Like many in Beirut this summer, I found out about one of the recent bombings from a WhatsApp message on my mobile phone. I received a single word text from a friend: infijar (explosion). A second later the image below popped up on my phone screen. One of his friends, who was closer to Dahiyeh, sent him the photograph from where he was located shortly after the bomb went off. My friend then forwarded this image to me along with his one word report. Infijar is a heavy and all too familiar word to the Lebanese. Coupled with an image of plumes of smoke on the horizon, a social media avalanche was set in motion. Both the word and the photo shot across town in a few short minutes. Many around the country have similar stories of how they heard about the event and WhatsApp, an immensely popular smartphone messaging application, was often one of the modes of communication and distribution of this news.
[Photo of explosion circulated via smartphones.
Image provided by Jared McCormick]
This incident underlies a growing trend in the Arab world. Smartphone penetration is increasing rapidly and more affordable cell phone data plans are becoming more abundant--which hint at important changes in how people communicate, what they share, and the ways they do so. This rapidly changing connectivity represents, I will argue here, an arena which recasts how we think of communication, problematizes lingering debates of the “digital divide,” and complicates the kinds of intimacies we construct in the world around us.
Lebanon`s Ministry of Telecommunications (MOT) notes that as of December 2011, mobile penetration rates across the country (3.8 million of 4.2 million) rose to ninety percent. Fifty-four percent of these accounts were using first and second generation smartphones. In a recent interview, the Chairman and CEO of the Alfa network, one of the two cell phone providers in Lebanon, noted that the “penetration rate of smartphones [on their network] reached sixty percent.” This abundance of smartphones changes how we view “access” and “new” media.
We now stand on the cusp of many changes driven by a worldwide growth in the smartphone industry and the widespread adoption of this technology as well as the mediated patterns these present. While I cannot offer a comprehensive presentation of this phenomenon, I will discuss one single increasingly prevalent smartphone application--WhatsApp. In the debates concerning the ever-expanding mediascape, what seems to emerge from an examination of smartphones and WhatsApp are a number of propositions. The first is the reconsideration of the “digital divide” where one doesn’t ascend, up, but rather moves sideways. The second is the room to display individuated creativity using technology among groups of users who do not use email, Facebook, or Twitter. The thirds speaks to the security concerns around the conceptualization of what constitutes “data.” What remain present are not questions of access but rather the vehicles used to view, manipulate, and send data. In this article, I tackle these queries in two sections. The first introduces WhatsApps`s technical elements and universal impact globally and in the Middle East. The second focuses specifically on the application`s usage in Lebanon as a case study.
Phone Call is to Skype as SMS is to WhatsApp
In the last two years, Facebook and Twitter have come to occupy lofty positions in the imaginary of Middle Eastern politics, protests, and social mobilizations. Both interfaces are an outward way for a user to render accessible and readable--snippets of information. They are easy to gather, measure, and aggregate. Both have received much deserved attention by the media and academics alike. This attention has focused most notably on the ways each can function as an alternative platform for identity construction, community building, and affective bonds--especially for younger generations. I would argue that the attention afforded to Facebook and Twitter has left other platforms and social media tools forgotten and unexamined. In this sea of adulation for “hashtags” and “status updates,” we should contemplate how other media platforms and portals provide for less visible--yet equally transformative--ways in which we express ourselves and share our daily expressions and musings.
WhatsApp, one of a number of messaging applications, is connecting wider demographics of users in the expanding mediascape. The questions surrounding these interfaces are scale on the one hand, and the creation of publics on the other. Twitter is more open, public, and serves a platform for public pronouncement and proclamation. Facebook serves more as a platform for a constructed community to which one can communicate and relate to “friends” in multiple ways (semi-private). WhatsApp, on the other hand, amounts to a private message that has the added social chatting features, including multimedia and physical location.
