Facebook: virtual impact on reality in the Middle East

Beyond the analysis of how Facebook, Twitter and other social media are rapidly bringing about political change in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere lies a more complex, and compelling, picture of how social media is changing the identities and lives of young people in supposedly ‘closed’ societies
Karim Khashaba
9 February 2011

Facebook is seen by some to represent the acme of ‘Neo-Media.’ The word 'neo' prior to any word, probably with political characteristics, implies a drastic kind of intruder that has crossed the limits of the 'original' word to add new interpretations. The intruder justifies the continued existence of the original word while presenting a ‘new look’ on the whole thing.

Last year, under the auspices of the British Council in Egypt and with a mentor from LSE I carried out research on the identities and experiences of Egyptian youth.  The ways in which social media has changed social interactions amongst young people in Egypt was striking.  Beyond the analysis of how Facebook, Twitter and other social media are rapidly bringing about political change in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere lies a more complex, and compelling, picture of how social media is changing the identities and lives of young people in more supposedly ‘closed’ societies.  The particular aspects I’d like to explore here are: the online written languages, Facebook’s new concepts, its social authority on reality, and its complex political impact.

Online written language

By this, I don’t mean ‘standard’ languages in discrete categories such as ‘French’, ‘Arabic’, etc, but what could be termed ‘modern online English’ (numbers involved with letters, for example:  B4, 2day…etc) and ‘modern online Arabic’ (what is known as the Anglo-Arab, for ex. 'Wa7sh'). While this characteristic is not Facebook exclusive, research has shown how it is both evident in and has developed on Facebook. As someone from a Muslim/Arab background, "Anglo-Arab" language is an unavoidable concern. This Anglo-Arab language comprises the Arabic words written in English letters with numbers referring to certain Arabic letters. Numbers are used since there are no English letters that sound closer to the Arabic pronunciation.

Whether ‘modern online Arabic’ or ‘modern online English’ is used by young Egyptians, the same question is raised: however easy people feel it is deliver their thoughts this way, do they ever stop to think of the possible repercussions if they put aside their own mother tongue even some of the time? Does the decision to use either ‘modern online Arabic’ or ‘modern online English’ alter a young person’s sense of identity with the Arabic spoken by their parents and grandparents?

Facebook's authority on social reality

Significantly, Facebook is imposing new perceptions on reality with its hyper online interactions, affecting, for example, the casual attitudes that some people already have. For instance, some users accept whoever whishes to add them as 'Facebook Friends', and you can even find users adding and adding for the sake of having so big a number of 'friends' on the friend list. But the question remains: How many users' friend list is full of true friends? Having many 'Facebook friends' is neither bad nor good. It completely relies on the user’s motivation for adding certain 'friends' and refusing others?

Young women have had a share in this new-privacy in the online sphere, but with significant on-ground or ‘offline life’ changes as well. Photos are posted for the public to get to know how cool/proficient photographer/religious… the girl is (actually this applies also to boys), while chats/wall posts with her 'boy friend' or 'colleagues' have extended the rigid timings and routines often set in reality and ‘offline’ by parents. Online social interactions have also stretched some of the moral boundaries to embrace more open gender relationships; whether as colleagues, friends, or as fiancées.

Worth noting here too is how social media has affected social interactions through linking the virtual with the real. In the empirical research “Youth and Identity: the Case of Egypt” (not yet published), carried out by group of Egyptians under the auspices of the British Council in Cairo together with mentors from London School of Economics, the issue of online social interactions and its weight in reality were dealt with. Respondents were chosen as random, not representative, samples from almost all over Egypt.

The research showed different patterns of behaviour, some unique to online. Despite the fact that Egyptians are Arabs and speak the Egyptian slang of Arabic, respondents predominantly used English online. The language used online, while chatting and socially networking, varied between Arabic, English, and the Latinized Arabic. Though some preferred the Arabic language online, many did not use it except in exceptional situations, or not at all. In addition, some were seizing the virtual space to better express themselves away from the 'restrictions' they faced in reality, or ‘offline’, especially in terms of politics and opposite-sex relationship issues. Research also showed that such practices online could have knock-on effects in the real world. Others felt no problem in dealing with both worlds in the very same way, and saw the internet as simply a wider space for spreading the word.

