Among social networking site Twitter's 106 million global users, only 2,000 or so are from Egypt. Ahmed Abu Ghazala finds out why
During an e-marketing class, an American professor wanted to discuss social networking in Egypt and asked attendees to raise their hands if they had a Twitter account. Only three did so. When asked whether they had Facebook accounts, all hands went up. While it remains common to hear the phrase, "add me to your account" for Facebook, it is still much less common to hear that young people have a Twitter account.
Of the world's 106 million Twitter users, only around 2,000 are Egyptian, according to Myriam Montague, an American journalist, blogger and trainer in new media at the USAID's Media Development Program in Egypt.
In Montague's view, the slow adoption of Twitter in Egypt can be ascribed to the usual technology adoption lifecycle, according to which innovators and early adopters start using a given technology first, followed by an early majority, late majority and laggards. Over half of current Twitter users are in the US, with Brazil, interestingly, having the second highest adoption rates, followed by the UK and Canada.
Twitter was introduced in 2006 as a SMS- based social network. In 140 characters or less, users can spread their thoughts to anyone who wants to follow them. By adding the hashtag symbol (#) before a keyword, anyone searching for that keyword can read relevant tweets.
Twitter also allows people to follow the tweets of celebrities around the world. They can develop new relationships with people sharing their interests and find out the latest news in real-time contexts by following media organisation tweets and using Twitter's search engine.
Tweets can be the source of breaking news, as they were during events accompanying the Iranian presidential elections. Media organisations used Twitter as a main source of news in following demonstrations against the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iranian president, for example.
However, in Egypt Twitter seems not to have caught on, something that can be explained by an understanding of the special nature of network markets, as discussed in Economics by MIT and Yale professors Paul Samuelson and William Nordhaus. In their book, the authors argue that "consumers derive benefits not simply from their own use of a good in a network market, but also from the number of other consumers who adopt the good," known in economics as "adoption externality".
This explanation has been verified by many Egyptian users. While Amr Ibrahim, a student at the British University in Egypt, knows about Twitter, for example, he is reluctant to use it. "I don't use it because none of my friends use it," he says. Facebook, Ibrahim adds, was ignored at first in Egypt, but it is now very successful because almost everyone knows someone on it.
"If someone is considering joining a network, he should definitely choose Facebook or MSN. Nobody will try something new as long as Facebook remains entertaining and widespread," he says.
Ibrahim's words echo further arguments made in Samuelson and Nordhaus's book. Network markets are often inertial, so once a product has a substantial lead it can be very difficult for others to catch up.
The low take-up of Twitter in Egypt therefore does not so much reflect Egyptian reluctance to use social networks as something about Twitter itself. According to a report by Spot On Public Relations, a communications firm, published on many media outlets including the BBC, among the 500 million or so Facebook users more than 3.5 million are from Egypt.
However, Twitter and Facebook are not duplicate networks, as Ibrahim and some others assume, since there are important differences. While Facebook allows the user to communicate and share information with "selected friends", Twitter targets all users. Some Twitter users consider the network to be their main source of news, and corporations and government bodies use it to keep customers and citizens informed.
Twitter can also help connect users to new people in more efficient ways than Facebook. Montague gives the example of wanting to attend a conference and being able to find out who is attending and what their ideas are by using Twitter. "The result is the possibility of meeting fascinating people and even generating business deals. Neither of these things is possible on Facebook," Montague says.
Facebook doesn't allow searches to be carried out as Twitter does, though it undoubtedly does help users to develop relationships with people having the same interests through membership of different groups. In Montague's view, Facebook and Twitter are similar in that both networks can help users deepen their knowledge of others and explore new aspects of their own lives.
Hussein Medhat, an Egyptian philosophy student at the University of Pittsburgh in the US, has an account on both Facebook and Twitter. He believes that Twitter is not popular in Egypt because no well-known figures, such as actors, football players, or politicians and writers, have accounts on it.
"This is unlike what happens in the US. Film stars and prominent figures have accounts on Twitter, which is why many Americans use it. They want to know these people's news." Hussein himself only rarely uses Twitter. "I see it as a tool to follow the stars' news. I don't use it frequently because I'm not very interested in these topics."
