Don’t look now, Twitter: The world is turning to WhatsApp for news

Remember when Twitter was everything? It’s still got more than 320 million monthly active users, but it’s no longer the hot social media platform. While Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram continued to grow between 2012 and 2015, Twitter stagnated starting in 2014 (Pew Research Center).

RELATED: 24 slightly depressing stats on the ‘fall’ of Twitter

I recently heard a colleague describe Twitter as a kind of “echo chamber,” for journalists, pundits, news junkies and assorted fans of assorted sports teams and pop culture icons.

Hello, WhatsApp.

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Source: WikiMedia Commons
When I spent six months in Belize last year, I began using WhatsApp to send free messages and make free phone calls to family and friends in the U.S. I also found that Belizeans use WhatsApp quite heavily to message and talk to each other within the country.

If you are unfamiliar with WhatsApp, here are the basics:

So, now you’re asking: How does WhatsApp, which sounds like a utility, qualify as a social media platform? How do people get news from such an app?

Percentage of people using each service at least once a week

Stats

Source: Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2017

While in Belize, I was invited to join a WhatsApp group called Newz@Ur Finga Tipz. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was intrigued. Soon, I saw that the curators and users of the group were sharing details about car accidents, severe weather (flooding and tropical storm activity especially), missing persons, and other tidbits that you might normally expect news outlets to report.

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In Belize, where newsrooms are not always staffed to keep ahead of breaking and developing news (especially on weekends), Newz@Ur Finga Tipz was delivering information in a timely fashion to a group of “subscribers,” if you will. There were rumors bandied about, but the group’s curators and members took pains to debunk and/or confirm and then spread the news.

My job in Belize involved public relations and marketing for the nation’s leading cultural and historical institutions, including the Maya archaeological sites around the country that provide employment for Belizeans and draw tourists and researchers in (for Belize) huge numbers.

In the wake of August 2016’s Hurricane Earl, I jumped on Newz@Ur Finga Tipz as one channel for providing updates on which archaeological sites were closed due to storm damage, and which other venues (e.g. the Museum of Belize and Bliss Center for the Performing Arts) had been affected by the hurricane.

In Belize, WhatsApp is free way to inform and communicate, but the platform is even more widely used for sharing news and views in other countries–countries where tweeting or posting a news item could get you into trouble with government officials, religious authorities and others with the power to make lives uncomfortable.

Just take a read about how China has WhatsApp in its censorship sights.

WhatsApp is private. So, as long as you know and trust people you connect with, it’s a safe means for connecting.

For its latest Digital News Report, the Reuters Institute For The Study of Journalism worked with YouGov to survey people in across Europe, the Americas and Asia. The study was sponsored by the BBC and Google among others. A total of 71,805 people were questioned in January and February to generate the data.

Key findings

  • Facebook is still the most popular social media and messaging service for news engagement in all but two countries – Japan and South Korea – where, respectively, YouTube and Kakao Talk dominate.
  • Sharing news stories and chatting about them appears to be on the rise within private instant messaging apps, and WhatsApp in particular.
  • WhatsApp is now the second most popular social service for news in nine of the 36 locations, and the third most popular platform in a further five countries.

“Some of the biggest growth we’ve seen is in places like Turkey, where it’s positively dangerous for people to express anti-government preferences on open networks like Facebook…. As a result people are using closed groups where they are more confident of expressing their views.” — Nic Newman, Digital News Report

Another attractive quality of WhatsApp is that content is not selected by journalists. The gatekeepers are WhatsApp users. According to a BBC article about the Digital News Report, some news organizations are trying to jump on the WhatsApp bandwagon (of course), but: “….part of WhatsApp’s appeal is that users don’t get interrupted by brands, making it a very pure form of messaging. That’s something [its developers] will really try to hold to.”

Here’s a look at WhatsApp usage in many countries (Percentage of YouGov respondents who report using WhatsApp on a weekly basis)

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Source: Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2017

The Digital News Report survey did not include Africa (which is odd), but guess what? WhatsApp is huge there.

Facebook and WhatsApp

Wondering how Facebook feels about the rise of WhatsApp? The world’s dominant social network acquired the hot, new upstart in 2014. Now, naturally, Facebook is looking to monetize the app, so it will be interesting to see how that works out–given that WhatsApp users may be flocking to the service because it’s devoid of advertising and other money-making features.

