“An orientalist returned surprised after he visited Saudi Arabia,” goes an age-old expression but it’s a truth which seems relevant today in our interactions with digital networks, the most popular being Twitter.
Twitter currently has become a service that most Saudis have signed up with. According to a report by social media agency, The Social Clinic, there are more than 3 million active users in Saudi Arabia on Twitter who tweet 50 million times a month. The number of Twitter users in Saudi has also registered a growth of 3000 percent between the 2011 and 2012. This is a lot higher than the global average.
There are several amusing tweets on the site coming out from the kingdom. The most famous of them is that student who tweeted asking his followers to find him an excuse to lie to his father and skip school the next day. One of the responses was: "be frank with your dad and tell him the truth." The father was the one who posted this tweet. There are also the wives who tell their husbands who gush with romance on Twitter to quit doing that and bring back groceries for the kids on his way back home.
But not everything that happens on Twitter is funny. Some users ended up in jail or courts because of their tweets. But the one certain thing is that Twitter exposed both, what was concealed and what was revealed. The most important of what was exposed is the crisis of education and freedom in Saudi Arabia. It also exposed that the only acceptable plurality in Saudi is that of multiple wives. And so, Twitter became a hotbed for extremism and insults as long as no one can track you down and punish you.
It is said that some Western media channels have found that Twitter is important in revealing and measuring the extent of the Saudi public opinion. But can this website be counted on as a real reference? I still doubt that. But what I am certain of is that getting used to Twitter signifies a unique experience for some Saudis.
Some Saudi users have said Twitter has changed their lives, and we do not know in what sense. How can know if these people have become a friend of someone who has no friends, an enemy of someone who has no enemies and an audience for someone who does not have an audience of his own? They currently resemble that man in the "Stream of Madness," that tells the story of a town with all its residents except one man drinking water from a stream, which made them all crazy. Realizing he was the only sane one amongst them and that his sanity was torturing him, he ended up drinking from the stream too.
If you stop to observe how the new generations bury their heads in their cell phones, you will certainly be frustrated. You will be surprised and you will wonder why this person sitting with you prefer someone else's company over yours. You will also wonder why this person will end up acting the same way if he actually ends up sitting with the person he preferred his company over yours.
The problem with Twitter is that it grants you the opposite of what you feel. It practically deceives you. It puts you under the impression that you are communicating more with people whilst in fact it increases your isolation. It makes you think that you are living a more active life while in fact it is sabotaging your real life.
Although you think that you are only having fun, you will realize that you have fallen victim to a semi-addiction. Red eyes, losing the ability to control its usage and then losing the frequent interactions of people around who got bored of advising you, are all side effects.
What is strange is that these serious results only show what the most famous markets are among young people. No one is tempted by the desire to seek societal learning.
No one cares to know what their youths think of and aspire. No one cares to know what these youths' crises are. What is also strange is possessing a desire for gossip. No one cares about studying these youth groups. Neither research institutions at universities nor scientific monitoring companies are concerned about studying them. Only foreign centers are concerned in order to show businesses which are the best places to market their merchandise and gain customers.
This article was first published in al-Hayat.
Dr. Badria al-Bishr is a multi-award-winning Saudi columnist and novelist. A PhD graduate from the American University of Beirut, and an alumnus of the U.S. State Department International Visitor program. Her columns put emphasis on women and social issues in Saudi Arabia. She currently lectures at King Saud University's Department of Social Studies. Twitter: @BadryahAlbeshr