Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 - 27 June 2007
Issue No. 850
Living
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Meet you @ Facebook

Facebook has taken social networking to new dimensions in Egypt: Hadeel Al-Shalchi speaks to a range of fans

Click to view caption
Facebook.com founder Mark Zuckerberg; an addict user getting her Facebook dose

It looks like any other evening at the Cilantro café on Abul-Feda Street in Zamalek. There are two groups of girls in colourful, stylish veils giggling over frozen drinks and oversized mugs of coffee, couples sharing secrets over foaming cappuccinos and intertwined arms, and boys and girls chain-smoking while they work on school assignments. The air is thick with smoke, noisy with the espresso machine, and loud with merry laughter. There is of course at least one laptop in each circle, taking advantage of the free wireless connection at the coffee shop. But one thing is different everyone is peering over the laptop to see what the other has on their Facebook.

Facebook has revolutionised the way people network and keep in touch all over the world, and the phenomenon has taken Egypt by storm. Facebook.com was created in February 2004 by a 21-year-old Harvard student called Mark Zuckerberg, and the idea quickly caught on across his university, extending soon enough to other Ivy League schools in the United States. Today Facebook is open to all countries and organisations. It has seen explosive growth in Egypt among its target market of English-speaking college students, with over 20,000 Egyptian users signing up since general registration began in 2006. Users create accounts, invite their friends and join social groups for networking with others. People join their high school or university groups, charity organisations, or hobbies. Pictures are easily uploaded on the account page and other friends are tagged so they can see photos of themselves online.

Mohamed Fouad, a 23-year-old student, says Facebook has more practical purposes for him than just entertainment and keeping track of friends. Fouad is part of Rotaract Pharos Lighthouse, in Alexandria. Rotaract is one of a series of youth programmes created by Rotary International, which focuses on the development of young adults as leaders in their communities and workplaces through training and community service, both locally and worldwide. Facebook has provided my organisation with an online environment where we can contact each other at any time, document meetings and minutes, he says. They also publish new events that everyone inside and out of the Rotaract Club can join. Facebook Groups are great, says Fouad. We really appreciate the technology and the Facebook proposed online groups model, and we definitely plan to make more of our club work online whenever possible in the future.

Nermeen Mouftah, 25, says she stayed up until 3am the day she created her Facebook account. Invited at random by a colleague at work, curiosity got the better of her one night and she created an account. Mouftah, who works for the Ministry of Manpower in Cairo and grew up in Canada, says there are two main attractions to Facebook: to represent yourself in a profile and then to look at how others have represented themselves. For Mouftah, a lot of Facebook culture is about self-expression. You just want to build your profile, she says. You want to put your comments up, you want to label pictures, and tag your friends. You want to show the world and your friends what youre doing and what youre up to. And then you want to just cruise and look up all the people whom you knew before high school, whom you know now.

Mouftah prefers the word community to social network when describing Facebook. I think Facebook came at the perfect time for me, she says. Im three years out of university, and I have lots of friends whom I want to update on what Ive been up to. Facebook is good for sending a quick note to those whom it would seem awkward to send an e-mail out of the blue. Mouftah, who also keeps an online blog, admits to be spending more time on her Facebook account than blogging these days. I find that Facebook is more like the TV version of blogs, says Mouftah. When Im blogging, I give myself a half hour to think and then put my thoughts down, but with Facebook it doesnt need to be long. But the point of Facebook isnt to seep into the deeper thoughts of someone thinking, just to see where theyre at, what theyre doing, who their friends are. I think its more about quick updates.

For many users, Facebook is amazing in that it enables them to find common friends and a place to meet new people and catch up with old friends who have drifted away through time. It is like a social club where you can meet your college and school networks, says Lina Mahmoud, a student of computer science at Cairo University. To Mahmoud, browsing through lists of friends friends helped her locate many people with whom she had lost contact. As with any new cyber craze, the issue of privacy has been questioned. Slideshows warning users of the Facebook privacy policy and their alleged use of private information for marketing purposes spread through e-mail Inboxes as fast as invitations to join Facebook did. Critics have warned that university authorities use Facebook to keep track of what students are doing and thinking, and an individuals every move is recorded as they make changes on their accounts.

Mouftah agrees she could be more vigilant with her Facebook security, but isnt too concerned. Theres nothing I would put into cyberspace that Im not comfortable with anyway or uncomfortable with the world knowing, she says. Although Facebook has become an essential part of the day to many young Egyptians, some of them, like Karim El-Khashab, refuse to accept any invitation to join it. El-Khashab finds Facebook an addiction and a mere waste of time. To him the past should stay in the past: If I wanted to find some of my oldest friends, I would search for them my way, concludes El-Khashab, a political science graduate of the American University in Cairo who works as a journalist. At the end of the day it seems that it is the fun of the Facebook culture that draws young people, especially into the fold of the website. Hisham El-Kershs eyes light up when he talks about the website.

He says hes logged onto Facebook all day. My friends and I live on Facebook, the 19-year-old university student says. We sometimes go out to take pictures, just to come back and put them on Facebook. El-Kersh was so inspired by Facebook, he started his own group in Arabic called Weshktab -- a literal Arabic translation of the words Face book.

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