Arab social media influencers come of age

All that’s needed is a free social media account, a smartphone, an internet connection and a talent for holding the attention of a demanding audience.
Sunday 02/12/2018
A power to affect. Kuwaiti  make-up artist Sondos  al-Qattan. (Instagram)
A power to affect. Kuwaiti make-up artist Sondos al-Qattan. (Instagram)

When make-up artist Sondos al-Qattan criticised a new law that gave more rights to domestic workers in her native Kuwait, the Arab internet flared up. With 2.4 million Instagram followers, her opinions could hardly have passed unnoticed.

Qattan is an influencer. She has influence on the way the digital generation thinks, behaves and consumes and that’s either through a combination of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat or simply one of them. Influencers are generally millennial men and women who inform and entertain millions of followers on diverse subjects such as technology, food, health, travel, beauty and motivation. Sometimes, the influencer is influential because he or she is whimsical.

Consider Amr Maskoun, 20 from Syria, who started posting short clips on Instagram after the war forced him into exile to Lyon, France, more than three years ago. Maskoun has more than 1.5 million followers and he entertains them with wisdom he has gained as a young adult. In a recent Instagram video, he acted out the challenge of overcoming insomnia at 2am by dancing to different tunes. It was viewed more than 250,000 times and generated 2,000 comments. Many young Arabs relate to Maskoun, which gives him influence.

So, too, Imene Megharbi, the first female YouTuber from Oran, the north-western Algerian city known for rai music. Megharbi said she decided to become a “beauty and women’s empowerment influencer” in Algeria, having followed YouTubers outside the country. “When I got the chance to meet one based in the UK, I thought I could do it too. Since the majority of YouTubers in Algeria are men, I had to obviously face the shaming and criticisms of society,” she said.

Most countries across the Middle East and North Africa have their own influencers because all that’s needed is a free social media account, a smartphone, an internet connection and a talent for holding the attention of a demanding audience in a competitive market.

Those who do the job say it takes a lot of work, a keen eye for detail and knowledge of social media techniques and analytics.

Kuwaiti lifestyle influencer Ansam AlRadwan said flair is important. “Our [the influencers’] visual image is important. Pictures should be clean without overdoing filters, framed right and speak a thousand words. We communicate with our followers through our style and identity,” he said.

Yazan Sawalha, a Jordanian opinion influencer on Twitter, said it’s important to be “creative, informative and credible.” It always helps to “serve up original content,” Sawalha added.

The goal, as Sawalha said, is to catch people’s attention and increase the number of followers. However, with influence comes responsibility. Online audiences give their attention to someone out of a shared interest. In a way, they put their trust in the vlogger, blogger, YouTuber or Instagram star.

Most influencers are conscious of what their popularity means.

“I am very much aware of my influence,” said Megharbi,

“I usually stop to think and [remind myself] that whatever I post or say will have consequences. So, I make sure that it remains honest, transparent, positive and [causes no one any] harm.” She said she checks herself “if I really want to share some religious and political opinions. It’s the price you have to pay to be an influencer.”

The upside can be big bucks. From humble beginnings as a beauty blogger, Iraqi-American Hudan Kattan built a billion-dollar company because her 26 million followers liked the beauty tips and tutorials she provided.

Not all influencers seek to cash in, however. A Kuwaiti technology influencer who posts under the pseudonym “Frankom” said: “My activities online as an influencer have never been and won’t become my career. My main motivation remains to express myself freely as it is my right.”

Sawalha said influencers in the Arab world have a more important role than those in most regions. “We work on the social identity of our community and culture. We hope to change people’s interactions and behaviours for the better.”

In acknowledgement of influencers’ potential, the Dubai-based Sadeem group organised a competition last year for Arab social media influencers. The finalists attended seminars and workshops to hone their skills and the winner received a large cash prize.

The whys and hows of making friends and influencing people are clearly changing.