From A-lists to webtifadas: Developments in the Lebanese blogosphere 2005-2006
Issue 1, Spring 2007
Egyptian women protest the war in Lebanon. Issandr El Amrani.
Witnessing the war that engulfed Lebanon in 2006 from the outside was disturbing and frustrating. In the midst of bombing and large-scale displacement of Lebanese civilians, information was hard to get. For people like me with friends and interest in Lebanon, the blogosphere soon became an indispensable addition to the daily dose of BBC and Lebanese media. Blogs simply became the medium of choice for many people outside of Lebanon who wanted to follow and understand the conflict. For Lebanese and other people in Lebanon, blogging offered a unique way to share and discuss their war experience. The war sent the international blogosphere into frantic action and filled chat rooms and postings with heated debate. According to the international blog search engine Technorati, key words during the conflicts, such as Hizbullah and Qana were among the very most requested on the Internet. The blogosphere became not just a space for debate but also for information and alternative views and accounts from the ground, which during previous conflicts in the Middle East has been the privilege of satellite channels. If the first Gulf War in 1991 was CNN’s baptism of fire and the Afghan Invasion in 1998 Al Jazeera’s, the Lebanon War in 2006 has propelled Internet-based journalism, which first appeared during and after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, from obscurity to the heart of the new Arab public sphere of transnational media.
The Lebanon War therefore makes an interesting sampler for wider trends in Middle Eastern blogging and new media. Through a critical discourse analysis of Lebanese blogs from their first stirrings during the “Independence Intifada” of 2005 to the Lebanon War in 2006, this article addresses some of the key concerns in sociological inquiry into new media. Does blogging facilitate rational discourse, respect for opposite opinions and pursuit of the best argument? Can blogs challenge the social authority of old media and in particular the press? If blogs are related to the crafting of new speech genres in other “young” media like mobile phones and emails, what does this new form of expression tell us about social cleavages in the Middle East? To what extent are blogs bourgeois, intellectual properties and to what extent do they reflect non-elite perspectives? And what, if anything, do blogs have to do with democratisation?
Interactive Media and Blogs in the Middle East
Blogs are part of a new generation of media which are slowly but steadily changing media habits in the West and other parts of the world in ways that some people think will be revolutionary. These media are characterised by their interactive nature. Whereas “old” mass media as we have known them since Gutenberg invented the print press in 1448 are based on mass mediation of a centrally formulated cultural product, these media actively involve the public. Interaction between readers, listeners and viewers has been known for some time from opinion pages, call-in radio programs and a range of popular TV shows based on the idea of selection or election. However, the invention of the Internet has added another dimension to interactivity by rendering the new generation of media multi-centric. The new media include interactive net-journalism, where newspapers let their readers write or influence part of the content, the net-encyclopaedia Wikipedia and other user-editable databases or “wikis,” and podcasting, which refers to Internet users’ own compilation of radio programs. In a way blogs are “so 2004.” New forms of interactive media like “vlogs” (video logs) and podcasts with better and faster forms of interactivity keep appearing. But at the same time, the blogosphere keeps expanding faster than any other new media sphere, particularly in parts of the world with limited access to the latest technology.
By way of a brief definition, a blog is a home page where the author regularly produces new texts and links readers to other blogs and sites of interest. It is easy to become a blogger. All one needs is a computer, an Internet connection and the right software which can be downloaded for free. The topic of a blog can be anything from a scientific discussion to news, political propaganda or fan culture, but it is the blog resembling a traditional diary or log of personal thoughts and experiences which has given Web logs their name. The number of blogs has grown exponentially since 2003. Today there are around 30 million blogs and every second a new one is created. Most bloggers are based in Europe, the US and the Far East, and use their blogs in very localised ways, such as to exchange gossip, music and films with close friends.
In the Middle East, blogs are less common due to the relatively small number of Internet users. But the low numbers belie their importance. In the last three years Arab bloggers critical of their governments have been subjected to prosecution and imprisonment in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Bahrain, Egypt and Tunisia. The increased surveillance by governments reflects their concern that in hands of savvy users, blogs can be very efficient political tools. Indeed, a relatively large number, if not the majority, of bloggers in the Middle East seem to be politically motivated. Many write in English, the lingua franca of the blogosphere, although considerable blogospheres exist in Persian, Hebrew and, to a lesser extent, in Arabic. We will return to the significance of the preponderance of English on Arab and particularly Lebanese blogs. For now, it is worth noting that using English rather than Arabic allows bloggers to communicate with international human rights groups, media, researchers, and, most importantly, a community of other bloggers worldwide.
The most famous Middle Eastern blogger is probably Salam Pax, whose diary from Baghdad before, during and after the 2003 American-led invasion was printed in The Guardian and later published as a book. Iraq and Iran are home to some of the most active blogospheres, emanating inside and outside the countries, but blog pioneers like Salam Pax have also inspired a growing number of bloggers in other Arab countries, notably Egypt and Lebanon.
