Tag Archives: Facebook

Unlocking the mysteries of Muslim profile pictures

I think I’m a bit of a jerk. Almost all of my profile pictures are of me in swanning around in some locale other than my own, and I can’t claim that it’s entirely accidental. After all, how can a social media persona be accidental when it involves such a conscious process of selection and omission? We upload some pictures, but not the ones where we have a double chin. We post ‘intelligent’ or hilarious quotes, but we don’t advertise when we’re sitting around in our pyjamas at 3pm and watching repeat episodes of Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals. (Unless it’s done with hilarious irony, of course.)

Since it seems that many Muslims don’t mix with the opposite sex all that much in a purely social setting, it’s interesting to think about just how much influence a person’s online presence on how they are perceived by the opposite sex, and even more interestingly, how much we consciously tweak our online presence, whether consciously or unconsciously, to influence that perception. But just how successful are these attempts? Let’s take a closer look at the most common Muslim profile picture trends and what social cues they might signal:

1.) The Glam Shot

What we think: ‘Gee whiz, I’m looking great at this wedding/party/bathroom mirror selfie fest! Let’s share this with everyone and watch the mashaAllahs roll in like waves crashing on a sandy shore.’

What he/she think: ‘Errr, I saw you last week and you don’t really look like that. Nice angle and filter though.’

2.) The Spiritual Shot

What we think: ‘This posed photo of my hand clasping some prayer beads really captures my spiritual side.’

What he/she thinks: ‘Wonder who they got to take that one?’

3.) The Experience Shot

What we think: ‘Even though I’m at work every day and at the gym/hanging with my parents/washing my car/giving my cat a bath 99% of the time, these photos of me swanning around Spain perfectly sum up the well-rounded marriage material I am.’

What he/she thinks: ‘How on earth do they afford that?’

4.) The Not-My-Face Shot

What we think: ‘No one’s allowed to see my face except the thousands of people I see every day on the bus and train. Therefore, here’s a photo of a bunch of flowers/a deserted beach.’

What he/she thinks: ‘I can’t remember what you look like, but that’s probably not a good sign.’

5.) The Family Man/Woman Shot

What we think: ‘Once they see how expertly I hold my baby niece, they won’t be able to resist wanting to start a family with me!’

What he/she thinks: ‘What a cute baby…not sure about you though.’

6.) The Come-to-this-event shot

What we think: ‘Not only is this a cool cause, but now you know exactly where to come find me!’

What he/she thinks: ‘Ceebs.’

7.) The I’ve-met-someone-famous shot

What we think: ‘I’m so cool, I’ve met that dude from that YouTube clip!’

What he/she thinks: ‘No idea who that is, but eww, groupie alert.’

8.) The Doing-something-hilarious shot

What we think: ‘See, I can be riding a camel/eating a giant slice of pizza and still look cute!’

What he/she thinks: ‘That pizza sure looks good.’

9.) The Modestly-looking-away shot

What we think: ‘You can see enough of my face against this ocean backdrop to know that I’m cute, but that’s all you’re going to get.’

What he/she thinks: ‘I wonder if they have a breakout on the other side of their face that they’re trying to hide?’

10.) The Very Intellectual quote shot

What we think: ‘I’ll quote X scholar/philosopher and then you’ll know I read books and stuff and then you’ll want to marry me.’

What he/she thinks: ‘Yawn, that book was so 2014.’

I jest, I jest. Obviously I’m hyperbolising, but I do think it’s important to question our intentions and how we craft our social media presence. But I suppose people just spilling their guts without thought can be annoying too. After all, who wants to know that I’ve been cleaning out the bathroom cupboard for several days? (I have. I really have.)

Types of Muslim couples you’ll encounter

I’m fascinated by couples. Figuring out what draws people together, and more importantly, what makes them stay together, is an exercise I conduct whenever I hear of a new couple. Sometimes I’m genuinely surprised when I hear two people are a couple, but more often that not I can see what holds them together. Even more interesting to me is how couples present themselves in the public arena, which in this day and age translates to social media. Muslims tend to put a lot more thought into this than most people given that we know people will think better or worse of us based on the ‘appropriateness’ of our conduct. For some couples, this means consciously marketing themselves in a particular way, while for others it just so happens that they appear in a certain light.

