She is living a double life. The line between the two personas is very thick. In one world, she’s Maya Eskandar*, a reserved 17-year-old Syrian born and raised in Qatar. But in the virtual world, she’s known by many names, none of which unveil her real identity.
To those who meet her on YouTube, Twitter, Fan Fiction and other social networks, she’s simply a fanatic admirer of Super Junior (SJ or SuJu), a South Korean boy band of 13 members. Eskandar’s first experience on the Internet was when she created an email account. Later, she began to set up separate emails for different social groups of people, such as her family, friends and professional connections. Even then, she was very discrete with her email identities. Just a year ago, she began to involve herself in social networks, and her first was Fan Fiction (fanfiction, fanfic or FF). It’s a website where people get the chance to write stories about settings and/or characters they are fans of. When she realized how well it was going for her, she turned to Youtube and created her own channel where she produced fan videos for the South Korean band. In about three weeks, she gathered 184 subscribers. Later, Eskandar decided to create a fan website of the boy band. On the fifth anniversary of Super Junior, she wrote a letter in English for the band. Using Twitter, she asked people to translate it in their own language. In less than 12 hours, she received 5,000 views from 82 countries. The letter was then translated into 40 languages that landed on Twitter’s most popular tweets. On the day her website was released, Super Junior personally picked up her post and said, “E.L.F. all over the world, thank you so much…I’ll never forget this fan-meeting.” But that wasn’t enough for her she decided to create a twitter account also dedicated for the band where she gained 2000 followers. Though she’s experienced a great deal of popularity and success, she still chooses to keep her identity hidden.
The Internet is providing people the chance to acquire more than just one identity. And social networks, in particular, offer the space for people to create an identity that is completely in their own hands. People in Qatar have a wide range of social networks to choose from, but the most popular are Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, Blogger, Orkut, Tagged and Friendster. There are many reasons to why people in Qatar use social network sites. “Twitter is a very quick thing so people use it as SMS service. It’s for snappy and short details you want to tell people. Facebook is more showy as in I want to show my pictures and news. It has more fun applications. Flickr is very popular in Qatar because it’s only for photos which many people in Qatar have a hobby for and YouTube, everyone uses YouTube for the videos,” said Mina Nagy Mischel Takla, a social media specialist at the Supreme Council of Information and Communication Technology (ictQATAR). “Forums are used as a way of expression and what you’ll notice in forums that people don’t usually mention their real name…people use it as a concealed way of self-expression.” According to Takla, the most popular forums in Qatar are Qataru, Qatar Shares, Doha Forums, Qatar Speed and Aroos Qatar. And Facebook is the most popular social network in Qatar. Six months ago, there were just 260,000 Facebook users but now, there are 412,220.
Eskandar is only one example of the many thousands of people in Qatar who see the Internet as an opportunity to be someone else. In this small Muslim peninsula, there is strong culture and tradition that people highly regard. Young men and women have to live up to many societal expectations. Like many other conservative Arab countries, people in Qatar are private about their way of life. Therefore, many turn to social networks to expose who they really are. For some, the price of doing so brings them to cast aside the identity they own in real life. As a result, some use social networks as the person he or she is but without exposing their complete real identity. “I don’t use my name, I don’t use my age, I don’t tell people where I’m from, I just tell them the common thing between me and them,” said Eskandar firmly. “My name is something I just can’t share with anyone.” In her eyes, however, her online identity is her real identity. “I would always wish people would identify me the way they identify me online,” she confessed. “I have no interest for them [online society] to know who I am after all because who I really am here [real world] is not an interesting thing. I’m more interesting online than offline.”
Though Eskandar finds the social network as a place to be completely someone else, others are indulgent about revealing their identities but are selective about what they reveal. “I don’t want to use my last name or my father’s name because I know a lot of people who’ll add me especially boys who I don’t add even if I know them,” said Al-Buainain, a 22-year-old Qatari. Al-Buainain also refrains from having pictures of her on her or others’ profile. “There are some people who can’t accept the idea of using Facebook,” she said. “People think you use it to date or just to meet guys. Some think it’s not necessary [to have a Facebook account] because you tell the whole world about your daily life.” Al-Buainain is known as Alexander on Facebook. However, she used to be Amy Anderson, but when she tried add her friends, they didn’t accept the request because they didn’t know her. But only those who know her offline know that Alexander is Al-Buainain. “Facebook is personal,” she said. “I just want to share it with people I really know.” On Twitter, she’s known as Lonely_potato. She’s more lenient on Twitter as to who she adds because the network offers her the opportunity to meet people in her line of work as a prospective journalist.
According to Takla, the hidden identities or false representations of people in online networks in Qatar could be considered as semi self-expression. “People don’t have the courage to do it [uncover their real identity]. Sometimes it could be lack of confidence. Sometimes, it’s because of peer pressure because maybe my friends like something that I don’t. I just don’t want to be out of the group…it also could be a result of the way of upbringing because maybe parents tell them don’t say negative things publicly,” said Takla about many of the reasons why people don’t reveal themselves when they self-express. “A girl won’t put her picture or very private news online that’s because the culture is more conservative and it’s against very explicit self-expression. That’s fine. That’s the culture. But when it comes to self-expression about any other topic that’s not personal like an expression about maybe how the roads are or whether I think Qatar 2022 is a good or bad thing, here it’s not about the culture. I think it’s about the person and the personality. So there are thin lines about this and that,” he added.