Stay tuned.

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10 steps to muffler repair in Belize

I was tooling along Princess Margaret Drive in Belize City recently when I heard a repeated scraping sound as my little Nissan surmounted speed bump after speed bump.

Following the policy of “ignore it and it will stop,” I kept driving. Just as I passed the entrance to Marion Jones Stadium I heard a clanging, and glimpsed my muffler rolling to a stop on the road side.

Allow me to explain how you can handle this situation if it happens to you:

1. Get out of your car and retrieve said muffler when there is a break in traffic. Stow it in the trunk.

2. Drive to your mechanic George who, with a good-natured chuckle says, “You need a new muffler.”

3. Get referred by George to a “bally ‘pon Cran Street,” who does mufflers.

RELATED: Vroom, Vroom: 5 automotive tips for Belize

4. Crawl along Cran Street around 9 a.m. looking for signs of a mechanic. Because you have no muffler, the bally and his colleagues hear you coming and wave you down. (See photos of premises below).

5. Show William and Jerome your muffler, which William measures.

6. Learn you will need an 18-inch muffler from Westrac. Call ahead to find out if they have it and how much it costs: $58

7. Drive (loudly) to Westrac on your lunch break and buy the muffler.

8. Return to William’s place the next morning for the procedure.

9. Sit in waiting area to watch (see photo below). There are a lot of sparks involved.

10. Pay William $35 (and a $5 tip).

The waiting area (above)

 

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Vroom, vroom: 5 automotive tips for Belize

1. Buying a car. There are few dealerships of the kind you’ll find in the U.S. and other bigger countries. However, the streets of Belize City can be considered one giant used car lot. Just look for vehicles with large white dollar sign and phone number decals on their rear windows. Call the number for a quote and test drive!

Or, you can go to the Facebook Group “Belize Buy & Sell,” where you will find a number of posts showing photos of cars along with prices and contact information for the sellers. (You can also find clothes, cell phones, jewelry, and just about anything else you can think of).

I opted to buy a used car from a broker-dealer named Brian who has a mostly empty lot along the highway and a great website, where I spotted my intended. His office is a tent, or the driver’s seat of a car he’s trying to sell.

I paid cash for something called a Nissan Platina, made in Mexico. Someone said to me later, “Oh, that’s a Third World car.” I took this to mean it was hardy and could handle the rigors of dust, iffy fuel and rough roads. Fingers crossed on that one.

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Say hello to my little friend.

Anyway, Brian defines full service! He drove me to the Traffic Division to meet the person who hired him to sell the car so we could transfer the title. The seller was a nun named Sister Rose. The car, I should say, is more than 10 years old and has only about 50,000 miles on it. It’s not fancy, but it runs and doesn’t guzzle gas. Sister Rose took great care of it.

Next, Brian drove me to the insurance company of my choice, where he waited with me until I was duly insured. Finally, he recommended a mechanic he trusts.

2. Servicing your car. You can take your car to one of the major dealers and wait a day or more for an oil change. Or, you can get a referral for a good mechanic who works out of his yard. The guy Brian recommended to me is named George, and it turns out he is the first cousin of my first cousin’s wife. And he lives around the corner from me.

When I called to make my appointment, George advised me to buy my oil and filter, as well as steering fluid (my wheel was stiff and making ominous sounds) and bring these items to his yard. I made my purchases at Westrac, a place—let it be said—that is an automotive paradise: You go in and sit at a kind of bar to share your vehicular woes with a sort of bartender/car expert who pulls the items you need. My filter had to be brought in from another store, but—no worries—they’ll get it in the same day. George serviced my car in less than an hour and drove it around the corner to my place.

3. Parking. There are a number of actual parking lots around downtown Belize City, which is a relatively new development. Parking there will cost about two Belize dollars per hour. Still, you will find yourself parking on the narrow city streets much of the time. In this regard it is helpful to have a Platina, which is about the size of a Toyota Tercel! Parking can sometimes be precarious, as many streets are lined with open drains and a few inches here or there can land you in their murky waters.

Thankfully, whether in a parking lot or not, there is usually someone to help. On the street this will be a random guy who appears out of nowhere and provides expert advise via hand movements, shouts, and thumps on the side of your car. He will be genial and quite pleased to help you. It’s not so different in a parking lot, although the guy helping you is an actual employee.