Technically speaking, WhatsApp is not unlike an SMS but sent via the Internet from one user to others who also operate the application. One can send photos, share her current location, and, most importantly, send as many messages as the data plan will allow. WhatsApp announced that, as of June 2013, they have three hundred million monthly users globally. In a much shorter time, WhatsApp “ has done to SMS on mobile phones what Skype did to international calling on landlines.” The CEO of WhatsApp says they are bigger than Twitter, which can be noted partially in the number of messages they process. On 12 June 2013, WhatsApp tweeted: “new daily record: 10B+ msgs sent (inbound) and 17B+ msgs received (outbound) by our users = 27 Billion msgs handled in just 24 hours!” This surpassed the previous record just six months earlier on New Years Eve when the global numbers hit eighteen billion messages on that single day.
As a graduate student at the American University of Beirut in the mid-2000s, I was privy to the abundance and popularity of MSN Messenger. I mention this older interface in order to point out the rough equivalence through the equation: MSN Messenger + SMS = Whatsapp. Multiple chat clients (such as WhatsApp, Viber, Facebook Messenger, Google Chat, and iMessage) stand firmly on the headstone of MSN Messenger. While SMS as a medium is far from obsolete, the expansion of these other interfaces continues to undercut it as more chat app messages are sent. This trend is rapidly blurring the boundaries between social media, chat, and Voice over IP (VoIP) as many of these applications become increasingly popular in the Middle East.
Over the past five years, global smartphone costs have dropped sharply. The growing desirability, availability, and affordability of these devices are mirrored by the decreasing cost of data plans across telecom carriers in the Middle East. A recent United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia report noted that by the end of 2011, fifty seven per cent of the Saudi population and forty-eight per cent of the Jordanian population were using smartphones. They also estimated Lebanon`s smartphone penetration rate to be thirty-seven percent. Two years later, the numbers are roughly twenty percent higher. The estimates of Google are even higher, especially among younger adults between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. One should note that this Google website is premised on mobile consumers, each country`s growing smartphone usage, and the prospects of capitalizing/monetizing on this connectivity.
The United Arab Emirates ranks first in smartphone penetration worldwide while Saudi Arabia is in third. Other countries in the region’s lower adoption rates are clearly a product of poor telecommunications infrastructure, questions of socioeconomic conditions, and the overall costs to the end user. The first hurdle, which varies widely by country, is whether the national telecom offers a robust and reliable network across the nation. The second is the average disposable income and whether it is sufficient to afford a smartphone (even in the case of used devices). The third is the continual monthly subscription charges for a data plan from the company. While we cannot assume which applications are installed or being used on each device, we can nevertheless suggest that over the last few years, a growing proportion of people are using WhatsApp and other social media/chat/ sharing applications.
Two Steps with One Stride: Can Smartphones Break the “Digital Divide?”
In a conversation I had last year with a political science professor who works on larger political changes in Egypt, I inquired about the ways in which activists were mobilizing and sharing information using WhatsApp. He remarked that he had never heard of the application. I was not surprised that WhatsApp might not play a central role in his life or even in the political organizing of his interlocutors. Yet, for a growing number of individuals, WhatsApp constitutes an important "behind-the-scenes" part of their daily life. Egypt does not have nearly the penetration and subscription rates as other regional countries but Google estimated that smartphone penetration was at twenty six percent in 2012. There are projections that by 2015 the worldwide smartphone market will double in size as more nations’ expanding customer base adopt the technology. Another financial report continues:
The number of smartphones in use [worldwide] in the third quarter of 2012 totaled 1.03 billion, a forty-seven percent increase from third quarter 2011. Nokia introduced the first smartphone in 1996 and it has taken the smartphone industry sixteen years to top the one billion mark. By 2015, the research firm predicts that number to double to 2 billion. The smartphone market in 2011 was estimated to be worth two hundred and nineteen billion dollars according to Bloomberg Industries.
