Looking At Internet Communication And Social Relationships Cultural Studies Essay

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The Internet is a tool to broadcast information without regard to geographic location (Leiner). Today, the use of internet varies extensively from searching for information, reading the news, playing online games, shopping and more importantly communicating online with teachers, colleagues, family members, friends, and other people online having similar interests. ("Internet Tutorial"). The Internet insertion in the life of every individual is constantly increasing all over the world. In the Middle East, "a relationship driven culture" due to the importance relationships play in all fields of life ("The Middle East A Relationship…"), estimations indicate that approximately 50 million people were online in 2008, ("Internet Usage … Africa", "Internet Usage ... Big Picture") and the use of internet as a communication tool is predominant.

Internet communication is one of the tools used to interact with others, but since it is easier to interact via messenger or in chat rooms with other people having similar interests rather than calling a friend to meet, people are more inclined to communicate with others using Internet communication mediums rather than interacting face to face with their friends and family members. They gradually prefer to stay for hours at home discussing all issues of life in online chat rooms with strangers rather than spending this time with their friends and family members. As a result, Internet communication "displaces" time spent with friends and family members and consequently negatively affects the quality of these relationships (Valkenburg). Much research supporting the displacement theory concluded that, of those who spend more than 10 Internet hours per week, 15 percent report a decrease in social activities, and more than 25 percent report a decrease in time spent with family members and existing friends (Erbring). These results are awfully grave because using Internet for emailing and chatting not only affects time spent with family members and friends, but it also makes people feel more stressed and lonely since they spend less time with real human beings (van den Eijnden) which menaces human's psychological behavior and as a result, negatively influence their social relationships with family members and friends. More than that, since Internet communication is mostly used all over the world by young people, it could create a large gap between generations of each society in the world due to the lack of interaction between youth and old, which could separate a big part of the youth from society.

Although researches mentioned above were conducted on arbitrary samples of individuals mostly from Western cultures, they are also applicable to the Middle East. Middle Eastern societies are distinguished by strong loyalty to family, friends and community (Barakat). In Middle Eastern cultures, family takes the central focus of each individual's life ("The Middle East A Relationship…") which means that every individual is working for the benefit of the whole family, and any problem that an individual faces is the responsibility of the whole family to help him/her get out of it. Besides, Middle Eastern families are kind of small societies where all individuals share the same advantages to the extent that each family name can indicate how much power, money and connections an individual has (Singerman). All these show how social relationships in the Middle East are very stretched and crucial in each individual's life. However, the extensive use of Internet communication is decreasing the time spent with family members and friends; that is why it is inevitable that Internet could negatively affect the strength of social relationships existing in the Middle East.

In addition to displacing time spent with real friends and family members, Internet communication negatively affects the socializing skills of individuals who extensively use internet to communicate with friends and family members. Renowned Canadian and American sociologist and ex-president of American Sociologist Association (Blackwood), Erving Goffman, suggested that "individuals who lack the normative communication, cultural, and civility skills in a society would find it difficult to interact with others successfully" (Bringnall). Goffman was pointing out the visual and auditory indications which occur in face to face communications such as the voice tone, the facial expressions, the body language, the eye contact, the gestures, the postures, the rhythm, the intonation and all other non verbal cues that take place in face to face communication. These non-verbal cues are instant replies to every act that takes place in a face to face interaction. However, these cues are absent in Internet communication, which hinders individuals from successfully interacting using internet communication mediums with other people in society. Also, Internet communication tools do not provide their users with the practice they need to gain knowledge about the non verbal cues that occur in face to face interactions, and what these cues indicate; that is why extensive use of Internet communication mediums in interacting with others will make people less able to interact with others in "real" life.

In an online interaction, it is hard to express one's feelings and detect other people's feelings as in face to face interaction, which leads to superficial interactions and relationships on Internet communication mediums. A theory advanced by Collins suggests that "emotions that emerge out of social interactions are extremely important in the development of any relationship" (Bringnall). However, in online communication, it is hard to detect other people's feelings as in face to face communication due to the lack of non verbal cues specially eye contact and body language. For example, when somebody is embarrassed in a face to face discussion and does not want to acknowledge this feeling, other people taking part in the discussion might recognize that he/she feels embarrassed because of his/her red face and change the topic of conversation. However, this is not possible in online interaction because it is impossible to recognize that this person is embarrassed except if he/she gets very angry, so it will be clear that he/she was embarrassed by the discussion before eventually getting angry. This is why Internet communication mediums tried to overcome this obstacle by adding some small simple pictures that illustrate different emotions to act as non verbal cues that people can use to indicate one's feelings in an online discussion (Derks). However, these "artificial" emotions are less meaningful than real non verbal cues because people usually do not intend to express their feelings in a discussion with friends, but they are mostly detected using communication skills that one acquires by experience in real face to face communication. As a result, these small pictures are less helpful than real non verbal cues in indicating one's feelings and orienting social discussions. That is why online communication presents another kind of interaction different from face to face interaction. It presents a communication quite superficial between people far from each other interacting mainly through words lacking deep emotions and clear understanding, which eventually leads to weaker social relationships.