4. Getting a carwash. Once you have parked your car in the lot across from Brodie’s rear entrance on Regent Street, a shirtless man bearing a bucket will offer to wash your car while you go about your business. There is no set price, but I try to be generous.

There is a guy who combines parking and washing services in the area of the Bliss Center for the Performing Arts nearby. He must have a sixth sense about when I will be in the area, because he materializes out of nowhere–guaranteed.

5. Getting gas. Filling your tank in Belize will cost you about twice as much as in the U.S. One thing that might ease the pain at the pump is the fact that gas stations are full service. Young men in neat uniforms (and baseball caps) will do the honors and clean your windshield and rear window while you wait. They will also put air in your tires.

Happy motoring!

Pageant-ing in Belize: 5 things to consider before you don your sash

What must it be like to be a beauty pageant contestant in Belize in the age of social media? When I was pageant-ing in 1986, there was no way for members of the public to instantly criticize me and share that criticism with hundreds–even thousands of other people. I heard very few negative comments; I suppose my friends and family shielded me. The few I did hear were baffling as well as dismaying.

So, I salute the ten contestants in this year’s Miss Belize Universe Pageant, whose pageant month was full of public appearances and opportunities to be scrutinized.

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Yours truly with my predecessor–and friend–Romy Taegar! Circa November 1986.

Congratulations to Rebecca Rath of Dangriga! She is the newest Miss Belize and will represent us at the Miss Universe Pageant. Watch as she won on Sept. 10, 2016!

If I were to provide advice to young women about whether to enter a beauty pageant in Belize, here are a few items I would ask potential contestants to consider.

  1. Do you know what it feels like to lose? I suspect young women who know what this feels like will be able to face what’s coming. So, if you have competed before (e.g. in sports, academically, in other kinds of contests) and survived defeat with your ego intact, that is a point in favor of entering a pageant.
  2. Do you know how it feels to win? This is important because the minute you triumph you will become a magnet for people who want to be in your life, for better and worse. Being a gracious and humble winner can go a long way in keeping your ego intact.
  3. Is your support system strong and absolutely on board? Any ambivalence in the people closest to you can lead to self-doubt. Your friends and family love you, but they may not see entering a pageant as something they want you to do. Also, a ride-or-die crew will make sure you have the resources you need: They’ll help you find sponsors, be your cheering section, and remind you that you’re awesome no matter what happens.
  4. Are you confident? Confidence is not the same as courage. In my mind, courage gets you through something you may not believe you can actually survive. Confidence means that no matter what happens in the pageant, you’ll be fine. Maybe you’ll shed a few disappointed tears, but you won’t be shattered.
  5. What happens next? Do you have a plan to get on with your life, win or lose?

Would I do it again? Yes. I won a college scholarship (as did the 2016 winner, Rebecca Rath). I traveled to Singapore, Europe and all around Belize. I was probably too young; at age 17, my ego was fragile and the Miss Universe experience was overwhelming. Still, no regrets.

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Rebecca Rath (holding the water bottle, wearing black dress) joins her fellow Miss Belize delegates for lunch at Cafe Michel’le in Belize City.

Follow Rebecca’s road to Miss Universe on Facebook!

On home, hometowns and place

Can a person claim a place, or does place always trump the person?

When one lives in the middle a very large country, in a fairly large city, it’s easy to exist in a relatively passive and insulated sort of way. Privacy is pretty much guaranteed; people don’t just drop by unannounced. Running errands is not likely to put one in contact with anyone one knows. Co-workers may become friends, but they just as easily may not.

This kind of existence means you can opt into community life or not. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found this less appealing than I once did. The effort required for a single professional woman with no local ties to make friends is daunting. Endeavors–at least for me–often ended in a sort of disappointing neutrality. The outing or activity was fine, the people were perfectly fine, but no real connection was made.

“It’s like the people who believe they’ll be happy if they go and live somewhere else, but who learn it doesn’t work that way. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you. If you see what I mean.” ― Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book

I have no idea how this will turn out, but I recently made the decision to move back to Belize, finding the pull of my native land suddenly extremely strong.Over the years, I have made a point to visit at least once a year–sometimes I’ve managed more than once a year. Although I didn’t grow up in Belize in terms of actual years, Belize is the place where many of my formative experiences took place. It’s where I have a large circle of extended family, friends and acquaintances. For better or worse, people know a great deal about me–warts and all. There is both comfort and trepidation in this!