While the American context is vastly different from Egypt or Lebanon, it is nevertheless interesting to consider the Census Bureau’s note that while “disparities in Internet use persist among racial and ethnic groups, smartphones appear to be helping bridge the digital divide.” While usage of smartphones will not make us smarter, more free, or democratic, it offers novel ways of accessing information for wider groups of users. In some markets, this comes courtesy of the affordable Nokia Asha 210 smartphone that is projected to cost seventy-two dollars in Africa and Asia and will have a dedicated hard WhatsApp button–-(alternatively, the European and Latin American versions get a Facebook button). There is also the potential for even cheaper smartphones as the US market starts offering more early trade-in offers which will absorb and redirect part of this used merchandise abroad. Considering this, what becomes important in larger conceptualizations of media and access are the gateways through which people access data and information. How is our communication mediated through applications---not just standalone websites or emails---but through a multitude of interfaces? What does this say about gatekeepers and data collectors that may be hiding behind an icon?
Whatsapp connects users based on their phone numbers rather than their “profiles” or “handles.” In this way, it is connecting many who do not use Facebook, Twitter, or email, but now have found themselves with a smartphone, a data plan, or access to WiFi. Take for instance Dlbren, a young man from rural northeast Syria who lives in Beirut and does not read or write Arabic, Kurdish, or English. Despite this, he uses WhatsApp to communicate with many of his friends by sending the equivalent of voice memos (audionotes). As if part answering machine/part phone call, Dlbren`s device executes viable conversations via the application by using audioclips as opposed to text. He peppers them full of emoticons, and like many users, Dlbren spends large amounts of time chatting, gossiping, laughing, dreaming, and fighting boredom. This is significant because it provides for a different and very important form of digital literacy than is often cited in development discourses.
Dlbren’s smartphone usage and general connectivity are dictated by two things---the data plan of the service provider and the applications. He does not have a data plan and could barely afford a secondhand smartphone. Nevertheless, he has come to know many hotspots in the area where he lives (Naba’a/Bourj Hammoud) as well as those friends whose WiFi connections were shared with him. Dlbren is known to drop by just to visit---or rather just to stand on the corner to pick up a signal to the Internet, which he cannot otherwise afford with a data plan sold by service providers. The second limitation comes from the applications on his phone. He doesn’t have email or surf the web and all of his applications were installed en mass at a local cellphone store for a fee. This bypasses any form of payment to an “App Store” or developer. The bundle of applications was determined on the basis of those most popular among the general public. While his phone has pages and pages of icons, he might not know or care to use most of them.
In terms of language literacy, Dlbren says he has learned much from the use of the technology---from basic English words to flirt with women, familiarity with the transliterated Arabic chat language (the numbers five, seven, two, and three all phonetically signifying Arabic letters), and the full Arabic keyboard. He is acquiring linguistic and technological literacy largely due to the unconventional use of smartphone. It might be more accurate to say he has taken a sidestep onto an ever-widening digital ladder and not a step “up” that falls into a development discourse of technology as a panacea for inequality. The “digital divide” will continue to exist but smartphones signal a spectrum of literacies and call for more attention in our relationships with one another. Dlbren’s WhatsApp usage is one example of this unlikely and user-level innovation.
Changing Connectivity and Smartphones in Lebanon
I want to highlight some promising and complicated dimensions of WhatsApp and applications usage in Lebanon. These speak to important trends that impact social relationships. What follows are not consummate arguments but rather springboards into larger compelling issues. Each emerges from moments and scenarios that bring WhatsApp, mobile Internet, and communication to the foreground in a compelling way.
One can now park and pay her parking meter in Beirut via SMS, order an argulieh on WhatsApp, or receive brevet and baccalaureate exam results via text message. The speed and reliability of the internet in Lebanon has profoundly improved since the connection of the I-ME-WE line in the fall of 2011. With the release of 3G, mobile Internet speeds increased by eighteen times and prices went from outrageous to expensive. These trends are continuing and by the end of 2013, twenty five percent of the Alfa network in Lebanon will be 4G-LTE, which is now toting faster speeds than what is available through residential DSL.
