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Why Middle East social-web projects miss their target audience

If you're setting up a shop to sell poodles in Spain, it'd make sense to advertise in the Spanish-language 'Poodles Monthly' rather than in the English-language 'Cats R Us'.

That much seems obvious.  Yet all-too-often, Middle East-based social-web projects are not using this simple rule of thumb in the work they do: identify your target audience, and communicate with them.

Take the Royal Film Commission in Jordan's recent creativity workshop, which it set up with Joi Ito (an advisor to Meedan we should add) and a bunch of brilliant Creative Commons people from the Middle East.

The workshop was designed to provide 'talented young Arabs with tools that can enhance their ability to express themselves' and to 'share their creation with people all around the world.'

Looking at Joi's FriendFeed page, the event was a great success, bringing together next-generation web thinkers and producers to achieve great things.

But look again and you'll see that the event curriculum hardly references Arabic - the language of the vast majority of the more than forty million Arab web users in the Middle East.

How do you reach out to creative and talented 'Arabs' when you have no plans whatsoever for speaking with them in Arabic?

It turns out the organizers - including Donatella Della Ratta, a great friend of the Meedan project and herself a fantastic Syrian Arabic speaker - were well aware of this issue and were desperate to do something about it.  But, even still, they had been forced to reject Arabic speakers from the conference if they had no English!

Thanks to Meedan - there was an element of Arabic reporting coming out of the workshop.

We ran some 'events' on Meedan.net which allowed attendees to live blog across Arabic and English. This information is still out there on the web, available to millions of Arabic users to search and learn from.  Well done and thanks to everyone who made this happen.

Unfortunately, the RFC creativity workshop was not the exception, but - it appears - the rule.

The Palestine Literature Festival is also desperate to connect with a mixed-language audience.

Festival organizers are working round the clock to blog, vlog and tweet out about festival developments, presentations and - most depressingly - issues surrounding Israeli check points and police interference hindering their work.

But, there's apparently very little of this in Arabic. The key with an issue like Palestine is surely to connect Palestinians (mostly Arabic speakers) engaged with the reality on the ground with a wider audience through the web.

Literature seems a fantastic vehicle for doing this, as does a mobile festival that goes to the audience in a part of the world where barriers are all too tall and obstructive.

But there seems to be a massive opportunity here to get the word out in Arabic and English - and connect the two language communities.

This did not appear to be a key part of the festival's plans perhaps because there was low awareness of the options for engaging translation communities on the web.

We at Meedan intend to fill that gap.  If you want to help translate feeds coming out of the Palestine Literature Festival - get in touch, now, by writing to @meedan on Twitter or info@meedan.net.

We want to translate the festival's blog - including one by celebrated novelist Ahdaf Soueif, and its twitter feed too.

We now have good experience of nimble action to help fill the translation gap.

When the AUC's Adham Center organized a Lessons Learned conference to bring together bloggers from the Arab world with their counterparts from elsewhere, they were aware of the trasnlation need.

Translators were at hand in the conference room to translate everything into Arabic as needed.

But when bloggers began twittering out from the meeting, Arabic was nowhere to be seen.

We quickly moved in to translate the twitter feed for the benefit of Arabic speakers who couldn't be there.  Larry Pintak - the center director and veteran journalist - was also able to have his conference notes translated into Arabic.  These notes are still there for Arabic speakers to read.

It seems to make sense that a meeting to share lessons learned for the benefit of the Arab blogosphere should actively plan on recording those lessons into the language of the vast majority of people in the region - not least for the sake of Arab bloggers.

This, it seems to me, is an absolute fundamental if donor money is to be spent wisely to scale impacts in-region.

The Skoll Foundation talks a lot about scaling impacts - doing a bit for a lot.  So the idea is certainly out there.  Why more social web projects are not thinking and actively planning for this is very hard to fathom.

Translation doesn't cost much, the technology is becoming more commonplace and its outcomes have real value.

Take this statistic - Google suggests that just 0.4 percent of the web is Arabic language content.

Imagine then that if something like two thirds of new Arabic-speaking web users speak no English, there is a huge potential for locking knowledge in the region and replicating knowledge gaps long reported by UNDP and others.

We have to act now.

That's why Meedan is teaming up with Sharik 961 - a group of Lebanese nonprofits, development practitioners, media people, and techies - to help monitor the Lebanese elections on June 7.

The project, which will use the Ushahidi crisis-monitoring platform, will enable Lebanese voters to collaborate with a wide network of interested communities on the web to track reports from the ballot box.

There's absolutely no doubt translation is key to this.

By combining a network of citizen reporters with translation tools, we can truly start to take the pulse of the Middle East from the Middle East, and share the learning along the way.