In most Arab countries, blogs are still restricted to the middle and upper class. Symptomatically, Salam Pax was no “man in the street,” but the son of a high-ranking politician. On one hand, blogging can be seen as one among several means of expression for a politically active segment of the Arab middle classes who find it increasingly feasible to protest against the lack of democracy and freedom of speech in their countries. But it would be reductive to only look at blogging in an analytical framework of democratisation. Blogs have also created a medium through which the many Arabs living in the West can establish direct links with their home countries, generating a new realm for Arab transnationalism; they have given an outlet to the generation between fifteen and thirty five who have traditionally had limited access to the public sphere; and they have introduced a whole new speech genre, which challenges cultural, social and political norms. Each of these perspectives will be explored further in the analysis of Lebanese blogs.
Correct speech and differentiated speech
It is hard to find a metaphor that describes this new form of journalism and public debate. Blogs resemble opinion pages, but with minimal editorial filtering. Another qualitative difference between the print press and blogs lies in the speech modes employed. Blogs are dialogical in the true sense of the word, allowing not just for a response, but a quick sequence of responses and ensuing dialogues that extend to other user groups and media. They are snappy, filled with codes, abbreviations and cultural references. And unlike the heavily edited realm of newspapers, blogs facilitate informal and “incorrect” speech as well as formal speech genres. I will suggest here that this ability to play with speech genres is the precise reason why comparisons to old media and the cultural theories—such as the work of Jürgen Habermas—that accompanied their emergence in the period of high modernity ultimately yield very little insight into the actual workings of Internet media.
The reason why many people look for similarities between new and old media could be related to an undying techno-optimism inherent in modernisation theory, according to which electronic media are part of a development designed to “expand” the public sphere and further democratisation. In the Middle East perhaps more than anywhere else, the advent of global mass media in the last fifteen years has been accompanied by a strong belief in their potential to create open debate, break with old taboos and threaten undemocratic regimes. Contrary to these optimistic predictions, transnational media have become part of political culture in Arab countries without any demonstrable revolutionary consequences on political institutions. Satellite TV and increased press freedom have created increased diversity of Arab public debate and new venues for critical intellectuals, but have failed to generate enough trust between intellectuals, the media and the regimes to make them influential in policy making.
With the arrival of a new generation of media, we should be wary of joining the band-wagon of the old techno-determinism. There is no doubt that free media have in the past contributed to creating open societies in various parts of the world. But they do not do so automatically. Just like newspapers and satellite channels, blogs depend on production, consumption and organised civil society to transform any critical discourse into political action. Besides, expectations of media’s ability to create rationality comport with an implied, often unarticulated, political agenda to keep Arabs and Muslims typecast as irrational. Such expectations become particularly problematic when compared to the prominent role that religion, superstition, corruption and lies actually play in Western media and politics. The blogosphere is a remarkably free social space where opinions and arguments range from the very well informed to the ridiculous. Therefore blogs can inform, enlighten and further understanding between people, but they can also simply regurgitate popular superstition, fear and conspiracy theories. More importantly, they can be seen as playful realms of negotiation for national, social and gender stratifications. This freedom of expression can seem threatening to traditional social institutions, from Islamic authorities to traditional media and cultural elites. In Iran, for example, a debate about blogging (in which bloggers as well as the Iranian press participated) highlighted widespread concern that blogs undermine everything from standards of writing to principles of logical reasoning.
Implied in this critique is a nostalgia for a controlled or previleged space of “correct” Kantian discourse. This nostalgia or aspiration is central to Habermas’ idea of a democratic public sphere shared by those who espouse normative theory on the public sphere and hold a hapless reality up against it. As James Bohman explains, proponents of normative theory stress that a public sphere that is of demonstrable democratic import should enable speakers to express their views to others who in turn respond and raise their own opinions and concerns. In addition, this idealized democratic public sphere shows a commitment to communicative freedom and equality. Speakers and audiences treat each other with equal respect and freely exchange roles in their responses to each other. The exchange is guided by an expectation shared by all parties that interlocutors interpret the arguments of speakers solely with a view to establishing the truth. This is “correct” speech action in an idealized democratic public sphere.
The problem with normative theory is that it does not help us understand why and how actual communication plays out in the public sphere. Mikhael Bakhtin’s theory of heteroglossia or differentiated speech is better suited to explain the playful dimension of blogs. Bakhtin described the complex stratification of language into social speech genres determined by age, region, economic position, kinship and other factors. These genres or voices bring with them associations of everyday speech as well as more formalised authoritative voices. Because all speech genres are related hierarchically, dialogical interaction brings voices and meanings into play, with potentially position-altering effects. However, different mediated realms privilege different speech genres. My point here is to show that blogs have created a new medium which privileges “slack” or “play” between speech genres and their associated social authority to a much greater extent than previous generations of media. The language and outlook of Arab youths in particular are likely to gain from the undermining of social hierarchies. While this is an exiting development with potentially significant effects on the formation of social and cultural identity in the Middle East, we should be wary of overstretching this analysis beyond blog user communities and predicting a “media revolution” that the evidence does not sustain.
