Arab millennials are discriminating about digital content

Arab youth are very sensitive to digital identities that give them a sense of belonging.
Sunday 04/02/2018
Lebanese entrepreneurs from different internet start-up companies work in Beirut’s Hamra district.     (AFP)
Looking at tomorrow. Lebanese entrepreneurs from different internet start-up companies work in Beirut’s Hamra district. (AFP)

If there is one lesson that emerges from conversations with millennials across different Arab countries, it is this: They are discriminating about digital content.

The digital publishing industry can no longer throw low-quality content at them and expect to hold their interest. The industry needs to define standards and relevance so young audiences can engage and, hopefully, find meaning in content.

The key is to distinguish digital content as much as possible from the backward formal school education materials on offer. Digital content providers and publishers must bear in mind that most Arab millennials use their offerings as a lifelong learning opportunity.

Wamda’s Industry Brief on digital Arabic content states that 48% of Arab millennials are not satisfied with the quality of local websites. I interviewed 180 university students in nine Arab countries about their relationship with Arabic content to understand what quality and relevance meant to them. They confessed to an underwhelming experience. I heard the words ‘’boring’’ and ‘’frustrating’’ over and over.

Arab millennials almost unanimously expressed a willingness to hear diverse voices — the old and wise as well as the lived experience of people their own age. Al Jazeera’s Meedan blog is championing such diversity and is widely read across the region. It became clear that gone are the days a single worldview can be imposed on young Arabs.

In an increasingly visual world, images drive internet clicks. For some well-known platforms, images are the very basis of their multibillion-dollar businesses. Many of the millennials I spoke to complained about the unattractiveness of low-pixel, violent and unartistic images. Western-style typographies don’t do justice to the artistic nature of the Arabic calligraphy either. Image and typography — two key visual components — don’t encourage young Arabs to peruse digital content in Arabic.

Much-needed work is under way on typography. The Khatt Foundation, an Amsterdam-based research centre on Arabic typography and design from the Middle East and North Africa, and Lara Captan, a typographer also based in the Dutch capital, are working towards a new era in Arabic typography. Companies such as the Sharjah-based Fikra Design Studio, which offers multidisciplinary design communication solutions for Arabic, are also doing good work.

Many Arab millennials comment on the unattractiveness of the user interface of Arabic sites. They were put off by irrelevant ad pop-ups, crowded text and unclear colour branding. Little research has been done on user interface and user experience for Arabic-language sites but it is crucial to respect the intuitive directionality (right-left) of the language for Arab consumers.

Arab youth are very sensitive to digital identities that give them a sense of belonging to a community.

Storytelling starts with the headline. Many millennials say they decide to read a story based on its headline. We live in a world of scrolling feeds and people click on content they think will add value to their day.

Arab millennials expressed interest in the original content of contemporary scope. They want content that answers day-to-day questions — socially sensitive or not — and offers actionable advice. This is not surprising when formal education or family environment does not provide helpful perspectives or guidance.

Millennials want original content but they also attest to being deeply concerned with accuracy and the sourcing of information. They have a deep desire for credible facts.

Visual design, user interface and relevant storytelling can transform Arabic digital content and have a real scalable effect on our societies.