With over 845 million users, a little less than one seventh of the world’s population and with an increase of 39% in just one year, Facebook is a global phenomenon. For those who are unfamiliar with Facebook, it is one of over 200Social Network Sites (SNS). These are web based services that allow a user 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.”
Some have commented that ‘student life without Facebook is almost unthinkable.’However it must be noted that it is not exclusively used by students, but anyone who has access to the internet including businesses. In fact, it has been stated, “life without a friend is death without a witness…life without hundreds of online friends is social death” It has become so important in the lives of active users that ‘logging on’ has been deeply ingrained into daily routine as is the case with pervasive technology.
Positives and Negatives
Facebook is an excellent way to keep in touch with family and friends. It’s about ‘reaching people you know’ and you would like to know based on shared interests and in this respect, it creates virtual communities. In other words, it helps people ‘to establish, re-establish, and maintain relationships through online interactions.’ This certainly is one way of fulfilling the ties of kinship, as Allah said: “… and fear Allah through Whom you demand your mutual (rights), and (do not cut the relations of) the wombs (kinship)…”It is a great way of updating people with what’s going on in your lives. Rather than explain to a long-distant friend or relation what you got up to during the week – they can simply find out what you were doing based on messages and pictures uploaded onto your profile. It also makes disseminating a message very easy whether it be an event, a quote, a thought, a joke that you want to share, a YouTube clip, what you are doing or even a news story.
Ironic as it may sound, it is a mechanism of ‘socializing without being social’ by maintaining a relationship with people you have only met a few times (and in many cases, never met) and this is why a ‘friend’ is more of a contact than anything else. It also allows the sometimes traumatic process of ‘disconnecting’ with ones friends (whom one may have drifted away from) whilst being ‘connected’ by having them on ones list. It allows users to present themselves in a positive manner which is not always possible in face-to-face communication. It also allows introverted people to get to know others which can ‘compensate for their lack of nonverbal skills’.
In contrast, it allows everyone on the users list to view details some of which is very personal all in one go. When you include someone on your list – what you are effectively doing is inviting them into your life, in fact, your mind. That is, the person you include is someone you not partly trust, but fully trust. The reason being is that whilst we gradually let someone into our lives in reality, Facebook ensures that it happens in one go. Consequently, this has resulted in terrible cases of stalking, murder, loss of job and so on. In the latter’s case, employers in some instances use Facebook in order to perform background checks on applicants and employees. In an environment which spreading messages are so easy, it opens itself to potentially becoming a forum to spread gossip and rumour. The ‘relationship status’ has certainly been an important feature of Facebook and pictures can inevitably be rumour starters, this is one of many reasons why it is popular amongst the younger generation in particular.
Privacy and friends
The ‘friends’ label is a very flexible term and is more of a contact as stated earlier. Research has shown that it can sometimes be ‘socially inappropriate’ to reject a friend request from someone who is familiar. And in a forum where we are so open to disclose such personal information and thoughts, it is important that we do not accept anyone as a friend. In fact, some users may fall into the trap of accepting all friend requests in the hope of attracting as many ‘friends’ as possible. Perhaps one of the very first things that a user may look to on someone’s profile is the number of friends they have. The reason for accepting so many friends (there may be other ‘legitimate reasons’ such as reaching out to more people in order to convey a message) may indicate ones need to feel secure of having a large network of friends and affiliates or even an indicator of popularity. However, a profile having a large number of friends can lead to having negative opinions as well, that the number of friends is unlikely, ‘that the profile owner spends more time superficially friending others beyond a plausible extent’. In other words, the means in which the friends were gained were disingenuous. This is why the approach in which to encourage users to join ones profile should be organic. Studies have shown that a high number of friends can cause extroversion. In Islamic terms, this can be quite dangerous leading to ‘ujub (self-adoration) and arrogance.
It truly is remarkable the amount of information one is willing to disclose to ‘virtual strangers’ compared to personal data divulged in real life. Unintended consequences are a natural result of persuasive technology, but for this to occur on such a mass scale is unprecedented; the sphere of public and private life now becomes blurred. Studies have shown that whilst the majority of Facebook users are aware of the privacy settings, they decide not to implement them. Some of the reasons for activating such settings would be once a profile has been hacked, for those very active users or users thinking they have nothing to hide.
