newmediadev2011



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I will examine the Arab Internet culture, especially the blogosphere, in order to comprehend the willingness among online participants to contribute, in hope of recognizing how this may teach us something about generating Arabic content on Wikipedia.

Emergence of New Media
The Arab world is in the midst of a new media revolution. “Indeed, from Morocco to Bahrain, the Arab world has witnessed the rise of an independent vibrant social media and steadily increasing citizen engagement on the Internet that is expected to attract 100 million Arab users by 2015,” the veteran journalist, attorney, and media consultant, Jeffrey Ghannam, highlights. (Ghannam, 2011, 4) An evolving landscape of media is offering ever-expanding opportunities for the exercise of consumer choice, as well as the proliferation of diverse information from which audiences can select. The Internet, and the range of digital media it has brought about, is changing the expectations of freedom of expression and fundamentally altering the relationship between Arab publics and their governments. (Al-Zuweiri et al., 2011, xiii)

The emergence of digital communication technology in the Arab world could be said to have accelerated in early 2011, and over the next 10 to 20 years it is expected to lead to even greater voice, political influence, and participation. (Ghannam, 2011, 23) As the technological changes have offered a platform to anyone who has access and the pre-existing skills to utilize them, public participation has been democratized. Arab citizens now have entry to an online environment that offers information, mobilization, entertainment, and the ability to increase transparency, create communities, and an alternative social vision. They can listen to or participate in discussions on previously socially taboo subjects, and in this way, the emergence of new media allows traditional hierarchies to be bypassed. (Al-Zuweiri et al., 2011, xiv) “To peruse the Arab social media sites, blogs, online videos, and other digital platforms is to witness what is arguably the most dramatic and unprecedented improvement in freedom of expression, association, and access to information in contemporary Arab history,” Ghannam says about the changing Arab media landscape. (Ghannam, 2011, 4)

The most wired Arab countries are so far Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, and the Arab Gulf-countries in general, however, the rest of the Arab world is still far behind. Despite the rapid and high penetration rates of the Internet, which is continuing to rise, the percentage of Arab Internet users ranks as one of the lowest when compared to the rest of the world. Aside from the Arab Gulf-countries, Internet accounts among members of Arab societies do not exceed ten percent of the general population. (Mellor et al., 2011, 124) Since platform is an increasingly important and varied factor in any discussion of activism in the Arab cyberspace, the uneven spread of the Internet inevitably is a factor that keeps down the overall level of any kind of online participation. Aside from the Gulf countries, Arab Internet users really just represent “1/5-1/3 of a country’s populations (or less),” the Director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and writer with particular focus on the Arab world,Jillian C. York, points out in an email interview. (Interview I, 2011) Participation in the online environment remains the province of a particular Arab elite, who has access to the digital communication technology as well as literary skills and the financial means to use it. (Ghannam, 2011, 16)

Online Participation
There are a number of parties involved in the Arab Internet culture: governments, hackers, youth, and civil society organizations. On the one hand, Arab governments in “a number of countries, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, UAE and so on, are instituting or have instituted Government 2.0 projects,” the Egyptian journalists, and new media specialist, Moustafa Ayad, explains in an email interview. They are, however, “still using outdated thinking and models of practice to engage online communities and are sometimes, years behind in tactics and technology adoption,” Ayad points out. In this way, more and more Arab regimes are, although slowly, moving toward adapting to the environment they work in. On the other hand, hackers do their best to disrupt these government websites, using new media as “counterintelligence and counterrevolution practices,” Ayad says. Together with the youth, other computer literate, and civil society organizations, they are, Ayad explains, “building blogs, creating groups and websites,” that “grows daily.” (Interview II, 2011)

In this way, the Internet has proved to be a significant medium, expanding civic engagement across the Middle East, and a platform for an alternative public sphere, which enjoys a wide range of freedoms in contrast to traditional state-owned media. Digital communication technology has provided an opportunity for an open exchange of ideas and aspirations among Arabs by allowing different groups to promote new ideas publicly. Despite growing efforts made by Arab Governments to control the Internet, the main players in this virtual public sphere are different political, ideological, economic, ethnic, national, cultural, and religious powers that used to be marginalized by the mainstream discourse. Compared to newspapers, broadcasting, and radio, which have been heavily controlled by the regimes, new media are podiums for exposing different attitudes, new discourses, and vast activities. So the Internet is being used as an instrument for cultural and civil participation in public life of Arab societies, initiating more desire and perhaps increased demands for openness and democratization (Mellor et al., 2011, 137)

