For many young people in the Middle East and North Africa, the prospect of a better future feels like a distant dream.
As unemployment soars and the political and socio-economic environments of many countries in the region remain uncertain, young Arabs struggle to stay optimistic. However, increasing access to the internet and technology is providing Arab youth with new social and economic possibilities.
The 2017 Arab Youth Survey, published by ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller, reports that 52 percent of the 3500 young Arabs surveyed were “still positive about their country’s direction in 2017.” However, this number represents a decrease from just one year ago, when 64% percent of the youth surveyed reported optimism about their countries.. Although young Arabs might be trying to disconnect from their own realities, they are increasingly connecting to the world around them, thanks to the internet and social media.
“YouTube is viewed daily by half of young Arabs (50%), while Instagram has seen a marked increase in daily use, to 48% from just 28% in 2016,” according to the Arab Youth Survey. In addition, the fifth Arab Media Outlook report published by Dubai Studio City estimated that Arab youth between the ages of 15 and 24 spend around two hours per day watching videos and using social media networks.
However, young Arabs are no longer limiting themselves solely to being consumers of online content. They have also started creating amateur digital content, which they distribute on various platforms. In fact, the Arab Media Outlook report highlighted that the fastest growing video category in the MENA region is short form, defined as videos that are “a few minutes long.”
The rise of short form videos and platforms like YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat has given rise to a new social “authority”: the social media influencer. Taking a cue from popular Western social media influencers, such as YouTube star Lilly Singh or Instagram and YouTube star Lele Pons, many young Arabs have also taken to social media.
In 2017, Forbes Middle East published a list of the ten most popular YouTubers in the Arab world. Collectively, these young Arabs have a total of 29.5 million subscribers. Their videos have garnered more than four billion views. However, these new young social media influencers are not only cultivating their following to share their opinions or their life experiences, but are also using it to make money.
Huda Kattan, an Iraqi-American makeup artist and Dubai-based businesswoman, is one example of an Arab social media influencer who has been able to monetize her popularity. Hopper, a UK-based Instagram planning and scheduling tool, published two Instagram Rich Lists in 2017 in 2017 that highlight the top earners on the photo-sharing app. Kattan took first place in the Instagram influencer list. It is estimated that she receives $18,000 for every post that she shares with her 26 million followers.
For many young Arabs who struggle financially and face upward mobility issues, the internet has opened new doors of opportunity. Especially in an age where traditional success is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve, social media provides both a place to escape from the difficulties of daily life and a space to pursue a new “virtual success.”
The new dream of many young Arabs is to become successful by having their content “go viral.” However, what happens when becoming an internet star becomes the main goal of young Arabs? How will this new social phenomenon impact the psychology of Arab youth? Will it change the notion of success in the MENA region?
These are complex questions, and the impact that this new pursuit will have on communities across the region is not yet known. One thing we do know, is that “going viral” is not as easy as some people might think.
Last year, Time Magazine underlined just how hard it is. One of the misconceptions, Time wrote, is that “viral” marketing, “which assumes that a great idea is self-distributing” and that “word of mouth can take a little thing and turn it into a phenomenon,” is actually inaccurate.
When Yahoo researchers studied the spread of millions of messages on Twitter, they discovered that “[m]ore than 90 percent of the messages didn’t diffuse at all.” In fact, “the vast majority of the news that people see on Twitter—around 95 percent—comes directly from its original source or from one degree of separation.”
Contrary to what many young Arab internet hopefuls might want to believe, “[p]opularity is still driven by broadcasts by publishers, celebrities, and other broadcasters who can reach thousands or even millions of people at once,” according to the Time Magazine article. Even though this is not true in every case, it is true in the majority of cases that we see on day-to-day basis.
While young Arabs’ desire to capitalize on the power of the internet to find a new life purpose or ensure financial stability is understandable, Arab communities need to be vigilant about how they are using this powerful tool. As the old adage goes, “all that glitters is not gold.” Arab youth will need to remember this as they explore the unpredictable world of internet fame.