Since the presence of such material is one of the main ways in which people are lured into using Twitter, it is clear why many Arabs are not very interested in it. According to Montague, the network currently has only some 13,000 users in the region as a whole.
But some of those users are very high profile, even if they are not themselves always Arabs. According to an article on ArabCrunch.com, a blog dedicated to profiling and reviewing Arab-originated technology start-ups and companies, four of the top 10 users in the Middle East region are non- Arabs. Apart from Queen Rania of Jordan, who has over one and quarter million followers on Twitter, no well-known Arab figure is even in the top 10. Three of the top 10 users are companies, including media outlets The Jordan Times and Al-Jazeera in English.
Analysing the tweets of Egyptian users reveals that most of them are in reply to other tweets, expressing different views. Other tweets distribute news or describe something that is happening to the user, though it is still the case that many users appear not to tweet at all, considering it sufficient to follow the tweets of others instead.
Ahmed El-Houssini, a technical administrator, uses Twitter frequently and also has an account on Facebook. He uses Twitter to share what he is doing with friends and to follow people with similar interests. He tweets about himself and about the technology he uses in his job. El-Houssini finds Twitter useful because it helps him to converse with similarly minded people. Twitter is simpler to use than Facebook, though Facebook is better for photographs and detailed accounts of events, he says.
Dina Ali, programme coordinator at a media development organisation, is also a frequent user of Twitter, using it to post news about her job and friends. Ali finds the network useful in building a pool of contacts across the world and in keeping her aware of updates in areas of interest. Although she finds Twitter interesting, "it needs new features to lure people to log on and create an account," she says.
Mohamed Nasr, an IT specialist, compares the two networks by saying that Egyptians like Facebook more because it is designed for entertainment. It has many games and applications not provided by Twitter. Although Twitter does have many applications, these are designed purely to facilitate tweeting and to follow others' tweets.
In Nasr's view, an important feature of Facebook is that it provides a web messenger that allows users to have real-time chats with friends whenever they are online. Twitter has a dull interface compared to Facebook, whose visual look has a big influence on web users, he says.
Yet, Twitter is secure in that it only carries information that the user has himself announced. While Facebook administrators have recently added another layer of security allowing users to choose who sees what on their pages, there are still ways of accessing confidential material.
Twitter's main feature -- allowing users to "tweet" in a short and concise space not exceeding 140 characters -- is also a source of complaint for some users. Medhat says that 140 characters is not enough space, for example. For such users, a new application available at www.biggertweet.com may be the solution. This allows users to post longer tweets, the original tweet appearing in the 140-character format, with a link being shown to the rest of the tweet.
Language might also be considered a reason behind Twitter's current lack of popularity in the Arab world. According to Montague, Twitter has only become available in Arabic recently, and according to surveys "99 per cent of Arab Twitter users tweet in English, and only 26 per cent tweet in Arabic."
According to the Spot On Public Relations' study, while 50 per cent of the estimated 15 million Arab Facebook users use English as their main language, 25 per cent use French, and 23 per cent use Arabic. Facebook was also the means used to communicate among supporters of the 6 April 2008 protests, and it is the language used by many young activists on the network, who call themselves "Facebook Youth".
Facebook has also been used to support Mohamed El-Baradei's movement for change, with a group called "El-Baradei for Presidency of Egypt -- 2011" now having more than 245,000 members. The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) also has Facebook groups supporting President Hosni Mubarak, Gamal Mubarak and the government's policies.
Facebook is thus an established part of the political landscape, but Twitter has begun to gain momentum in the country's political life. Many young activists have started to use it to tweet their news and ideas, and newspapers have become more active in using it, with Al-Masry Al-Yom, Al-Ahram and Al-Yom Al-Sabei all having accounts. The fact that El-Baradei has an account on Twitter has also made the media follow his statements on the network and encouraged more users to sign up.
The opposition is active on Twitter, with the NDP and the establishment being much less so. No prominent figure from the NDP has an account. Even the Egyptian government portal ( egyptgovportal ) has only slightly more than 200 followers.
