The Huge & Alarming Arabic Content Crisis

As someone who’s been working in the Internet space in the Arab world for what feels like ages now; I’ve heard the following line, and all imaginable variations of it more than I can keep track of; basically the line is:

We have a big problem with the lack of Arabic content online, with it only representing 1% of all online content.

Now that’s true, it’s shocking, it’s very bad, and it’s a valid point to keep bringing up every time there’s a chance to.

However, the problem is much much bigger than just online content; it’s a problem with Arabic content altogether, both online and offline!

If we just take a step back and look at some numbers for the production of Arabic content in general, the numbers for online content start to look very normal actually.

How many original Arabic books are being published every year?

There are no reliable numbers on the production of books, but many indicators suggest a severe shortage of writing; a large share of the market consists of religious books and educational publications that are limited in their creative content.

(Source: UNDP Arab Human Development Report, AHDR 2002, p. 78)

And in the same report, the following year:

Book production in Arab countries was just 1.1 percent of world production, although Arabs constitute 5% of the world’s population. The publication of literary works was lower than the average level of book production. In 1996, Arab countries produced no more than 1945 literary and artistic books, which represents 0.8% of international production. This is less than what a country such as Turkey produces, with a population about one-quarter that of the Arab countries. In general, Arab book production centers mainly on religious topics and less on other fields such as literature, art and the social sciences.

(Source: UNDP Arab Human Development Report, AHDR 2003, p. 77)

How many foreign books are actually being translated into Arabic every year?

The Arab world translates about 330 books annually, one fifth of the number that Greece translates.
The cumulative total of translated books since the Caliph Maa’moun’s [sic] time (the ninth century) is about 100,000 books; almost the average that Spain translates in one year.

(Source: UNDP Arab Human Development Report, AHDR 2002, p. 78)

Also looking beyond book production and translation, if we look around us, at the magazines and newspapers being produced all around the region; Other than the news, how many of the articles or op-eds getting published in them are actually read-worthy or offer any value whatsoever to the reader? Unfortunately, only a small fraction of them!

In short, the point I’m trying to make is that we don’t have a problem of Arabic content online, we have a problem with Arabic content, period!
Arabic content online is just part of the picture and is consistent with the overall alarming trend.

Now why do we have this overall problem in the first place?
It’s a vicious circle actually; For some reason Arabs don’t read much, so publishers don’t publish much, so producers/writers don’t produce much, and so with less out there, Arabs read less and less and it goes on and on. In fact, looking at another set of estimated numbers for book production in the Arab world actually showed numbers were declining year on year.

Online, the difference is that you’ve got companies and professional publishers publishing content, but also the possibility for anyone and everyone to produce content through sites, blogs, wikis …etc. So the cost of putting content is cheaper and the entry barrier is lower; but still many of the same challenges hold online; if people don’t come and read in high numbers, writers are de-motivated and/or can’t generate any income, and they stop producing any more content. This obviously also has a link to the fact that less than 2% of advertising budgets in the region are spent online; so it’s harder for content producers to cover their costs and keep on producing more content. That brings us back to the same kind of vicious cycle from earlier.

It’s a huge problem, one that we need to do something about obviously, and that everyone has a role to play in, in order to get things on a growth track. Maybe where we should start is by ourselves, by committing to reading more Arabic books and content, sharing and producing Arabic content whenever we can, and most important of all, raise our children to be readers and writers.

The Gap Between Generations

Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.

George Orwell

Simply said, but very true and represents experiences we’ve all surely had with people from the generation before us; whether parents, relatives, teachers or others; and the experiences we’re having nowadays with the generations following us, whether it’s our children, younger colleagues, students or others.

For a good time in our lives we grow up on the receiving end of this, basically getting people talking down to us from their pedestal of wisdom, without us even asking for it; it annoys us, and we mumble to ourselves as they do it, and think “What do they know? We’re smarter than them!”.

