Asian Perspective: Why networking sites can be addictive

1st August 2010
HUNDREDS of online social networking sites (SNS) are available these days catering to various interests — friendship, dating, business networking, among others.Sites like Facebook, MySpace, Urkut, hi5, Bebo and Friendster are very popular.

Almost 85 per cent of Malaysia’s online population belongs to one or more of these sites. Of the many SNS, Malaysians have taken a liking to Facebook which has a 77.5 per cent reach of the web population.
This phenomenon, states a report on social networking activities by comScore Inc, is common in most Asia Pacific countries such as the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and Singapore.

What drives online users to Facebook?

The ability to establish and maintain relationships is the primary drive, says Dr Adrian M. Budiman, a senior lecturer at Universiti Utara Malaysia. It could be real contacts (established in real life), virtual contacts (established online), or old relationships.
Adrian, who conducts research in new media and culture, says there are several interesting reasons why Facebook appeals to the online population.

“It is a tool for members to boost their self-esteem. The more friends they have, the more popular they feel. They receive feedback for the content they publish though the site.

“There is a sense of constantly being surrounded by a circle of friends.”
Another reason, he says, is the voyeuristic tendency to view other people’s information in private.

“People want to explore other people’s personal lives without suffering negative social consequences. It also provides a platform to rekindle old relationships.

“The ability to search for old friends and colleagues, former romantic partners, and discover their current status is quite appealing for some members.”

He says the majority of the younger generation (21 years and below) embrace social networks more comfortably than the older generation, and tend to be more liberal in revealing personal information through the site.

While younger people are interested in making new friends, the older generation is more interested in maintaining existing friendships through this medium.

“For younger people, it is their primary method of communication in some cases. In my study, I have discovered that the older generation still has a tendency to value human communication as superior and have greater respect for traditional values and morality,” says Adrian.

He believes it is not all bad.

“It may enhance social interaction. The ability to communicate through interactive media allows more options and more frequent interactions with our contacts. I have found that existing relationships formed in real-life may be strengthened through Facebook.”

Nonetheless, he agrees that some relationships initiated through Facebook may be superficial.

“Before the popularity of interactive media, a ‘friend’ was associated with a person with whom he had a positive relationship with. This is no longer true with the advent of new media.

“The idea of ‘friend’ itself degrades the value of friendship since a Facebook ‘friend’ can be as distant as a friend of a friend of a friend whom we know nothing about.”

Julian Hopkins, a doctoral student at Monash University Sunway Campus who researches social media, says for some people, retreating into the virtual world to make friends can be a means to overcome social awkwardness or loneliness.

“I think that is in the minority, and is not the main reason for people using SNS.”

The fascination with self-display as seen on SNS is not unusual says Hopkins. It only seems more obvious because it’s online and archived.

“We all self-display all the time. With technological advances, especially digital photography, a lot more of that is happening now.

“Doing something such as posting photos of a party online is a way of reinforcing ties with other people who went to the party.”

One of the biggest mistakes in the public debate on SNS, says Hopkins, is that it is assumed the generation of “digital natives” are not concerned about privacy.

While these platforms offer users the ability to disclose a wide variety of personal information it also differentiates between public and private, where public means that a profile is available to anyone and private means that it is only for selected friends.

“Facebook is popular because users think that they are only sharing with people they want to share with.

“Teenagers, for example, may want only people like them to see their profile but they do not want the same attention from an adult.

“One noticeable trend in this regard is that, as more and more parents go into Facebook, young people are creating multiple profiles — one for the ‘parent public’ which includes their school, potential employers and one for their own public.”

Generally, he says, people are ignorant about the risk factors when using these platforms. Many don’t understand that their indiscretions will be online indefinitely.

“Users must realise that anything that goes online may be seen by their parents, their teachers, their future partners, their future employers and even their children.

“I don’t think social networks are damaging. It only becomes a problem when people reveal things that come back to haunt them or they become addicted to it.”

Read more: Why networking sites can be addictive


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