Women's majlis: Twitter minus the twits

What are the benefits and pitfalls of using social media, especially here in the UAE?

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Each month, Weekend will pose a different question to be debated on by a series of female Emirati columnists. This week, we ask Noura Al Noman:

What are the benefits and pitfalls of using social media, especially here in the UAE?

In 1991, my life was changed by the introduction of a PC and modem. It connected me with a state-of-the-art service called CompuServe, which had forums for "special interest groups" and allowed live chats. It opened a door into another world, influencing my life in so many ways.

I've never been shy about stating my opinions, and finding a platform provided by the internet allowed me to state them all. It also introduced me to the world of "flaming" (when users attack you for your views). However, I soon grew a thick skin.

Today, there's so much more than just forums or chat rooms; we now have something for everything. In 2005, I discovered blogs and the beauty of having your very own private soapbox. At first, I had to use a pseudonym (which is what I had been doing on CompuServe and forums all along). Why? Because the UAE back then was quite different from what it is like right now. We celebrate the freedom of women in the UAE, and that is true to a certain extent (for some more than for others), but there was still something wrong about stating your opinions, about any kind of topic, using your real name. There were, and still are, some topics that are taboo - politics, sex and religion - and being completely truthful about that would not only mean getting attacked personally, but also dragging your family (or even your clan) in front of a not-always mature audience.

I joined Facebook in 2007, but it was never about meeting new people and discussing (read: heatedly debating) all sorts of topics. Facebook was about sharing cute things with my friends and family. However, I still did participate in international and local forums, in both Arabic and English, discussing everything under the sun, and at some points changing the stereotypes that westerners had about Arab women.

Joining Twitter in 2009 introduced me to what was, for a short time, a professional and more "mature" audience. It's been my greatest platform as an author, talking about my passion for books, writing and publishing. I've used it to follow people with a wide range of interests, to discover articles that I didn't even know that I was interested in. Twitter's immense universe is amazing. I also use it to keep tabs on my six children (ages 15 to 25). Their tweets give me a window into what they think.

Sadly, that small space of freedom was invaded suddenly by users who have had little exposure to opposing views and even less knowledge of the etiquette of dialogue. Easy access to social media, provided by smartphones, has meant that Twitter users who know very little about what you're talking about get to attack you personally for what they perceive as offence against Islam, or their "values". It's a double-edged sword, and I try hard not to let it get to me.

Noura Al Noman writes Arabic literature for children and young adults, including the UAE's first Arabic science fiction novel, Ajwan. Follow her on Twitter: @nouranoman.