Having moved around my entire life, Belize City is the closest thing I have to a hometown. So here I am: Day Four. Here we go….

Did I choose Belize or did Belize choose me?

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Democracy & politricks: The way money moves 

Belize is a democracy. Elections happen with regularity and voters have strong feelings about both leading major political parties.

A friend of mine recently observed Belizean politics in action and found himself dismayed by one particular aspect: paying for votes.

The practice, by which a person connected to a candidate offers money to secure a vote, is tolerated. In some cases, a would-be voter asks for the money before the handler can even get his or her campaign spiel off the ground.

For voters in a poor country, a proffered “blue note” (hundred-dollar bill) can mean food, a paid bill or school fees. My theory is that people take the money and vote for whomever they feel like on Election Day.

In the United States, the money flows the other way: Millions of dollars donated to campaigns. (This happens in Belize, in smaller amounts).

There are the modest donations that individual voters send, in the hope their contributions will help pay for TV ads, bumper stickers, or campaign volunteers’ coffee.

Then, there are there big checks written to candidates, PACs and causes. The donors are banking on the fact that winners will not be able to forget all those zeros when the time comes for favors and special consideration. 

 You’d think that knowing money plays such a huge role in the democratic process would turn us off–and many people are, in fact, turned off.

And, yet. And, yet. The ability to vote in an election has an addictive quality; we are hooked on the idea that each of us can make a difference. 

This tranquil haven of democracy: Voting for a standard bearer in Belize

On Sunday, Aug. 9, voters from around the Stann Creek District converged on the village of Independence to cast their ballots at a United Democratic Party (UDP) convention. It was a three-way race to represent the Stann Creek West electoral division as standard bearer in the next General Election (date as yet to be determined).

Heading across the lagoon from Placencia to Malacate. From there, we rode in a van to Independence.
Heading across the lagoon from Placencia to Malacate. From there, we rode in a van to Independence.

We boarded a boat for Independence on the lagoon side of Placencia at 10 a.m. on Sunday. It was one of several flying a United Democratic Party flag bearing the name, “Walter.” Of the dozen or so people on board, about half wore red t-shirts emblazoned with UDP slogans or pro-Walter wording in white lettering.

All three candidates used boats and buses to bring their supporters to the polls. Upon arrival at Independence Primary School, voters navigated a genial gauntlet of die-hard boosters at the school yard gate who encouraged undecideds to pick their candidates. I had the feeling there were not very many undecideds.

In addition to bringing people to the polls, each candidate provided supporters with a full rice-and-beans meal at midday.

Glen Eiley sports his "Por la unidad" shirt on convention day.
Glen Eiley sports his “Por la unidad” shirt on convention day.

There are two electoral divisions in the Stann Creek District: The principal town of Dangriga and the rest of the district, known as Stann Creek West. MORE

The three candidates:

  1. Walter Garbutt, retired teacher
  2. Nathan Young, UDP constituency chairperson
  3. Ivan Williams, Labour Commissioner of Belize

According to Belizebreakingnews.com, UDP party chairman “Alberto August described Sunday’s turnout as the biggest convention held by the United Democratic Party (UDP) in the division of Stann Creek West.” Walter Garbutt won with about 50 percent of the 3,100 votes cast.

My Aunt Martha greets candidate Walter Garbutt, a retired teacher.
My Aunt Martha greets candidate Walter Garbutt, a retired teacher.

I am not registered to vote in Belize (although, as a citizen and homeowner, I think I could be), so I attended the convention as an observer. 

Independence Primary School’s ground floor classrooms each served as polling places, based on alphabetical order. One room was reserved for the party Secretariat: UDP Secretary General Pearl Stuart and a team of party workers collected the paper ballots here, ensured their validity and stowed them away in a series of plastic bags. There were UDP staffers on hand to answer questions from voters about the process, but not about the candidates.

My aunt remembers a time when verifying voter eligibility was based on facial recognition: If a poll worker recognized you as living in the precinct where you said you lived, you could vote. Now, voters must be properly registered ahead of time and bring their photo IDs to the polls. Workers then check their list of registered voters to ensure you are eligible.

In Belize, where ballots are counted by hand, each voter dips an index finger into red ink to show he or she has already cast a ballot. Afterward, many people lingered in the school yard chatting with friends, meeting the candidates themselves or simply taking in the scene.