From my observations, there are several types of Muslim couples:

1.) The Covert Couple

The most that these guys will do in the public sphere is update their relationship status when they get married. You won’t see any photos of them together nor will there be any cutesy posts to each other’s walls. Whatever their feelings towards each other, they’re keeping it under wraps. Their marketing message can be summed up as ‘yes, we’re married, but that’s all you’re going to get out of us’.

2.) The Low-Key Lovers

These guys might have a photo or two together with the obligatory ‘<3’, but there won’t be much more than that. The message they seem to send is ‘yes, we’re married and we love each other, but that’s all you’re going to get out of us’.

3.) The Brangelinas

These guys are a power couple. They may have different strengths and different perspectives, but together they’re a force to be reckoned with. They celebrate each other’s achievements in the public sphere and let it be known that their spouse is pretty much amazing.

4.) The Cutesy Pies

These guys get all the likes and the ‘awwwws’. They wear their hearts on their profiles, I mean, sleeves, and they don’t care who sees it. In fact, a cynical observer might say their marketing strategy is to be seen as the cutest darn couple there is, mashaAllah.

5.) The Witty Wedded Folks

These guys love to poke fun at each other and not-so-subtly publicise each other’s foibles. While they generally avoid the corny stuff in public, a cynical observer might think that their aim is secretly to appear as cute as pie in an aren’t-we-so-cool sort of way.

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While the above is fairly tongue-in-cheek, it does get me thinking about the serious issue of how we present ourselves online. (In case you haven’t noticed, that’s a pretty big interest of mine.) In this day and age, even the most intimate relationships can be marketed to make the parties appear in a certain light. This isn’t even restricted to romantic relationships. How many of us are guilty of playing up the cutesiness of our relationship with our parents, or our siblings? I know I am. It makes me wonder how much sincere feeling is behind what we project and if it’s possible to lose the latter in a sea of likes and carefully captioned photos.

Projecting an image of ourselves is also worrying from the perspective of envy. I always worry for people who constantly post about their achievements or how cute their spouse is, simply because there could be hidden evils in the hearts of our online ‘friends’. Besides, my life isn’t perfect, nor are any of my personal relationships, so it’s simply false advertising to portray my life as a big cutesy whirl of family and friends. But saying this doesn’t make me any less immune to the trap of marketing myself and my life online. It’s so easy to do it, and the validation we get can make us feel more secure in situations and relationships that in reality are on shaky ground. Some of the most unstable relationships I’ve heard of have the cutesiest, shiniest public exteriors.

How public would you want to be in your interactions with your partner? Do you like being cutesy or do you like to keep it low-key?

Cyber-segregation

I have several Muslim guys on my Facebook friends list. Some I met through Muslim community projects, some I met socially and a few I added just because I like reading the things they post. If you asked me why I have male friends on Facebook I wouldn’t be able to provide you with a definitive reason. It’s not like I hang out with them as I do with female friends, nor is there any real need for it. A lot of us will add people of the opposite sex from our uni MSA or from community projects, but we can easily conduct all necessary interaction over online groups or at meetings. If there is a burning need to speak to someone one-on-one, a PM would suffice as opposed to an actual friend request. I must therefore conclude that if we do have friends of the opposite sex on Facebook, it’s because we’re okay with it to some extent.

The interesting thing I’ve noticed on Facebook is that a lot of the most overtly ‘religious’ people actually tend to have the most friends of the opposite sex. I can guess why. Their profiles generally don’t feature any photos of themselves, and their posts are all Islamic in theme. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think their profile was run by a spam-bot programmed to churn out Islamic phrases and links. But there is a person behind the impersonal online persona. Their feelings may be obscured behind endless status updates about the beauty of nature and the sufferings of the ummah, but they are still there. This means these people are as susceptible to forming attachments as anyone, and because they most likely are also the type of person to avoid free-mixing in real life, their Facebook profile can in fact become one of the main ways of meeting a potential partner.