In Lebanon, many of us will remember the practice of giving a “missed call” when cellphone rates were much higher. This was a popular and free way to signal to someone “yes,” “no,” or “I’m downstairs” simply by calling and hanging up so that a missed call would show on the other person’s phone. In a similar way, WhatsApp has become popular because the application is far more cost effective to consumers than SMS. The prices per minute, per SMS, and per megabyte in Lebanon have decreased but telecommunications is still the second largest contributor to the coffers of the nation (after the value added tax). Likewise, Lebanon still has the highest per minute rates of any country in the Arab world thereby pushing users to seek creative new ways to circumvent charges and reduce costs.
It is expected that telecoms worldwide will lose thirty-two billion dollars of collective revenues in 2013 due to social messaging cannibalization. In the Middle East, this is estimated to be roughly five hundred million dollars. This highlights a tenuous relationship, as the telecommunication companies want increased data plan subscriptions but have to balance this with lost revenues from SMS and fewer phone calls. The Lebanese Ministry of Telecommunications, in the hope of promoting “an ongoing effort to democratize access to services,” have highlighted the creation of packages from carriers to increase access to certain demographics. There is the “Youth” package where voice, SMS, and data start at nine dollars/month. This was followed by an even more affordable and wide-reaching effort by TOUCH of a four dollar “WhatsApp Bundle” promoted on Facebook. It provides 200 megabytes/month to send and receive messages, pictures, videos, and audio. Minister of Telecommunications, Nicolas Sehnaoui, seems hopeful about what greater connectivity might hold for the future and said recently at the American University in Beirut, “[the] digital economy is our last chance,” which hints at the high economic stakes in Lebanon.
[An adverisement on Facebook for TOUCH. A WhatsApp Bundle
allows 200MG/month. Photo from TOUCH Lebanon]
Love, Relationships, and Migrant Workers
There are endless jokes and varied etiquettes for these applications and how they overlap particularly on matters of the heart. Popular depictions of WhatsApp’s prevalence in Lebanon have often been in the realm of parody and satire. One such presentation (in the YouTube video below) comes through in a shared moment between two men at a public toilet in Ktir Salbi (كتير سلبي). Another is a standup routine by Nemr Abou Nassar on LBC where he complains about relationships experienced entirely on chat services like Blackberry Messenger (BBM) and WhatsApp. MTV’s Ma Fih Metlo (ما في متلو) or "There is Nothing Like It" explores a romantic relationship that is forged on WhatsApp that cannot be sustained face-to-face. All three comedic takes on the service tackle the way in which technology is not just changing our relationships, but our romantic and intimate ties to one another while drawing attention to the absurd obsession with being constantly connected.
[Comedy sketch from the MTV show "Ktir Salbi"]
WhatsApp has also opened up many avenues for those seeking sexual conquests in Lebanon—from flirting to sexting—and this is also the case for non-Lebanese communities especially the large migrant worker population. This phenomenon, what can be called “migrant match,” often provides an overlap between two gendered mobile phone users—Syrian men and women domestic workers from various countries. While the conditions of their arrival in the country and visa situations are complicated and precarious, their uncomfortable presence in Lebanon makes it improbable for them to find many outlets for leisure and romance. Hence, communication for love and companionship—not to mention exploitation—often takes place via WhatsApp. It highlights the changing sociality WhatsApp privileges. It might allow female domestic workers who sometimes are not granted much mobility outside the home and workplace a chance to communicate with their friends, family back home, or to flirt with a boyfriend.
In these matters of affect and love, there is another point to raise, namely, how the WhatsApp “profile picture” functions in the same way as it does on other social media, such as Facebook. It becomes not just a mechanism of reception but a space for self-representation. Many users with whom I communicate change their pictures a few times a week. These often include flattering poses, displays of masculinity or femininity, leisure, local landmarks, children, religious or political iconography, and flowers—not to mention the common tropes of romance, longing, and the search for love.
