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Lessons from ArabNet conference boost Middle East web startups

Nina Curley-- The ArabNet conference in Beirut, Lebanon just wrapped up after a whirlwind two days, and Meedan was there to witness it all. Bigwigs gave newbies advice on startups and developing the right entrepreneurial mindset. Young bloggers tweeted cheeky comments and shifted the direction of on-stage conversation with their questions. Women represented in the crowd, even if not as much on the panels, and stood up for their voice. Palestinians were honored for their great entrepreneurial ideas despite being absent due to visa issues. The amazing Maya Zankoul produced fantastic cartoons of the conference throughout the day. And mostly, a lot of business cards were exchanged over brownies.

Here are some relevant highlights and questions for Meedanis:

On Learning: Georges Harik, Director of R&D at Google and Angel Investor, noted that a great place for a startup to be in is where it has a core of users and can say what it has learned from those users.

So let us know: What do you enjoy about Meedan? What could we improve?

On Value: Feroz Sanaulla, Director of Middle East, Turkey and Africa for Intel Capital, emphasized that one must first think about doing good, and then think about how to monetize your product. This sentiment was echoed through the Venture Capital panel: it's important to first think of one's added social value, and then conceptualize at some point down the road how to monetize this concept. (One example of this way of thinking might be Twitter; they are just releasing their business plan now, almost four years after inception).

What social value do you find in Meedan? What further social value would you like to see developed at Meedan? How could Meedan enhance its ability to "do good"?

On Arabic Content: During the Content session, it was emphasized repeatedly that the world needs more web content in Arabic, since only 1% of the world's internet content is in Arabic, while 5% of the world speaks Arabic. Additionally, Mostafa Kamel, the general manager at masrawy.com and Andy Abbas, Senior Director of Product and Product Marketing Management at Yahoo! Middle East and Africa noted that a successful social network will consist of mostly user-generated content, and a critical means of growing a network is to encourage comments.

Here at Meedan we are clearly trying to change the face of the internet by enhancing Arabic content. What do you think we could do to encourage more comments?

A couple of controversies were evident at ArabNet 2010:

1) Ten Palestinians (six from the West Bank and four from Gaza) could not attend because of difficulties getting visas. While Mercy Corp in Palestine had facilitated visa applications for five in the West Bank and three in Gaza, none of the Gazans were able to successfully exit Gaza, and none of the West Bank residents were allowed to enter Lebanon. Since two of the Ideathon finalists were included in this group, several attendees suggested that they be allowed to present their ideas remotely. However, the internet in Lebanon remains too slow to make this a feasible reality. The internet at ArabNet was slow, although ArabNet managed to expand their bandwidth halfway through the conference so that it was decent. But this resulted in ArabNet consuming 1% of all available bandwidth in Lebanon at the time; a remote video conference would have been difficult. Hopefully next time this issue will be anticipated.

2) The question of why people were speaking in English at a conference aimed at promoting Arabic content came up repeatedly. Yet, as ArabNet founder Omar Christidis as well as several panelists and attendees pointed out, English is the international language of business. Additionally it was a practical if controversial choice; more members of the audience would require translation if the conference were in Arabic. The asymmetry in conference tweets also reflected this imbalance, since there were far more in English than in Arabic, but Meedan could correct this imbalance next time by potentially providing real-time Twitter translation.

I hope to see more Meedanis at ArabNet 2011! For now, you can read my cheeky conference summaries at @9aa.

Comments on this post

2010-03-27 13:20:11 -0700
[...] وتعقيباً على آثار الانترنت البطيء منع ذلك الفلسطينيين في غزة و الضفة الغربية [الأولى محاصرة و تحت القصف والثانية محتلة] من حضور المؤتمر عن بعد كونهم واجهوا مشاكل في الحصول على الفيزا للحضور إلى بيروت، وكون خطوط الانترنت في الفندق المضيف ضعيفة، أعاق ذلك تحقيق خطوة الحضور عن بعد، حسب موقع ميدان.نت. [...]