A double-edged sword: Expats and the Internet

“Great, let’s do it!” was my reaction when my husband phoned to tell me about a job he’d been offered in Azerbaijan. As soon as I’d hung up, I reached for the atlas to see where on earth I’d committed to go. I knew Azerbaijan was a former Soviet republic and had a vague idea about its location but that was all. My next step was a trip to the local library, where I found 2 books about Azerbaijan, both looking something like this. I didn’t expect they’d tell me much about my future life there as the spouse of a western expat, and I was right.

Please note, I’m talking about atlases, books and libraries. This was 1995, when the internet was still in its infancy. These days a Google search on Azerbaijan returns 298 MILLION results; Amazon over 2,300 results in books alone. I would have loved to have that information if it had been available at the time, all those blogs, websites and forums.

I’m planning to write a series of posts about successful online self-help communities for expats.  On my own admission I’m a computer/internet/social media junkie but before I begin, I want to issue a warning.

Firstly, there’s no doubt that the availability of online information has been a boon to the average expat family but it can be a double-edged sword. Too much information is a very real problem these days, as is over-thinking your decisions. At some point you must take a leap of faith combined with a positive attitude.

Secondly, spending too much time in the virtual world rather than the physical one can hinder your integration. I know, I’ve been there, having spent far too much time holed up at home with my laptop when I first repatriated.  Connecting online can help you make new friendships and foster old ones, but while it may facilitate, it can’t replace face-to-face, real world relationships.

I’ll leave you for now with this TED Talk by psychologist and sociologist Sherry Turkle, who expresses far better than I the positive and negative impact the internet has had upon our lives.

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16 thoughts on “A double-edged sword: Expats and the Internet

  1. I knew nothing when I started my expat life, except I had my Dutch travel gene going for me. No Internet for sure. I followed my American Peace Corps volunteer boyfriend to Kenya and thought it was all a great adventure, and it was. A few years later, five months pregnant, I went with him to Ghana, West Africa, and we had the baby there. That was only the beginning of a serial expat life, and I’m still at at, but boy it is nice now to have the Internet! To just find what you need to know with a few clicks. But also, your are right, not all info is created equal, and bad information can be dangerous.

    Written on computer, using the Internet in Turkey where I’m on vacation from expat life in Moldova ;)

    • It’s amazing how quickly we’ve got used to the convenience of looking up even the most obscure topics and getting an almost instant answer. No wonder we’re all hooked on it :)

  2. I really enjoyed your post and the TED talk and feel blessed I’m walking around with some pre-IPhone technology in the form of a five or ten-year old Nokia. A beautiful thing about Turkey is people sit down and have face-to-face conversation for a half hour to an hour every morning over a beautiful, civilized Turkish breakfast. When I first was told that everyone has breakfast together and it could last that long, I thought they were crazy. Now I love it.

    • Thank you, Karen. That’s what I loved about living in other cultures, the unexpected lessons I learned, particularly about the importance of relationships.

  3. Judy, just came across your blog. Excellent post. I’d add to this post that the real danger of too much information out there in the internet is that much of it can simply be wrong. When we were moving to South Africa 2 years ago, I went online and all I could find was expat forum entries, and you wouldn’t believe how negative they were. Moving to South Africa was akin to throwing your life away, one was led to believe – we’d be murdered on our way home from the airport. We moved anyway (reckless as we are, including our four kids) and that misinformation was the main reason I started my expat blog as soon as we got to Joburg. Needless to say, the expats who came after me have been very appreciative! Whenever I look for good information nowadays, on pretty much anything, I search out other blogs. Bloggers, it turns out, are the ones who can be trusted the most on the internet! You can see after reading a few lines of one post if they’re serious or not, and whether you will trust what they say.

    • That’s an excellent point, Sine. It’s a bit like Googling your symptoms before visiting the doctor, you always assume the worst. You have a fabulous website about Joburg, I’m going to submit it to Families in Global Transition for their revised Resources section.

      • That’s very nice of you Judy, thanks! I’ve heard about them through several avenues by now so will definitely have to check out their website.

  4. Great post Judy,
    Like everything the poison is in the dosage!
    I rely on my virtual friends like you to get information, emotional support and internet is a fantastic tool to find local support groups to skype or meet in person other expats or locals that understand me. I also agree that some expat forums are giving a wrong image of the country. In 20+ years I always got friendly responses about expat life in developed countries. For my move to Moscow I got very aggressive and hostile comments to simple questions from young Russians who think all expat wives are spoiled, spend their time complaining and earn too much money. I can understand their views but useless to prepare an expatriation.

    I started looking for schools and neighborhoods in March through people I met online or on Skype and I am very happy about choices I made. Internet is not isolating me at all it is quite the opposite.

    • I’m glad it’s been of help to you, Anne and that you weren’t put off by the internet “trolls.” One thing I learned from moderating the ExpatWoman forum was the importance of keeping that sort of cyber-bullying in check.

      • I will never understand why some people found pleasure in attacking other people they don’t even know. The strategy that works for me is instead of reacting with anger or keeping feelings that hurts me to myself, I simply answer something like “thank you for your great advice” and usually it stops most of the “gremlins” like water :-)

  5. Being a social media junkie CAN be problematic at the best of times, but didnt appreciate how a change of country and jobs can lead to being sucked into a cyber vortex. Well expressed, Judy!
    ps, we always love our face to face contact with you!

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  7. Pingback: 4 Things I’ve learned about repatriating well | ExpatriateLife

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