Twitter the medium of revolution in the Arab world

Volume of public tweets in Arabic jumped 2,146% in past 12 months; Arab celebrities, diplomats start tweeting; only one in a thousand tweets is in Hebrew.

Twitter 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of Twitter homepage)
Twitter 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of Twitter homepage)
Twitter came into its own in the Arab world as the medium of revolution this year. But since then people from Morocco to Qatar have learned the value of 140-word spurts to broadcast news, comment, gossip and advertising.
As a result, Arabic has become the fastest growing Twitter language in the world over the past year, according to a study by Semiocast, a Paris-based company that provides data intelligence and research on social media. It found that the volume of public tweets in Arabic jumped 22-fold, or 2,146%, in the last 12 months, vaulting it to No. 8 among the most-used languages on Twitter. In October, some 2.2 million public messages were posted every day in Arabic, Semiocast said, based on an analysis of 5.6 billion tweets.
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Other languages also enjoyed double- and triple-digit growth, but none of them approached Arabic. English, which accounts for 39% of all messages, or 70 million public tweets daily, increased 182% and Japanese by 85%. In the Middle East, Turkish usage grew by 290% and Farsi by 350%, even though Twitter is officially banned in Iran, the study found. Only one in a thousand tweets is in Hebrew, but that is because Israelis tend to use English to get their messages to the widest audiences.
Paul Guyot, chief executive officer of the French company, attributed the Twitter explosion in Arabic to the Arab Spring, which began in December of last year and gained momentum in January and February as the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt were forced out of power amid mass protests organized and chronicled over the social media.
“Between February and March, the number of daily tweets rose by half a million, so I have no doubt it was directly related to the Arab Spring,” Guyot, told The Media Line. “But as people got used to using it as a tool during the Arab Spring, they also started using it for everyday things.”
The rising Twitter trajectory follows others for social media, like Facebook and Youtube, over the past year as political activists bypassed state-controlled media and communicated directly with each other and the public. The MENA Facebook Digest said in July that the Middle East and North Africa saw 19 million new Facebook users during the previous year, a growth rate of 51%.
As Arabic has grown on Twitter, more organizations and people are exploiting it.
The wife of Qatari Emir Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned (@SheikhaMozah) tweets as does Jordan’s King Abdullah. Lebanon’s prime minister, Najib Mikati (@Najib_Mikati), started tweeting (mostly in English) upon taking office last January and has some 14,000 followers.
The US State Department began its feed (@USAbilAraby, English for “USA in Arabic”) last February. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) introduced English, French and Arabic in July.
In fact, many Arabs had been tweeting in English in the early days of Twitter because that was the language of the medium even though few Arabic speakers used it. But, Guyot said, as more and more Arabic users make use of Twitter they tend to move away from English or tweeting in Arabic transliteration and use their native tongue.
Nevertheless, even with the exponential growth of tweets, the Arab world has yet to exploit Twitter as much as do other parts of the world. Semiocast said Arabic messages represented just 1.2% of all public tweets, while Arabic speakers account for about 4% of the world population. Despite the growing use of social media in the Arab world, Internet penetration is low and the kind of content that would encourage more use, such as e-commerce and celebrity gossip are in short supply in Arabic.
That is starting to change, Khaled Elahmad, social media strategist at Amman-based Convo2, told The Media Line. He said that in the last few months his company, which offers training, strategy consulting and set-up of social media campaigns, is seeing increased interest from business and budgets being made available to development social media functions.
“Most of the Arabic content on the Internet isn’t very useful. Now there is huge demand for Arabic search engine optimization (SOE) but it’s in very preliminary stage because most of the content on the Internet isn’t useful,” Elahmad said. “But there is huge developing demand for creating useful Arabic content.”
Celebrities are starting to make use of Twitter, too. “On Twitter, the first wave of people to use it were people like me, who speak English,” Elahmad said. “In the last three months, names of well-known people who speak only Arabic who have a huge base of fans off line are now getting into Twitter and tweeting into Arabic.”
Another barrier to growing tweeting is the difficultly of doing it in Arabic. While Arabic speakers can tweet in their own language, there is no Arabic user interface and searching for topics in Arabic is difficult. Arabic hashtags, the signs denoting keywords or topics in a tweet, are only supported by the mobile version of Twitter.
But a group formed in July in Qatar called #letstweetinarabic (@taghreedat) is campaigning to increase Arabic content and develop an online content community on Twitter. It has 91 members in 10 Arab countries and Canada, and some 15,000 followers.
In addition, the group has some 2,000 volunteers to translate all the documentation, terms and glossaries on the Twitter website until the company can assign the resources to do it itself, Sami Mustafa Al Mubarak, one of the group’s two founders, told the Sharjah International Book Fair last week.