In general, Arab patterns of Internet use are very similar to worldwide patterns. It expands and facilitates social networks and gives access to information and entertainment. (Sakr et al., 2007, 75) According to Ayad, “Videos are huge in the Arab world, I mean they are huge in a Western context as well. YouTube is a must go site,” and Facebook as well, he emphasizes. On these social media platforms Arab users “share opinions, forward pictures, articles and such materials … much like western counterparts,” Ayad infers. (Interview II, 2011) However, the Arab cyberspace seems to have two special characteristics that differentiate it from Internet environments elsewhere.

First, religion has a greater weight than almost anywhere else. The spread of the Internet in the Arab world has encouraged many organizations to set up their own websites, and in general, minorities make intensive use of the online environment in order to present their cases and problems. But particularly Islamic fundamentalist groups as well as more moderate Islamic movements are very influential and effective players. They are using the Internet to target citizens, creating websites through which they recruit, solidify and mobilize.

Second, willingness among Arab citizens to participate on the Internet is especially eager when compared to elsewhere. No other language group debates as enthusiastically online as Arabic-speakers. It is apparent that the assertion of the individual as an active speaker and decision-maker, not a passive recipient of authority, is growing. The online use of Arabic is escalating as the Internet diffuses more broadly across the region, and this has a significant role in inter-Arab dialogue. (Mellor et al., 2011, 137-144) (Sakr et al., 2007, 75)

Arabs increasingly desire to reach out to each other in their mother language, and in this regard blogs have proved an ideal medium. As York emphasizes, interest in participating in Arabic “depends on the person” but for the most part, “Arabic simply makes more sense,” she says. “The majority of the bloggers in the region use the Arabic language (with some English and less French),” and this endow the Arab world with “greater propensity for transnational networks,” York explains. (Interview I, 2011)

In this way, the limitations traditionally imposed on who was allowed to speak in public, and what was proper to say is breaking across the Middle East. Blogging is an ideal communication tool for individual expressions, and via the blogosphere users in general are extremely interested in practicing their right to freedom of expression. This arguably explains why the influence and popularity of this new medium have exceeded all expectations since it made its entry into the Arabic cyberspace by 2004. Since then it has become an effective tool for Arabs to express themselves and reveal personal opinions publicly. (Mellor et al., 2011, 140). By late 2010, the Arab region had 40,000 active blogs, and along with social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, lumped together in the blogosphere, they are expected to continue attracting audiences among the region’s more than 351 million Arabs. (Ghannam, 2011, 5-6)

The Arabic blogosphere is organized primarily around countries. A research has mapped participation[1] and found the primary groupings to be: Egyptian as by for the largest cluster, Saudi Arabian the second largest, and then Kuwaiti, Lebanese, Jordanian, and Syrian. Demographic results indicate that Arabic bloggers are predominately young and male. (Elting et al., 2009, 3-5) The Arab youth in particular has an advantage, growing up in a digital environment that remains new and alien to many of the elders. In fact, the under-25 age group is the fastest growing on the Internet, and “these newcomers are clearly as interested as the pioneers in marking their presence and making their voice heard,” the Associate Professor of Modern Arabic Language and Culture at the University of Oslo, Norway, Albrecht Hofheinz, contends (Sakr et al., 2007, 76-7) As we have seen evidence of in Egypt and Tunisia among others, the Internet has already showed signs of becoming a mechanism for the young members of Arab societies to mobilize through new social movements that organizes themselves online. The Arab blogosphere is a tool to draw together diverse ideological trends in a common effort to get voices heard. (Al-Zuweiri et al., 2011, xiv)

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Yet, the advances are not without considerable limitations and challenges. Arab governments’ reactions to new media and the growing presence on the Internet have given rise to a battle on the Internet, and hundreds of Arab activists, writers, and journalists have faced repercussions because of their online participation. (Ghannam, 2011, 4) Most regimens are getting more concerned with controlling available content, calling upon cyber crime laws, publication laws, and other laws regulating the Internet. This provides justification for the arrest and fines of individuals for online writing about certain issues that Arab governments deem sensitive and therefore make big public examples out of to scare off others. (Ghannam, 2011, 7)

