I’ve mentioned before how internet-savvy my little southeastern European host country is. Many of my Albanian colleagues and friends and even my students have cell phones with 3G capabilities, there is at least one internet cafe on every block, and everyone–and I mean EVERYONE–has Facebook. The world has progressed in such a way that if you’re not online, you miss out on a lot of interaction, and that’s particularly true in this country. My 9-year-old host brother has a Facebook, my 60-year-old counterpart has one, and some of my students even have multiple accounts. And I can’t even tease them about it because now I’ve got two accounts myself, and you’ll soon find out why.
On my first day in Albania, another Volunteer advised us to create Albanian Facebook accounts designated for communicating with people we meet here, particularly our students. Not all Volunteers choose to do this, but I’m glad that I did, because the way that Albanians use Facebook is drastically different from the way Americans use it and I was simply just not prepared. Here are some examples of the experiences I’ve had using my Katerina në Shqipëri account:
- LIKELIKELIKELIKELIKE: My Albanian Facebook friends “like” EVERYTHING that their friends post, myself included. Whenever I post a status, a song, or especially photos, I’ll get a literal instant barrage of little blue thumbs validating my existence. Sometimes I’ll log in and find a whopping 147 notifications (I’m not exaggerating) because a new friend I added went through every. single. one. of my photos and “liked” them all. At times it can be overwhelming, but it’s also very validating too. I’d be surprised if most of my American friends actually paid much attention to what I post.
- Games: My students in particular looooovveee Facebook games. About one-third of my notifications are requests to play “Subway Surfers” or “Top 5 Friends” or “Who Misses U the Most?” I don’t know if this is an Albania thing, or if this is a worldwide teenager thing, because I am old now.
- Correcting my Albanian: I like to post statuses in Albanian when I can, and every now and then one of my friends will publicly call me out on my bad grammar or my misuse of a colloquialism, etc. My sensitive, sheltered lil’ American feelings get hurt, but it actually does help me learn the language, especially because I realize that my friends are actually just trying to help. At times I’m tempted to correct my friends’ English online but that American over-politeness hasn’t yet been drained from me…
- Messages from random strangers: I’ve had some online interactions with Albanian men that got reeeeeaalll weird. When I first got this account, I replied to everyone who messaged me in an attempt to be polite and make friends. Unfortunately, the majority of these conversations went the route of “you are so beautiful,” “do u have a boyfriend?,” “can we plz meet for a coffee,” etc. (FYI: “Having a coffee” sometimes translates to “We are dating/engaged now.”) After a while, if someone sent me a message and I didn’t know them, I simply wouldn’t reply. But these characters would note the “Seen at 11:44am” and feel inspired to send me another message demanding, “why you do not want to talk with me???” At this point, the “block” function comes in handy. I actually find these interactions fascinating. As multiple friends have explained to me, this is how things work in Albania. In the larger, more progressive cities it might be okay to approach a girl and ask her for a coffee, but in smaller, more conservative communities it’s not the norm. To be seen in public with a single woman of marriageable age is a big deal and gets people talking, so men often turn to Facebook to interact (if you can call it that) with women. It’s different from what I’m used to, and in my opinion it’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it is.
- Friend requests from random strangers: In America, I usually only added people I knew in real life and knew well enough that I actually had a relationship with them. The vast majority of people who added me were people I knew in person as well, with a few exceptions of people from high school that I vaguely recognized but never talked to. In Albania, everybody adds everybody who looks interesting, regardless of if you’ve met in person or not. I actually don’t mind it; when you think about it, it’s kind of what the internet is for. In general, Americans are more guarded and private when it comes to using social media. It’s made me think about why that is. At least while I’m here, I figure the more Albanians I can connect with, the better!
- Xhilli Xhastin–wrote this fantastic post that explains it better than I do.) ALL THE SELFIES: Whenever I dye my hair a new color or something, I try to take a picture of myself but end up sporting eight chins and a lazy eye. Yet every day I log onto Facebook, I’m greeted with beautiful portraits of my students and friends with glowing skin and a flattering filter. How do they do it? By spending lots and lots of time taking various photos of themselves at different angles, with different expressions, using different photo apps. In America, I get the impression that selfies are seen as vain, as something to be embarrassed of. I’m always coming across articles criticizing people for the time and care they spend creating an online persona of themselves that isn’t realistic. But now that I live in Albania and see selfies being embraced here, I don’t actually think that’s the case. Albanians just like to look good and are very up front about it, and they aren’t shy about sharing beautiful photos of themselves. (My sitemate Jill–Albanians on the internet know her as
- Alter-egos: I remember trying to find my new students on Facebook at the beginning of the year when I discovered that some young Albanians use Facebook as almost like a “Second Life” projection of themselves. They use nicknames instead of their first and last names, opt for a profile picture of Beyoncé or Eminem rather than one of their own face, claim that they live in Barcelona or Dubai or New York City, and a remarkable amount have studied at Harvard University despite being only 15 years old. Nobody here takes themselves too seriously online. It’s a good reminder that social media was originally meant for fun.
- Emoticons, jokes, memes, rants, quotes…and lots of them: Generally, my Albanian friends use Facebook more frequently than my American friends do. They post a lot more, and with more passion. Really, the way that Albanians and Americans use Facebook is representative of the way they act in real life. The Albanians I know are very social, playful, passionate, emotional, and community-oriented compared to Americans. They love interacting with others and always have something to say, which is one explanation for why my experiences on my Albanian Facebook vs. my American one are so different. And just like my life in America and my life in Albania, there are things I love about both.