[Sample WhatsApp profile pictures provided by Jared McCormick]
Mobility and the City
While we all tacitly understand that by carrying a phone we are trackable, this becomes clearer as smartphones allow for a tactile interaction with GPS. What is baffling, often times across class divides, are the ways in which our actual physical location becomes rendered on digital interpretations of space: on a colored screen, with a pulsing blue dot representing ourselves. This logic, portrayed through the cartography of services such as Google Maps, can be incomprehensible to someone who lacks the necessary literacy to read, interact, and decipher maps. This can then recast the physical-spatial representations we all have in our minds with the visual and experiential images we come to interact with in the city.
I remember “sharing my location” with some friends in Cairo last year, and they WhatsApp-ed back wanting to know my street name or a local landmark. Having just arrived in the city, I had neither and advised them to follow the "blue dot" (them) on the map and to start walking along a path through a network of streets and buildings towards the red dot (me). While this example might seem somewhat insignificant, I think it foretells an altered way of learning, being, and moving in the city. These virtual representations of our physical environments are like an electronic guide, to be followed on our screens, as we step over curbs, through traffic, and around corners, all the while connected and existing in space in a different way. How many of us have seen someone walking on the street clearly navigating their path while looking at the map in their hand on their smartphone. How does this change our movement as well as our understanding of and connection to the city? On the same thought, how many of us remember phone numbers now that our phones do this for us? Thus, in what ways will the use, reliance, and integration of GPS services and products change our perception and knowledge of the spatial world? This is especially relevant as more locations, roads, and spots become geo-referenced and overlaid onto these virtual maps.
Registration, Security, and Spies
Our lives are increasingly fed into digital sieves. But where does this data go? Debates in America about the uncovering of vast amounts of surveillance data continue to rage on. How do we see the emerging tradeoff between greater connectivity and privacy? Talking to a friend in Beirut last year about privacy settings on Facebook and what surveillance might mean, he suggested a way around it. He said I could change my profile name. It was a realistic suggestion but how do I begin to explain IP address, IMEI cellphone numbers, and technical aspects that are actually over my head and that supersede the name change? As we become more connected, how do people understand what happens when they send and submit, and what constitutes “data?” By interacting and existing on a smartphone, a digital profile is being built. But how does this coincide with larger national security concerns?
Recently there has been much speculation on the new initiative by the Lebanese government enacted on 1 June that mandated all new cellphones in the country be registered under decrees 9474 and 224 (see infographic from TOUCH here). It is called “Preventing Illegally Imported Devices and Consumer Protection from Counterfeits.” While this does not yet apply retroactively to Lebanese lines, it does mean that anyone abroad who comes back for the summer has to stop at a booth in the airport to link their IMEI number of their phone to their national ID or passport. Technology and security experts can better address the concerns of such a measure, but I’m sure a sizable proportion of the Lebanese population would find this unsettling especially in the name of faux security and surveillance. The decree was framed as a way to bring order to the phone market since "seventy percent of all phones are smuggled" and the state hopes to reclaim lost revenue of up to "sixty million" dollars a year for the country. “Smuggle” seems an odd word in a country with endless ties abroad, huge flows of tourists, migrants, and returning emigrants. The new requirement would curb “illegal” phones from entering the country and while, no doubt, Lebanon is an endpoint for many stolen goods, it seems like a weak argument and perhaps even a ploy.
WhatsApp is anything but secure. However, like most technology, there is little forethought or understanding, of what happens with our data. How we are tracked? How has surveillance become an ever-present and thickening fog? Many nations have thrown around ideas of bans on WhatsApp and Viber, which emerge from a security anxiety and an inability to deal with lost revenues (example of the debate in Egypt). Similar debates in Saudi Arabia emerged around plans to block WhatsApp, yet at the same time, in Al Qaseem, the “religious police” (Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice) started using WhatsApp as a way to communicate with local residents and gather feedback. One wonders the premise for them adopting such technology--perhaps for advocacy and outreach---but also for enhanced policing and reporting by members of the public (instantaneous and with pictures/videos).
