New Media and Blogs in the Middle East

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For those that haven’t made it through our 70 page paper on the Arabic blogosphere, we’ve got a digestible two page version in the latest Middle East Institute Bulletin, which is focused this quarter on new media in the Middle East, an issue near and dear to our hearts. Here is one of the many interesting findings:

Blogs are an integral part of the Arabic media ecosystem. We found that bloggers link to Web 2.0 sites such as YouTube and Wikipedia (both the English and Arabic versions) more than other sources of information and news available on the Internet. Al Jazeera is the top mainstream media source, followed by the BBC and Al Arabiya, while US government-funded media outlets like Radio Sawa and Al Hurra are linked to relatively infrequently. Most national media outlets do not have much reach outside of their respective national clusters.

Returning to YouTube, we found that Arabic bloggers tend to prefer politically oriented videos to cultural ones. Videos related to the conflict in Gaza and the throwing of shoes at George W. Bush in Iraq are popular across the entire blogosphere, while clips related to domestic political issues are linked to more heavily by the various national clusters, such as Kuwaiti parliamentary campaign videos.

And I continue to be struck by what we did not find:

While much has been made of Iraqi bloggers during ongoing debates about the Iraq war, this group does not figure prominently in the Arabic blogosphere. Rather, they are deeply integrated into the English Bridge group. This may be because many Iraqi bloggers write in English and have many inbound links from US think tanks, journalists, and partisan political bloggers (“Iraq the Model” on the right, “Riverbend” on the left, for example), rather than mainly writing for a domestic public. We also did not find any cluster of bloggers dedicated to violent extremism.

Check it out (here).

Posted in I&D Project, Middle East, Publications. Comments Off on New Media and Blogs in the Middle East

Google Translate Adds Nine More Languages

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While there is still a lot of English content on the Web, the percentage is shrinking fast, and those that want to understand what the rest of the world is talking about online have a potentially powerful new tool on their hands with Google translate, which has just added nine more languages: Afrikaans, Belarusian, Icelandic, Irish, Macedonian, Malay, Swahili, Welsh and Yiddish.

Icelandic? Yiddish? Hugh?

It turns out that Google chooses languages based on the amount of content available in those languages, not the number of speakers of a language or foreign policy concerns. As the Google Research blog says:

We’ve found that one of the most important factors in adding new languages to our system is the ability to find large amounts of translated documents from which our system automatically learns how to translate. As a result, the set of languages that we’ve been able to develop is more closely tied to the size of the web presence of a language and less to the number of speakers of the language.

Still, I’m excited by the project and the promised improvement in translation capacity over time, if that turns out to be true, and was quite happy when they added a beta version of Persian to the mix of languages earlier this summer (maybe Google isn’t totally immune foreign policy considerations after all).

As someone who has invested a lot of time trying to learn a foreign language or two (Russian has been my primary war of attrition), I always felt comfort in the fact that machines will never be able to translate very well. The results from most machine translators are often more humorous than useful. So, I was fairly impressed at how fast Google translate churns out a translation, if not necessarily with the quality of the end product. While the translation is better than most machine translators, it’s still not good enough to use free of a basic understanding of the language you are translating from if you want anything more than a general sense of an article or blog post (at least in Russian – I understand the quality varies among different languages). Humans (at least for now) are still better than computers at some things – but I applaud Google’s efforts so far on this one.

The End of Social Networking, or Just Facebook?

The media’s love affair with Facebook may be officially over. As Virginia Heffernan writes in the Sunday’s New York Times Magazine:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. Facebook, the online social grid, could not command loyalty forever. If you ask around, as I did, you’ll find quitters. One person shut down her account because she disliked how nosy it made her. Another thought the scene had turned desperate. A third feared stalkers. A fourth believed his privacy was compromised. A fifth disappeared without a word.

Yet she admits that “the exodus is not evident” in the numbers, as the site is still adding users and had nearly 88 million unique visitors in July. Things, it seems, aren’t that bad.

But the more important question, in my view, is if Facebook, Myspace, and others like it are just the cool new toy that nobody wants to play with anymore, or is there something more enduring about social networking platforms. Given the number of new tools that have taken their own slant on social networking (Good Reads, for example), the benefit that many users still see in occasional, passive networking for professional or personal reasons and perhaps most importantly, the potential for sites to start to figure out how to sustain themselves or (gasp) turn a profit by selling targeted advertising or information on networks of users to sponsors (even if that commercialization will drive some away), I’d say the end isn’t here just yet.

We also shouldn’t forget that not all societies are equal when it comes to social networking. Italians are crazy about Facebook if my former colleague Corinna is any indication, and as we’ve written here recently, Russians are the top social networkers in the world, starting with vkontakte, initially a carbon copy of Facebook. And even before it was translated into Arabic, Facebook had over 9 million users in Egypt. Even if the US market starts to dry up, Facebook and sites like it have a number of overseas markets to grow into; that is if homegrown versions don’t get there first. In short, I don’t think we’ve heard anything like the death knell of social networking, or even Facebook. If only we could ponder the same thing about email.