Arman grew up in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is currently in the 3rd year of his Bachelors program at East West University, also in Dhaka, where he is majoring in accounting. I met Arman over two years ago in a Facebook discussion group regarding the work of danah boyd. At the time I was perusing through the internet trying to find people who were interested in social networking sites so I could interview them for my thesis work. I wanted people from all over the world. The fact that I could do this pretty easily is nuts, if you think about it.
I remember Arman responded with really thoughtful answers about his experience and usage of social media. We became Facebook friends and therefore stayed loosely connected in the way you do with your Facebook friends. It’s as if they have drawn open their living room curtains for you. And you are able to stand there and think, what a strange and interesting peak into this individual’s life on the other side of the world. We often speak of social networking being connected to voyeurism in a negative way, but doesn’t it also allow for people to broaden perspectives? To marvel in the similarities, note the differences– but mostly the similarities I think, of other people’s lives? People, who in a different time before social networking sites existed like this, would never have “windows” to open in the first place.
Today there are 995,560 Facebook users in Bangladesh. This is 0.6% of the population. To put this in perspective, in 2006 there were only 500,000 Internet users in the country. Though Bangladesh has a low GDP, it has impressively created a very competitive mobile telephone market with 36% of the population mobile subscribers. (This always reminds me how backwards America feels with mobile technology. How I had perfect mobile service in rice fields in Uthai-thani, Thailand but I still get choppy service in my parent’s house 40 miles outside of New York City- how my phone calls drop in Union Square pretty much every morning. And how social media marketing ought to concern itself much more with mobile and thinking outside of a US-centric framework because mobile is where the entire world is now and where the entire world will continue to move.)
Arman was an early internet subscriber. His family bought their first computer when he was 10, in 1999. In the beginning, his family used the computer to watch movies on the weekends. In 2000, they started using the internet. They used it primarily for communicating with relatives living abroad. Arman remembers using YAHOO, as it was the most popular portal at that point.
“We used YAHOO not only for mailing purposes but also to keep updated with the Western world. My brother and I are technological enthusiasts, and we frequently browsed through websites, legion hardware, pcstates and hexus.net. Other than that, my father used it to collect medicine related information.”
“It was also the center of attraction for any get-togethers held in our home; since computers were not present in households at the extent it is now. Internet was scarce and costly back then.” Arman points out that when he was younger, up until 2002, he had much more access to computers than his peers. “Only a handful of my friends had similar access and interest in computers.” As Arman continues to explain his involvement in computers and the internet it becomes exceedingly obvious that he was indeed a technological enthusiasts which both separated him from his peers while bringing him closer to the Western world.
“I was an avid fan of Wikipedia and answers.com- always browsing to get information about stuff like comic characters, great personalities of the past, various health issues, and almost anything I could not get answers from my elders. It became such a trend that rather than answering my questions by themselves they just instructed me to wiki it!”
Arman admits that most of his peers at this time just saw the computer as a way to escalate their status and that he didn’t have many friends during this period as his peers didn’t really share his interests. But this all changed when he began studies in college and university. “Now I have around 350 friends in my Facebook page.”
SPECIFIC SOCIAL NETWORKING PLATFORMS
Arman was 12 when he first began using e-mail. 5 years ago, when he was around 15, he joined his first social networking site, HI5, afterwards he began using Facebook and Netlog. Arman has stopped using HI5 and Netlog but he remains an active user of Facebook, which he joined 4 years ago.
“I joined HI5 due to peer pressure, in an attempt to show my creativity in designing homepages among friends. It was just for fun, and I stopped using HI5 after some time. But I joined Facebook mostly due to influence from my cousin, Ishaque, who lives in UAE [United Arab Emirates]. He was an early adapter, and he hooked me up. Afterwards many of my local friends started using it, so I was semi-regular to Facebook. Only when I was started going to university did I become completely a regular user, and it has been the same ever since.”
I think that’s an interesting point Arman highlights because it points to a key difference between HI5 and Facebook. Or a webpage, blog or to an extent MySpace, from Facebook. Facebook is just about a place to connect with one another, to see and be seen, and that is it’s only utility. It doesn’t serve as a platform where a user can showcase their graphic design or coding skills. It doesn’t have the utility to highlight a technical talent. Facebook’s purpose depends on having “friends” in the space.
Arman only communicates with “strangers” in Facebook if they have a mutual friend. “Other than that I interact with most people in real life.”
Facebook is the most popular social networking site for Arman’s family and friends. Most of his friends are on it, as well as most of his cousins and his brother.
Arman is “moderately” concerned with privacy. “I don’t put much sensitive information in the web at all. […] I remain very protective of pictures I upload, especially when there are female pictures. Personally I don’t see much point in the fact that information put in social networking sites is made public. People who are putting this information know what the implications are of making this public, and should deal with them accordingly.”
The most extreme Facebook user gender imbalance is in Bangladesh, where men outnumber women by a ration of over 2.5 men using Facebook for every female Facebook user.
“In Bangladeshi culture, it is pretty unorthodox to talk with females directly,” Arman writes. “I believe this cultural paradox is dissolving through the popularity of social networking sites. Through sites it is easier to chat or message with others, even though in person they have been overcome with shyness.”
I probe Arman to elaborate on how social media is challenging fixed gender norms within his culture.
“I have a female friend of mine who is very shy and could not even talk to boys in school. After she started going for university many of her male classmates added her in Facebook. Even though she talked very little in public, she started interacting with them online. Now I see a lot of her shyness has dissolved and she is comfortable talking to the boys in public.”
This all makes me wonder what cultural norms social networking sites are challenging in the western societies?
Arman mentioned “fake profiles” several times and I had no idea what he meant. I asked him if he was referring to something related to spam messaging.
“It’s not spam,” Arman explained. “Many people do it to hack people’s Facebook pages. There are instances when these fake profiles are just used for fun, like testing the truthfulness of boyfriends/girlfriends or to make fun of friends. Like if a male friend starts talking nasty/romantic with a fake female profile, his friends will laugh at him for some time.”
Essentially, people make profiles with stolen pictures and forged names of “fake” people. And they maintain these profiles by talking to others and impersonating them. Men make fake profiles of women and impersonate them.
Arman stresses that it’s an issue. “If you go through some Bangladeshi newspapers, you’ll find there have been lots of talks regarding teasing and other means of maltreatment towards females. Now that technology has been made so available for the masses, these people use social networking sites to do their dirty work. […] Some do it just for fun, some do it to get back to their ex, some do it just to ruin others emotional states. […] These issues are spreading fast.”
I am reminded of the craze circling cyber-bullying recently in the U.S. Of “bullies” having a new medium to translate this meanness through. A medium that has much more far-reaching and complicated implications.
When asked what is the best part about social networking sites in society, Arman responded that they are able to promote small-scale businesses to very effectively create hype and promote products and services. An example of this he highlighted was Roll Out Clothing.
Arman “likes” pages of brands he finds on Facebook when he actually likes the brand. As well as to get updated information regarding the brand’s latest products and news.
Arman believes that he will use social networking sites for the rest of his life. He believes that these sites will constantly evolve to meet people’s wants to personally communicate with one another and people will never stop using them.
This reminds me of my relationship with Arman. Of drawing open a window into casual corners of our every day lives. Of inviting people into our lives. To connect to one another like one great herd. To be curious. To share. To be human.