"Is anyone in Kabul hearing booms and pop-pop of gunfire? Or is it just me?" This was one of the very first tweets about the January 18 multiple terrorist attacks in the heart of the central capital of the war-torn country.
The assailants targeted the Presidential Palace, Serena Hotel, Faroshgah, Gulbahar Business Centre and many other places, fuelling panic and chaos across the city. The tweet was posted by a Kabul-based British woman, who has a twitter account under the name of 'girlofgordon'.
Though its use for news coverage remains limited to foreign journalists based in Afghanistan, micro-blogging, social networking and video-sharing services like www.twitter.com, www.facebook.com, www.myspace.com and www.youtube.com are steadily becoming more and more popular with the Afghans.
These social networks emerged as an effective news coverage tool during the August 20 presidential and provincial elections. Campaigners for contenders, including President Hamid Karzai, his main challenger Dr. Abdullah, and Western-favoured technocrat Dr. Ashraf Ghani, drew on the social networking websites to reach out to people and raise funds in the US, Europe and the Persian Gulf besides attracting voters in Afghanistan.
Initially, these services were used by western journalists, workers and Afghan returnees from the West for sharing information, social activities, keeping in touch with relatives and friends. But once the locals started using them, the services, particularly Facebook and Youtube, quickly gained popularity.
Reasons behind were probably the same as in the rest of the world: quick access to uncensored information and creating wide networks of friends and activities.
As a result, everyone who wanted to reach out to the Afghan public for publicity or propaganda jumped into the race, including US forces, the NATO-led International Security Assistant Force (ISAF), the United Nations, al-Qaeda and the Taliban insurgents.
Each of them and several other national and international organizations active or interested in Afghanistan have now created accounts or pages on social network websites where they post their content and share information with a wider local and foreign audience. www.pajhwok.com may be the only reliable local media outlet with coverage of important developments on these websites.
Saifullah Ahmadzai is a Kabul-based researcher who has recently started using Facebook. He told Pajhwok Afghan News,
Though I am new to this world, yet I am excited to enter it. My main purpose is to find old, school friends and former colleagues.
It was very exciting when I found out that I could be in direct contact with researchers and research centres around the globe. Until a month ago, I thought using these websites was just a waste of time. In fact, I was unaware that they can be used for peace efforts, helping the needy, sharing information and getting faster news coverage.
About the flip side to these services, he observed:
Everything has positive and negative aspects. Some people may spend too much time using Facebook and Twitter. That may upset their daily routine. But generally, this culture is developing in Afghanistan and has more positive aspects in terms of public awareness and quick access to information.
Yet, two main problems may have impinged on the wider use of social networking and micro-blogging websites in Afghanistan. First, the dismally low literacy rate and the fact that most Afghans do not have access to the internet.
Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Director at the Ministry of Communications Aimal Marjan says there are 700,000 internet subscribers in a country, where two million people have access to the facility. Supposedly, half of them use social networking websites for communication, information and other social activities.
Secondly, many of social network users do not have an idea how to update them regularly and why. Language is no longer a hurdle to them being used because all these websites now support local languages. The idea of online social networking remains new for many or they think it is a waste of time; hence they keep themselves restricted to only checking emails or Googling for information.
The most important aspect of micro-blogging and social networking in Afghanistan -- contrary to our immediate neighbours Pakistan and Iran -- is that these websites are never banned or censored by the government.
The Gen. Musharraf regime blocked youtube in early 2008, ostensibly to block Prophet Hazrat Muhammad's cartoons, but analysts alleged the real motive was to block the coverage of a popular lawyer movement for the reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.
Iran banned all social network websites to obstruct the coverage of widespread protests that erupted as a result of a controversial presidential election very recently and the ban is still in place.