The other day a girl who is the IT professional in the Bashkia and a good friend/office-mate of mine asked me what I was going to do as I left the office at 1pm. I told her I was going to take the afternoon off and enjoy the great weather. She lit up with a smile and said “Like!” with a big thumbs-up. We both laughed and I headed out the door.
This is just one example of how much Facebook has permeated Albanian culture. For a country in which few have home computers, just about everyone has easy access to an internet cafe (there are about 30+ in Lezhe alone) or school computer lab. And most of what these computer labs are used for is Facebook…so naturally this means that just about everybody has at least one Facebook account. I say “at least one” because the youth are big on aliases – the students in our Outdoor Ambassadors group and English class have multiple accounts under different names. It’s taken the Albanian social culture by storm – they are obsessed.
At work my colleagues who have internet are on Facebook constantly. But, it’s usually not for the social media community mobilization purposes that have made Facebook and Twitter such powerful media tools in the United States. Here in Albania that kind of usage is creeping in slowly – especially with this current election. My colleagues consistently update the mayor’s Facebook page.
The way I see it there are two major things that keep social media as a social network and less as a way to disseminate information “virally” in Albania (which is what I think it has morphed into in the US). For one, the fact remains that there are still gaps in access – the older generation and rural populations are not usually online. This means messages published using social media don’t have the same breadth of impact. Secondly, there is not a strong culture of public participation or philanthropy here. Yet. The “communist hangover” that Albania is experiencing is apparent in the fact that there is only a fledgling civil society held up mostly by foreign NGOs. Plus, the whole “causes” side of social media – the “I believe/do this and want you to do it to” sentiment – is not apparent yet.
However, all this is changing. The fact that Facebook is even used as an election tool is something that I’m pretty sure didn’t happen in the last elections. On the civil society development front, I”ve been involved in meetings with an NGO/think tank that wants to promote new initiatives to develop community liaisons (like neighborhood interest groups) in cities throughout Albania. This would hopefully help promote public investment in decision making and participation beyond the default political protest in response to some complaint with the leadership. I helped a foreign organization conduct a survey a few weeks ago in Lezhe and it was startling how few people understood what it was or what to do – I sometimes take for granted how many surveys are thrown our way in the US. This election season I have learned more about the way politics works with and motivates (or doesn’t motivate) people in Albania than I did in my first eight months working in the municipality office.
Face to face relationships and the value of taking things slowly are so much a part of Albanian culture that it will be interesting to see how social media and other communication outlets like the smart phone grow in use here. I feel like they’ll make a dent in the “relaxed” (read: non-punctual) work atmosphere here and increase accountability. But maybe not?