This inevitably influences the overall online environment and the cultural responses that shape and motivate audience desire, or lack thereof, to participate in the blogosphere. Many studies conclude that in some Arab societies information is regarded as a threat rather than an opportunity. There is a feeling among ordinary citizens, as well as the elite, that having an opinion or verbalizing one, particularly a political or social opinion, might badly challenge the society. While some have welcomed the opportunities to confront existing structures of their society, others are awaiting the situation, deeply fearful of what the new media revolution may turn into. (Mellor et al., 2011, 143)

On these grounds, it looks as if the excessive fear of falling into the governments’ clutches is becoming a hindrance to online participation in general, and it is conceivable that the reluctance to write about sensitive topics on Wikipedia such as Islam, which apparently has become a dominant force in the online environment, would impede on user contributions in the Arab world. An online platform like Wikipedia, however, probably benefits from the anonymity it offers its contributors. If the organization promotes itself as an anonymous online platform, the willingness to participate among the Arab Internet users seems likely to increase in spite of enhanced governmental surveillance.

User-Generated Online Content
The Arab blogosphere reflects that young Arab media users are becoming increasingly self-confident and self-assessed. As they grow more independent and selective on the Internet, they believe more in themselves and their opinions as well. “Generally users online-contribute with opinions and their own news. Twitter-users for instance link back to their own blogs, other news, trade opinions and user-generated content such as videos,” Ayad explains. (Interview II, 2011) Accordingly, York unequivocally points out that “opinionated” is the one word that characterizes the Arab culture of blogging. (Interview I, 2011) In Hofheinz’ words, Arab Internet users in general discuss “almost everything under the sun.” They exchange a wide range of issues such as literary writings, technical tips, personal issues and diary-style observations; all from computer games to sports, music and film. But what seem to be the hottest topics of debate are those that were traditionally taboo in the Arab public discourse. Namely political, religious, and human right issues are discussed, and relations between the sexes, and this seem to be part of the reason for blogs’ popularity across the Middle East.

Global Voices, an international community of bloggers, and Toot, a website that handpicks the most significant Arab blogs, are two great places to learn more about the Arab blogosphere.

According to Hofheinz, this growing individual choice, better networking, faster spread of information, and more options to express oneself in public contribute to an increasing sense of empowerment among Arab participators in the online environment. (Sakr et al., 2007, 70-8) The Arab youth blogs more than any other in the world, and the population under 20 will pursue its future online, The Adjunct Associate Professor and Lecturer of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, Anne Nelson, says. (Nelson, 2008) According to Ayad, this eagerness to participate takes place on “user-generated sites that is all based on volunteer work, much like Wikipedia.” (Interview II, 2011)

However, the vast activism on the Internet does not appear to be appropriate for a fact-based media platform such as Wikipedia. In opposition to the traditional media, the blogs allow for expressions that are used to communicate with each other in their homes and on the street – a language that is normally discouraged. This use of everyday spoken language as opposed to the more formal Arabic, normally used in the media, helps explaining why the blogosphere has attracted as much user-activity, but unfortunately, it does not seem to fit Wikipedia’s hope of generating factual and educational content on the basis of verifiable resources. Opinionated contributions in an everyday spoken language, although based on volunteer work and in Arabic, are not the equivalent of the reliable and credible content Wikipedia is hoping for Arab Internet users to create on their site. (Mellor et al., 2011, 140) According to York, “Wikipedia can’t really be activist in nature” in the same way that the Arab blogosphere is. “The editors shoot down anything non-neutral,” she explains. In York’s opinion that makes generating content among Arab bloggers difficult: “In the case of say Israel/Palestine, it's even more complicated, obviously. A Syrian friend who edits Palestine posts once told me he's the only Palestine editor who's never been locked,” she explains. (Interview I, 2011)

Ayad agrees that the Arab cyber-activism in the blogosphere probably is hard for Wikipedia to tap into at the moment, since Arab bloggers, who otherwise contribute intensely on the Internet, are too “concerned with combating the counterrevolutionary forces using state media and other modes of propaganda distribution,” he emphasizes. “Using Wikipedia is the last of their concerns,” Ayad points out. Wikipedia’s one chance though, from his point of view, is “to promote Wikipedia as one of the means to battle state-disseminated misinformation.” As Ayad explains: “We are in the grips of rebuilding many of our societies, and the biggest hurdles are battling security forces and crackdowns, making sure there is no counterrevolution that asserts itself during the transitory period, and the last of which, but by no means the least important, battling misinformation.” So for Wikipedia to profit by some of the distinctive volunteer work that Internet users so eagerly do in the Arab blogosphere, Ayad suggests that the organization start advocating the benefits of trustworthy information in time of revolution. If Wikipedia can work out a method for this, “then I believe such a campaign can succeed,” Ayad points out. (Interview II, 2011)

