This was written by Iman al Khaddaf and originally appeared in Asharq Alawsat.
Are you on Facebook under your real name? This is the question that continues to haunt a large number of Saudi Arabian women, despite the fact that internet social networking sites rely primarily on factual personal information. However, a recent study carried out in Saudi Arabia shows that 68% of Saudi girls prefer to withhold their family name due to the sensitivity of this information, in comparison to just 32% of girls who appear on Facebook under their own full names. The study revealed that 16% of girls polled were members of Facebook under aliases or false identities. As for the Saudi Arabian boys who use Facebook, the study showed that 60% of those questioned were members of Facebook under their own full name, with just 4% appearing under an alias or a false name.
This information was disclosed as part of a study entitled, “The Methodology of Saudi Youth When Utilizing Social Networking Sites,” which was carried out by a group of students at the School of Computer Science at the King Saud University in Riyadh. The group of students surveyed a number of Saudi students, half of whom were studying at the King Saud University, while the other half were studying at secondary schools in Riyadh.
Ahoud al-Shaheel, a Professor of Communication at King Saud University, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the latest statistics on the Facebook phenomenon indicate that membership of the site is experiencing an annual growth of 9% amongst the youth. According to these statistics, there is one Saudi female for every 5 Saudi males registered on Facebook as of the end of 2009.
Al-Shaheel confirmed that she wanted to shed light on the methods which the Saudi youth were utilizing social networking sites, as a response to these sites gaining popularity, and more people spending more time on them.
The study highlighted how young men and women in Saudi Arabia are utilizing the social networking website Facebook. The study revealed that of the university student polled, 60% of male students uploaded a real picture of themselves, in comparison to just 5% of female students. While 10% of male students used an image of a famous person, 10% of female students use an image of somebody from their family, their father, brother, or another family member, with the remaining 8% utilizing an “ineligible image” (such as a drawing or cartoon or close-up of an eye, etc).
As for secondary school students, the study revealed that around 30% of boys and 60% of girls did not upload a picture whatsoever, while 10% of boys and 24% of girls uploaded a picture of a famous person. Sixteen percent of girls in secondary school utilized a picture of a family member.
With regards to uploading pictures and allowing others to view these, the students who conducted the study wrote, “it is difficult to judge the character of a young Saudi Arabian through images, and the majority of Saudi Arabians [on Facebook] only allow their friends to view their pictures. We [also] discovered that 40% of [Saudi] Facebook members only upload their pictures in order to allow their friends to post comments on them.”
On the nature of the comments posted on Facebook by university students, the study revealed that 10% of male students posted inappropriate comments, while the majority of other comments – estimated to be around 80% – were posts contributing to discussions or cultural topics. As for the language that these comments are posted in, the study revealed that 45% of posts are in English, 40% are in Arabic, with around 12% being posted in Anglicized Arabic (i.e. Arabic language written in English letters).
As for the concerns of the youth utilizing the Facebook social networking site, the study showed that university students were more interested in cultural issues, with the male students focusing on sports and music, while the female students were more interested in shopping, fashion, music, and movies. Seventy percent of the university students who were involved in the study said they were interested in “general” issues, while 56% said that their interests were limited to their studies and personal hobbies.
In comparison, a small proportion of the Saudi Arabian secondary school students who took part in the study said that were interested in cultural or educational issues. The majority of these students said they were interested in general issues, with 60% said they utilized Facebook for making friends, with just 20% using Facebook with regards to their personal hobbies.
For his part, Dr. Saud Katib, a new media and internet specialist, told Asharq Al-Awsat that internet social networking sites have attracted young people [in the Middle East] and freed them from certain restrictions, allowing them the opportunity to express themselves and communicate with others. He said “social networking sites have narrowed the gap between real society and the desired society that we are searching for and trying to bring about.”
Dr. Katib said that social networking sites attract a portion of Saudi youth as a form of escapism, saying “Some girls in reality are fully covered up however in the virtual community they upload their personal pictures or albums.” When asked to give his opinion for the reason of this contradiction, Katib told Asharq Al-Awsat that “this is an attempt to overcome many of the customs present in real life.” He also clarified that the behavior of the youth in real life is different from their behavior in this virtual community, and he described this virtual community as “the community that they desire.”
Dr. Saud al-Katib analyzed the findings of this study, and said that a proportion of Saudi female students do not use their true names, or upload pictures of themselves, but instead upload anonymous picture of themselves such as a close-up of an eye, hair, etc. He said that the majority of Facebook pictures (uploaded by female students) focus on personal property with sentimental value or holiday pictures. The study described this as part of “a desire to boast and brag.”
It is worth mentioning that the most recent study carried out by the Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission revealed that internet access in Saudi Arabia had increased to 36% of Saudi society as of the end of 2008, which represented an increase of around 6% from the previous year. The Ash-Sharqiyah province of Saudi Arabia has the highest proportion with regards to internet access, with 39% of the total population, followed by Riyadh with 37%.