Social Networking Sites, “To Be or Not To Be?”

On: October 7, 2008
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About Ali Balunywa
I have 20 years experience in the print media in Africa and Europe. I am in possession of a Bachelors degree in social sciences from Makerere University in Kampala and a post graduate diploma in Journalism and Media management. I am currently following a Masters of Media in New Media studies at the University of Amsterdam.


Ali Balunywa

The famous phrase “to be, or not to be” comes from William shakespeare‘s Hamlet prince of Denmark (written about 1600), act three, scene one. It is one of the most famous quotations in world literature.

“ To be or not to be, that is the question;
whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer…..”,_or_not_to_be 

Like Hamlet, I don’t know whether to praise or condemn the social networking sites.
I was introduced to them recently because of the New Media course I am following. A few years ago, I used to Skype and MSN. However, I abandoned them because they were time killers. I had many invitations from the Social networks, but I had ignored them. I thought it was all a waste of precious time.

Danah Boyd defines social networks sites as web based services that allow individuals to:

(1) Construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system,
(2) Articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and
(3) View and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system.

The nature and nomenclature of these connections may vary from site to site.

According to danah boyd young people use social network sites to connect with their friends and present themselves online. Boyd compares social networks like MySpace to immersive environments like second life.

Social networking sites have not been around for a long time. Therefore not many big studies have been done on them. Consequently the field is still expanding. Danah Boyd is probably the most high profile academic in the world focused on the emerging web and its social consequences.

Danah Boyd hit the international spotlight when she wrote about the shift from myspace to Face book. Currently, she is a doctoral candidate in the School of Information at the University of California-Berkeley and a Fellow at the Harvard University Law School Berkman Centre for Internet and Society. Previously she worked as a researcher at Yahoo! and did a year long internship at Google studying the ethnography of blogging at Blogger.

My experience

I proceeded to accept the invitations which were pending at: Face Book, Tagged and LinkedIn. I also registered at Twitter and Hyves and let the games begin. I uploaded a sketchy profile where I did not indicate that I was searching a soul mate or love. I also uploaded an odd photo when I was in Africa with my excited old aunt. However, this did not deter love seekers to try their luck!

After a few days, I received the following mail from Tagged:


My name is grace, I saw your profile today in and became interested in you, I will also like to know you the more, and I want you to send an email to my email address at     so that I can give you my picture for you to know whom I am. I believe we can move from here!
I am waiting to hear from you. (Remember the distance or colour does not matter but love matters a lot in life)

yours in love,  

Then shortly after, I received another unsolicited mail from Face Book as follows:

Heya sexy! I’ve been in a relationship for the past three years; it ended unexpectedly a couple of months back. I feel relieved and thrilled to start the dating process again. I’d like to meet a great, easy-going guy. After seeing your ad page, I thought we’d probably click. I also think we live close to each other, but I’m not sure because I’m staying at a friend’s house for a while and don’t know the area. A little about me: I’m cute and have a couple of discretely placed tattoos. My height and weight are proportional but I’d like to be more toned. I have a beaming smile, nice hair and a firm butt. I hope you’ll be interested in chatting some more. Don’t be shy. FYI, I’m using my friend’s account, so don’t respond directly to this message. Please send your reply to my regular e-mail address: e_mary_soms at Have a great say and thank you!

What I realised was that millions of young people are using these sites for email, meeting new friends and sharing experiences, photos and videos. These sites have changed life online. They allow users to send messages and leave comments. My misgivings about these sites have however not changed.

They are addictive, impersonal and time consuming. You can not be sure who gets hold of your private information and there is a risk of identity theft. When I navigated through Face Book and Tagged, I realised I did not get any value added. I saw users with thousands of online friends and wondered what they do with all of them.

Nevertheless, I was impressed with Hyves and LinkedIn. There is plenty of added value for the user. For example Hyves has interesting blogs. One can also look for a job or house on this network. LinkedIn is a professionals’ site. Upcoming events and tutorials are an added advantage. What I found cumbersome was the long questionnaire one has to fill in before accessing any information.

I found twitter to be a service for friends, family, and co–workers for communication and staying connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing? With all due respects to users, I found it quite silly!

I was brought up in a society that respects human links. In a culture where the extended family is the basic family unit where growing up to adulthood does not necessarily mean severing bonds between oneself and one’s parents or even grandparents. When the child grows up, he or she moves into the larger and more real world of adulthood, yet he or she doesn’t, under normal circumstances, establish an identity separate from that of the community….

Workload is equally shared among the members. The women are often housewives and cook for the entire family. The patriarch of the family (often the oldest male member) lays down the rules, works (if not retired) and arbitrates disputes assisted by his peers. The members of the household also look after each other in case a member is ill. They are also responsible in teaching the younger children their mother tongue, manners and etiquette. There is therefore plenty of interaction among people. What the extended family system is doing for the developing world, Social networking sites are doing for the west.

Last summer, I visited Africa after an absence of a number of years. What captured my attention was the smiles lighting up people’s faces. Most people are poor and needy and at times don’t have enough to eat, but they still reserve a smile for everyone including total strangers. There is a big contrast with Europe or for that matter the western world. On entering a bus or train, you find most faces drawn out, angry, stressed or/and unhappy! Smiles are a rare commodity. Everyone is for him/herself! Individualism is promoted.

However, what is amusing is that you will find these very people seated behind a computer smiling, sometimes laughing. They usually belong to a number of social networking networks with thousands of virtual friends. They chat, make fun, date and do all sorts of stuff with strangers online. They do things that they cannot do in real life. They are no longer capable of physically asking a woman/man out. They do this online. They even get betrothed online!

The greatest loss to humanity is the loss of personal contact among people. Social networks have replaced personal contact and people to people interaction. Instead, individualism is promoted. In the near future laughter might soon be a leading tourist attraction in the developing world!

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