The birth of a Lebanese blogosphere
The size and potential for mass communication today demolishes the ideal Habermasian coffeehouse. No metaphors, sociological or otherwise, can do the possibilities of the World Wide Web justice, simply because it is unlike any previous medium. By viewing it as a variation of existing print media and national public spheres, one misses the point that it has opened up a “space of spaces” or “public of publics” that may interact with each other and with existing public spheres but that is essentially decentred and largely unregulated. This does not mean that the Internet is completely fluid or unbounded. Rather, a number of social and linguistic criteria and codes divide what initially seems like limitless cyberspace into manageable forums the boundaries of which are defined by its user groups.
Internet-based media like blogs today compliment and intersect with existing national and transnational media. At the same time, the Internet creates new forms of transnational communication, new communities and new affinities for Muslims and other Arabs. Blogs in particular have created a new social space where authority is tested through a play of voices and argumentation. A case in point is Lebanon, where the murder of Rafiq Al Hariri in February 2005 and the ensuing mass demonstrations known in Lebanon as the Intifadat Al Istiqlal (the Independence Intifada) and in the West as the Cedar Revolution kick-started a large number of blogs about Lebanese politics and society and effectively gave birth to a Lebanese blogosphere. Prior to Al Hariri’s assassination, there were very few blogs about and from Lebanon. In the period between February 2005 and June 2005 several hundred blogs were created, the majority of them as a direct result of the boom in civil activism that characterised the uprisings in the spring of 2005. The need to understand and discuss what was happening in their homeland prompted many Lebanese abroad to create blogs, which quickly began to enter into discussion about Lebanon’s political thaw or lack of it. Also non-Lebanese and people outside of Lebanon joined in the discussion, making the Lebanese blogosphere truly transnational.
These blogs offered an alternative to the traditional press and TV coverage. Compared to news coverage and editorials, blog postings were longer, more detailed, often more spontaneous and slanderous, and very often a lot more entertaining. During the Independence Intifada, blogs ensured that a wider variety of opinions, including crude cultural superiority and even racism, were on offer in the public sphere. Lebanese bloggers offered diversity of opinion and idiosyncratic voices for those who logged on. Their blogs acted as a “counterpublic” of alternative voices characterised by the use of more direct and informal speech genres than those employed in political discourse and in traditional media. Bloggers would bring anything from home pages, political speeches, a conversation they had with their cousin who happened to be a Hizbullah supporter, and any other interesting opinion or piece of information that they had come across, into the discussion of the ongoing political events. At the same time, bloggers interacted with the traditional public sphere by quoting the Lebanese press and television programs. This allowed for a more flexible, multi-vocal and informal discussion of political issues than that offered by traditional media. Small, chatty postings or long, academic articles were followed by comments and responses from other bloggers and readers, which were in turn followed by repartees, conversations, links.
1 Qana was the site of mass killings of civilians on July 30, 2006 as well as during the last Israeli invasion in 1996.
2 Marc Lynch, The New Arab Public Sphere - Iraq, Al-Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 125-38.
3 The scope of this article is somewhat limited by the fact that time constraint did not allow me to interview bloggers and interact with blog users in Lebanon. Research that examines the production and consumption of blogs must be called for.
4 Andreas Kluth, "Among the Audience - a Survey of the New Media," The Economist, no. April 22 (2006).
5 Peter Lewis, "Invasion of the Podcast People: Blogs Are So 2004," Fortune Magazine 152, no. 2 (2005).
6 Kluth, "Among the Audience - a Survey of the New Media."
7 Rebecca Blood, Weblogs: A History and Perspective (www.rebeccablood.net/essays/weblog.history.html, 2006 [cited).
8 According to Internet World Stats, there are around seventeen million Internet users in the Arab Middle East, equalling less than 10% of the population. In comparison, 69% of North Americans and 52% of Europeans are Internet users. http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats5.htm.
9 Imprisonment of Arab bloggers are regularly reported on the “metablog on Arab blogs,” http://arabblogandpoliticalcommunication.blogspot.com/.
10 For an overview over Arab blogs in English, see http://www.al-bab.com/arab/blogs.htm.
11 Alireza Doostdar, "The Vulgar Spririt of Blogging: On Language, Culture and Power in Persian Weblogistan," American Anthropologist 106, no. 4 (2004), 654-57.