FullSizeRenderHon. Anthony “Boots” Martinez, Minister of Human Development, Social Transformation and Poverty Alleviation, mingled among the voters–shaking hands and thanking people for turning out.

Also on hand, the man whose departure from the party precipitated the convention: Melvin Hulse, former division standard bearer, came out to cast his ballot. In June, Hulse stepped down after a scandal involving tape recordings–recordings on which he reportedly slammed his party leader, Prime Minister Dean Barrow. Despite being in disgrace with party leadership, Hulse seems to remain popular with many voters, who greeted him with familiarity and affection. No doubt, Hulse voted for Nathan Young, whom he endorsed upon resigning from the party and his government post.

Overall, the atmosphere was peaceful and even festive. The stream of voters throughout the morning was steady and orderly. Still, the atmosphere, however easy-going, carried with it an urgency: This is important; we can vote, and we will vote.

Places in my heart: Central America & the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (da U.P.)

Growing up in a family that moved every two or three years, I could count on two places that changed very little and offered warm welcomes. These two places are on their own both “off the beaten path” and taken together present a rather unlikely pairing:

Menominee, Michigan (USA)–where my father grew up on the corner of 13th Avenue & 21st Street. On vacation trips and for longer periods in between my father’s overseas assignments, we lived here. I briefly attended elementary school and later high school in Menominee and made friends. (Shoutout! My dear high school BFFs: Kelly W., Kelley M., and Debbie S.)

Belize City, Belize–where my mother grew up on New Road. Similar to Menominee, I attended bits and pieces of school in Belize and spent vacations there. Later, I began my journalism career there. Along the way, I made friends.

Because my mother’s family is large and close-knit, the Belize connection emerged over the years as the stronger of the two. My American grandmother died in the late 1980s (my grandfather died shortly after I was born) and my father has no siblings. So, after we cleared out and sold the Menominee house, there was little reason to return. Located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the town is not exactly on the way to or from many places.

Enter Facebook! A yearbook photo posted on Friday by former classmate John Militello (who, like many Menominee folks, no longer lives there) was a fond reminder: It feels good to know that Menominee people, like Belize people, remember me. For all my traveling and career-ing, I am moved and comforted to know that there are memories that connect me to places in the heart.

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Black History Month: The Loving story is a story about love

Mildred and Richard Loving
Mildred and Richard Loving (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Black History Month is important for many reasons. For me one of the best things about it is that it reminds purveyors of pop culture to dust off archival footage and photographs that tell the African-American story, which is actually the American story.

I was flipping through the channels late Saturday morning (an often dispiriting exercise) when I stumbled upon a History Channel documentary about the civil rights movement. The segment focused on Mildred and Richard Loving, the Virginia couple who took their right to be married and live where they wanted seriously.

THIS IS GREAT: New York Times Slideshow “The Case of Loving v. Bigotry”

Mildred was black and Native American. Richard was white. They married in 1958, traveling to Washington, D.C. to do so since it was illegal for them to wed in Virginia.

In the footage shown by the History Channel the Lovings appear soft spoken and humble as their eldest son, smiling and laughing, capers around them. By all accounts they hadn’t sought a fight with Virginia, not to mention a Supreme Court ruling. Living in a county where racial blending had been common, they likely did not expect to be outed. They hoped to live quietly and raise a family together.

I couldn’t find much online about the three Loving children and how they lived as adults. Donald and Sidney died before middle age. Peggy is still alive and seems to have served as a sort of family spokesperson. The archival film shows them as happy, frolicking kids.

Ten years after the Lovings got married, and one year after they won their Supreme Court case, my black (Belizean) mother and white (American) father got married in Belize (then British Honduras) where, of course, interracial relationships were at the very foundation of an entire population. Granted, most of these relationships–like those that existed in most slave societies–were not “official.” There were few marriage certificates and plenty of unspoken rules.

So, I do think of my parents as pioneers in their own way. Like the Lovings, they did not consider themselves in these terms. The reasons for marrying had nothing to do with making a statement and everything to do with making a life.

Happy Black History Month.

Zelma Inez Tucker married Alvin George Edgell on Sept. 14, 1968. Belize City, British Honduras
Zelma Inez Tucker married Alvin George Edgell on Sept. 14, 1968. Belize City, British Honduras

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