Facebook's new concepts

One of the most striking new concepts Facebook has introduced into daily discourse is the concept of ‘privacy’, in its new, social-media sense.  For instance, on the News Feed page, friends might write comments on prayers that others had posted. In reality, I and many others used to respond to any prayer words by saying: Amen. What I found new on Facebook was the option of clicking the "I like” button under a person’s status about a prayer. The former signifies a religious attitude towards the prayer words, hoping to be answered by Allah. The latter signifies a sympathetic feeling with the prayer and a kind of joy for reading the status which the person is expressing to others by clicking “I like”.  I like, in this sense, is a new concept, bringing with it new connotations of how we respond to prayer.

The user's profile, meanwhile, is quite a clear example of the gradual deterioration of privacy. The user's profile brings to the public basic information about oneself (name, age, education, marital status, siblings…etc) and the online interactions (your posts, photos, talks with friends and others…etc.) Prior to Facebook, my friend's cousin would rarely know anything about me other than that I am his cousin's peer at work. After Facebook, my friend's cousin would know the whole scenario about how I broke up with my 'girlfriend'.  It is hard to imagine another way in which such a change in our knowledge of the intimate details of the lives of others could have come about so quickly.

If Facebook continues to exert an influence in this manner, the privacy/values of our culture will be in jeopardy. Facebook, in this regard, will breed new values that will no longer stand-still as being online but could even jump into reality.

Facebook’s political impact

On the political landscape, it is worth noting that Facebook was used during the Iraqi elections campaigns for the 2010 parliamentary elections. Facebook was even considered as a source for some prominent media agencies to get to know more about the parliament candidates and their agendas in the Iraqi parliamentary elections.

A lot of Facebook groups that concern the Ummah (the transnational Muslim Community) and other political issues (such as the Holocaust of Gaza in 2009, Jihadist thought, etc) find a high number of supporters – or fans, using the Facebook language. Nevertheless, the growing numbers of such groups do not necessarily mean that all of them are active and completely subscribe to the ends of such groups. Facebook can also provide a space for political losers. When a 'friend' invites all of those on his friend list to attend a certain event or join a specific political group/fan page, the 'friend' does so without necessarily fully understanding the concerns and interests of those invited. An Egyptian acquaintance of mine created a group calling for stopping the revolts in Tahrir Square after President Mubarak had ‘met the demands’ of the protesters in his last speech. I found myself spontaneously becoming a member of that group when I do not believe that the president had fully met the demands.

Egypt’s 25 January, 2011, Revolution was however, prepared online, through the virtual political youth movements on Facebook and other social media sites. The most vital of these was the 6 April Youth Movement which appeared in 2008 as a Facebook group. The original founders/adminstrators of the movement/ Facebook group were four youths. It was quite evident that the movement adopted the non-violent resistance methodology, which they promoted through Facebook, predominantly as a means to orchestrate protests.

Up until two weeks ago this virtual political opposition had not successfully gone beyond its Facebook group. Yet, unexpectedly, the results of the Facebook calls for the 25 Jan, 2011 revolution in Egypt are meeting the political expectations of many Egyptians; President Mubarak will step down after 30 years in power. After they lost all hope in realpolitik and the traditional opposition parties, people have succeeded with Facebook.

Over the last few years Facebook has quickly become one of the fastest-growing phenomena globally; like Google before it, it is being recognized as a new word to be added to the English dictionary. Facebook, an American idea, is being seized for making the world into one that shares a common culture. Facebook brings people from different parts of the world and with different beliefs to think more along the same lines. Even the commonly used words/language (like, share…etc), posting same things with different contents (statuses, videos, photos…etc) and the newly emerging written languages crystallized mainly through Facebook - all of these have been profound changes, laying the groundwork for the political effectivity of Facebook and the alterations already caused in reality in more and more countries. 

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