[This post is part of an ongoing Profile of a Contemporary Conduit series on Jadaliyya that seeks to highlight prominent voices in and from the Middle East and North Africa.]
Jadaliyya: What do you think are the most gratifying aspects of Tweeting and Twitter?
Nasser Weddady: The most gratifying aspect of Twitter for me is to get work done! The platform is a superb networking tool allowing users - if used right- to build new contacts all over the globe. So, more than once, I have managed to leverage these relationships to achieve concrete objectives offline in the real world. Beyond networking, Twitter is becoming an increasingly effective tool to track some of the emerging trends among Mideast youth and Muslim Diasporas around the world. Additionally, Twitter’s nature as an echo chamber allows users to shape public discussions as well as media trends.
J: What are some of the political/social/cultural limits you’ve encountered using the platform?
NW: Twitter’s word limit makes it difficult for verbose users to communicate complex and abstract ideas. Even users who are very good speakers of “Twitterese” (the art of packing complex ideas into 140 characters) will sooner or later run into the challenge of having to either forgo certain conversations, or flood their followers with disjointed ideas. In terms of topics, Twitter increasingly mirrors all the major ideological and political fault lines in my area of interest-- the Middle East and North Africa. The most pronounced, and at times virulent, are the irreconcilable differences between pro-regime users and dissidents all over the region. Interestingly, there is also more ideological warfare being waged between the different shades of Islamist currents and their secular opponents.
J: In your experience and use of Twitter, do you feel it helps mobilize or disorganize? Focus or crowd? Is it manageable or noisy? Can it help persuade and mobilize or does it turn everyone into a voyeur and spectator?
NW: I believe Twitter is a tool, and like any tool, if the user does not have a strategy to achieve concrete objectives, it will simply generate noise. Activists have managed to leverage twitter to project their voices and impose themselves in the larger debate about the region to compensate for their quasi-exclusion before the era of uprisings. In terms of mobilization, that too is a function of users’ credibility. If users develop a reputation of providing reliable analysis, info, and data, that will automatically increase their chances of influencing/shaping outcomes.
Politicians and media pundits are increasingly turning to Twitter with the thought that their omnipresence in media will generate big followers counts for them. Their assumption is that their own self-perceived brand will automatically translate into clout. Interestingly, that is a fundamental misunderstanding about the concept of real influence in shaping debates and outcomes online and offline. Ultimately, the impact of Twitter is very much a function of its users; if the users do not follow a carefully thought strategy, the results will be just an endless stream of consciousness. Plainly spoken, the content of one’s Tweet stream is what ultimately defines how much of an impact they can have.
J: How has Twitter helped your cause or hindered your cause? Does Twitter turn activists into armchair activists (“slacktivists”)?
NW: Twitter has helped my work as it has allowed me to continue building contacts and networks spanning the entire region and beyond. It also allowed me to tap into multiple scenes and communities which generate invaluable data to understand the context of the news cycle.
I happen to be one of those who believe that social media platforms are invaluable to generate attention to regions and topics that mainstream media does not or cannot cover. With time, I find myself less interested in debating the finer points of that topic; it is a moot point by now given how much global engagement the Arab uprisings created between private citizens, previously unable to engage in direct citizen-to-citizen relationships with MENA natives. Conversely, social media platforms have allowed MENA natives to join the global community in ways that were impossible before: exchanging ideas and values and getting in sync with the rest of the world. I take the view that in the long run, that is a much more valuable strategic impact than tactical day-to-day topical uses.
J: How do you manage criticism, personal attacks, and hostility, online and offline?
NW: I believe that criticism is part of the exercise of being in the public arena. It is a healthy thing that makes social media much more vibrant than traditional media. Pundits, news commentators are much more accessible and therefore “criticizable” than they were before in print and broadcast media. This can be a good way to keep them in touch with reality, and prevent them from dissolving into mere soundbite machines. In terms of managing hostility online, I make a point of remaining respectful and upbeat, using humor, and exercising restraint. But, there is always the block button. I tend to ignore hostility and shouting matches because it’s often a terrible waste of valuable time and positive energy.
J: What role has Twitter played in youth protests in Mauritania?
NW: From my experience, I have worked on using Twitter to connect Mauritanian users with their fellow Arab activists to transfer expertise and knowledge in terms of cyber-activism. The nucleus of the Mauritanian “Twitteratis” is now the engine shaping the discussions about Mauritania and increasingly the conflict in Mali. Mauritania experts both in media and think tanks are beginning to rely on Mauritanian users to keep tabs on the country’s ongoing crisis. Simply put, Mauritanian Twitter users are in many ways replicating the traditional patterns of other MENA twitter users: collective thinking, strategizing, and communicating with the external world and their activist peers.
[Nasser Weddady blogs at Dekhnstan and tweets at @weddady.]