Well-known Egyptian writers have started to show an interest in Twitter. After Octavia Nasr, senior editor for Middle Eastern affairs at CNN, was fired because of a tweet that read, "sad to hear of the passing of Sayed Mohamed Hussein Fadlallah. One of Hizbullah's giants I respect a lot... # Lebanon," Salama Ahmed Salama, one of Egypt's most famous columnists, mocked the US network's decision.
CNN's action against Nasr, he argued, showed that even companies in democratic countries sometimes do not respect the right of individuals to express their views online. Nasr paid the price for expressing her views because Fadlallah had been listed as a terrorist in the US, Salama wrote, and because he was hated by Israel. Nasr was fired even though she had only announced her respect for his stance on women's rights.
Today's slowly increasing interest in Twitter in Egypt seems to bear out Montague's contention that the network will soon find a foothold.
"Twitter is still in the 'innovation' and 'early adoption' phases in Egypt and the Arab world, while it is between the 'early majority' and 'late majority' phases in the US. This can help explain the disparity between the numbers of users in the two countries," she says.
Another face of charity
Although some preachers have accused Facebook of being a distraction during Ramadan, it appears that the site can help spread religious duties
During a Friday sermon a week before the beginning of Ramadan, one sheikh attacked the media and Facebook in particular for distracting people from their religious obligations during the holy month.
However, it appears that many young people have nevertheless devoted time spent on Facebook to charitable acts. Many charitable organisations have appeared, including Kulina Mosaharaty, Ramadan Campaign, or All for Mosaharaty (a mosaharaty is a person who wakes people up to eat before sunrise during Ramadan), which aims to raise money for food for the underprivileged.
Food baskets put together with money raised cost LE68, with LE10 saved on the cost of each basket being used to help poor families over the course of the year.
According to Salah Khaled, president of Khota, a development and charity organisation at the Faculty of Mass Communications at Cairo University and one of the organisers of the campaign, the drive started with only four participating organisations. As a result of promoting the campaign on Facebook, the number had reached 15 before the beginning of Ramadan, he said.
Khaled added that the campaign's promotion included distributing fliers and brochures, but Facebook remained the most powerful media tool. People reached by Facebook informed their friends, and the network of donors increased as a result. "The campaign's target is to produce 40,000 baskets, and more than 1,000 people have confirmed their attendance at an event to raise money," he said.
In addition to Kulina Mosaharaty, there are also many other similar campaigns on Facebook, including Ramadan Kareem, or Ramadan is Generous, which has more than 1,800 supporters. Ramadan Hayghayarna Le-Alahsan, or Ramadan will Change us for the Better, has attracted more than 3,000 followers.
Another campaign launched on Facebook is Ramadan Bedaya, or Ramadan is a Start. Organised by the Bedayet Benaa for Sustainable Development, an independent organisation, this has already gained the support of more than 3,800 Facebook users.
According to Abeer Sabri, responsible for women's activities in the organisation, although it was only authorised two months ago it has already had considerable success. Like Kulina Mosaharaty, this group also aims to provide food for the poor and to remind young people of their duties during Ramadan.
Facebook provides the group with a powerful tool to promote their activities, despite their modest financial resources. "Almost everyone uses Facebook, and many people use it to follow the latest news. We are not a well-known organisation, and we aimed to have 1,000 supporters. Thanks to Facebook, we got almost 4,000," Sabri said.
Twitter pros and cons
Among the advantages of Twitter are:
- Twitter is free and simple to use.
- It rapidly disseminates information to a network of other users.
- It keeps users in touch with the lives of friends and colleagues and with the lives of various public figures.
- It is a tremendous source of information.
- It helps users keep their views short and sweet.
- It drives traffic to blogs or articles linked to tweets.
- As well as giving information about what users are doing, it enables users to ask questions, share links, and pass or receive breaking news.
- No other communications channel can match Twitter's capacity for real-time, person-to-person broadcasting.
- Users must be careful not to tweet anything that could damage their image or cause them to lose their jobs.
- Twitter can distract users or cause them to procrastinate.
- It can be difficult to find the right people to follow a user's interest or people involved in a user's niche.