MANILA - Although Friendster, Facebook, and Multiply have virtually everything people need for an active cyber-social life, some Muslim users still don't find what they need for a truly "halal" social networking experience.
This was an issue 42-year-old Salim Yusop tried to address when he launched Tausug Network (TN), a social networking site catering mainly to Tausugs in Sulu province.
Born in Jolo, and later resided in Metro Manila in the 1980s, Yusop said he had always dreamed of creating a website custom-fit for Muslim users—one that would reflect Islamic culture and beliefs, especially those of his ethnic group.
"I have an account on Friendster, but I wasn't that active. Personally, maybe it's because it didn't have what I was looking for. I wanted a site that would be used correctly, not [one that is] just full of pictures and posts. I wanted a link, a communication, among Tausug tribes. It was hard because there was no site for Tausugs," he said in Filipino.
Yusop launched TN 6 months ago, striving to create a virtual space where Tausugs—and all Muslims of various ages, locations, and genders—can feel at home.
"I think what makes the site different is that first, users can use their native dialect so they know they are understood and they can express themselves best. Also, most of the members already have a bond. Their relationships were just recharged virtually on TN. There is already a sense of identity, of a common place where you came from," he said.
The website's home page carries Islamic music and albums containing pictures of Muslim food and Mindanao scenery, a favorite among Filipinos overseas who miss home. Discussion forums and chats are rich sources of religious information, straight from members who are "imams" or Islamic religious leaders and Muslim scholars.
There is always healthy political and religious debate on the site's forums, blogs, chatrooms, and profile pages. Muslim youth can share jokes or ask for advice on love and family problems, trusting that they have a sympathetic audience. More than once, users have found distant relatives they did not know existed.
Romance blooms here and there, too. But unlike other relationships borne or nurtured in cyberspace, TN was simply a tool that started a relationship, which progressed in an old-fashioned Muslim way.
"I heard one of the users are getting married in September. I think they met on Tausug Network, but the set-up and their arrangement was done in the proper manner. Their parents coordinated in the province. Because you know how some Muslims are conservative about things like that," Yusop said.
The site even has a "Countdown to Ramadan" digital clock widget that reminds users how much time they have left before the month-long religious observance. Yusop is also thinking of adding other functions on the website, including live streaming of radio broadcasts from Sulu and live video feeds of mosques and municipal halls.
"On the upside, social networking has had a huge impact on our lives because now we have [alternative] means of saying what we feel about issues or events. We used to do this on the ground, among ourselves. Although there will always be differences in opinion, we stick to our goal of unity."
But there is a downside, too. "It's very addicting," Yusop said sheepishly.
Invite a friend
A freelance web designer, Yusop said he toyed with TN's basic concepts. But these stayed as mere ideas for several years. The push finally came when his elder brother, who was then about to request for their alumni homecoming website, nudged him to make good of his dream: a fully-functional and relevant Tausug website.
Yusop searched the Net, then signed up for a premium account on Ning, a California-based online platform that allows users to create social networks.
In his little Internet shop in Dasmarinas, Cavite, he started building the site from scratch. The premium service was expensive, but it allowed Yusop full control of what features to put on the site, blocked out unwanted advertisements, and ensured him large bandwidth and file storage space for pictures, videos, and more.
In time for a Muslim celebration after the "Haj" or religious pilgrimage to Mecca in modern day Saudi Arabia, Yusop formally launched TN. The social networking site was born on December 9, 2008.
Yusop and his brother then sent out text messages and made good use of the site's "Invite a Friend" feature to build the site's network of users.
"I was surprised by the response. I though that my target audience would be teenagers, because I think they are more active in social networking. I didn't count on those in their 40s or 50s and above would join. In fact, older users had the most inflow in the beginning. Those with Friendster accounts advertise TN on the site, so people learned about TN very fast. In a few days, I would see entire families signing up on the website. It was really unexpected," he gushed.
Now, TN has 2,000 active members from all over the world (especially Saudi Arabia), and consistently garners an average of 71,000 hits and 1,000,000 individual page views monthly. Although this is much less than Facebook or Friendster's site traffic statistics, Yusop said that, considering the population of Tausugs, the numbers are pretty good.
About 100 errant users have been kicked out of the site for profanity, harrassing other members, or putting in bogus information on their profiles.
Yusop keeps a strict eye on the website's goings-on, along with a deputy and 4 self-appointed moderators, all of whom are in charge of approving uploaded content. As if guided by an unspoken rule, however, members police their own ranks in perenially active chatrooms and dutifully report users who post vulgar content.
Much as they try to keep things according to Islamic teachings, some issues have proved to be thorny. "There is a debate now on whether we should allow Muslim females to post pictures of themselves without their 'hijab' (or veil). We also don't allow pictures of users wearing sleeveless shirts. But there is really a question of how to implement that," he said.
Apart from their face, hands, and feet, Muslim women consider all other body parts sacred. Though some women choose not to wear their hijab, since Muslim scholars and feminists have pointed out that the Koran does not explicitly state that Muslim women should wear a veil, most Muslims obligate veil-wearing as an act of modesty. TN, meanwhile, strongly encourages veil-wearing.
Although it was originally meant for Tausugs, few non-Muslims who were invited by their Muslim friends or who were simply curious about the website are in the loop, too.
The non-Muslim's "presence" in the network initially raised objections, with some insisting that the site should be exclusive to Tausugs. But Yusop said he hopes there will be more non-Muslim users joining TN so it could evolve as a venue for understanding among cultures and religions.
Yusop said the site has so far been very productive, owing to the exuberance and helpfulness of its members. "Parang gumawa lang ako ng maliit na bubong para sa [kanila], tapos pag wala na [silang] magawa, may tambayan dito. Pero ang nagpapatibay niyan, maski gaano ko gusto pagandahin ang site, kung hindi nila ingatan, mawawala sa objectives ng site," he said.
Some users had organized themselves into geographic clusters, with each group coming up with its own projects. TN Jolo, for example, has an ongoing fund-raising drive to help an Islamic school in the area that was damaged by a typhoon. Users from Saudi Arabia provide constant updates on employment opportunities for unemployed Muslims. Users in need of blood donations can expect immediate answers from other members.
Tausug Network even held a Grand Assembly last May 9 in Zamboanga, where about 60 website members met each other for the first time. The event was broadcast live on the website via webcam.
Yusop said the gathering was such as smashing success, that other users who failed to attend the assembly are clamoring for a repeat of the event, hopefully on the site's anniversary in December. He hopes that other ethnic communities follow suit and take advantage of existing technology and make meaningful relationships.
"Maybe it's a good idea if, someday, there's a larger social networking site where all the ethnic tribes can unite," he said.
There have been many websites prior to TN that sought to cater to Tausugs, but most folded for lack of funds or site maintenance capabilities. Although TN has the same problems, Yusop said he will try to keep it going for as long as he can, even if it means paying for the site's monthly hosting charges on his own.
"Someone asked me, why doesn't TN make a business to sustain the site for a long time? I answered, TN was not made for business and it will stay that way. As long as TN has use for the Tausug community, it will always be there," he said.
Other websites aimed to create a virtual space for Muslims around the world are Muxlim.com, a highly acclaimed social media and lifestyle website; Muslimsocial.com, which allows users to keep updated with friends; and Muslim Social Network, which provides Islamic videos and other content. Photos from Tausug Network.