Many young women refrain from using social networks to avoid social problems and especially to avoid the hassle of being meticulous about their pictures, the information they post and whom they add. Al-Buainain’s sister, a 26-year-old, doesn’t have a Facebook account to avoid cultural conflicts especially the issue of a Qatari girl’s picture being viewed by people online. “Fifteen years ago, it was totally unacceptable for a female’s picture to be posted in public, but when Sheikha Mozah [bint Nasser Al Missned] began to appear on newspapers, the society allowed it only if a woman achieved something or was honored,” she said. She recalls that when she was a student in Denver University in the United States, she had to write a small biography and provide a picture of herself for the university’s website. As a man who stumbled across it emailed her saying, “Excuse me miss, we are from the same tribe [Al-Buainain]. You know that this is unacceptable. May you please remove your picture?” And that is precisely what she did. “If a guy puts his picture on the web, it’s fine,” added Al-Buainain. “But if a girl puts her picture on the web, it’s really sensitive. They’ll think she’s open-minded and they don’t like that.”
Eskandar said that her online identity is eccentric to the society she lived offline. “Who I really am is a fan of this band and I want to share with people this information. I can’t do that with people who are here [offline world]. Like whenever I talk about this people think it’s a taboo. It’s like what the hell or people won’t understand who you really are. But online, you can find lots and lots of fans who can understand how you feel.”
In the book, Girl Wide Web 2.0, edited by Sharon R. Mazzarella, researchers Rodda Leage and Ivana Chalmers discuss how Arab girls express themselves when using social network sites especially Facebook. In their research, “Degrees of Caution: Arab Girls Unveil on Facebook,” they interviewed 42 girls aged between 18-22, all of whom where university students in Qatar. “Most of our participants explained that Facebook was primarily a place to communicate, and not a place to express their identity…We were struck by the pervasiveness of participants’ discussion of reputation and the important role that it played in moderating their identity construction online. The girls in this study consistently mentioned that they actively monitored their reputation because so much of their standing within Arab culture, in general, and Qatari society, in particular, depended upon how one conducted herself in public,” Leage and Chalmers said in their research.
The precautions, whether cultural or not, that many girls place when on the Internet demonstrates their understanding of the dangers of the online world. “The biggest danger is just being aware of your vulnerability online, and the fact that information you put online is essentially unprotected regardless of the protections that websites say they offer,” said John Laprise professor at Northwestern University in Qatar, where he teaches community, technology and society. “You have to be ready to accept that whatever information you put online will, at some point, become public whether you say it’s private or not.” This is a troublesome thought in the Arab world and in Qatar more specifically, where the line between the offline and the online world might not be thick enough. Many are aware that what is done online can be reflected on them offline. “It’s [having a false or partial self-representation online] more true here than other places in the world. It’s true anyplace where there are strong societal norms for behavior and conduct,” Laprise believes. “In places in the world where individuality is a stronger element or celebrated more, I think in those places there is less weight to represent yourself differently in different venues.” In Qatar, an individual accommodates his or her life according to the culture and traditions of society therefore many use social networks as a tool for self-expression. “One of the advantages of the Internet is that it’s simply not like the real world. They don’t have to pay attention to the restrictions they have in the real world, they can act however they want and be whomever they want,” said Laprise.
For some, there are other reasons for having a false or hidden identity online besides cultural vigilance. Majdouline Al Dewik, a regular user of Facebook, has two accounts. In one, she’s Majdouline Al Dewik, a 20-year-old student studying in the UK, while on the other, she’s someone else for the purpose of security. “I have another account to see what others can see on my profile, like the privacy setting. I don’t want people to see what I don’t want them to see,” said the Jordanian born and raised in Qatar. “My private settings are extremely limited. You can’t click on my profile picture and you can only see mutual friends but not mine. You can’t see my information nothing, but people can add me or find me when they search for me.”
Social networks don’t only allow a person to have multi-identities or a false or partial persona online, it acts as a driving force for self-expression. Such networks are valued even more in places where self-expression is limited. “It may enable them to become more confident individuals perhaps even happier because if they feel they want to be a certain kind of person and they’re not allowed to be that kind of person in the real world, they still can express themselves online,” Laprise believes.
There have been many attempts to block social network like Facebook and YouTube, in the Arab world because of the free speech opportunities they opened to their citizens. Though Qatar hasn’t
participated in putting restraints on social networks, there are people in the society who object to participating in social networking sites. To many, the Internet is a place to find information and not to socialize.
Currently, Internet use in the Arabian Peninsula is strong and will only getting stronger. The new and young generation is the Internet’s best and most fascinated. “All the people who are really participating in Facebook now will be the people who are running in the country…They’ll be in some ways in the position to either make or influence the policy,” Laprise believes. Accordingly, online social networks in the region are here to stay. There are 56 million Internet users in the Arab world, representing 17 percent of the total population. The number is expected to grow by 50 percent in the next three years, rising to 82 million users.
As more people recognize the advantages the online world has to offer, the more they’ll be influenced by it. For the Arab world, this tool offers people a chance to express themselves in ways they can’t imagine. Through time, a greater value will be placed for self-expression. Eskandar and the people she meets online are one of the many people who found a place to express themselves in societies where they found it difficult. She met people who are across the Qatari borders but share similar social and cultural constraints. “Girls in Saudi Arabia can’t say anything, but when they’re online, they’re just so amazing. You just say I wish people would know how good they write or how amazing their videos are. They can have their own freedom online without exposing who they are in the real life but they are someone online,” said Eskandar. “I just go and sit on my computer and enter this world I created for myself where I am someone who’s totally different from the person I am outside and I become someone. You know when they say he’s someone. Well, I am someone.”
*Maya Eskandar and Al-Buainain are true characters but preferred to remain anonymous.