An Arabic Spring for Facebook

by Translation Guy on July 15, 2011

As the promise of the Arab Spring burns off in the bright glare of a cluster-souk summer, I weep for the deaths and the death of dreams, as the tyrants tighten their hold, pouring their oil money into the tools of their trade, the guns and mercenaries that make for a monopoly of violence. Turns out all it takes to extinguish a universe of liberty is a few grams of lead, delivered with sufficient velocity in the right patch of skull to bring an end to democratic dreamings, one dream at a time.

In the manner of all armchair champions of liberty, I am pessimistic about the prospects for good government for Arab speakers, but one gain not in question is the revolution in discourse that has occurred in the Arabic-speaking world.

It’s been called the social media revolution, with Twitter and Facebook leading the charge—or not, as the debate goes. Call it cart or horse, Facebook has certainly benefited. Subscription has grown by about 175% a year in Arabic, double the rate of Facebook’s pandemic growth worldwide. In Algeria, Facebook numbers doubled twice over, for a monster 423% increase in just one year. These gains are about the desire of affluent Arabs to play their part on the political stage, but marketers are looking on in greedy wonder. Because remember this kids: while Facebook is great for posting pictures of your friends getting shot, that’s not what it’s really for; it’s to keep you in cyber space, all the better to sell you shit.

Until last year, marketers in the region figured that Middle-Eastern Facebook growth was driven by English-speaking Arabs or expats, an English-only elite of global consumers.

Arabic social media boffin Alexander McNabb, director of Spot On, a Dubai-based PR outfit, says that “the new phenomenon we are seeing is the growth in Arabic language usage, which in some parts of the region is truly phenomenal.”

Research shows that 56% of Facebook users in Egypt (3.8 million) opt for the Arabic language version of Facebook, while in the Gulf, 41% use Arabic, as do 61% in Saudi Arabia. Morocco sits at 17%, while the United Arab Emirates, with its big expatriate population, is at the bottom of the list, with just 10% using the Arabic version.

“The Arabic language adoption is a sign that it is getting popularized and more and more people are getting online and they are using tools like Facebook to communicate,” says McNabb.

“Today, twice as many people in the Middle East are logged on to Facebook than buying a newspaper. If you want to get the reach across the region to people, if you are promoting products or services then you have to advertise in 274 newspapers to reach the Middle East and North Africa,” he says. “Or you can use just one platform. And the daddy of the all in the region right now is of course Facebook.”

“What’s really helping make the case is the whole Arab Spring and role of online media in that has really woken people up who otherwise have just been saying this isn’t worth taking seriously and that is was just a fad.”

Problem with fads that involve people getting shot on the street is that they generally don’t have the legs. It’s a mortality thing. But against all odds, thousands around the region risk all to declare their rights. And Facebook is right there, laying the groundwork for new markets on the bones of democracy’s martyrs. Creepy, but in the nature of things, I guess.

In the face of market demands for dignity and freedom, Arabic speakers have repurposed this great consumer engine for purposes of liberty. Arabic Facebook protestors pitch Coca Cola as the perfect hack for a tear gas attack. And after the dust settles, hopefully something more will come of this than just market share for sugar water and better penetration for the global Facebook addiction.

Special thanks to my friend Adnane Ettayebi for his Arabic insights.


  1. Skidmarks says:

    There is no doubt that social media played a role in the revolution. Even after the revolutions, social media will continue to play an important role with citizens using these tools (or whatever new tools arise) to discuss what kinds of countries they now want to build.

    • Ken says:

      Farmville or Mafia Wars?

  2. GillesRich says:

    Ken, this story is close to my heart – – not necessarily relevant to this post, but tech oriented enough. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

    • Ken says:

      Hydraulic despotism and the persistence of evil? Once I find the right button, I’ll push it, Gilles.

  3. PR like this is tricky to deal with, Mark Zuckerberg will have to tread a careful line.

  4. Boom Boom says:

    In Egypt, the government successfully shut down the Internet for five days during peak demonstrations, cutting off protesters’ access to online resources. This may have helped, but it is no substitute to old fashioned, underground movements of deception.

  5. Wayne Mullen says:

    Facebook and Twitter did not invent courage. And I think we owe it to these incredibly courageous people. I mean look how many people are being slaughtered in Libya, to recognize that this courage has been there for decades, whether people outside of those countries saw it or not. Facebook allowed you to see it. Facebook allowed them to connect. But at the end of the day, it’s their courage to go out on the street and topple those regimes that must be saluted, before we salute anybody else.

  6. mhuddles1981 says:

    This topic really intrigues me. All in all there is no simple formula visible, where we could say if X number of users join Facebook then they are Y% more likely to revolt. However, given the current protests in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen among other countries, more data is coming in and perhaps clear indicators will emerge.

    • Ken says:

      Maybe its the other way around… the “wants to revolt” demographic, you know 24 to 34, urban, unemployed male, finds FaceBook and makes a revolution out of it. A marketing match made in heaven for FaceBook. But as you say, no simple formula when it comes to human spirit, so may heaven preserve each one of those millions who march for freedom. And may all their dreams come true.

  7. Cheryl Dale says:

    Yes, the story of social media growth out of the Middle East has been phenominal, but wait until China hits the streets. Facebook has struck a deal to launch a new social network in China. This is huge news, it won’t be connected to, thanks to China’s strict national-level censorship. But it will allow Zucks to tap the Chinese market and make loads of cash… just wait.

  8. Actually, of the 19 Middle Eastern countries on Facebook, 7 have declined over the last month… the fad is over.

    • Ken says:

      From FaceBook to MySpace? Here’s a link to the Arab Social Media Report Jan 20 11. Already old news? Can you cite, Geraldine? I couldn’t find the decline.

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