Telling the Arab story — in Arabic

The Arabic news media have long had a dominant position in the region but reporting on wars, economic decline and the like is hardly inspirational for the young.
Sunday 28/01/2018
Fast-Changing world. Visitors watch a 3D presentation during an exhibition on ‘Neom’, a new business and industrial city, in Riyadh, last October. (Reuters)
Fast-Changing world. Visitors watch a 3D presentation during an exhibition on ‘Neom’, a new business and industrial city, in Riyadh, last October. (Reuters)

BEIRUT - The storytelling tradition is anchored deep within Arabic-speaking societies. Arabs have long told stories, verbally and in writing. Stories have a particular force when told in Arabic. Addressing someone in their mother tongue is to speak to their heart.

Whether fiction or non-fiction, stories feed the imagination. They open new realities, novel perspectives and innovative ideas. Fundamentally, they inspire the readers or listeners to become more the people they want to be.

Ideas and information set individuals free — to think, to act and to make decisions about their social, political and economic life. The story can help people own their lives fully. For the Arab world, the story is the first chapter in the book of digital change.

Growing internet penetration and increasing access via smartphones in the Arab world are changing the way people engage with information. Millennial Arabs spend a huge amount of time on the internet and see new opportunities for lifelong learning with the growth of Arabic content. In other words, Arab millennials train their minds online and educate themselves constantly on the internet.

Think about the breadth and depth of what is under way. The changes in the way Arabs consume information is one of the region’s greatest social opportunities. Arabic is the fastest-growing language on the web. In less than a decade, Arabic has become the fourth most used online language. This, even though Arabic language content is nowhere near as plentiful as that available in other languages.

The Arabic news media have long had a dominant position in the region but reporting on wars, economic decline and the like is hardly inspirational for the young. Arab youth are looking for more constructive content than a depressing never-ending cycle of news.

Young Arabs are looking for content that feeds their passions, answers their questions, opens career opportunities or that helps them decide their formal education path. “How do I” begins many extremely popular internet questions in the Arab world. The answers, of course, are crucial.

Not only can the answers reshape the Arab world’s digital identity, they can change the direction in which societies are heading. Telling the Arab story properly and for a new generation is key. Quality Arabic content is a must.

What does that mean? What does quality mean in the context of digital Arabic content? No one has defined it.

As an industry, no one has set the standards for digital ergonomics (user interface and user experience), for visuals (font, pictures, titles) and for storytelling (standpoint, informational value, depth). Setting standards would be a great help to digital publishers and might encourage new entrants into the field.

Published Arabic-language content has grown at a 7,000% annual rate in the last decade. However, digital content — media and text — is still on a journey of discovery in terms of distribution, consumption and monetisation strategies.

The problem of Arabic content needs to be solved in a vertical manner. It will certainly require innovation in terms of Arabic language technologies. Publishers need help pitching the right story to the right audience.

Here’s the important point to remember: The region has a language of reference — classical Arabic — an invaluable asset available to few peoples in the world. It would be unfathomable not to leverage its power digitally.

The problem of Arabic content will certainly require innovation in terms of Arabic language technologies. 

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