In December 2014 Qatar’s Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (ictQATAR) published some of the key findings from a new ground-breaking study into social media in the country.
Three discoveries in particular are of note for policy makers: 1) dramatic differences in usage by nationality; 2) the concerns of social media users; and 3) the plurality of ways in which these networks are used.
Many of these areas, such as drivers for usage, had seldom been publicly explored.
In addition to questions about older and resilient messaging applications, such as Blackberry Messenger (BBM), survey respondents were also asked about their use of emerging social channels. These applications, such as WhatsApp and Snapchat, had not previously been studied.
With fieldwork undertaken by Ipsos MENA, the Rassed team at ictQATAR, the research is also remarkably current. One thousand adult internet users – fived hundred Qataris and five hundred non-Qataris – participated in fifteen-minute Computer Assisted Telephonic Interviews (CATI) between September 1 and October 16, 2014.
The following are some of the major conclusions from the study:
Differences by nationality
Although awareness and usage of social channels is high across all demographics, one of the most striking conclusions from this study is the differences in usage across nationalities living and working in Qatar.
Two particular elements stand out. First, tech-loving Qataris are much more aware of newer social networks than non-Qataris. Second, Qataris are not big Facebook users in comparison to their non-Qatari counterparts. Among Qataris, Facebook is the fifth most popular social network (only just ahead of Snapchat). Most Qatari internet users (90%) are aware of Facebook, but only 44% use it. In contrast, awareness of Facebook for non-Qatari internet users was 94% with an 84% adoption level.
That said, Qataris are much more likely to use other social media services-such as Instagram and WhatsApp-which are part of the Facebook family. In fact, in relation to awareness, with the exception of WhatsApp, (98% of awareness for Qataris vs. 97% of awareness for non-Qataris), Qataris are much more likely to have heard of newer social networks like Snapchat (77% of awareness for Qataris vs. 44% for non-Qataris) and Instagram (87% of awareness for Qataris vs. 63% for non-Qataris). It is important to note, however, that awareness does not necessarily translate into usage. For example, 57% of female respondents had heard of Snapchat though only 15% used it.
Over three-quarters of the sample group felt that social media “takes away from quality time with the family,” 68% felt that it intrudes on people’s private lives, and 65% expressed the view that social media is “leading to a wider generation gap.”
The most negative aspect of social media identified by the study was that social media is “helping to spread rumors and false information.” 85% of respondents across all ages, genders, and nationalities agreed with this statement.
Plurality of uses
The plurality of uses for social media is particularly important. While typically networks like Snapchat and Instagram are used for simply sharing photos and chat apps such as WhatsApp act primarily as a SMS replacement service, given the role that all of the social networks studied play as a source for news and information, our study showed that social media usage is much more sophisticated and that users are subverting these networks from their original design to meet their own communication needs.
The most striking example of this happening was in the realm of sharing news stories. The role of Twitter and Facebook as a news source has been well-documented by studies from the Pew Research Center and the Reuters Institute at Oxford University, but ictQATAR’s research shows that communities are equally adept at adopting other channels for similar purposes. News publishers in Qatar have yet to take advantage of the opportunity to “push” content to users, although this trend is being seen in other markets.
Most notably, a third of Qatari internet users harness WhatsApp to find out the latest news, compared to 21% of online non-Qataris. Typically users belong to private groups of friends and/or family who share and discuss news items. Meanwhile, 52% of non-Qatari internet users find out the news on Facebook, versus just 12% of Qataris. Other channels such as Instagram and the resilient BBM are also used as a means of sharing and discussing the news though to a lesser extent than other platforms.
All networks are used for a variety of purposes, including ecommerce, SMS, email equivalent activities, and large-scale group discussions on topics ranging from the news to cooking to religion. Messaging and photo sharing apps such as Instagram and Snapchat are seeing their use adapted to suit the needs of their
WhatsApp is King
In terms of ecommerce, news, and large scale group discussions, WhatsApp has grown beyond a simple SMS replacement. Of the eight services that Rassed studied, WhatsApp was identified as Qatar’s leading social media service, across all groups. It is used by 87% of Qatar’s total internet population and by 97% of all online Qatari nationals.
The top activities on this service are much the same as those on traditional social media: sending messages, sharing photos, finding distant friends and family, and posting status updates. This popularity likely stems from a number of factors, including the ease of use of the app, the fact that it is inexpensive (with only an annual $0.99 renewal), and that it works just as well with Arabic script as it does with English and other languages. In contrast, many of the major networks – e.g. Facebook and Twitter – initially offered a very poor user experience in Arabic, until specific Arabic designed interfaces were introduced. WhatsApp usage in Qatar is growing, with nearly half of users saying that they use the service more than they did this time last year, although 17% do admit to using it less.
Interestingly, a significant number of WhatsApp users admitted to using fake names on the service. This seems to be a key means for users to address some of their privacy concerns. Users also engage in certain activities such as photo sharing via more closed networks, or networks that they perceive as being more closed to protect their privacy.
For example, in terms of posting pictures, just 12% of male Qatari internet users and 6% of online Qatari women post pictures on Facebook, though Qataris are happy to post photos on other networks such as Instagram and Snapchat. This is in stark contrast to the online expat population, where 46% of non-Qatari men and 49% of non-Qatari women post on Facebook, thereby reinforcing our earlier finding on the way that different groups can use the same social networks in different ways
Despite the usage of fake names and selective use of photo sharing, privacy concerns were not expressed as explicitly as expected. Only 31% of users cited “privacy concerns” as a consideration before using a new network, whilst “growing privacy concerns” was identified by only 23% as a reason for leaving a service.
User behaviors such as the use of fake names and caution regarding image posting suggest that users are very attuned to managing their privacy. What this shows is that consumer concerns are nuanced, and that many users are savvy enough to find workarounds to offset some of these issues. These responses also reinforce the need for greater transparency in terms of service agreements – particularly around the ownership of data and images – and the need for industry, regulators, and policy makers to all work together to support an informed user base.
Finally, building on some of the issues explored in CGCS’ November conference on “Ubiquity, Mobility, Globality: Charting Directions in Mobile Phone Studies,” social media users in Qatar place a very high level of importance in social channels being “mobile friendly.”
Mobility is a key driver of usage, with 50% of all social media users, 70% of Qataris, and 77% of Qatari women identifying the importance of this characteristic. 20% of our total sample said they would leave a platform “if it is not mobile friendly.”
Although Qatar is a small country, it is one of the most connected countries in the world, with smartphone penetration standing at 80% (joint highest globally, according to the GSMA). Additionally, the Broadband Commission reported last year that 96% of households in Qatar are connected to the internet.
This study offers a fascinating window into both social media usage in the Middle East and how connected communities can harness the opportunities afforded by social networking.
 eCcommerce activity in Qatar via these channels includes everything from customer service related communications to opportunities to browse pictures of items and then order them, typically with payment being cash on delivery. In my office this method was the primary means for ordering food, as well as make up, handbags, and other items which were viewed on channels such as Instagram or WhatsApp, and then “reserved” via private messages or a note left in the comment section.
This article is published in collaboration with The World Bank’s People, Spaces and Deliberation Blog. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.
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Author: Damian Radcliffe is a freelance Analyst, Journalist and Researcher.
Image: Men are silhouetted against a video screen as they pose with smartphones. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic.