Arabs encouraged to blog on and be heard

Forum in Doha told of the explosion of communication opportunities provided by the internet.

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DOHA // For Raouf Shabayek, blogging is easy. "Everyone can blog," the editor-in-chief of the Dubai-based company Real Marketing Solutions said during a blogging conference on Saturday. "It doesn't have to be 1,000 or 2,000 words, it can be one sentence, one picture - we can all add something to the conversation." Five years ago, Mr Shabayek started a blog about Arabic entrepreneurship ( Waves of positive feedback soon inspired him to organise his writing into a book, which he published himself. He has since published three more, and now sees blogging as having an equivalent impact on the region as the Gutenberg Bible, one of the first printed books, had on Mediaeval Europe.

About 300 speakers, bloggers and guests turned up at "Mudawanat: All About Blogging," a one-day forum held at Doha's Sharq Village resort, to help realise that vision. IctQatar, a government-run technology support group, organised the event to nurture interest in blogging in Qatar and across the region. Arabic is the world's fifth most widely spoken language, yet Arabic speakers represent less than three per cent of all web users, according to Internet World Stats. Nearly three-quarters of the world's blogs are written from Europe and the United States. A June study by Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society found there are an estimated 35,000 active blogs in the Arabic language. But compare that to 70,000 blogs in Farsi. Yet the potential is considerable. A report from Internet World Stats found that internet users in the Middle East and North Africa increased nearly twenty-fold between 2000 and 2009, faster than in any other language or region. Google searches for the word "mudawanat" ("blogging" in Arabic) have increased 20 per cent to 50 per cent in the past few years, most prominently in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Morocco. The conference's keynote speaker, Jeremiah Owyang, a partner at Altimeter Group, a social media research and advisory firm in California, called for clarity among those interested in starting a blog. "What is your topic, and who is your audience?" Mr Owyang asked. "Find your area of interest and focus on it." He advocated several steps: treat your blog like a brand; make an editorial calendar; hire a designer to improve the site; and incorporate social networking tools from Facebook and Twitter to better respond to your readers. An attendee asked Mr Owyang if social networks were pulling web surfers away from blogs. "They're not taking away from each other; they're all becoming one," he said. "You're building a house and you have many tools - a hammer, saw, nails - you should use them all." Ahmad Hamzawi, Google's head of engineering for the Middle East and North Africa, highlighted some of those tools. He showed how to use Google's keyword tools to find frequently used search terms, explaining that increasing the use of such terms on a blog increases that blog's search rank. For those uncomfortable with English, Mr Hamzawi explained Google Translate, an add-on that offers immediate translations of blog posts in up to 50 languages. Finally, he emphasised the growing popularity of the form: more than 120,000 new blogs are launched every day. Technorati, which indexes blogs, reported in October 2008 that there were 133 million blogs worldwide. There are about 1,100 blogs in Qatar, according to Ammar Mohammed Khaled, who blogs at ammar- and founded Al Jazeera Talk, where Arab youth discuss a wide range of issues online. He urged more Qataris to blog, pointing out that blogs can incorporate words, images and video and blogs offer freedom when so much news is controlled. At least one audience member appreciated this last point. Hassan Al Jefairi said that over the past two decades he had been forced out of columnist positions from three of Qatar's Arabic-language newspapers because his work ruffled government feathers. "Everybody knows I've got a hot mouth and a hot pen, and I write about hot issues," said al Jefairi, who writes mostly on environmental and economic issues. Recently he took to the internet. Al Jefairi's new blog - he calls it an "electronic magazine" - attracted more than 3,000 visitors in its first month and inspired him to distribute his writing in book form. "There's more freedom of speech today," he said. "The topics I am raising today, 15 years ago I couldn't discuss them." Shabina Khatri discusses a wide variety of issues on her personal and professional blogs, as well as in contributions to Global Voices Online. Her initial inspiration? A slow work day, several years ago. "I was bored at work and decided to start a blog," said Ms Khatri, whose site quickly gained attention. "You don't have to be famous. Anybody in this room can just start blogging." Blogs can also be a way to make money, according to Mr Hamzawi. He showed attendees how to use Google's AdSense and FeedBurner applications to place advertisements on their blog and generate income. Mr Owyang offered a warning to the profit-seekers. "Start a blog with passion first, and then if it turns into a business, great," he said. "But if you're starting a blog just to make money, it will probably fail."