More salient still are the debates about Viber that took place in Lebanon around Christmas 2012. It was revealed that the company was Israeli owned and/or affiliated or might have a former IDF agent at the helm. It meant that all of this data, which passed daily through the application, could have been monitored, mined, and recorded. While this concern becomes understandable given the two countries’ enmity, it also raised questions about who owns WhatsApp and the many applications into which we pour our lives? What happens when a rogue employee or manager, of any nationality and persuasion, decides to access data or use it maliciously?
The Viber discussion proved to be no more than a momentary national tremor, like many, and a temporary ban was soon rescinded, unblocking the application by the Ministry of Telecommunications. To be clear, my concern and what I see as the larger issue, is not that the company might have (tenuous or integral) ties to Israel, but rather, the way we think of data as an actual “thing.” Would we be more secure if Viber were owned by Egyptians, Danish, or Thai individuals and/or conglomerates? Security and privacy concerns are often sidelined in the excitement and perceived benefit of being connected by a smartphone. While we might individually obsess over when our friends, or love interests, were last time-stamped as being “online” via WhatsApp, if the messages were “seen” (indicated by a double check), or how to upgrade to new applications, there are important debates that need to happen around the rights, limitations, and the extent and way in which people understand “data.” These examples of regulation and anxiety in Lebanon, and worldwide, seem to foretell a folding of surveillance, tracking, and data gathering into the national cake batter.
[Widely circulated boycott campaign image against chat
service Viber. Image from ultgate.com]
In short, this article grows out of the simple premise of: why aren’t people talking more about this mediascape beyond Facebook and Twitter in the region---especially in the last few years? And, given our increasing connectivity via smartphones, how are the contexts of space, security, and love coming to change? I hope this serves not as a corrective, but a multiplier, in directions that future discussions can take. The wide-ranging arguments here are based on statistics, ethnographic work, and my own concerns and annoyances. What is ultimately at stake are the speed and intensity of our relationships and desires as they become mediated by technology. The issue at hand is not to stay attuned to the pulse of these applications, but rather, to think through them. It reminds me of a passage from Lauren Berlant speaking on intimacy.
To intimate is to communicate with the sparest of signs and gestures, and at its root intimacy has the quality of eloquence and brevity. But intimacy also involves an aspiration for a narrative about something shared, a story about both oneself and others that will turn out in a particular way. Usually, this story is set within zones of familiarity and comfort: friendship, the couple, and the family form, animated by expressive and emancipating kinds of love. Yet the inwardness of the intimate is met by a corresponding publicness.
The final point I must raise is that while the smartphone is just that, a phone, it is also a camera, a digital, visual, and sonic recorder and an all purpose documenter of human life that is always in our pockets or purses. Beyond data plans, messaging, and chatting, this technology impacts our lives from capturing smiles, registering injustices, and experiencing metropolises. It is about how these devices can capture both the spectacular and the mundane in images and sounds. All of this from a device that many people have present, on their person, often at all times. It leaves us wondering how we would think about, and visualize, the events in Egypt in the last few years without the facilitation of smartphones and corresponding applications? Despite still limited connectivity today, what would the debate regarding Syria be without the powerful content captured from these mobile phone devices? What visual markers, expressions, and sounds would we have if the 2006 Israeli war in Lebanon were to happen today? As this article attests, at the junctures of hope and creativity, what will future drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere look like? Especially as more pieces of our lives are captured, saved, and uploaded—and the “actual” becomes more “virtual”—the smartphone makes this rendering possible and brings it to a wider world.
 Note the wildly popular application in Lebanon, Truecaller, which serves as a reverse phonebook to look up phone numbers. You can enter a phone number in the application and it will give you a name based on how this number is saved in other people’s phone book. It compiles this database by uploading the entire phonebook of a user when the application is downloaded.