Qatar Happening magazine, November 2013. Original article here.
Twitter in Qatar: A virtual dialogue
As the internet is becoming a part of daily life in Qatar, Twitter is well on its way to becoming the venue of choice for exchanging ideas. 3.8% of the Qatari population now uses Twitter, according to the Arab Social Media Report from the Dubai School of Government, a rise from just 1.5% two years ago.
A search on Twitter reveals the Damien Hirst exhibition in Doha and the 2022 World Cup as the two biggest topics in Qatar at the time of writing. But tomorrow’s search may reveal something completely different, as a user-generated space such as Twitter has a knack of breaking news and tapping into public sentiment far earlier than any established news source.
“The Twitter community in Qatar is still fairly small, but growing. Those who use it know it’s invaluable: it’s a key source of news, events, and ever-changing views here,” says Victoria Scott, assistant editor of Doha News. Tweeting at @ToryScott, Scott hopes to see more people in Qatar join Twitter, as she considers it a great leveller: “I’ve met so many people from so many different countries on Twitter, and it’s how I’ve met all my Qatari friends. It helps us bypass our individual cliques. Twitter is a great example of multiculturalism, and cultural exchange at work.”
Especially for an international community like Qatar, Twitter can provide an invaluable shortcut for meeting like-minded people who move in different social circles. And while Twitter will be a brilliant venue for introductions, the biggest reward often comes when people put away their computers or mobile phones and continue the conversation over a cup of coffee.
This was the thought behind Doha Tweetups, an online community aimed at linking people together for offline events. “@DohaTweetups was founded to bring the community together. A great many partnerships have been formed, and we’ve brightened many individuals’ futures with our events,” says Hani Arif, who co-founded Doha Tweetups in 2010. The project has grown from a handful of people meeting in a cafe, to a few thousand and growing. “The mission remains the same: offering something of value to the people who attend. We’re also started taking on interns to nurture them into becoming event and social media professionals.”
Tweetup events take place around once a month, either as basic networking nights or as speaker events focused on specific issues such as sustainability, sports, and technology. The events attract people from all walks of life, as anyone can come along. “Doha101 is an annual event where we targeting newcomers to the city by giving them a chance to hook up with volunteer-intensive community organisations,” adds Arif, who tweets at @HaniArif.
Qatar now ranks first among Arab states in terms of internet availability, according to the UN’s development index, which puts Qatar in 30th place globally. Qatar is also hard at work at improving its broadband infrastructure, intending to invest US$550 million over the next five years to provide affordable and reliable high-speed internet for all its two million inhabitants, according to the UNESCO Broadband Commission.
Increasingly, Qatari businesses are braving Twitter in a capacity that goes beyond advertising to also interact directly with the public. The W Hotel (@WDoha) is one example of how a company’s direct dealing with people over social media fosters positive feedback, and Bread & Bagels (@BreadAndBagels) now even takes orders via Twitter.
While facing customers directly on Twitter can lead to criticism, businesses are waking up to the fact that direct contact can be beneficial for customer relations when issues are handled openly and swiftly. Not all issues can be solved via 140 characters though, as Arif notes: “Even before the end of summer, people started tweeting how they dreaded the traffic would be bad. Nowadays, Twitter becomes a traffic channel in the morning, and in the evening it becomes more about burning and gaining calories.”
As Twitter enables instant publication, it’s also a place to voice more controversial and critical opinions. Frustration over traffic jams due to construction is one recurring topic, and a search at the time of writing shows the issue of conditions for migrant workers remains hotly discussed. Arif believes people will usually exercise self-censorship, before adding that the most prominently critical voices on Twitter rarely depend solely on their day jobs and hence are less concerned about what their bosses may think.
When it comes to sensitive topics, Scott believes people in Qatar are usually a little worried about speaking out, regardless of what forum they’re in. These fears are usually unfounded though, she adds: “As a journalist here, this is something I’m very familiar with. Having said that, I think Twitter users in Qatar are pretty free with their views, and I’ve certainly witnessed many a plain speaking, outspoken argument.”
While the quick and easy nature of social media adds an air of informality, accounts such as ‘Mr Q’ at @iLoveQatar show how Twitter can be used to voice a mix of news, insights, trivia and critical opinion. As increasingly more people in Qatar are discovering Twitter as a source for information, connection and occasionally blowing off some steam, the forum is becoming not just a medium of expression but also one for organisation.