Then one day in one of our conversations with someone younger, it just hits us, we’re doing the same thing, we’re lecturing them, we’re doing the exact same thing that used to annoy us when we were younger, BUT we re-assure ourselves, we have the right to, we’re wiser than them, they don’t know what they’re getting themselves into…

It’s funny and ironic, and it perfectly represents the circle of life and how we all move through the different stages of it.

Privacy In A World Of Online Social Networks

Privacy is a really hot issue these days with many people debating how this or that online social network, of which so many have popped up everywhere, is violating our privacy and exposing us to the whole world against our will.

Of course, user privacy is not an issue to be taken lightly, and should be one of the most important and respected points for any of these social networks, and I think that even though they understand that, it’s good that we keep an eye open for the occasional blunder from their sides.

However, I think most of the problem comes from the users and not the social networks themselves.

I’ve been online ever since before there was such a thing as an online social network, and have witnessed the whole transition from nothing where everyone was an anonymous faceless person to this time we’re in where we know what every single one of our contacts is doing at any given moment in the day, where they’re doing it and who they’re doing it with; with photo and video footage of it too.

We’ve obviously come a long way, and in a pretty short time; the only problem is that some people never took the time to stop and think about what it is they were doing and how much information they were sharing and whom with.

Today, we live in a public world, anything we push out publicly is found, archived and made accessible to anyone interested; and sometimes we forget about that, and we make mistakes that come back to haunt us; we blame the social network, but most of the the times we’re the ones to blame.

We also forget about the differences between the plethora of social networks out there, and are lured to find our friends from our email contacts and other social networks on every new one we join; but we forget to wait and ask ourselves whether we want our twitter friends who we share general thoughts and links with to be the same people we have on foursquare tracking our every single move or on blippy seeing every single item we buy.

In our lives, we have different sets of data about ourselves that we can share; the key is who do we share it with, and how much of it we share.

I make no claim to be another one of the thousands of social media experts who came out of nowhere all of a sudden, but I think a lot of it boils down to basic common sense.

In my case for example, I like to have the people I’ve personally met on Facebook, where I might share more personal stuff from time to time, so I know who they are and how much info I want them to see or not see, and have them organized into groups with different levels of access.

On Twitter, anyone can follow me, and I can follow almost anyone; that’s what’s great about it; and I share my quick thoughts and things I find interesting; always keeping in mind that whatever I say goes on the internet’s permanent record for me. Same applied and still applies to this blog.

On LinkedIn, I only like connecting with people I’ve done business with, people I’m introduced to by my contacts or people who introduce themselves and explain why they want to connect with me. I also don’t like people I haven’t worked with asking me for meaningless endorsements. I don’t believe my activity on Twitter belongs on a more serious place like LinkedIn and so haven’t linked my accounts to do automatic updates.

Foursquare and TripIt are a whole other story; these tell people where I am or where I’m going to be at a certain time. This is not data I want everyone to know all the time obviously, and so again I have to make choices who to connect with and who not to on them. Also when making updates, I choose on a per post basis whether I want that specific item to be shared or not.

Blippy is still new as a service, and most of the people I know aren’t on it yet, but in this case, the information being shared could potentially be even more sensitive, seeing as it’s what I’m buying and spending my money on; so again I have to make the call on what I share exactly and who gets to see it.

The list goes on; and if you just analyze it a bit, it’s clear the questions we should be asking ourselves are: How much information is ok for us to share? And who is it ok for us to share this specific bit of information with?

These are actually questions we ask ourselves on a day to day basis as we deal with people in the real world, but the problem is that when we go online, maybe because it’s all easier, we let our barriers down and stop asking some of the basic questions that we know we should be asking.

But in the end, it’s really simple: nothing goes on these social networks that we haven’t chosen to share, and nobody sees it but the people we’ve chosen to share it with. So it’s really up to us to make the right choices.

links for 2010-05-14

A Day For This & A Day For That

A quick random thought…

When the weather is beautiful and all spring-like; everyone says this is a perfect day to be out and about, not to be wasted in-doors.