In the Middle East, relationships rely more on emotions rather than calculations. An individual's family and friends care about one's feelings and even share the same emotions (Barakat). For example, when someone gets an academic degree, all his/her family members and friends will meet to share in group their happiness and pride of his/her achievement; they will all take this as a chance to meet in the same place, enjoy music and dinner, spend moments full of colors, tastes, smelts, and exciting sounds, and spend together some unforgettable moments, which will strengthen their relationships. Also, when someone has had an accident or is operated in hospital, his/her family members and friends will visit him/her regularly not only because they are anxious and wish him/her speedy recovery but also to support him/her on both the psychological level by encouraging, praying, offering flowers, and the material level such as presenting food and clothes or donating blood. All these emotions and acts are given a sacred place in Middle Eastern societies. However, these emotions and acts cannot take place through Internet communication mediums; that is why using Internet communication with friends and family members could negatively affect social relationships, especially social relationships in Middle Eastern societies.

After examining what effect Internet communication has on existing social relationships in the Middle East, it is also crucial to observe the result of Internet communication in making new friendships with people one can meet online. Online friendships tend to be very rare, weak and temporary ties since they were most probably based on common interest in a certain topic rather than on emotions, trust and understanding. Friendship can be defined as being a "voluntary interdependence between two persons over time that is intended to facilitate social-emotional goals of the participants, and may involve varying types and degrees of companionship, intimacy, affection, and mutual assistance" (Testo). Nevertheless, online friendships lack many of these features since emotions are not clearly expressed online; companionship is only verbal without real physical existence since online friends communicate only through words without seeing or hearing each other; intimacy is impossible to achieve since they do not meet in work, in sports club, in café, in church, in mosque or in real life; and assistance can be in very limited issues. As a result, online relationships are very weak ties compared to "real" friendships. Online friends might meet, but this is also very rare. A survey lead by Katz and Aspden concluded that only 22% of people who were using Internet for two years or more have made a new "real" friendship using Internet communication (Kraut). It is questionable whether only one out of every five people in real face to face communication is able to make a new friendship over a two-year period of time. Moreover, people tend to provide false information about themselves using Internet communication. A survey by GVU asking people to what extent they used internet communication to convey the right impression about themselves found that 12.3 percent of the respondents said they never convey the right impression, 30.1 percent responded seldom and 43.6 percent responded sometimes ("GVU's 10th WWW User Survey"), which proves that Internet communication mediums are not credible in getting information about others to build new friendships. That is why online friendships are very weak ties and rarely do they develop to become true friendships.

From a Middle Eastern perspective, online friendships are a kind of amusement rather than a real social relationship. Middle Eastern friendships are distinguished in being close, delicate, unofficial, and comprehensive (Barakat). Friendships are very close because friends spend lots of time together all over the week, delicate because friendships rely more on emotions, unofficial because friendships resemble more to family ties rather than professional ones, and comprehensive because friendships cover almost all issues of life, which makes friendships lasting and deep social relationships. Whereas, online friendships tend to be short-term shallow relationships with very limited superficial goals such as exchanging jokes, telling fictional stories about one's heroic achievements to create a sense of self-confidence that somebody lacks in real life, or exchanging opinions about a certain topic in chat rooms, newsgroups, MUDs and other "online mixers" (Kraut). As a result, online relationships are very weak ties compared to those existing in Middle Eastern societies, and it is incorrect to attribute the word "friendship" to online relationships. Rather, it could be considered a simple contact between people having fun by chatting, exchanging opinions about religion, politics and sports or finding some companionship they lake in real life.

An important thing to consider, when analyzing the effect of Internet communication on social relationships in the Middle East, is that Internet communication is widely used by teenagers to interact with the opposite sex since interactions with the opposite sex, outside the family members and relatives, are unaccepted by social morals in many sectors of Middle Eastern societies. In a survey lead on Middle Eastern societies, 30 percent of the respondents acknowledged they regularly use Internet communication mediums to meet with the opposite sex (Wheeler). As a result, Internet communication is considered by many teens in the Middle East as a medium to interact with the opposite sex escaping their parents' surveillance and the conservative nature of Middle Eastern societies. The use of Internet communication to chat with the opposite sex is a good thing since this help boys and girls to understand the nature of the opposite sex and how to deal with individuals from the opposite sex; however, the problem is that in many cases Internet is used to make relationships with the opposite sex, which is not feasible. Many of the teens who are using Internet communication mediums to meet with the other sex believe that it is possible to make relationships through Internet communication and end up having 3 or 4 girlfriends or boyfriends at the same time, which eliminates trust in any relationship made through Internet communication (Wheeler). Also, this leads to superficial ties with the opposite sex since it lacks trust and understanding; that is why it is inadvisable to use Internet communication mediums to make relationships with the opposite sex. Since Internet communication is used in many cases to make relationships with the opposite sex in Middle East, and these relationships are very weak ties, it is inevitable that Internet communication is negatively affecting social relationships between opposite sexes in the Middle East.

In conclusion, despite the fact that Internet communication is useful in communicating with colleagues, bosses and teachers and helpful in keeping contact with far away friends and family members, it is also negatively affecting social relationships in Middle Eastern societies. This is because Internet communication displaces time spent with friends and family members, which negatively affects social relationships in the Middle East where friendships are very tight and durable. Also, Internet is harmfully influencing social relationships in the Middle East since emotions play a central role in social relationships in the Middle East, and emotions are not clearly expressed on Internet communication mediums as in face to face interaction. Lastly, Internet communication negatively affects the quality of social relationships in Middle East because online friendships replace the lifelong extensive friendships existing in Middle East by short-term shallow ties. All these make it clear that face to face communication is much more effective and efficient in maintaining social relationships and making new ones than Internet communication mediums. In brief, it is advisable to use Internet communication for business and education but not to extensively use it for socializing especially in the Middle East since the nature of the Internet communication mediums does not guarantee the stiff social relationships existing in Middle Eastern societies.