Published March 2, 2010 - Muscat Daily
The title of my article may sound a little dramatic but I know this topic has been discussed endlessly by adults and young people alike all over the world. Since its launch in 2006, this online social networking site has been gaining popularity like nothing we've ever seen before. With over 400 million users (120,000 of them in Oman), Facebook is now available in over 70 languages and the average user spends about an hour on the website everyday. The factsheet statistics on the website are overwhelming.
I've noticed a huge increase in the number of Facebook users in Dhofar since the site became available in Arabic a few months ago. In fact, lately I've been getting at least 10 friend requests a week from people I knew back in university or school here in Salalah. Although I joined Facebook four years ago, my friend list has never exceeded 70 people; most of whom are close family and friends living abroad. I know I've offended many people by ignoring their friend requests, but what else am I supposed to do? I don't particularly feel the need for semi-strangers to be given a window into my life. On the other hand, some of my friends have up to 500 friends on Facebook, and despite this huge number of people who have access to their private lives, they still post personal information and hundreds of photos. This is something I will never understand.
Lately I've been thinking about how this whole phenomena is changing the way young people interact in Oman, and Dhofar in particular. Salalah is definitely still very conservative and it is almost impossible for members of the opposite sex to get to know one another in 'real' life....but what if social networking sites like Facebook end up revolutionizing the whole concept of gender mixing in such a society? You can forget about ever trying to explain the idea of online social networking to anyone over the age of about 40 in this town, so that leaves our techie-savvy young people free to pretty much do what they want online. It's exciting, rebellious, and slightly taboo. Facebook is extremely popular among university and college students in Salalah. Girls who are bored at home for most of the day often register under a pseudonym or tacky nickname like 'Princess of the South' or 'Cute Gal Salalah'. For a profile picture they'll usually select a provocative photograph of some Lebanese pop-star. The only real piece of information they provide is usually the college they're studying at. Once they've set up their profiles, they get to work finding boys and girls studying at the same college or in neighboring colleges. The next step is to start scanning other people's 'friend' lists in Salalah and send out hundreds of 'friend' requests. A whole new world is opened to them. The guys are more daring. They post real photographs of themselves, which makes the game all the more exciting. Let us not forget that Salalah itself is one big social network. Our close family and tribal connections make it very hard for anyone to be anonymous in this town. Even with a nickname like 'Lioness Salalah', you are never fully anonymous. Someone is going to end up knowing who you are and which family you come from.
Sites like Facebook can either make you or break you, depending on how you use them. Once the identity of a girl from Salalah has been exposed on Facebook, she may be questioned by her family and relatives. She may even have trouble finding a husband. If the average user spends at least an hour or two a day on Facebook, imagine how much useless information his/her brain is soaking in. Being involved in the small details of other people's lives every day can backfire. Some people I know have had breakdowns and ended up deleting their accounts on Facebook because they couldn't control their own time anymore. They became obsessed with other people's lives. Extremely unhealthy.
For those of us who can exercise self-control, Facebook can be a true blessing. I keep in touch with friends and family living abroad and I'm up to date on what goes on in their lives. Furthermore, I let them know what's going on in my life. It's all about balance. If you're going to use Facebook, take my advice and never spend more than half an hour a day online. Never. Only add people you know, and for heaven's sake, if you find yourself drowning in other people's lives on your screen, remember there's a 'real life' out there waiting for you!