In agreement, an article published in the New York Times sheds light on the general participation on Wikipedia based on interviews with Egyptian bloggers. Social media is the tool that connects the Arab youth to the outside, and therefore “material on Wikipedia is something that may be quickly ignored in the West … but in Egypt, it brings knowledge to the poor,” one blogger describes. In this way, generating content in Arabic is “something more like a national priority”, something that will enlighten the society as a whole, another blogger emphasizes. (Cohen, 2008) This enthusiasm for building a stronger Arabic Wikipedia among young Egyptian bloggers – who apparently participate in the Arab blogosphere most prominently – appear to confirm Ayad’s proposal. If Wikipedia promotes itself as “a national priority” that battles misinformation, the organization may be able to encourage active Internet users in the Arab blogosphere to start creating neutral, reliable content. In other words, Wikipedia ought to convince its audience that creating fact-based Arabic content is in favor of the individual participant as well as the society and Arab world as a whole, it seems.

However, the online audience as a whole is fragmented to such an extent that Wikipedia has to consider which exact segment is being impacted upon. The existence of new media in the region does not guarantee that all viewers will respond similarly, or be equally interested for that matter. “Opinions online are generally not representative of the population as a whole,” Ayad points out in this connection. Although an eager blogosphere seems to be characteristic for the Arab cyberspace, there appears to be a wider and more general preference for educational and networking opportunities on the Internet among Arab online participants. (Al-Zuweiri et al., 2011, xix-xvii) Generally, users of Arabic language Internet sites are more often found to seek news from non-local sources, which they have been isolated from before the emergence of new media, Hofheinz highlights. (Sakr et al., 2007, 70) So for Wikipedia to generate Arabic content – at least in Egypt where social media seems most prominent – “Young people in Egypt need to get involved in information technology not just as consumers,” an Egyptian blogger points out. (Cohen, 2008)

The Arab media landscape as a whole is still rapidly changing. It is apparent that new media and social networking on the Internet are good ways to discover whether beliefs and values are shared, in the Middle East as well as in the West, but how to use them to facilitate more complicated, longer-term collective contributions that require significant commitment on a regular basis remains uncertain. (Freeland, 2011)


Resources

Al-Zuweiri, Abdel-mutaleb et al. (2011): The New Arab Media: Technology, Image and Perception

Cohen, Noam (2008): In Egypt, Wikipedia is more than hobby. Retrieved November 8, 2011, from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/21/technology/21iht-link21.1.14629408.html

Ghannam, Jeffrey (2011): Social Media in the Arab World: Leading Up to the Uprisings of 2011. A report to the Center for International Media Assistance

Elting, Bruce et al. (2009): Mapping the Arabic Blogosphere: Politics, Culture, and Dissent. Retrieved November 30, 2011, from: http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/publications/2009/Mapping_the_Arabic_Blogosphere

Freeland, C. (2011): The Middle East and the Groupon effect. Retrieved November 8, 2011,from http://blogs.reuters.com/chrystia-freeland/2011/02/18/the-middle-east-and-the-groupon-effect/

Interview I (2011): Jillian C. York, November 30, 2011

Interview II (2011): Moustafa Ayad, November 29, 2011

Mellor, Noha et al. (2011): Arab Media: Globalization and Emerging Media Industries

Nelson, Anne (2008): Arab Media: The Web 2.0 Revolution. Retrieved November 8, 2011, from http://carnegie.org/publications/carnegie-reporter/single/view/article/item/70/

Sakr, Naomi et al. (2007): Arab Media and Political Renewal: Community, Legitimacy and Public Life



[1] The size of each dot represents the number of other blogs that link to it, a measure of popularity, and the position of each dot is a function of its links with its neighbors. Thus large groups of blogs cluster up into densely interlinked network neighborhoods.









This research was done by Ulrikke Louise Albertsen, a Danish graduate student in Media Studies from University of Copenhagen who is taking on year of graduate media and communication courses at Columbia University in order to gain international and social perspectives on the world of media in our increasingly digital information society. Email her at: ua2138@columbia.edu

This is a sub-topic page, under Wikimedia in the Arab World.
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