Jamaican Online Communities and Viral Content

I am always amazed at the difference between my Facebook feed and my friends’. Sometimes my friend Andrica will start talking about some viral video with the hottest new Jamaican social media commentator, usually discussing some aspect of Jamaican heterosexual relationships and stare at me incredulously if I don’t know what she’s talking about. Similarly, I will spout off about a trending story about a matter of national importance and find that she has not heard of it at all.

Basically, Andrica and I, through our usership patterns of the same social media networks have indicated to the networks, the kind of content we’re interested in. Every like, every share, every comment, every retweet is loaded with data which these companies use to keep us entertained and engaging with their service longer.

This simple idea can be extrapolated to the nation-level to show how the aggregated usership patterns of the people of a nation, can shape the dominant information those people are generally fed. Because social networks operate in this manner — the more a thing is shared or retweeted or interacted with, the more attention it gets from the rest of the public — the creators in cyberspace become socialized to create content that goes with the perceived dominant discourse in order to access “virality” or the state of getting massive amounts of attention online and swimming closer to the top of most people’s feeds.

Similarly, consumers of online content are socialized to seek out and perpetuate the dominant material to make themselves appear more “in” or to attain approval and fame within cyberspace. This has created a fertile space for digital activists to create campaigns that get the attention of many people.

In November 2014, a journalist asked a politician to comment on an issue of perceived importance to Jamaicans because this issue had become a major talking point online, specifically on social network site Twitter. The politician, in expressing his view that “ordinary Jamaicans” did not in fact care about the issue said,

“No ordinary Jamaican not speaking about it…Twitter? Twitter is ordinary Jamaican? Ordinary Jamaicans know anything about Twitter?”

Then he called the Jamaican community on Twitter an “articulate minority”.

As is typical of Jamaican politics, politicians sometimes underestimate the impact their words can have on the public, and over the next few weeks Jamaicans, especially digital activists and citizen journalists on Twitter tweeted incessantly at the politician and about the issue using the hashtag #ArticulateMinority. The Twitter storm got picked up by local news and soon the entire country was buzzing about the issue as well.

By now, trending on Twitter is something Jamaicans in cyberspace have arguably gotten used to, in fact in other countries, the group of Jamaicans online are referred to as “Jamaican Twitter” in a similar way to American “Black Twitter”. I often visualize this as a club or a gated community within a parish — known for it’s unique view and patterns of behaviour. For example when #BuzzfeedBeLike and #JamaicansatHogwarts or even #KaciFennell started trending worldwide over the last two years, it wasn’t only Jamaicans tweeting about the issue. It was people from all over the world, interacting with tweets often made in Jamaican language and imbued with Jamaican sensibilities.

And although or numbers do not compare to those of larger more developed countries, (In 2015, almost half of Jamaica’s population was engaging with cyberspace consistently or inconsistently, (43.2% according to The World Bank), the impact we have online is significant.

The “physical” growth of Jamaican Twitter is also utilized not only by individual creators but by civil society groups and companies. Almost every day there is one Twitter chat or the other happening, discussing critical developmental issues and important causes. These groups — WeChange, Respect Jamaica, Talk Up Yout, J-Flag, JYAN, Jamaicans for Justice, UNICEF Jamaica, etc., and companies like Digicel Jamaica, NCB, Scotiabank etc.,, make good use of opinion leaders in the spaces to create the buzz they need to get their messages to the top of more people’s feeds.

UNICEF Jamaica’s “Keep Children Safe” Twitter Chat, see more tweets.

Of course, this online community is plagued by the same “real-life” problems as any other community. The loudest voices continue to be largely the educated, urban dwellers as opposed to people living in rural areas and that lack of diversity affects the thoroughness of the conversations we are able to have. Twitter chats about keeping children safe will struggle in having real impact in rural areas like rural St. Thomas where the incidence of early initiation to sex of underage girls and boys is horrendously high and negative attitudes towards the sexual abuse of young girls remain constant.

Similarly, the seemingly “progressive” buzz around people like Quite Perry who dress in dresses and wear weaves and portray stereotypically “feminine” behaviours is often accepted online but rejected in conversation in “real life”.

As more Jamaicans begin interacting with cyberspace it will be interesting to see how the dominant discourse is remodeled by their usership. Will the “articulate minority” of journalists and activists hold sway, will creators of funny social videos reclaim the top spot or will the serious civil society groups and corporate interest have the capital and influence to dominate? Cyberspace, in its multidimensional, multifaceted nature presents the unique opportunity, however far-fetched for all to have equal footing and access to “virality”.