Many of the Arab Spring uprisings were co-ordinated via social media networking. Closer to home in the Balkans, Facebook and Twitter are engines of change as well.
By Bojana Milovanovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 11/01/12
Tweets from the public have been largely helpful, says Environment and Spatial Planning Minister Oliver Dulic. [Reuters]
With about three million profiles on Facebook out of a population of just over seven million, Serbia is near the top in the region in terms of the percentage of users of the social network, according to various surveys and data provided by the Serbian Ministry for the Media and Information Society.
"According to the Google Ad Planner survey, Serbia is second in Central-Eastern Europe in the number of Facebook users, right behind Turkey. Behind Serbia are Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania, Slovenia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Russia," Ministry State Secretary Jasna Matic told SETimes.
Matic also emphasises that Twitter has a growing number of users in Serbia.
"The internet, on the whole, is not as popular here as social networks are. Some things that are more popular in other countries are not so present in our country, primarily e-business and online education," Matic said.
The state secretary has her own Facebook profile and a Twitter account, but the most active in social networks among politicians is Environment and Spatial Planning Minister Oliver Dulic.
He says he uses Twitter daily to communicate with citizens and says tweeters have supplied some of the best ideas and suggestions.
"Nearly all activities in the past six months have been a consequence of the suggestions I received on Twitter. The reporting of landfills, posting of all data on public procurements on the ministry website -- those were all proposals by tweeters that I accepted," Dulic said at Tweetomania, a recent event promoting social networks.
He acknowledged, however, not every comment is positive.
"The unpleasant aspect mostly includes some insults that are basically a cross-section of what a significant portion of the people think of us; hence Twitter is just a medium for expressing that. I think that's normal," the minister said.
Dulic adds that many of the Twitter users he interacts with are not supporters of his party -- President Boris Tadic's Democratic Party -- or of the policy it advocates.
"That is a good opportunity to debate and talk in a decent manner. It is a good way to face reality and criticism. I think that is very good for politicians and would recommend that every politician become involved in one of the social networks," Dulic said.
The networks' most frequent users are young teenagers.
Dalibor Bigovic, 15, has a Facebook profile but says his parents are not happy about it. "They had to let me open my profile because all of my friends have one. But they are trying to control what I’m doing and all of my posts, and that is getting on my nerves," he tells SETimes.
He adds that he spends about an hour every day using Facebook to connect "with friends and to see what is going on."
The problem, say some experts, is that teens are not always aware of the negative consequences and dangers. Psychologist and associate at the Belgrade Faculty of Philosophy Aleksandar Dimitrijevic suggests these networks offer escapism.
"The special thing about Serbia may be the fact that young people, more than in some other environments, turn to social networks to escape the dark everyday environment they are growing up in. It is not so much about Facebook's popularity, rather it is about the 'unpopularity' of our education, human relations or value system," Dimitrijevic told SETimes.
He believes that if the "dominance of social networks" continues, some of the consequences may be social anxiety and isolation.
"That is why I advise parents to keep trying to provide their children with varied cultural contents, to spend time with them and take part in what is important to them. Then Facebook or video games will probably be brought down to a reasonable measure," Dimitrijevic said.