A screenshot of a WhatsApp group chat appeared in my Twitter timeline. The image (below)
shows members of a Nairobi based prayer cell sending well wishes to a couple on their wedding anniversary via the prayer cell’s WhatsApp group. This flow of congratulatory texts is interrupted when a member, who is now known across the Kenyan Twittersphere as Bro Ocholla, sends a risqué message. Noting that Bro Ocholla’s apologies twice, once in English and then soon after in Kiswahili (“Poleni”), it is fair to say that it was not Bro Ocholla’s intent to sext his prayer cell members. The last visible message is a member expressing surprise (or potentially, disapproval – the exact meaning of “yawa” in this context gets lost in translation). What the prayer cell members do after this is not clear, however the fact that this exchange is now a subject of discussion on Twitter implies that at least one member of the WhatsApp group decided to capture Bro Ocholla’s mistake and circulate it outside the confines of the group. Within a matter of hours the question posed in a WhatsApp group chat (“Bro Ocholla?”) was been transformed into a hashtagged phrase (#BroOcholla) and subsequently a trending topic within the Kenyan Twittersphere. One of my many interests in #BroOcholla is how it helps me think about participation within spaces.
As a WhatsApp group message turned Twitter trending topic, #BroOcholla exemplifies those moments that call in to question the existence of separate online and offline spaces. It also raises questions regarding how public and private spaces are understood and negotiated. For instance to what extent (objectively and subjectively) is a WhatsApp group considered a private space? How, if at all, does the transference of a message between two separate WhatsApp groups differ say from the transference of a message from WhatsApp to Twitter? #BroOcholla also makes me think about the rules of participation within these spaces. While sexting does generate a degree of controversy, it is precisely because Bro Ocholla sent his message to a prayer cell chat group that his actions have received this level of attention. Now that the message is on Twitter, are there any cultural or social codes that dictate who can participate in the #BroOcholla conversation? It is in the midst of all these questions that I find myself drawn to the ways in which corporate Twitter accounts have engaged with #BroOcholla. I am interested in both how and why some companies have chosen to participate in these discussions. It is my view that there is an exploitative element to this corporate participation on the part of these companies as they seek to profit from an individual’s fallibility.
Among the first corporate tweets were from Durex (below), who arguably can make a connection between their product and #BroOcholla, albeit using their own tangential hashtags in the process.
Likewise it is possible to see why Safaricom (below) would choose to join the conversation. It is a mobile telecommunications provider, with an existing campaign that revolves around a set of fictional characters, including one who is a Christian and shares a name with a member of the #BroOcholla prayer cell. Accompanying Safaricom’s tweet is text that insinuates Bro Ocholla’s message was sufficiently inappropriate to warrant Betty’s departure from the WhatsApp group, presumably because she deems his actions as incompatible with her beliefs and/or the purpose of the group. The feelings of the WhatsApp group members, particularly in relation to their faith and the extent to which Bro Ocholla’s actions have caused offence (if at all) is not evident from the screenshot. The absence of this information becomes an opportunity for Safaricom to exploit as the company simultaneously promotes its services, vilifies Bro Ocholla and projects a particular and highly subjective moral perspective grounded in conservative Christian beliefs that considers sex a taboo.
DSTV’s connection (below) with #BroOcholla is perhaps one of the most tenuous, the company didn’t even seem to put too much effort into making its contribution relevant. The show being promoted by DSTV is about individuals who unsuccessfully engage in criminal activity. One could certainly argue that Bro Ocholla may have violated some cultural codes but he certainly was not trying to break any laws, so I am not sure what purpose DSTV’s tweet served beyond announcing its presence.
Other well-known companies, including Kenya Airways and KTN (a national television network), have also been tweeted in connection to #BroOcholla. From my (admittedly rather unscientific) observation there appears to be a formula to these corporate tweets. All the companies reference #BroOcholla in some capacity, use humour and then introduce a product or service and occasionally a hashtag of their own. Furthermore, none of the companies mention WhatsApp – despite the fact that this too was trending and is intrexicably linked to the #BroOcholla story. Perhaps, (and slightly cynically) this is because none of the corporations wish to inadvertently promote another (and in some cases competing) company. Of course this is not the first time that a company has used its Twitter account to engage with individuals in a humorous manner; Taco Bell, for instance has a reputation for doing this. The difference between Taco Bell and the companies participating in #BroOcholla is that Taco Bell often tweets in direct response to a Twitter use who has made reference to Taco Bell. What is happening in this instance is that companies are participating in a discussion that (1) originated in a different space (2) does not reference them, their products and/or services and (3) companies attempting to steer the conversation away from #BroOcholla and towards a different conversation/space.
The problematic nature of this sort of Twitter involvement on the part of corporations is captured in this tweet
For me, answering this question relies on a reconceptualisation of Twitter “as a linguistic marketplace where hashtags are a crucial currency, which enables visibility and projects potential interaction”(Page, 2012: p.184). There is therefore, from the perspective of the companies involved, value attached to this sort of interaction. Applying this specifically to #BroOcholla, these corporations are implicitly making a statement about the value of Bro Ocholla’s subjectivity and the cost of Bro Ocholla’s mistake, turning both into commodities that can be exchanged for increased visibility. This commodification comes at a cost to Bro Ocholla, in terms of his privacy, his identity and reputation. It also significantly and adversely affects the participatory aspects of hashtagged spaces by transforming these into promotional spaces. So a long with asking how companies are benefiting from all this, perhaps a better question would be, what precedent is being set when companies, can under the pretext of participation, seek to profit from personal and sometimes private blunders that occur in spaces that they are not explicitly part of?