Online communication has the potential to get very personal very quickly, due to the simple fact that it’s so much easier to type words onto a screen than it is to say them in real life. I’m sure we’ve all been in a situation where we’ve found ourselves saying things online and then wondering later why  we didn’t put a sock in it. Some person we would barely consider an acquaintance sends us a PM or starts a chat about some random thing, and before we know it, bam, we’re onto talking about why we’re not married yet. Also, because a lot of conversations online take place at odd hours, people become less inhibited. If it’s much easier to type personal things onto a screen than it is to say them in real life, it’s much, much easier to type them onto a screen at 2am than it is at 1pm.

These types of interactions happen so frequently, and in far more insidious ways than the example I just mentioned. Social networking has made cheating far easier; people can look up old flames with a click of a button and thus indulge ancient longings. We can stare at the profile pictures of someone attractive for far longer than our one allowed glance. There’s no one looking over our shoulder like there is in person. We can stalk someone’s status updates from 2009, look at the 500 photos they’re tagged in and go through their friends list with a fine-tooth comb. Online, we’re free to set our own private limits, and this again makes me wonder why it’s not more common amongst Muslims to cyber-segregate.

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People just don’t do the things they do online in real life. In real life, we’d never we just go up to an acquaintance, male or female, and start talking about personal things. As Muslims, it’s likely that if that acquaintance is of the opposite sex, the opportunity would never even come up. If we do mix with males in an Islamic context, we’re all too aware of conservative social convention and the knowledge that to flaunt it entails social suicide. But online, there are no prying eyes. There are no interruptions and no one to tell us when to stop. It seems to me then that if we’re looking to avoid developing attachments, cyber-segregation may be even more effective than real-life-segregation. But the majority of us don’t do it.

Some of us take measures like restricting access to photos where we’re dolled up. Some have female-only lists for when we post a particularly silly status. I even saw one hijabi post a photo of herself without a hijab because she’d restricted the setting for that photo to only females. But many of us don’t take any measures at all to filter our content on a gender basis. If we’re uncomfortable with the idea of someone staring at us for an extended period of time in real life, we have to realise that by putting photos of ourself online, we are giving our ‘friends’ free reign to do it behind their screens. A pretty scary thought, especially for those of us who accept people we barely know. It also raises questions about our responsibility as Muslims, both male and female, to maintain modesty and decorum.

If I reflect on the reasons why we don’t cyber-segregate, one which comes to mind is that Muslims are open to using Facebook as a means of getting to know a partner. Most Muslim community events don’t provide the opportunity to do more than exchange a quick salams, so for people looking to dig a bit deeper a friend request is the perfect way to do it. That way, we can scope out their profile, see their likes and dislikes and whether they can string a proper sentence together when they update their status. It’s an easy, non-threatening way of going on ‘the hunt’. No one will be able to tell if our cyber-friendship with a member of the opposite sex is initiated with the intent of marriage or simply because we work together on some Islamic project.

Facebook seems to somewhat legitimise free-mixing in the eyes of the community; it’s socially acceptable to comment on people of the opposite sex’s posts, but not to hang out with them in real life. It’s socially acceptable to use emoticons when talking to a person of the opposite sex on Facebook, but we’d never engage in playful banter to the same extent in real life. But beware: I’ve been able to guess that some people are in a relationship based purely on their Facebook interaction. If we’re looking to keep a relationship secret, it’s probably not the best idea to be constantly posting on the person’s Facebook wall and liking photos of them. There may not be the same barriers as there are in real life, but there are easy ways to spot when people are a little more than just (Facebook) friends.

Maybe we keep the door open online in the same way we keep our front door open for door-knocks. I certainly know of several people whose relationships arose through online contact, and I would make a fairly safe (and Halal) bet that these will only increase in the years to come. But recently, I’ve come across a few profiles whose owners only had friends of the same sex. Two, to be precise. I wondered how they managed it. Do they PM every person of the opposite sex who tries to add them, explaining their reasons? Did they have friends of the opposite sex, and then delete them all? Whatever their strategy, I have to admire them for sticking to their guns.

Why do you have friends of the opposite sex on Facebook? Do you tweak your Facebook profile to ensure people of the opposite sex only see certain things?