The number of people online in the Middle East has gone up by 1,825.3 percent in the past decade, according to Internet World Stats. Social media have played an increasingly vital part in the region's politics and society, from Twitter's role in organizing protests after Iran's 2009 presidential elections, to blogging's role in opening discussions about culture.
CW contributing editor Silvia Cambie spoke with Lebanese blogger Paola Salwan about the likes and dislikes of social networkers in the region. Salwan's blog, Card Thawra, gets about 900 readers each month. She launched it in 1998 because, she says, she wanted to "offer an alternative point of view to what is usually written about the region in traditional media." Topics have included secularism, the economy, HIV/AIDS, human rights, international law and culture. Salwan blogs in English and French. "French is my mother tongue ... but you definitely get more hits if you post in English," she says. In her day job, Salwan works at the World Young Women's Christian Association (World YWCA) as program assistant for Africa, the Middle East and Europe.
Silvia Cambie: How would you characterize the Middle Eastern blogosphere?
Paola Salwan: Blogging is still an elite movement in the region, as only 10 percent of its population of 19 million has access to the Internet. However, according to estimates, there are more than 40,000 blogs in the Arab world. These bloggers are generally very eager. They like to post regularly. They tend to focus on all sorts of topics, from marketing to social media to politics. Blogs are also seen as platforms that can be used in repressive regimes to share ideas and talk more freely.
SC: Which countries have the most active bloggers?
PS: I would say Iran, Egypt and Lebanon.
SC: How does blogging differ from country to country?
PS: Blogs are products of the societies in which they are written. They reflect people's struggles and act as their voices. For example, in Lebanon the blogosphere began to blossom after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005. Similar to Iran, blogging in this country focuses on political and societal themes. The same applies to Egypt. In the Gulf countries bloggers seem to write more about personal issues and social media. This is the trend in rough terms.
However, we also have to consider the restrictions imposed by governments on cyberspace. While a Syrian blogger won't be able to access platforms like Blogspot or WordPress, which are forbidden in the country, and will have to create a proxy to use them, a Lebanese blogger will be able to choose simply based on his or her preference.
SC: Which Web 2.0 tools do Middle Eastern bloggers use?
PS: They like Twitter a lot because it can be used to unite people around a cause. People don't have to know each other before they get connected. The Green Movement protests in Iran, which followed the 2009 presidential elections, are the most powerful example of this. Demonstrators were able to share information rapidly by using a specific hashtag. …