When Facebook was launched seven years ago, no one had any idea that it would reshape human interactions. The social networking site has quickly outshone previous modes of communication and attempts to create copycat websites have failed miserably. The use of Facebook has become so widespread that two people who wish to stay in contact are more likely to exchange Facebook account names rather than telephone numbers. For some, the website has almost become a complete substitute for face-to-face contact. But for many of the site’s 400 million users, Facebook simply provides a sense of community and friendship with those whom we’re not necessarily physically close to. It’s a site that encourages warm and fuzzy feelings, which is no doubt why we keep coming back for more. This has all happened so quickly that the Microsoft Word dictionary I’m using still underlines the word “Facebook” in red. In 2009 the cruel verb “unfriend” was named Word of the Year by the New Oxford American Dictionary.
In Bangladesh, more than half a million people use the internet, and every one in five has a Facebook account. The number of internet users has quadrupled since 2003. Since arriving here last October, the number of friends I have on Facebook has grown exponentially, as has the amount of time I spend on the site. In Bangladesh, two or three minutes of real life conversation is enough to create an online friendship. Etiquette does not require a certain reticence about forging these digital connections. And why should there be? Life’s too short.
Globally, the average Facebook user has 130 friends, but I’m sure that figure would be higher in Bangladesh. I have many Bangladeshi friends who have over a thousand friends – a few hundred seems to be the norm. Once I sneakily peered over a friend’s shoulder and discovered that he has over a thousand friend requests pending. I couldn’t help but ask why he hasn’t accepted them. For the time being he says he’s content with having 750 friends that he “knows.” Not only are Bangladeshis quick to seize new friendships, but the site itself is also being used with undeniable enthusiasm. A single photo from a party can generate more than 20 comments in less than 20 minutes. Following the commentary between those who did and didn’t attend can be almost as fun as the party itself.
Status updates also tend to have a more personal quality. People here are not afraid to post a cry from the heart, a romantic yearning, or to air their insecurities. There’s none of that bland, “How about the weather” type of stuff that you get elsewhere. Here’s a sweet status update posted by a male friend of mine, “The best feelings are those that have no words to describe them.” If someone announces on Facebook that they are ill or that a relative has died, commiserations flood in. Bangladeshis respond to their friends’ news updates with a warmth and attentiveness that was previously unknown to me. The flurry of activity can be mind-boggling, but it’s always entertaining.
Does this frenzy of online activity suggest that Bangladeshis are friendlier in general? Possibly, but it’s impossible to assess. However I certainly believe that if the politicians can implement a “digital Bangladesh”, the people will know exactly what to do with it.