Comments on this post

2009-05-25 18:11:58 -0700
The irony of this piece, for the attentive reader, is that it is all English - as is the majority of this blog! Let's translate it now! I would add though that Meedan has made great efforts to be a bi-lingual organization, hiring widely in the Middle East, publishing newsletters and guidelines in two languages, and most crucially, establishing our flagship platform http://Meedan.net as an Arabic-English cross-language space. After all, we are a crowdsourced translation hub for Middle East news and comment.
2009-05-26 02:52:08 -0700
[...] would like to spend a few words in response to the blog post written by my friends at Meedan “Why Middle East social-web projects miss their target audience“.  You’ve touched one very weak point -maybe the weakest- concerning the state of the [...]
2009-05-26 09:36:55 -0700
[...] a feed reader or by e-mail and you'll never miss a single post. Thanks for visiting!George at the Meedan Blog explains why it is important for social web projects in the Middle East to be bi-lingual: Arabic is [...]
2009-05-26 21:38:03 -0700
I've added an update to this responding to the discussions this post elicited: http://blog.meedan.net/2009/05/26/update-why-middle-east-web-projects-miss-their-target-audience/ **Lots of people have tried to comment here, but have found the wordpress log in a problem. Please reply to feedback [at] meedan.net if you have any trouble.**
2009-05-27 16:36:02 -0700
This article in Arabic, by Wesam: لماذا تغيب مشاريع الشرق الأوسط الاجتماعية على الانترنت عن الجمهور المستهدف إذا كنت تفتح متجراً لبيع كلاب البودل في أسبانيا، سيكون من الملائم أن تكتب الإعلان باللغة الأسبانية وليس باللغة الانجليزية. وبالرغم أن هذا يبدو بديهياً إلا أن هذا هو ما يحدث في كثير من الأحيان في مشاريع الشرق الأوسط الاجتماعية على الانترنت، فهي لا تستخدم هذه القاعدة البسيطة في عملها وهو تحديد جمهورك المستهدف والتواصل معهم. خذ على سبيل المثال ورشة عمل الإبداع وهي آخر أنشطة الهيئة الملكية الأردنية للأفلام، التي أنشأها جوي إيتو (يجب أن نذكر أنه مستشار لميدان) وحفنة من العباقرة من العموميات الخلاقة من الشرق الأوسط. وتهدف ورشة العمل إلى توفير 'أدوات للشباب العربي الموهوب التي يمكنها أن تعزز من قدراتهم على التعبير عن أنفسهم' و 'مشاركة إبداعاتهم مع الناس في جميع أنحاء العالم'. وبالنظر إلى صفحة جوي لتعليقات الأصدقاء، كان الحدث ناجحاً نجاحاً مبهراً حيث جمع بين مفكري ومنتجي الإنترنت من الجيل القادم لتحقيق أشياء عظيمة. ولكن انظر مرة أخرى، وسترى أن أجندة هذا الحدث تكاد تخلو من العربية وهي لغة الغالبية العظمى لأكثر من أربعين مليون مستخدم عربي للانترنت في الشرق الأوسط. كيف يمكن الوصول إلى ‘العرب’ المبدعين والموهوبين عندما لا يكون لديك أي خطط على الإطلاق للتحدث معهم باللغة العربية؟ وتبين أن منظمي الحدث بما فيهم دوناتيلا ديلا راتا وهي صديقة كبيرة لمشروع ميدان ومتحدثة بالعربية السورية بطلاقة أدركوا جيداً هذه المسألة وكانوا يائسين لفعل أي شيئ حيال ذلك، ولكنهم اُضطروا إلى رفض قبول متحدثين عرب لا يتحدثون الإنجليزية في المؤتمر! ولكن بفضل ميدان، كان هناك عنصراً من التغطية بالعربية في ورشة العمل. فقد أجرينا ‘أحداثاً’ على ميدان.نت سمحت للحاضرين بالتدوين المباشر عبر اللغتين العربية والإنجليزية، هذه المعلومات لا تزال هناك على الشبكة متاحة لملايين المستخدمين العرب للبحث عنها والتعلم منها، شكراً لكل من من ساهم في جعل هذا حقيقة. أحسنتم صنيعاً. وللأسف، لم تكن ورشة عمل الهيئة الملكية الأردنية للأفلام هي الاستثناء، بل كانت فيما يبدو القاعدة. ويريد مهرجان الأدب الفلسطيني أيضاً التواصل مع جمهور مختلط اللغة. ويعمل منظمو المهرجان على مدار الساعة لتدوين ووضع فيديوهات والتعليق على تطورات المهرجان وعروضه والجوانب الكئيبة من نقاط التفتيش الإسرائيلية وتدخل الشرطة الذي يعرقل عملهم. ولكن، يبدو أن قليل جداً من كل هذا يدور باللغة العربية، فالنقطة الرئيسية لقضية مثل قضية فلسطين هي بالتأكيد لربط الفلسطينيين (ومعظمهم من الناطقين باللغة العربية) المشتبكين على أرض الواقع مع جمهور أوسع من خلال شبكة الإنترنت. والأدب وسيلة رائعة للقيام بذلك مثلما تفعل المهرجانات المتحركة التي تذهب إلى جمهور في جزء من العالم حيث الحواجز عالية جداً ومعرقلة. ولكن يبدو أن هناك فرصة هائلة هنا للحصول على الكلمة بالعربية والإنجليزية والربط بين مجتمعات هاتين اللغتين. ولا يبدو أن هذا جزءاً أساسياً من خطط المهرجان ربما لأنه لم يكن هناك إدراك كاف