When the weather is cold and gloomy; everyone says this day is best spent snuggled up in front of the TV drinking something hot.

When the weather is hot and stuffy; everyone says this day is best spent at the beach or the pool, and sipping on some iced drinks.

I’ve never heard anyone say, the weather is so and so, this is a perfect day for work, not a minute should be wasted.

What does this say about us?

And is there a perfect weather to be in the office working?

Failure: The Ultimate Arab Taboo

[Cue show’s title music]
The silhouettes of a group of overweight people walking towards you appear on the screen.
The silhouettes start becoming clearer and we see the group of contestants.
The name of the show flashes on the screen.
“The Biggest Loser”
(A show where a group of overweight people are challenged to lose weight, and where the person who loses the most weight, hence the title “The Biggest Loser”, at the end of the show is the winner of a hefty cash prize.)

[Fast forward to the Arab world]
As with a bunch of other reality tv shows or game shows that find some level of success elsewhere in the world, some Arab channel secures the rights to introduce that show in the Arab world.
In the case of this show, it is MBC that introduces the show in the region, but here’s the twist, the name of the show is changed, it becomes:
“The Biggest Winner”

Now, this might be quite a subtle change, but I think it’s just a tiny example, a telling sign of a bigger problem we have in the Arab world: the fear of losing, the taboo of being associated with failure in any way.

In this case, even though the person who would get the title of “The Biggest Loser” would actually be the winner of the show, and would walk away with a really nice cash prize, MBC judged, and maybe rightfully so, that using the word “Loser” in the title would turn people off from being part of the show (even though the same TV station aired the original show too with its original title before producing the local version).

This fear of failure is ingrained in our Arab culture; Failure is regarded as the end; a burning mark, a label that will be associated with the person for the rest of his life. The society looks differently at people who have failed, it looks down on them in some way; even people whose accomplishments in life never amounted to much think they are better than people who have failed.

Yes, in our culture, whether we like to admit it or not, it’s regarded as better to sit around doing nothing, never try and never officially fail than to actually go out, take on a challenge, try and fail.

This is a fear that is imprinted in the back of most people’s minds, holding them back from going out there, trying new things, experimenting with new projects, overcoming boundaries, and fulfilling their full potential along the way.

No, everyone wants to be a winner, and they want to win from the first time; it’s either they have that, or they’d rather play it safe, and just hover around in life not taking any risks, letting their great ideas and ambitions wither and die, and not really accomplishing any of the things they really want to and can if they just tried.

But obviously, things don’t work that way, not everyone can win from the first time, not everything will work from the first time, we know it by nature, and we’ve witnessed it in events big and small throughout our lives. Count the numbers of times we stumbled before we could walk, the number of times we fell before we could ride our bikes, the number of mistakes we made that we regretted and swore we’d never do again …etc. It’s in our nature to make mistakes, to have these little failures here and there, in order to learn, get better and build up to our bigger wins.

It’s just that at some point in our lives, we were taught, against our instincts, that it was very very bad for us to fail; that no matter what happens, we should make sure we never fail; that people who fail are losers and will always be losers.

But that’s so wrong; we have to stop looking at failure as just the end; it is an end of something that didn’t work, there’s no doubt about it; but it’s also the start of what comes after it, the start of something new where you can apply all the lessons you’ve learned from previous experiences, and build towards something better and bigger, and eventually succeed.

A great quote by Irish writer Samuel Beckett about this is:
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

And that’s pretty much how things go, we try, we fail, we try again, and we keep going, getting better, until we succeed and win; and then all those little failures along the way amount to nothing but part of a bigger success story.

Google Chrome Grows Up A Bit More

Google ChromeI’ve been a loyal user of Google’s Chrome browser ever since the first day of its release, when I tried it and wrote about it here over a year ago. It just worked for me, it’s a very light, simple and fast browser; and the move from Firefox to it felt as sweet as my move from the bulkier Mozilla browser to Firefox a few years earlier, in a sense that they’re both very good browsers, but one is just lighter and faster.

