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Who’s shaping digital content in the Middle East?

I n his 1995 book, “Being Digital,” Nicholas Negroponte predicted that in the future, online news would give readers the ability to choose only the topics they’re interested in. “The Daily

Me,” as Negroponte called it, worried many guardians of traditional journalism, but his suggestion that seemed both cutting-edge and almost impossible fifteen years ago, is now coming true. More and more websites are offering readers a degree of personalisation on the front pages of their sites – not only that, but the role of journalists as the gatekeeper of content is threatened by not just new technology and competitors, but by the very audience they serve. Armed with web publishing tools, constant online connectivity and increasingly powerful mobile devices, the online audience is becoming an active participant in the creation and dissemination of online content. This content, however, is not only text-based, we are seeing an increasing number of contributions of audio, video and photographs. In this issue, Variety Arabia looks at five players who are shaping the digital content in the Arab world. In choosing them, our two rules were that they must have a strong connection to the region – including being based here – and that we are measuring their influence today, rather than historically. Over the next pages we’ll look into the region’s content-shapers, people that you have probably seen around the media- sphere at times, or have heard about their accomplishments in a variety of fields as well as others who you might just be hearing about for the first time. We must note, though, that choosing content-shapers to profile depended on their reach and influence, not their nationality. Whilst we have tried to keep the list as diverse as possible, three of our content-shapers are actually Egyptian – there are 80 million Egyptian out there, so we couldn’t help it! Ok, without further ado, Variety Arabia’s online content-shapers are:

Sultan Al Qassemi has become a twitter

star by broadcasting Arab media coverage of the Arab Spring revolutions; his quick translation of Arab language news into English has won him a global audience. What is interesting, though, is that some of the journalists who were trying to follow the fast- moving events in the region began retweeting Al Qassemi's efforts, causing many others to follow. At only 23-years old, Mohamed Nanabhay is the head of Online at Al Jazeera English. During the Arab revolutions of 2011 he led the team that produced Al Jazeera's acclaimed online coverage of the Arab uprising. He won numerous awards in the process, including best coverage of a news event at the Online News Association annual awards. Reem Al-Masri is one of the people behind the establishment of, Jordan’s most popular website for alternative news and analysis. Apart from discussing controversial subjects and opening the door to fruitful discussion, 7iber is creating a quite a stir in the Jordanian media, by publishing content that isn’t published by any other website or newspaper. Hossam El-Sokkari, formally head of BBC Arabic and now the Head of Audience, Yahoo! Middle East, is a strong believer in the need to develop a stronger tie between media and community channels. He works with various Yahoo! teams to build a portfolio that is stronger, and richer in content. While working at the BBC, El-Sokkari created media offerings that included user- generated content as an integral part of BBC Arabic programming. His show, “Noqtat Hewar,” has developed over the years into a multimedia interactive programme, and has become a model that has been adopted in other parts of the BBC. Abe Nage, the online business manager at MBC Group, is the person responsible for the group’s digital products including MBC. net,, Actionha and, in addition to mobile applications, services, and digital content syndication.



A s Variety Arabia hits the stands, it's very likely that @SultanAlQassemi will have over 100,000 Twitter followers.

Meet Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, popular independent Arab commentator and shaper of online content in the region. Relatively new to the Twitterverse – he first tweeted and blogged in 2009 – Al Qassemi says that he has adapted with ease. A blogger whose words and opinions are oft quoted across the region, Al Qassemi, unlike many armchair commentators, is often at the scene of the action, but he insists he does maintain objectivity. “I rarely include opinions in my tweets because I don't feel I have the ability to pass judgment on an issue a few seconds or minutes after the event,” he says.

