Doha is online in a big way, and each month more and more of its residents gather offline at monthly tweetups to discuss everything from politics to football. And it all started with a little bird, and a whale known as fail.
A recent report from the Dubai School of Government, the Arab Social Media Report, found that over 30 per cent of people in Qatar are on Facebook – and that the rate of new users in 2010 was actually higher than many Western countries, including the United States. Worldwide, there are approximately 500 million users on Facebook – and many of them are transiting over to Twitter. That’s approximately one in every 13 people logging on. ‘It’s very important. If you look at worldwide what is happening, everyone is joining social networks. Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, all of these,’ says Hussein Dajani from Qtel’s Virgin Mobile Service.
Qtel has partnered with the Tweetup community group in Doha to help organise, support and get the word out. And, with more than three phones on his person at any one time, Dajani is a participant himself – who only rarely tells the world what he had for lunch that day. ‘It’s like a tool to reach a huge base of people in a certain city or everywhere in the world. You can’t keep the Middle East on the side, the Middle East is proving to be a very big population, especially online,’ he says.
It makes sense: younger generations don’t remember a time without the internet and embrace social media in a way that leaves many of their elders amazed (and in awe of their ability to type with their thumbs), and Qatar has an incredibly young population.
But organisers of the Tweetups say it’s not just the students and teenagers who are tweeting. ‘We have a nice gentleman who comes to Doha Tweetups. I think he is about 50. But this guy, he’s tweeting non-stop. And we have many more members just like him,’ says Dajani.
It’s a far cry from what most sceptics see as the death of the written word and real communication, all in 140 characters. It’s also the opposite of a stereotype regarding this region: ictQatar reported in a recent blog post that some of the countries with the lowest scores on internet freedom, which includes Qatar, had the highest scores of internet penetration. So even though there’s a friendly cartoon telling you you can’t see whatever it is you clicked on, more people are online here more often than in other places.
‘It’s changing, it’s been changing the past 10 years, but from the time I first go into online communities, I thought it was a very Western thing. And with Twestivals and Tweetups, it started changing,’ says Bilal Randeree, one of the organisers of the Doha Tweetups. ‘It provides the opportunity for people where the one thing they had in common was that they were members of the same social network.’
The revolution won’t be televised anymore: it will be on Twitter. A study by onlineschools.org found that 48 per cent of Americans say they got their news from Facebook and similar sites first. By bringing people together directly, and providing platforms for on-the-spot news, Twitter has gotten itself a lot of attention recently, whether for its part in spreading the word on regional uprisings, or naming and shaming Premier League footballers that had previously taken out superinjunctions to prevent them from being named. Although it seems far-fetched to give all the credit for world-changing developments to a cartoon bird and its negative pal, no-one is denying that access, or the denial, to social media has changed the way events can unfold.
Regulating access to Facebook, Twitter and its associates is more than just 2011’s version of companies taking solitaire off their employees’ computers. When Syria opens up its social networking gates, or China shores up the Great FireWall, it’s a thermometer for the social and political climate in a region. ‘As a journalist, it’s an important source of information. We don’t just take what people put up there, but it gives us leads,’ says Randeree, whose day job is with Al Jazeera. ‘I’ve built up relationships with people I now phone, but they are people I found on Twitter. They post up pictures and videos and links on Twitter. So it’s incredible as a source of news. There’s not much that can be censored, it’s 140 characters.’
It’s also drawing people at home and abroad into events in a way that even Walter Cronkite from Vietnam couldn’t. ‘You can, without attending an event, follow it and be involved almost as if you were there,’ says Dajani.
That does reveal the creepy simulacrum realm that exists with social media: the creation of virtual communities that supplant real human interaction. The study from onlineschools.org estimates that 57 per cent of people talk more online than they do in real life. By living our lives online, are we negating the need to interact in the real world, changing the way we connect with each other or indeed stopping real connection at all? Tweetups, which force us out of our chairs and into the harsh daylight, some hope, are the next frontier – joining virtual community and real community into one.
‘I think it’s a problem if you have people living here in isolated communities,’ said Randeree. ‘There are people who interact at Tweetups who definitely would have few other platforms to interact at.’
Tweetups happen every month. Look for details on Twitter and Facebook.