It quickly became my default browser on all Windows machines I used, and luckily enough a pre-release developer version of it was released for Linux just around the time I was making my official switch to using Linux as my main OS earlier this year.

On Linux, over the past months, I’ve been using both Google Chrome and Chromium (the open source version of it), switching between the two depending on which is more stable at that specific point in time.

Last night, another important milestone was reached in the life of Chrome; the official beta versions were released for both Mac and Linux machines; and extensions were officially released for all versions of the browser.

I know a lot of people who were holding back from moving to Chrome because it didn’t have extensions, and this should get them re-considering now. As for people who were waiting for a stable release on Mac or Linux, then this is it, although I have to say I’ve been happy with the latest builds of the pre-release version for quite a while now.

Developing extensions for Chrome is quite easy too, so people who are even a bit tech savvy, and know some html and javascript, should be able to play around with creating some little extensions of their own.

So, if you’re not already a Chrome user, you might as well go ahead and try it out now, it’s still as light and fast, and is now also more mature as a product.

Salmon Fishing In The Yemen (Paul Torday)

I’ve been reading a lot of books about business, entrepreneurship, marketing and other stuff along those lines recently; and as good as those get, I just missed going through a really nice novel and letting my imagination run wild with it, so a few days ago, I just picked up the book “Salmon Fishing In The Yemen” by Paul Torday, which seemed like quite an interesting and fun read.

After going through the book in just over a couple of days, I can confirm it was quite worth the read, and that it lived up to my expectations. I really enjoyed reading it.

The story revolves around a fisheries scientist, Dr Alfred Jones, who finds himself (against his will) in the middle of a project to introduce salmon to the Yemen, a scheme which appears doomed to failure, but that he starts believing more and more in as the events of the story progress, and as he learns more about faith, overcoming obstacles, and love.

All this happens amidst a swirl of relationship problems he’s having with his wife, hidden political agendas by high-up politicians, an ongoing war, terrorist plots and more.

The story is told very interestingly in a series of emails, diary entries, and interview transcripts; covering the story from different angles and adding a very nice and realistic touch to it all.

The book is a really light and fun read, yet touches upon some really interesting and important topics.

If you’re looking for something quite light, fun and quick to read, then I recommend this book.

Tunisia To Get New TV Channel Called Elyssa TV? Again With The Historic Names!

I just read that the Tunisian production company Cactus Prod has gone on as expected and filed to get the rights to launch a new television channel in Tunisia under the name: Elyssa TV.

If all goes as planned, broadcast tests for this new channel could start as early as this coming December 2009, with an official launch following early on in 2010.

Now, this is all great, after all I think it’s good to see more players enter the audiovisual market in Tunisia, maybe push the envelope a bit further, give viewers more options, and enrich the scene in one way or another.

What bugs me though is the name!
I went on a similar rant around 5 years ago when the name for Hannibal TV was announced, and here I am again, five years later, thinking the same thoughts.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m as proud a Tunisian as you’ll ever find, and our history is one that is very dear to me, it runs in our blood and defines a big part of who we are as a people, but I’m seriously fed up of every other business in Tunisia, from the neighborhood coffee shop, to travel agents, to the country’s first MVNO, to our TV channels to everything being named after Hannibal and Elyssa.

Come on, we can be more creative that that! Let’s stop living in the past!

Hannibal and Elyssa were great, they are a part of Tunisian history that will always shine throughout the ages, but we’ve overused their legacy; let them rest in their graves, and let us live in the present, let us create for the future.

It’s the same all around the Arab world too, not just in Tunisia, it’s as if we’re a nation clinging to the past, because it holds the only shiny points in our history that we can think of, instead of actually doing something to change the miserable state our nation is in, and building a better future.