- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Facebook recently launched an Arabic version of its popular social networking site in a bid to expand its presence among the 250 million Arabic-speaking people of the world. Facebook enlisted the help of 850 Arabic speakers in the site’s design, asking them to discuss and vote on the best translations.
Facebook is already wildly successful across the Middle East, even without a design in most Arabs’ native language. According to Alexa, it is the most popular site in Lebanon, with 300,000 users, and the third most popular site in Egypt, with 900,000 users. It has long been possible to write in Arabic script on Facebook, but users have needed to be proficient in another language to navigate the site’s links and sidebars.
In the Middle East, where political expression is largely dominated by the state, the expansion of Facebook to Arabic-only speakers is a potentially big deal. Last year, Facebook’s largely censorship-free environment helped Egyptian activists organize anti-regime protests. This has caused some Arab regimes to crack down on the social networking site. Egyptian authorities arrested and roughed up the creator of a Facebook group that promoted last year’s protest, while Syria has previously blocked all access to the site.
Early reviews of Facebook’s Arabic version have been mixed, with some users complaining that the translations are unwieldy or inaccurate. Without previously existing Arabic words for Facebook terms such as a “wall” or ‘E-mail Friend Finder,” this was perhaps inevitable. But the criticism from bilingual users familiar with the English-language Facebook misses the point. This experiment will sink or swim based on the site’s ability to tap into the market of Arabic-only speakers, and to act as a conduit for expression and organization beyond the reach of the state.