Bun Tharum, Phnom Penh
As Cambodia’s New Year approaches, many of the nation’s young will be traveling home, to see old friends and spend time with their families. This is a time-honored tradition. But after the festivities are concluded and people return to their modern lives, they’ll increasingly grapple with social relationships that take place online.
Young Cambodians dominate the online space of social networking sites like Facebook. A large number of Cambodia’s Facebook users are aged between 18 and 34.
Relationships are changing as a result, and that includes romance.
In Cambodia, parents traditionally have much say in their children’s marriage. They believe they they’ve been through years of experience in building and maintaining family lives, and likely think their choices are better for the future of their children.
But more and more people are finding their personal lives conducted inside the walled gardens of the Internet, on sites like Facebook, which is only accessible for registered users and among those one chooses to admit, disconnected from the entire Web.
This means it’s a comfortable, virtual space for people to meet with their old classmates, as well as to build and break relationships.
Roath, 23, first met his girlfriend when they were dining out together with a group of friends. Since then he keeps in touch with his girlfriend, who’s now in Singapore for her studies, through Internet calls, using desktop software Skype and mobile app Vibe. Roath, who works in Phnom Penh, says he’s recently changed his Facebook relationship status from “complicated” to “in a relationship” to announce publicly that he’s no longer available.
In a recent email, Roath, who asked that his surname be withheld, told me: “actually, i dun wanna put in relationship. but since she is far away from me she wants me to change to in relationship hmm… that’s y i change to ‘in relationship.’”
In a sign of how the Internet has become more commonplace in Cambodian relationships, famous vocalist Preap Sovath struck a hit recently with, “To Start Facebook, To Start Love.” The song tells a story of a lonesome man who first met a woman on networking site Facebook. As the friendship later become a love relation. The man became obsessed with the site by spending much of the time forgetting his day meals and waiting for her reply to his messages. [link to the music video on YouTube].
The trend of Facebook love songs doesn’t end here. Popular singers like Khemarak Sereymon and his sister, Khemrak Sreypov, have also joined in.
The popular Internet site is often the first stop for the Internet savvy to find out what their friends are up to, as well. From old family and colleague photos, to last-night party snapshots, to complains about traffic jams, the instant stream of updates makes users feel more connected within their peers and surroundings than ever.
When asked to compare her parents’ generation to this generation, Sokkea, a former DJ at Love FM 97.5 Phnom Penh, said: “I think it’s different in a way that it’s faster and easier, but it’s more costly. Since people have more access to these ways of communication, they tend to spend more. i have more opportunities than they did just because I use internet to keep my friendship and to network.”
Sokkea told me that she’s more connected with friends and others, saying, “my generation is completely different from my parents’. i have more opportunities than they did just because I use internet to keep my friendship and to network…. My parents never seemed to communicate as much as I do, which reserve some disadvantages.”
Meas Sopheak, a lecturer at Institute of Foreign Language, echoed Sokkea’s thoughts, telling me, “If in my parents’ generation there were such modern mobile phones and the internet, they would certainly have used them. But the thing is that there weren’t any.”
“I admit Facebook is a great medium not only to keep in touch with friends around the world, but also to make new connection,” wrote a Cambodian Facebook user, Borei Sylyvann. “It’s really effective that it can both reach my real friends and my virtual friends abroad. I believe we should appreciate this technology. My parents would lost connection with many of their old friends.”
This kind of online social interaction is likely to increase, as more people become used to Facebook and the Internet in their social lives. There are more questions to navigate, and more social challenges.
“Logging in facebook is still the first thing I do every time I start up my netbook,” a user wrote on Facebook recently (she asked to remain anonymous); “however, I no longer have much to do in that which result in me spending less time. Yet, from a friendship point of view I think I don’t know what is going on with my friends now, which is not a good sign at all.”
“Although possessing these modern applications and devices would be a lot beneficial to the young, at the same time these things also present lots of harmful effects to they themselves and the society at large,” Meas Sopheak said. “Perhaps it would be a good idea to have some public awareness raising to educate young people about living morally and healthily.”
As more and more Cambodians get online and on Facebook, people are going to have to learn to navigate a new social landscape.
For Teng Somongkol, a research assistant currently at the University of Minnesota, it came as a surprise to get a friend request from his father. Last week he updated his Facebook status: “OMG! My dad wants a Facebook account.”
In a response to my email asking how he’s going to handle this situation, Teng Somongkol said, “His presence on Facebook will remind me to be more vigilant on what I post and do. As a son and as someone who is living away from him, I do have a mixed feeling for his decision.”
According to media lecturer Peou Chivoin, “The number of facebook users is generally anywhere between 1/3 and 1/4 of that of internet users. The number of internet users in Cambodia is a bit over 100,000,” adding that “Internet World Stats seems to give more realistic estimate of FB users in Cambodia, for it takes into account of the nature of FB and its users (not necessarily persons).”
“The number of internet users is also not very reliable, considering ITU’s estimate at just below 100,000; IWS’s estimate at about 130,000; and MPTC’s estimate at over 200,000.”
Cambodians and Facebook, a Love Story