Dammam, Asharq Al-Awsat – 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 percent of Saudi girls prefer to withhold their family name due to the sensitivity of this information, in comparison to just 32 percent of girls who appear on Facebook under their own full names. The study revealed that 16 percent 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 percent of those questioned were members of Facebook under their own full name, with just 4 percent 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 percent 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 percent of male students uploaded a real picture of themselves, in comparison to just 5 percent of female students. While 10 percent of male students used an image of a famous person, while 10 percent of female students use an image of somebody from their family, their father, brother, or another family-member, with the remaining 8 percent 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 percent of boys and 60 percent of girls did not upload a picture whatsoever, while 10 percent of boys and 24 percent of girls uploaded a picture of a famous person. 16 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 percent 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 percent of male students posted inappropriate comments, while the majority of other comments – estimated to be around 80 percent – were posts contributing to discussions or cultural topics. As for the language that these comments are posted in, the study revealed that 45 percent of posts are in English, 40 percent are in Arabic, with around 12 percent being posted in Anglicized Arabic (i.e. Arabic language written in English letters).
As for the secondary school students, the study revealed that 70 percent of male students post responses that vary between positive and negative comments, while 15 percent posted inappropriate comments. As for the language that these posts are made in, the proportion of comments posted in English [in comparison to the university students polled] increased to 54 percent, in comparison to 40 percent who posted in Anglicized Arabic, with a minority of just 6 percent who posted comments in Arabic.
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. 70 percent of the university students who were involved in the study said they were interested in “general” issues, while 56 percent 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 percent said they utilized Facebook for making friend, with just 20 percent 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 percent of Saudi society as of the end of 2008, which represented an increase of around 6 percent from the previous year. The Ash-Sharqiyah province of Saudi Arabia has the highest proportion with regards to internet access, with 39 percent of the total population, followed by Riyadh with 37 percent.