Communication Currents

Communicating Through Social Networking Helps Immigrants

October 1, 2011
Intercultural Communication

Social networking websites like Facebook, Myspace, Google+ are increasingly becoming a part of our daily lives. More and more Americans are plugged into one or more of these websites.  The significance of social networking is all around us.  Facebook is worth billions of dollars and the film about the company, The Social Network, won critical acclaim. More and more of our students spend more time on social networking sites than they do talking to one another face-to-face. A funny personal anecdote, just last week a colleague of mine told me that her five-year-old daughter wanted to get a Facebook account because all of her friends at school had one and she did not want to be the only one without one.

Clearly, social networking is all around us.  All kinds of professionals, from teachers, businesses, lawyers, doctors, and others use them on a daily basis for a variety of reasons. Some use them for advertising, staying in touch with customers and employees, and for a variety of other reasons. Research also shows that immigrants are frequent users of social networking websites and other forms of the Internet to help adjust to the United States.

Immigration is a hot-button issue in the United States, especially after September 11, talks of building a fence on the US-Mexico border, and in the wake of the 2012 election. Whether through personal experience or not, we can all probably agree with the fact that moving to a new place is never easy. There are multiple factors immigrants face when they move to a new home. Aside from a variety of economic factors, immigrants often experience emotional stress including: depression, loneliness, isolation, and fear. Moreover, while language may not be a problem for some immigrants, the inability to speak English can be a great hardship for those who lack English skills.

Historically, immigrants would turn to media produced in their native languages or homelands while adjusting to the United States. Take a stroll through a Chinatown and you will see a plethora of print and video materials available for purchase in a variety of East-Asian languages. Such materials (newspapers, books, magazines, and a variety of other materials) offer individuals a way to keep in touch with their native culture and language, as it is often printed in the native language (called host culture media). There is scholarly debate over whether these materials help individuals adapt to the United States. One side argues the more immigrants use host culture media the less likely they are to “become” American. The other argues such media serve as a middle point during an immigrant’s transition. I take a middle ground on this debate, believing host culture media help during an immigrant’s adoption of US culture as long as they also consume some US media.

Increasingly, research has shown that immigrants have been turning to a mixture of host culture media and US media, particularly on the Internet. New immigrants to the United States are becoming one of the largest consumers of social networking in the country. There is one primary reason for this: It provides an opportunity to network with a variety of individuals.

The ability to talk to others online affords new immigrants the chance to network with a variety of individuals, fellow immigrants and non-immigrants. While many new immigrants are likely to network with other immigrants, more and more are likely to “friend” non-immigrants or native-born Americans online. These friendships increase the number of interactions immigrants have with native-born Americans, improve immigrant understanding of English, alter the immigrant perception of Americans (hopefully for the better), improve their overall emotional state, and ultimately motivate them more to adapt to American culture in some ways. While they spend time talking with native-born Americans, many immigrants are spending time also chatting and networking with other immigrants. These conversations are helping them maintain ties with their homelands and native cultures, which is shown to reduce stress and improve overall emotional state.

I have seen these effects in my own research. A couple of years ago I was conducting research in New York City among immigrants from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. A couple of the women I interviewed told me that if it weren’t for Facebook and the ability to talk to their family back home and their new friends here in the United States, life would be a lot harder. One woman, Nura put it best when she said:

"I love the Facebook. I can talk to my mother in Lahore and send her messages whenever I want. It also easy to talk to my friend Sam who also a stay at home mother. She helps me with my English and we have play dates with the children."

For this woman, Facebook is what social networking has become for so many immigrants. Social networking has become a way to facilitate the adaptation process. It gives people a way to stay connected with their native culture/home while also connecting with the United States.

About the author (s)

Stephen M. Croucher

Marist College

Associate Professor