12 Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1989). In this much-quoted book, Habermas explored the emergence of a literary public in 1800-century Europe through novels and journals—the new media of that time—and spaces for their readership such as coffeehouses and salons. Since its translation into English in the 1989, Habermas’ work has been the standard theoretical reference in most discussions about public life, public spheres and new media.
13 Samule M. Wilson and Leighton L. Peterson, "The Anthropology of Online Communities," Annual Review of Anthropology 31, no. 1 (2002).
14 Jon Alterman, New Media, New Politics? : From Satellite Television to the Internet in the Arab World (Washjngton: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1998).
15 Lynch, The New Arab Public Sphere - Iraq, Al-Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today, chapter two.
16 Michael C. Hudson, "On the Influence of the Intellectual in Arab Politics and Policymaking," Journal of Social Affairs 22, no. 88 (2005).
17 Doostdar, "The Vulgar Spririt of Blogging: On Language, Culture and Power in Persian Weblogistan."
18 Seyla Benhabib, "The Embattled Public Sphere: Hannah Arendt, Jürgen Habermas and Beyond," in Reasoning Practically, ed. Edna Ulmann-Margalit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). For new approaches to the public sphere away from the Habmersian ideal, see Craig J. Calhoun, Habermas and the Public Sphere, Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1992), John Michael Roberts and Nick Crossley, eds., After Habermas - New Perspectives on the Public Sphere (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone Books, 2002).
19 James Bohman, "Expanding Dialogue: The Internet, the Public Sphere and Prospects for Transnational Democracy," in After Habermas: New Perspectives on the Public Sphere, ed. Nick Crossley and John Michael Roberts (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 133-35.
20 Sue Vice, Introducing Bakhtin (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), 18-44.
21 Bohman, "Expanding Dialogue: The Internet, the Public Sphere and Prospects for Transnational Democracy," 139-40. See also M. Froomkin, "Habermas@Discourse.Net: Towards a Critical Theory of Cyberspace," Harvard Law Review 16 (2003).
22 Jon W. Anderson, "The Internet and Islam's New Interpretors," in New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere, ed. Dale Eickelman (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999).
23 For “counterpublics” in the Independence Intifada, see Sune Haugbolle, "Spatial Transformations in the Lebanese Independence Intifada," Arab Studies Journal 12, no.3 (2006).
24 Mona Eltahawy of Asharq Alawsat, quoted by William Fisher in the Daily Star, 21/3, 2005.
25 Some of the earliest Lebanese blogs were Across the bay and www.blissstreetjournal.blogspot.com (both 2004).
28 www.beirutspring.blogspot.com, www.lebop.blogspot.com.
30 www.beirut2bayside.blogspot.com and www.beirutbeltway.com.
31 Tony Badran, interviewed in the Daily Star, 10/3, 2006.
32 Other important Middle East studies blogs include Juan Cole’s Informed Comment (www.juancole.com) and Martin Kramer’s Sandbox (www.martinkramer.org/index.html).
35 Andrew Ó Baoill, "Weblogs and the Public Sphere," Into the Blogsphere (2004).
36 Elise Adib Salem, Constructing Lebanon - a Century of Literary Narratives (Gainesvilles: University of Florida Press, 2003), 111.
37 www.siegeoflebanon.blogspot.com, beirutlive.blogspot.com. See also Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, in The Daily Star, 3/8, 2006.
39 www.lebanonupdates.blogspot.com and www.samidoun.blogspot.com.
40 www.july2006waronlebanon.blogspot.com, www.electronicintifada.net/lebanon.
41 www.rashasalti.blogspot.com. See also Rasha Salti, "Siege Notes," MERIP 240 (2006).
43 www.Lebanesebloggers.blogspot.com/2006_07_01_Lebanese bloggers_archive.html.
44 Jon Alterman: “A proganda war that can be lost in translation,” in Financial Times. 23/8, 2006.
45 www.jamalghosn.blogspot.com. Similar sarcastic blogs include www.ramziblahblah.blogspot.com and www.anecdotesfromabananarepublic.blogspot.com.
47Art blogs: www.laureghorayeb.blogspot.com, www.thelebanese.blogspot.com. Blogs in Arabic: www.blogspot-light.blogspot.com, www.satrewaya.blogspot.com, www.mysteriouseve.blogspot.com.
48 M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogical Imagination (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002).
49 Doostdar, "The Vulgar Spririt of Blogging: On Language, Culture and Power in Persian Weblogistan," 654.
50 Bakhtin, quoted in Vice, Introducing Bakhtin, 20.
51 See for example www.lebanonupdates.blogspot.com, www.ecocampaigner.blogspot.com and www.siegeoflebanon.blogspot.com.
53 www.myspace.com is a popular social networking Web site offering an interactive, user-submitted network of friends, personal profiles, blogs, photos, music, and videos.
55 Hudson, "On the Influence of the Intellectual in Arab Politics and Policymaking," 84.