Cairo’s student population has jumped aboard the Internet social sensation with the amiable, yet addictive Facebook.
Designed in 2004 by two students from Harvard University, Facebook has become one of the fastest growing networks among teens and young adults in the US and the most widely subscribed to by college students. In September 2006, the network opened itself to regional membership outside the US and has continued to grow globally with sweeping popularity. In the last two months, hundreds of Egyptians have joined. A search of the name Mohamed under Facebook s Egypt network shows six hundred and thirty-one member profiles.
The premise behind the social network is to provide members with a virtual catalogue of their friends, classmates and co-workers to browse and keep in contact with. Each member creates a personal profile with a picture, contact information, and self-identification such as gender, religion, political affiliation, birthplace, education, employment and other personal interests. Through this categorization, members fall into groups which connect them to other users.
To address the recent outburst of usage at the American University of Cairo (AUC) for example, students who indicate their university affiliation on their network gain access to all other AUC Facebook member profiles.
Unlike many of its competing networks, Facebook’s simplicity and standardization gives it an air of normalcy. With a neatly formatted white and blue layout and legible print, it effectively communicates information without being ostentatious. Individuals who will otherwise be unlikely to engage in Internet communication feel that Facebook is merely a web-based representation of their real life, not an illusionary ploy to expand their social scene.
In a poll conducted by The Daily Star Egypt, students indicated that they heard of Facebook either by word of mouth or directly by invitation via email from a friend. Furthermore, although Facebook has opened its doors beyond the university community, its beginnings as an exclusively student-based network has given the website credibility. Most polled members said that their largest base of network friendships stems from high school or university relationships. The network is less a forum in which to meet new people and more of a space to develop or tend to existing friendships. This is not to say, however, that Facebook has not developed a separate mode of socialization. The web social culture has its own set of signs and indicators of social interaction.
“Poking, for example is an act, which communicates affection. Once “poked by a friend, the poked member is alerted of the act on their profile. Interpretation of the poke is generally decided by the relationship the members have outside the network. With a casual acquaintance, a friendship, or a romance, the poke might indicate anything from flirtatiousness, to teasing, or simple attention.
Other elements of socialization include the website’s photo album and “tagging capabilities. Members often post photo albums, which both share, spread, and catalogue images of value to them. From pictures of family, parties, vacations, and new significant others, albums are often statements to the member s extended community.
Other members who appear in pictures may be “tagged to show their presence in the photo. By tagging, members can further emphasize who they wish to be linked to.
Constant updates on the website’s sign-in page alert users to changes on their friends’ profiles. Dubbed the “Mini Feed, this page’s premier location clearly belays Facebook’s focus. The “Mini Feed shows the importance of gossip to the network’s success. The high volume and frequency of new personal information lures members into checking the engine in a compulsive way. Members say they use the Facebook to pass or waste time.
Ninety percent of polled members indicated that they signed onto the network on a daily basis. All of the high school students polled responded to the questionnaire, which was sent by Facebook message, during school hours.
While increased communication facilitates long distance relationships, it adds another layer of complexity to relationships of frequent contact. Students use the network as a way to further investigate acquaintances through anonymous access to intimate information. The network creates a comfortable degree of separation to test the waters of friendships and romances.
It seems as though the age-old gossip and insecurity of student life has found a digital outlet for the 21st century.