“Definitely,” answers Fouad Jeryes, who works with the Arab social media and content sharing platform D1G –whose name reads in Arabic as “Diwanji” (one who goes to a divan or public area). In fact, the needs and demands of the Arab user are regionally specific, linguistically, of course, but also visually and culturally.
For Jeryes, there are "two models of social media websites in the Arab world: the ‘transfers,’ international websites which may have an Arabic interface but are nevertheless the same as the foreign version, and the ‘homegrown’ websites, which cater directly to users with an Arabic background who may not be as exposed to the rest of the world.”
In terms of interface, he points out that the development of collaborative social media was based on the VBulletin style-a forum layout which allows users to create and post discussion topics in a hierarchical style, primarily used for text and graphic entry and particularly popular among Gulf region users.
“Completely breaking the mold and walking away from the VBulletin model is not the way to go. We should follow incremental steps up, gradually migrating, while remaining in the class of social interactions that people like to engage in," Jeryes adds.
The fact is, the penetration of social networks is extremely important in some places. For a country like Egypt or Lebanon, around 70 percent of internet users are part of a social network.
Speaking at the Arab Net internet business conference in Beirut, Ghassan Haddad, Facebook’s director of internalization, pointed out that the launch of his company’s website in its Arabic interface was an important benchmark for social networks in the region. “The launch of the Arabic website led to a spike in users,” he says. “Today, around 25 percent of users in the Arab world use the Arabic interface.” Around 15 to 20 percent of Facebook users in the Arab world converted to the Arabic interface; and in some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, adoption rates actually grew with its introduction.
Interestingly, says Haddad, “there was little campaigning and advertising” and thus proof that there is a strong demand for content customized to the Arab user.
Timothy Bataillie tells a similar tale and confirms Haddad’s remarks. When his company, Netlog, launched its Arabic interface in late 2008, it also generated a spike of traffic. Today, up to “70 to 75 percent of Middle East users use the Arabic interface–which is all the more impressive because it means that many people migrated from the English network to the Arabic one.”
Nina Mufleh works for the Online Project, customizing social media campaigns for clients. To her, “an interface in Arabic is not necessarily the most important factor” in reaching Arab users. Rather cultural appropriateness is most important as “it’s not about getting the content translated; it’s about creating the material that would be culturally relevant. There are important regional idiosyncrasies that need to be taken into consideration.” Her work brings her into contact with the largest social networks in the region. While she deals with Facebook, the leading social network in the region with 12 million users in the Arab world, she also works with Arabic-only networks, as "Facebook is not for everyone. It misses a lot of users. Depending on the niche market I need to target, I would rely on different social networks."
Another difference-and a challenge for network managers-is the different cultural and moral standards which are upheld in a region, what Ahmed Humeid, co-founder of TootCorp labeled, "cultural localization as opposed to simply interface localization."
Bataillie explained that "there are some extra challenges in terms of content moderation in the Arab region. We installed a moderation team that monitors traffic coming from the Gulf region. If they check pages from people outside the region, the website will display a warning notification," to warn people they may be exposed to content that may be offensive to regional standards. Haddad also highlights the same problem with cultural localization, where it is difficult to know "when dealing with relationships, what is acceptable and what is not."
Adding one more complication, Fadi Moujahed points out that Arab users are not a homogeneous mass, even on seemingly benign issues, and thus cultural sensitivity is acutely needed. The general manager of GamePower7 gave as an example the website’s decision to celebrate Mother’s Day. Numerous users, mostly from Saudi Arabia, chose to boycott the website altogether because of the celebration.
"Each Arab country has its own culture, and at some point," he sighs, "you just can’t please everyone."