Curiosity kills culture? Young Arabs and social media misuse

The potential of social media has not been reached yet, and it should it be limited to food lovers

Yara al-Wazir

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Social media has the power to mobilize people and make real change, both politically and economically. In fact, it was seen as such a substantial threat that numerous Middle Eastern governments banned many of its forms, be it Facebook in Syria and Tunisia, or Twitter in Iran. It played a key role in mobilizing young people during the Jasmine revolution, and in kick-starting the 2011 revolution in Egypt against Husni Mubarak. Yet the question must be raised, do young people realise its full potential, or are they misusing it?

An underground social scene

The conservative nature of the majority of Arab countries makes it tricky for young teenagers to feed their curiosities about the opposite gender. Although the degree of conservatism varies from family to family, young people have developed a habit of turning to social media to communicate with the opposite sex.

By social norms, innocent social encounters are perfectly acceptable. However, the extent of conservatism can sometimes turn into oppressiveness, which leads to the inability to understand social cues, and respect online personal safety. Recently, a Caribbean girl used the social network Facebook to send semi-nude photographs of her to a young man. A 6-minute video of her mother flogging her surfaced shortly thereafter.

Yet a 6-minute session by the mother is nothing compared to a case in Saudi Arabia in 2008, where a woman was beaten and killed for using Facebook to ‘chat’ with a foreign man.

The primary point of social media is to socialize. Arab culture must evolve to the point where it realizes that conservatism leads to respect, but oppressiveness leads to rebellion. Young people are curious by nature, and have innocence that is only rivalled by elderly with amnesia. Channelling their curious energy in a positive way, to learn, to discover, and to broaden their understanding of foreign cultures and worlds is what will allow the region to grow without the reliance on expatriates. However, if the biggest curiosity that young people have is how to talk to the opposite sex, and when the lines and boundaries of acceptable social conduct and communication are blurred, curious nature is wasted using a highly valuable medium. Social media can be used to open up young minds to the outside world; communicating with the opposite sex can be achieved by going outside of the house, and getting over overly-conservative habits.

Arab culture must evolve to the point where it realizes that conservatism leads to respect, but oppressiveness leads to rebellion

Yara al-Wazir

Entrepreneurs going social

With the wave of revolutions, and youth unemployment in the Middle East reaching its peak, entrepreneurs have been mobilized. With rising marketing costs, the wave of e-marketing and online businesses has sky-rocketed in the region, all of which rely heavily, if not entirely, on social media to get their message out.

The popular, and now international, cultural food chain, Just Falafel, is a prime example of a young Arab entrepreneur who used Facebook to build a solid fan base. The chain claims that the Facebook campaign run by its team generates 100 franchise requests a day.

Engezni, an Egyptian technology start-up that recently one second-place at the University Mobile challenge also used Facebook to build its platform of over 27,000 fast-food lovers.

It is clear that the talent and understanding of the power of social media does exist, and is comprehended by many in the region, but the potential of the tool has not yet been reached, nor should it be limited to food-lovers

If the government bans it, it must be good.

Governments and social media have a complicated relationship. When there was still once hope in Syria, Bashar Al-Asad promised reform. In 2011, one of the first steps to reform was to lift the ban off Facebook and Youtube .

In fact, governments and media in general have a complicated relationship. After all, media is one of the greatest, most powerful tools available in the public hands. It is no coincidence that superheroes like Spiderman and Superman were story-telling journalists. In today’s world, to tell a story to be delivered to the masses, is to use social media.

Moderation is key to everything, and while the objective of social media is to socialise, it has far greater potential in developing countries, and especially in the Arab World. Its role is not limited to topple oppressive governments; there was no social media when protests where organized to topple the Berlin Wall, or during the French Revolution in 1789.

So what are governments really worried about – being toppled, illicit relationships, or access to the outside world? Maybe it’s a collective of all three. Regardless, social media has the power to not only reform government, but also more importantly, reform economics through mobilizing entrepreneurs and local businesses. Young Arabs may not be able to afford fancy advertising or marketing consultants, but they can afford social media and some time.

Yara al Wazir is a humanitarian activist. She is the founder of The Green Initiative ME and a developing partner of Sharek Stories. She can be followed and contacted on twitter @YaraWazir

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.