He believes that the goal and agenda of the content he broadcasts is to spread awareness about the issues that are rarely highlighted in the Gulf media. He speaks about tribalism, the Muslim Brotherhood– whose senior leaders he met during a recent visit to Egypt, and from where he did this interview – the role of public intellectuals, and the rights of minorities in the region. His followers include journalists, politicians, and people with an interest in the Middle East. “As my focus has shifted mostly to Egypt and then Saudi Arabia, two largely influential countries in the region, I have gained and lost followers, which is expected,” he points out. A quick scan of his followers show another strong segment – young Arabs who wish to access news and analysis that are neither tainted by Western interests or

Arab biases. Al Qassemi has, by design or otherwise, become one of the alternative voices to the traditional Arab media. “Unfortunately, Arab media for the most part has not adapted to social media and the opportunities and threats it offers. No regional paper that I know of has a blogging section, for instance. The ads are either intrusive or unimaginative. I expect this decade to be decisive for ‘old’ Arabic media outlets; either they adapt or they will see their market share dwindle. Either way, many of the media players in the region will not survive the end of this decade,” Al Qassemi says. When speaking of delivering news without bias or a thinly-veiled agenda, he says: “It is expected that when one is covering monumental and emotional


events such as the Arab uprisings that journalists’ personal feelings may play a part. The role of the media outlet editorial board is to make sure that these emotions only find their way into the Op Ed pages and not the news pages”, he adds. “I am against barring media personnel from having their own social media presence; they should be able to express their feelings on third party outlets so long as they maintain objectivity in the paper, radio channel or TV station.” Obviously, Al Qassemi is derisive of censorship. After all, isn't user-generated content coupled with a net-savvy younger generation neutralising censorship all across the world? Against all these odds the creation of content continues. Al Qassemi goes on to explain: “The Arab regimes still think they can censor websites; this is expected from a region where the leaders are disconnected from their populations. There are dozens of ways to circumvent censorship whether through proxies or mirroring sites. I also do my bit and email articles to people in Arab states where certain websites are censored. I

people in Arab states where certain websites are censored. I don't see this changing until these

don't see this changing until these regimes themselves change,” he says. “Some countries have a link on censored websites that allow users to request the unblocking of that website. I have never come across an instance where that was done, but I do know of many where the ‘report offending website’ option was

immediately attended to. Sadly, in some Arab states, reform in all its shapes is simply unattainable.” Al Qassemi notes that when you are a voice to contend with, it's not just your opinions that are subject to analysis, but also the content you endorse, by way of retweets, sharing links or linking to blogs. So how does he manage to separate the chaff from the grain? “I have become savvy in scanning articles before posting them, for content and quality,” he says. “I have pre-defined elements such as the source, the author, the publishing outlet and if the person who wrote the piece sought third party commentary and from whom. I spend several hours a day reading about Egypt, which is the country I am interested in most, so I am aware of all the major writers and commentators on that country whether Egyptian or foreign. This makes it easier for me to identify good pieces,”Al Qassemi concludes. What intrigues us most about this 34- year-old Emirati is the proclivity with which he tweets, and that he manages a full night's sleep.

Social Media as a Need?

Humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow believed that people are motivated by the urge to satisfy needs ranging from basic survival to self-fulfilment, and that they don’t fullfill the higher-level needs until the lower level ones are satisfied. Amy Jo Kim’s book, Community Building on the Web, uses Maslow’s hierarchy to clarify the goals and needs of online community participants.

Offline (Maslow)

Offline (Maslow)

Online Communities


Food, clothing, shelter, health

System access; the ability to own and maintain one’s identity while participating in a Web

Security & Safety

Protection from crimes and war; the sense of living in a fair and just society

Protection from hacking and personal attacks; the sense of having a “level playing field”; ability to maintain varying levels of privacy


The ability to give and receive love; the feeling of belonging to a group

Belonging to the community as a whole, and to subgroups within the community


Self-Esteem/ Self-respect; the ability to earn the respect of others and contribute to society

The ability to contribute to the community, and be recognised for those contributions


The ability to develop skills and fulfill one’s potential

The ability to take on a community role that develop skills and opens up new opportunities

Source: Amy Jo Kim’ s Community Building on the Web (Peachpit, 2000)