'How hard is it to get a few likes?': what I learnt from Dubai's social media influencer course

Is the eight-month Social Media Influencers Diploma Programme at American University in Dubai about more than taking selfies and bagging free holidays?

Dubai, United Arab Emirates- A student  joining  the discussion  at the influencers diploma programme at the American University Dubai.  Ruel Pableo for The National
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I begin to suspect the Social Media Influencers Diploma Programme might not be for me when the professor teaching the course asks us to "AirDrop" our favourite picture from the summer over to him, so we can all try to figure out what makes a good image.

While the other students busily get on with the task, I am eventually forced to admit that I have not heard of this thing, AirDrop, and certainly don't have it on my phone. Fortunately, a kind soul is on hand to show me that, in fact, I do have AirDrop on my phone. Quite a useful tool. Must remember to use it again in future. Perhaps this course won't be such a waste of time, after all.

Because that's what we all think when we hear of influencers, isn't it? When the American University in Dubai announced last month that it was collaborating with Dubai Press Club to launch the region's first course for aspiring and established influencers (psst, an influencer is someone who uses social media to build their brand and promote products, a title you need to have a licence for in the UAE), there was plenty of sniggering.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates- at the influencers diploma at the American University Dubai.  Ruel Pableo for The National
Rupert Hawksley, centre, attends the first Social Media Influencers Diploma at American Univeristy Dubai. Photo: Ruel Pableo for The National

Come on, who needs to go to university to learn how to get a few likes on Instagram? Stop watching YouTube, slackers, and get a real job, etc, etc.

So, like a true professional, I dumped my objectivity at the faculty gates and turned up at the designated room for the first (three-hour) session with a big bag of mixed nuts and an even bigger grimace.

Leaving aside that early AirDrop revelation, my fears were not allayed when Roozbeh Ali Kafi, assistant professor of digital production and storytelling at the university, asked us to move our chairs into a semicircle, analysed our (­mostly terrible) images and started saying things such as, "Next time you take a selfie, you should do the same thing, so it comes out right." Or you could simply … not take a selfie.

But three hours later – and I can hardly believe I'm writing this – I was captivated. That's quite something, since I don't use Instagram, can't buy a retweet and haven't to my knowledge ever influenced anyone online. The Social Media Influencers Diploma Programme, which runs for eight months, is interesting precisely because it is not about creating the next Zoella or Logan Paul. That might be a happy consequence for one or two people here, but this course is an analytical endeavour, not a "how to".

"First, we want to study social media as an opportunity," says Ali Kafi. "This course is not like, 'You're out, now you become an influencer.' Sometimes we think that when we take a course, we are given a recipe for success. But that's not how it works.

"I don't think you can teach these things. When we share, ideas pop up into our mind. If somebody is looking to become a social media influencer, what is better than gathering with 20 people and sharing ideas?"

What this course is really about is examining why social media matters today and how influencers can harness that power to bring about change. "The curriculum is designed to enhance the digital media skillsets and knowledge of the participants, which will enable them to more positively inspire and impact the communities they are a part of," says press club president Mona Al Marri. "Through such programmes, we seek to promote more meaningful and compelling content across digital platforms."

Social media is stitched into the daily lives of the vast majority of young people and influencers are a significant part of that. Taim Al Falasi, an influencer in Dubai, has 2.7 million Instagram followers; another in the emirate, Moneykicks, otherwise known as Rashed Belhasa, has 1.6 million Instagram followers. These numbers are not uncommon, so it is no exaggeration to say that how influencers decide to use their platforms will ­directly impact the world we inhabit. Look at things this way and you might argue that there could hardly be a more important university course. 

Images tell stories and we interpret these stories in myriad ways. This is not a new phenomenon, of course, and we spend a large part of the class dissecting Edward Hopper's painting New York Movie (1939), in which a woman dressed in a long, navy overcoat stands in the side aisle of a cinema, apart somehow from all that's going on around her. Almost everyone takes something different from the painting – is this woman ­lonely, angry, bored or downcast?

E033A3 Edward Hopper New York Movie
The class dissects Edward Hopper's 'New York Movie' (1939) as part of the course. As Ali Kafi points out, it is the composition, more than the content, of Hopper’s painting that has the greatest impact on the viewer.Alamy

As Ali Kafi points out, it is the composition, more than the content, of Hopper’s painting that has the greatest impact on the viewer. Hopper would no doubt be surprised to discover this but his painting has something to say to those of us taking selfies today.

"There is something very odd about her positioning in the picture versus when we take a selfie," says Ali Kafi. "What do we do? We think importance means [being in the] centre. But look at how far she is pushed into the corner of the painting. This is unusual."

The students are here to learn the fundamentals of visual storytelling, knowing that if you get these right, your social media influence grows.

It is up to us how we wield this influence. At one point, Ali Kafi refers back to an image of a mosque a student submitted at the beginning of the session. It was taken at sunset, the sky swirling with pinks and purples, the mosque reflected in an enormous lake. It's a beautiful image – and it therefore has power.

“As a social media influencer, you put this picture up – how does this make people feel about a mosque?” he asks. “Nobody is thinking about what filter you used or how you edited it. The effect of it is peace and what is Islam about? Peace.”

I wonder, though, if this is the kind of influencer young people even want to be like. Ali Kafi might believe there is more to being an influencer than fame and free holidays – but aren’t these the very things that attract tech-savvy people? He hopes to dissuade his students of this notion.

"What's happening on social media now is that [people] are feeding you what you want to see, not what you need to see," says Ali Kafi. "There is a huge difference. When you are fed things that you want to see, there is no reaction to it, no confusion, no discussion. Confusion is the beginning of thinking.  

“So we want to study what makes a video [or a post on social media] more appealing to our target audience, while keeping in mind the ethics of media. We, as social media influencers, don’t have to get on a wave and just use it to get likes. We can actually create something that our society needs, not wants.”