What are you doing on Facebook?

KARACHI: Yousuf Bashir Qureshi is not busy—he is engrossed. And he is not engrossed with one specific idea—he is actually immersed in all of them, simultaneously.

Qureshi, a designer and the founder of the Commune Artist Colony in Karachi, has been trying to connect art and artists with the local Karachi community through various events which are held at the Commune.

“Every Friday, movie night,” said Qureshi. “We have food, drinks, sheesha, and a good movie – Ashraf, is it on Facebook, already?”

“Already done,” said Ashraf Kalim Ahmed, the Director at the Commune Artist Colony. “We have put some choices up for movies and given everyone a chance to vote on it.” “We have almost 130 people ‘attending’ on Facebook so that basically means 40 will actually show and that’s a pretty decent crowd.”

“It will go up,” said Qureshi, as he gestures with his hand raised in the air and draws a cost curve in the air. “Then it will go down, afterwards it will steady out.”

But it is not the first time the Commune has used Facebook for promoting its’ events, nor will it be the last.

As any story goes — there are two sides to everything. As time-consuming social media seems to be, it has grown rapidly in the past year among people, businesses, and in politics of the small population of netizens in Pakistan.

Facebook was officially launched in 2004 and Twitter was launched in 2006. Facebook has an estimated 500 millions active users and 70 per cent of their users are outside the United States. In 2010 alone, there were 7.9 new Facebook registrations every second across the world.

“Facebook started getting popular in 2008 and 09 where the user base shot up from 300,000 to 1,500,000. It grabbed the general public’s attention when it got banned last year which brought it to mainstream. Though a small percentage boycotted it but at the larger scale, people were more intrigued to know about it and joined it,” said Faisel Khan, the general manager at The Next Big Thing (TNBT), a digital media agency that specialises in digital media strategies and solutions.

“At the other end, Twitter still isn’t popular in Pakistan and a specific genre prefers to use it i.e. bloggers, politicians, hippies, marketers. The reason being, it doesn’t give the freedom to the user to do as much as Facebook and they find it complicated as well. But Twitter has a user base of 450,000 which ramped up more when Facebook got banned.”

In May 2010, Facebook was banned by the Lahore High Court due to the blasphemous page, “Let’s Draw Muhammad Day” on the social media site. However, the ban brought more attention to the social media site — in the last six months Pakistan’s Facebook population has grown by over a million.

“Facebook is a very significant part of our lives now. It’s not just a website but an activity,” mentioned Khan.

Currently, there are an estimated 3.8 million active Facebook users and almost 450,000 Twitter accounts — two per cent of the internet population in Pakistan, according to Socialbakers.com, the leading website on Facebook statistics. So what are Pakistanis doing on Facebook?

“Facebook in Pakistan is used for sharing, stalking and gaming mainly. People share videos the most, while sitting at offices — most of the offices in Pakistan have even banned Facebook. Social gaming is another area where people compete with their own friends and peers. I’ve even heard of people waking up in the middle of night just to plough their farms in order to gain points,” said Khan.

As the sixth most populous country of the world, the current internet user population in Pakistan is an estimated 20 million — nine per cent of the total population in Pakistan.

“There has been a positive side as well where local netizens have started their businesses online from selling cookies to customised t-shirts which I think is where the big brands are missing out on this opportunity,” said Khan.

“[But] stalking is the most common activity which started getting more famous when Facebook opened its content to search engines. This is turning Facebook into another Orkut, where anyone can access any content, if the privacy policies don’t get stiffened.”

There have been different Facebook pages that have taken storm in Pakistan — besides the Facebook pages of the entertainment and fashion industries.

“Unlike any other form of media, services such as Facebook and Twitter allow users themselves to report, and to participate in, the documentation of events. To some extent, this capability has resulted in people being able to organise themselves for social causes, some serious, and some relatively trivial,” said Jehan Ara, president of Pakistan Software Houses for IT and ITES Association (P@sha) who recently merged with Bytes for All to Take Back the Tech! in Pakistan, an international campaign that uses information and communications technology (ICT) to raise awareness about violence against women.

Recent events in the world, the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, have the future prospects of social media and its’ effect in the spotlight. While real uprising and demonstrations spread across the region like an epidemic; only rumours of such protests have spread through the grapevines in Pakistan.

Facebook pages in Pakistan are not any different from those in other countries, where the pages can range from a variety of topics like Inqilaab-e-Pakistan, a group that has organized a protest for change with over 23,000 fans attending, to the wannabe Gossip Girl page Scandalous Islamabad, which openly names and gossips about everyone, except ‘boring people.’ If you need a cake or maybe a decent photographer — Facebook provides that information quickly and at the users’ convenience.

“With freedom comes great responsibility. Social media is no different. We have to practice the same principles, ethics and values in using social media that guide us in our everyday lives and in our normal interaction with people,” explained Jehan Ara.

About eighty-one per cent of the Facebook population age ranges between 18-35 and almost 68 per cent are men in Pakistan.

“At the moment our generation is living through the largest increase in expressive capability but it seems as if it is not being utilised to the fullest. Our people should voice their opinion in a manner that it actually drives social, political and financial change rather than just discussing Veena or Meera,” said Faisal Khan from TNBT.

“For businesses, it’s a platform where they [can] manage their reputation by letting their consumers know that they’re heard and mould their business economics for social media exclusively. Globally search tools are being applied by governments to gauge citizens’ sentiments and being a country where every citizen is a political analyst, discussions on social media should be brought to mainstream and given their importance.”

Pakistan is currently number 28 on the list of fastest growing population on Facebook users in the world — the United States is first and, surprisingly, Indonesia, with the largest population of Muslims, is second on the list.

While Pakistan is still deciding on Facebook; the Commune Artist Colony and its’ founder have already made a decision and acted on it — moving ahead of the times.

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