لوجود خيار إشراك مجتمعات الترجمة على الانترنت. ونحن في ميدان نعتزم على سد هذه الثغرة، إذا كنت تريد مساعدتنا في ترجمة التعليقات الصادرة مهرجان الأدب الفلسطيني، ابقى على إتصال معنا الآن من خلال مراسلتنا على @ meedan على تويتر أو info@meedan.net. نريد أن نترجم مدونة المهرجان بما فيها مدونة الروائية المشهورة أهداف سويف وردرد تويتر عليها. ونملك الآن خبرة جيدة في العمل سريعاً للمساهمة في سد الفجوة في الترجمة. عندما نظم مركز أدهم بالجامعة الأمريكية بالقاهرة مؤتمر الدروس المستفادة للجمع بين المدونين من العالم العربي مع نظرائهم في أي مكان آخر، كانوا على بينة بالحاجة إلى الترجمة. وكان المترجمون في متناول اليد في قاعة المؤتمر لترجمة كل شئ إلى العربية حسب الحاجة. ولكن عندما بدأ المدونون كتابة تعليقاتهم على تويتر خارج المؤتمر اختفت اللغة العربية. وسرعان ما انتقلنا إلى ترجمة تعليقات تويتر لصالح المتحدثين باللغة العربية الذين لم يستطعوا الحضور، واستطاع لاري بينتاك مدير المركز وصحفي مخضرم من أن تتم ترجمة ملاحظاته الخاصة بالمؤتمر إلى العربية، هذه الملاحظات لا تزال موجودة ليقرأها المتحدثين بالعربية.
2009-05-29 19:12:36 -0700
[...] to delivering a bilingual site. Although internet access remains limited across Lebanon, and according to Meedan only about 0.4% of the web is Arabic language content, Lebanon is an Arabic speaking country first [...]
2009-06-02 01:32:47 -0700
[...] to delivering a bilingual site. Although internet access remains limited across Lebanon, and according to Meedan (via Google) only about 0.4% of the web is Arabic language content, Lebanon is an Arabic speaking [...]
2009-06-02 15:34:52 -0700
Hello Everybody, I want to express opposite point of view :) I am not sure that is good idea to have idea to have curriculum in arabic language: - for arabized technical words there is no consensus in our dear region - it will create a new gap especially as we need to publish in foreign language, I experienced this as I studied in french and so it is hard to shift to english (I have to know two different words for the same term ). we don't have the choice, we have to use gloabl language for science and engineerring. even in japan where I am studying, they don't try so much to have a complete new japanese word for technical term they just "japanize" the pronouciation :) and because they publish a lot in japanese, many interesting researchs remain hidden adroad, only scholars who publish in both lanaguges are world-wide recognized. - I see it as typically nationalist vision and we don't need it. we ned to be pragmatic, I urge for translation -> creation of new content but we have to be global ! for the so-called standard arabic it isn't so standard at all, we should remember that is a kind of initiative to make speaking and written arabic more modern that is why we use now comma, dot etc even language structure started to be modified a little bit. I am wondering if a person from past will be surprised to see the current spoken and written arabic. because there is no consensus again as usual, the standard arabic sound having more variants, I hope thta meedan take care of this point and not be just restricted to few countries,as I know there is 22 arabic countries members of arabic league. other point highlighted in other email exchange about wikipedia, we need to have wikipedian people here in our region and I urge to create more wikimedia chapter, last year the wikimedia conference was held in Alexandria! we can create country community for example to manage country portal and focus in creating featured article not just editing, quality is important, on other side, we can start by at least translate english entries in arabic, to make people confortable to edit instead editing from scratch. and everybody can participating just by proofreading and correcting. last poitn, we need to focus on awareness, many people don't know how wikipedia works, they just consume. rafik
2009-06-03 19:22:57 -0700
[...] to delivering a bilingual site. Although internet access remains limited across Lebanon, and according to Meedan (via Google) only about 0.4% of the web is Arabic language content, Lebanon is an Arabic speaking [...]
2011-01-11 07:33:49 -0800