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Tue 29 May 2007 10:00 AM

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Face wars

The 'new egalitarianism' of Web 2.0 gives a unique insight into the Arab world.

Web 2.0 is not a new technology or standard for the Worldwide Web, but a term coined to define the innovative thinking that is re-energising the ways in which people use the internet. Consumer Generated Media (GCM) such as blogs are part, but by no means all, of the thinking behind the new generation of social networking and information sharing sites and services now opening up.

“If Web 0 (the internet without the web) was about sharing information (a document, a paper, some email), then Web 1.0 was about sharing experience (how you do this, tips & tricks, support boards) – but Web 2.0 is about sharing your life,” is how Gianni Catalfamo - technology practice leader at Pleon, the leading European communications network - puts it.

The fastest growing of these new ‘Web 2.0’ services has undoubtedly been the social networking site Facebook, which has spread through the Middle East region like wildfire, with thousands signing up every week. Despite the many column inches dedicated by traditional media to discussing the ‘threat’ of blogs (a threat, incidentally, only to traditional media), those blogs remain relatively marginal in the Middle East.

Until now, that is. Facebook has - in just a few months - become a forum that is hard to ignore for sharing information, friendships, and viewpoints. Discussions reflect the depth of divisions and conflicts that are now apparently deepening in the region as communities - particularly the Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian - try to make sense of the latest conflict in Lebanon: the war against Fatah Al Islam.

Facebook is more than just a place where excited friends share social notes and pictures of themselves: it has become a massive open forum for serious political dialogue - and, unfortunately, occasional racist abuse and violent threats. It's all part of a new egalitarianism - something that has arrived with remarkable stealth.

So now alongside ‘just for fun’ Facebook groups like the 25,000-strong ‘I went to a proper British boarding school’ or the 75,000-strong ‘Petition to revoke the independence of the United States’, political Middle East groups are attracting thousands of members. These groups are part of a huge and growing number of conversations taking place amongst networks of hundreds of people, the biggest public assembly and debate of opinion and original thought the region has ever seen – all without a single meeting.

If you want evidence of sheer numbers, then try the group ‘Against Delisting Palestine from Facebook’s Wall’, which has over 15,000 members. And if you want to try and keep up with it, you’d better be fast. In one week, the group ‘Nobody’s ruinin’ my [******] holiday in Lebanon this summer’ grew to reach over 8,000 members: that’s an adoption rate of over two new members every minute.

The debate is often bitter, and sometimes descends into sectarianism and violent language. Among the polarised opinions and strong words are cries for moderation and pleas against sectarianism. The sheer pressure of expressed opinion, of free-flowing dialogue is truly remarkable, much of it written in ‘MSN Arabic’, the unique dialect rendered on Latin keyboards that pretty much every young Arab now knows.

Some of the entries do not make pretty reading. But if you want to know what young Arabs are thinking, then this is the place to be. Don’t expect to find any simple conclusions or easy characterisations of sentiment. But do expect to find yourself joining the conversation.

Alexander McNabb is group account director at
Spot On Public Relations

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