Why people disclose private matters
There are a number of reasons why users disclose private matters publically or semi-publically. These very same reasons can also help to explain why we also use Facebook. Firstly, sharing information in some cases can be a fun activity. We feel the need to spread a quote, a message, or a video clip with our friends. Secondly, to store information, this may be in the form of personal details of contacts. Thirdly, to keep up with trends, which can lead to ‘social validation’. Finally, self-presentation is a key element of disclosing private information; this is sometimes done in order to publicise events and show oneself in a favourable way to others, which can also be termed as ‘identity construction’.
There are many matters which are problematic with Facebook from an Islamic perspective. Among them are time-wasting, discussing trivial matters, encouragement to share everything about one’s life and sinning openly. It also can have negative behavioural consequences such as increasing ones curiosity which can lead to finding out things about friends you wish you’d never knew! What is most disturbing is the lack of segregation amongst Muslims. Both brothers and sisters have not set their privacy settings such that only close friends can view their photos and other personal matters. Sisters have pictures of themselves on their avatars. Both brothers and sisters chat privately. There needs to be a valid reason why someone from the opposite gender is included onto ones friends list. If the reason is ‘giving dawah’, is there not someone from same gender who could do this? If it is a relative – is this something that Allah will be pleased with? There are many uncomfortable questions we need to ask ourselves now before we are questioned by Allah on the Day of Judgement.
There are a number of consequences of the usage of Facebook, the most important of which are the effects it has on ones behaviour such as an increase in negative extroversion highlighted earlier. Another consequence is a normalisation process many users go through when using Facebook. One such example of a Facebook ritual is looking at friends pictures. However, some people may not reciprocate this ritual of uploading their own pictures for others to see. Studies have shown that users log onto Facebook several times a day for short periods – this could allude to a strong attachment if not an addiction.
Despite the plethora of issues that come with Facebook, there is no denying the effect to bring about positive change is ever present. On an international perspective, it could be strongly argued that the use of Facebook was at the heart of toppling the Tunisian Dictator Ben Ali, which continued with the Egyptian Revolution that spurred on the Arab Spring in 2011. On a community level, Facebook is an important dawah tool for organisations and duaat. It helps to disseminate a message quickly to all types of people particularly the youth.
In reality, identity formation plays an important part of one’s youth and SNS’s facilitate this process. In fact, it could be argued that they even create an identity to be accepted into a community. Online and offline presence is markedly different. Pressures from home, school and even media allow youth to have more control of what type of personality they want to create. Rather than shunning this technology, it should be embraced in order to help the Muslim youth to recognise that the greatest identity they can have is to be a slave of Allah.
In a time when pressure is building to restrict the activities of popular duaat, it is this through a high number of contacts that ‘triggers positive social judgments’ or what call be termed as ‘social capital’. This is important for the dawah to flourish and hold sway with public opinion. However, duaat must have some introspection and be responsible about the manner they use Facebook. Having tens of thousands of ‘friends/fans’ can be very harmful for ones faith – ‘ujub (self-adulation) in particular. The main reason why a user was interested in being a friend of a da’ee was because of the ‘Islamic status’ that was given to them by Allah – not by any means of their own ability. So it is therefore extremely important that they further the cause for Allah and not for their own personal popularity and ventures.
Whilst many are not ready to admit the significance Facebook has on our lives. Some people turn to either downplaying its importance or in a very nonchalant manner justify its use by simply saying that it is a tool to ‘keep in touch with others.’ There is little doubt that it has become an important practise within ones daily life. So important, that the gratification of using it outweighs the threats to privacy. In other words, ‘excitement outstrips precaution’. In contrast, it is equally important that we do not fall into the mistake of some scholars of the past who at one point in time prohibited the use of television. Such an approach is not helpful for our discussion. It is true that there is a great harm that results from such technologies, but they are here to stay and we must face reality as it stands now – millions of Muslims of varying levels of religiosity use Facebook and will refuse to give it up. And it is not for this reason that it is being said that it is not haram – rather there is no escaping the benefit that comes with this harm. Simply put, it is a double edged sword – it can be used beneficially with certain guidelines.
Before indulging in some guidelines, let us begin by asking ourselves some uncomfortable questions:
What really is our motivation for using Facebook?
Is it really being used in pleasing Allah?
How much time do we spend on Facebook?
Could we go days without it?
Are we corresponding with the opposite gender privately and publically?
Are we looking at pictures of the opposite gender that are part of our friends list?
Is our behaviour changing as a result of the number of friends we have?
In other words, is our popular online presence changing the way we view ourselves?
Far from the below recommendations being too idealistic (especially since Facebook has only been around for a few years), the guidelines I trust are realistic. In other words, there was life before Facebook.
Firstly, ideally we must avoid having any friends from the opposite gender. Just as we do not have this close contact outside of our homes, why has it suddenly become allowed in our houses? If we truly having a justified reason for having the opposite gender – a reason that we can defend ourselves when being questioned by Allah on the Day of Judgement, then we must abide by the next guideline.
Secondly, learn about private settings and implement them. If we have a justified reason for having the opposite gender on our contacts, then we must be very careful what we share in terms of personal details and pictures. There can be two main approaches regarding this matter which depends on how the profile is being used. Either have many friends with a lot of privacy or little privacy with few friends. This also goes back to who you choose as part of your friends carefully which was mentioned earlier.
Thirdly, avoid sinning openly at all costs. All of us sin and do haram things and we must repent. One of the most important elements of this is having remorse. How is it possible to have true remorse and thus repent when we publicise our sins openly? The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: “All of my ummah will be forgiven except those who sin openly. It is a part of sinning openly when a man does something at night, then the following morning when Allah has concealed his sin, he says, ‘O So and so, I did such and such last night,’ when all night his Lord has concealed him and the next morning he uncovers what Allah had concealed.”When a person sins and publicises it, the person normalises that haram action, almost implying that the action is permissible. Not only is this harmful for the individual, but others as this may now become a justification for them.
This further emphasises the important practise of making istighfar and tawbah. We may delude ourselves into think that we haven’t lied, stolen and thus not sinned. However, there are other acts that we may do that have become so normal that we do not even consider it to be a haram. But Allah has promised that if we believe and do righteous actions, the result of that repentance is that He “…will change their sins into good deeds…”. How merciful is Allah that he will turn our transgressions against Him into good deeds that in the end will help us! How much must Allah love us for Him to do such a thing – the question is – how much do we love Allah?
Fourthly, using our time wisely. Facebook especially amongst Muslims will be more attractive as it is a ‘halal’ alternative to watching all sorts on television. We may fall into a trap of replacing something unbeneficial with something else that is also unbeneficial.
Razi in his explanation of Surah Al-Asr: “Allah, the Most High, swore an oath by time, due to the amazing things it contains; happiness and adversity, health and illness, and wealth and poverty all occur in it, and nothing is equal to it in value. So if you were to waste a thousand years uselessly, but then repent and success was confirmed for you in the last moment of your life then you will remain in Paradise forever. The best of all things was your life at that moment. Time is one of the blessings, so Allah swears an oath by it, and indicates that the day and the night is an opportunity which mankind wastes! And that the time is more excellent than the place – so He swears an oath by it, since time a pure blessing containing no blemish, rather the one at loss and the blameworthy is man!”
Research has shown that Facebook users spend up to an hour a day. The most widespread pattern is that users check their account multiple times a day for a few minutes at a time. This may give the illusion that a user is logging on for a short period, but it in reality it may be a lot more. It is difficult to recommend a particular time depending on how often and for what purposes we use it. The recommendation of the author irrespective of how often we use it is not to exceed more than 30 minutes a day. Rather than logging on many times a day, we should limit this to once or twice a day.
Rather than using Facebook for mere entertainment and ‘maintaining relationships’, Muslims must have a higher purpose and use this influential tool in spreading Islam (dawah) and being more politically active. This should especially occur more so with the youth. And at a time when the younger generation are becoming apolitical or at the very least limited in the causes they feel passionately about, these mediums can transform the way in which the youth can affect societal change.