Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Where do we go from here?

I know I'm a bit late to the game with my own thoughts on what's happening in the Middle East. Colleagues have already made their analysis of Social Media's role in the revolutions. It goes without saying that Social Media was a huge enabling factor that allowed the youth in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, now Syria and many more countries to voice their opinions, collect and share their plight with the world. Aside from the political changes that are sure to come to the region, I'm also interested in how digital communication technologies are going to evolve as the masses are now exposed to its power. Below are some thoughts I've recently shared with clients who have asked my opinion. I put them down here now to the community to debate, refute, whatever.

While each country has had different catalysts for their protests and revolutions, a common element has been social media and particularly three main characteristics of it:

- Spatiality, by how it facilitates groups to organize and form both in the Real World and virtually across borders – Many Arabs live outside of their countries, but through SM were able to be part of the revolutions

- Real-Time sharing of multimedia (particularly through mobile)

- How Social Media has created further intellectual disparity between generations and social classes. The old regimes vs. the youth. Those with access vs. the poor. 

What does this mean for the growth of social media in the region?

The last point is a fairly natural occurrence. As older generations cling to ideals and power obtained in their youth, new generations often will challenge this through self expression on new mediums. Think about Elvis and his funny little pelvic dance in the 60's. From here on in, older generations who chose or cannot understand social media will be left out of the conversation and won't be able to have much impact. However, the same is true for the unfortunate people who have little money and/or education. Social media has become more accessable and being adopted by more people outside the upper and middle class, however, this will cause further alienation of those people who cannot participate in the online revolution.

These recent political activities have built a lot of credibility for the medium in the eyes of the engaged youth. For most, the internet, social media and related digital communications was seen as something only enjoyed by middle class youth with good educations. Now it is beginning to be adopted by a larger population and has moved into the mainstream. 

Will it affect the commercial evolution of the internet in the Middle East?
  • Mostly Social Media still remains a platform to share and voice political and/or personal opinions. Commercially, social media is still very young in this region. Only the last 6 months have we begun seeing online shopping and group buying in the Middle East, for example, but these are in the UAE and Lebanon, which have a much higher digital literacy rate. 
  • Also, it’s been only recently that we’ve seen very hip, young brands engage directly with their customers and influencers. Brands in general are seen differently in this part of the world and there is not a lot of openness for direct engagement with large corporations. People are skeptical about the true intentions of companies and issues such as privacy are always a concern. 
  • Lifestyle brands that target subculture for youth are starting to be more daring though and we will see this year a lot more interaction with brands through digital platforms in the Middle East. 
  • Small businesses run by young entrepreneurs also do well, particularly because they understand how to approach SM in a way that doesn’t put people off. For large multinationals, there is an opportunity to provide expertise and resources to help rebuild these countries and social media is an effective way to reach out to the population.

What is next?

I predict a few things will happen before we see more commercialization of Social Media.
  • First, young politically savvy youth will begin to vie for representation in the new governments. The most successful ones will take advantage of the recently expanded online population to drive public sentiment. 
  • The ones who understand how to engage and use social media will be successful in building popularity. Similar to how Obama did, this will help grow adoption further in order for citizens to stay up to speed and participate in the changes to their political landscape.
  • Because it has become more mainstream and understood by a larger majority of the population, when the political situation calms, social media will begin to become more of a commercial platform as people start to use it to research then buy through online channels.People will be recommending which TV to buy instead of which corrupt government official to overthrow. At least we can hope. 
What's your take? How will social media evolve in the Middle East from this point on? 

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