Why families are getting together less – and other internet trends in the Middle East

This is a cross-post of a recent article I wrote earlier this week for the BBC College of Journalism website which comments on 10 digital related stories from the Middle East, including research about young people and digital media and social media usage in the region.

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With younger demographics and an expanding user base, communication technology in the Middle East is a hot topic, especially because of recent political changes in the region. Yet finding a good source of editorially neutral information on the subject isn’t easy.

So this summer I started producing a regular Digital Digest, both as a personal aide memoir and also, I hope, something of value to others who want a roundup of digital developments from across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

Here are few links to 10 stories which caught my eye over the past couple of months:

– Young people

Booz & Company, in partnership with Google, surveyed 3,000 digital users under 35 years of age across nine countries and identified three big trends among this group, 40% of the MENA population:

1. Communication with friends and family: the group has reduced direct personal contact with their family and friends as technology increasingly provides them with alternatives. Forty-four percent spend less time meeting close friends face to face and more time communicating with them online or over the phone.

2. Marriage: More than 60% in North Africa and the Levant approve of a member of their family marrying a partner he or she met online.

3. Religion: 70% of the group reported that technology allows them to explore the various facets of religion through websites.

The report also threw up a number of other interesting stats: 83% use the internet daily, with 40% using it for at least five hours a day. Sixty-one percent spend more than two hours per day on social networking sites.

Interestingly, whilst 76% access the web from home, only 16% do so from schools or other academic institutions. No wonder 43% of young Arabs believe education services require technological upgrades.

Perhaps, given these trends, it’s not surprising that 37% believe technology has reduced family communication and cohesion!

– Arabic language

This is an area which has seen a real resurgence online in the past 18 months.

One of these initiatives, Taghreedat, a group that aims to increase the amount of Arabic web content, isworking with TED International to localise the TED site into Arabic. This builds on other recent initiatives including efforts to introduce the first Arabic Tech/Web 2.0 Dictionaryoffering Arab Twitter users their own search engine and working with The Wikimedia Foundation to create the Arabic Wikipedia Editors Program which will find and train Arabic Wikipedia editors.

Booz’s research showed that, among what it calls the ‘Arab Digital Generation’, 41% search the internet in both Arabic and English. Almost half say they’re unsatisfied with the quality of local websites or local versions of international sites.

Given the prevalence of smartphones and new technology in many parts of the region, it’s interesting to note that both of the voice recognition apps, Dragon Dictation and Dragon Search, which run on iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch now fully support Standard Arabic and are free from Apple’s App Store.

– Governance and government control

Booz’s research also found that just 8% of young people use an online platform to connect with government or political leaders. Twenty-four percent believe media content is totally controlled by government.

That figure may be even higher in countries such as Jordan which recently passed legislation requiring “electronic publications” to get a licence from the culture ministry. Critics argued that the law will stifle freedom of expression online. The BBC reported that the law “gives the authorities the power to block and censor websites, whose owners will be held responsible for comments posted on them”.

Associated Press estimated that about 400 Jordanian websites would be affected by the new law. And in late August hundreds of Jordanian websites such as JeeranJo24Wamda and BeAmman went dark in support of #BlackoutJo – a protest against the bill, which was also publicly criticised by Queen Noor Al Hussein (below) before it became law:

Queen Noor's tweet– Citizen initiatives

Given this climate, it is interesting to see that seven Omanis have come together to draw up an ethical code for internet publications, bloggers and social media users in their country.

One of the group, Turki Al Balushi, was quoted in the Gulf News as saying: “There’s a kind of boom in internet users in Oman and we felt that as responsible users we need to draw a line, especially in the light of recent crackdown on users… Obviously this is not mandatory but a volunteer group that would help people in deciding what is right and what is not.”

In Egypt, Morsi Meter (below) was set up by a couple of young Egyptians to encourage citizens to monitor the new Egyptian president in order to see “what has been achieved from what he had promised in his program during his first 100 days in power”. It was recently awarded first prize by the World Summit Youth Award (WSYA): a global contest for young people who are using information and communications technology (ICT) to put the UN Millennium Development Goals into action.

Morsi Meter–  Social media

LinkedIn opened its first MENA office in October. The network has more than 175 million members worldwide, with more than 5 million in the MENA – a million of which are based in the UAE.

The Dubai School of Government has published new data about social media usage in the region, including LinkedIn for the first time alongside Facebook and Twitter.

Even though Arabic is now the sixth-most popular language on the Twitter, accounting for almost 3% of all tweets, Facebook is still the dominant social media player in the region (below).

Social media use in Arab countriesDamian Radcliffe (@mrdamian76) is internet and society manager for ictQATAR. He wrote about his new role in a previous blog.  

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