Social Networking Comes to the Arab World – Will Peace Follow?

In the 14 months since Facebook started offering a version of their service in Arabic, it has gotten 15 million users in the Middle East and North Africa.
(For context, there are only 14 million copies of all newspapers combined printed in the Arab world. So there are now more Arabs using Facebook than reading newspapers!)
So why is Facebook so popular among (mostly young) Arabs? And what does it mean for the future of the Arab world?
Some writers have offered up the theory that Facebook – alongside E-mail, cell phones, and other new technologies exploding across the Arab World – is so popular because it allows young Arabs to circumvent their societies’ restrictions on contact between the sexes. Maybe you can’t be seen talking to that cute girl in public, but now you can exchange messages on Facebook, or get her cell phone number through a cousin… I suppose nothing beats the age old desire to whisper sweet nothings through an online service her parents won’t be monitoring (and that may not get you lashed or stoned to death by the government or murdered by your family). These services are considered a great boon for Arabs looking for homosexual relationships, as well (as it could be rather bad for your health to frequent gay bars in, say, Egypt or Saudi Arabia).
But there is another theory, as well. The BBC writes that

“In societies where political freedoms are severely limited, many have also resorted to Facebook as an alternative to the public sphere.”

True/Slant blogger Neal Ungerleider adds

“Newspapers in Arab countries are overwhelmingly heavily censored and mind-bogglingly dull… [Facebook] is also turning into an unexpectedly fertile platform for free speech in the region.”

I think this is a fascinating development. Facebook, by virtue of being inherently not censored or sponsored by any government,  may become an incredible platform for free speech and exposure to new ideas for the young generations of the Arab world. Instead of the same old propaganda issued by Egypt’s finest bullshitters journalists, they could theoretically go out and read anyone, on any subject. They could read the BBC, the New York Times, the DailyKos, or the Drudge Report. For that matter, anyone in Qatar could be reading *me* right now. And that’s incredible!
It’s potentially a tremendous opportunity for a relatively insular world to be exposed to a multitide of other ideas. (It’s not wonder China censors Google and Wikipedia!) Moreover, it’s an opportunity for the less mainstream, more moderate Arab thinkers to make their voices heard, at least in cyberspace. Finally, voices can speak out, and be heard (or read), that were silenced before.
When you can express any thought, when you can read anyone else’s thought, however controversial – what does that do to your world? To your worldview?
Perhaps the new generations of Arabs will start to see new opinions, new options, new ideas. And maybe one or two of those ideas will actually take on. For all we know, there could be a university student in Cairo right now, sending a friend request to a student in Tel Aviv, over some shared interest or another, or just idle curiosity about the ultimate “other.” And what would that do to both of them? To their shared view of one another?
And so I wonder this – what will this do to the Arab world? To their future? And to our future?
Will this new popularity let them see a new world – new opportunities, new ideas, new options? Or will it remain just a good way to pick up girls?
What do you think of Facebook as a method of circumventing restrictive societal rules on male-female interaction? And do you think the added freedom it brings to the younger generation of Arabs will translate into more openness to the world, and potentially a more friendly attitude to the West? Or will young Arabs simply use the internet to read extremist blogs, like the rest of the world?
[Photos: mandamonium, ccarlstead]