyptian/Italian who authored an influential futurist manifesto in 1909. More recently, we’ve seen economist Dambisa Moyo taking the stage with “Dead Aid”, a passionate argument against international aid to Africa. “Moyo is arguing an issue that’s too often been the province of middle aged white men,” and her influence was due, in part, to skillful use of social media.

Teddy discovered the power of social media for himself when he took on Aston Kucher and his strange campaign for Twitter followers. Hoping to pass CNN, Kucher asked twitter readers to follow him and bring him to 1 million followers, and promised a substantial donation to Malaria No More to buy bednets if the goal was achieved. This pissed Teddy off – it’s another example of paternalistic outsiders offering to “save” Africa – and he wrote an angry post in response. Amplified through twitter and blogs, his post was read and responded to by the anti-Malaria organization Kucher agreed to help.

We’re only starting to see the impact of the online diaspora – there are only about 65 million diasporans online. But the people who are online can help with the problem of African invisibility in digital spaces. Lots of maps of online populations ignore Africa entirely because of low penetration. Even at these low levels of access, there are 60,000 Ugandans on Facebook, from a national population of 32 million. “In the long run, there is deep potential for the diaspora to take the lead in communication and participation as Africa comes online.”

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