Each term, the University of Oregon invites guest speakers in the academic and professional media industry to participate in the “Demystifying Media” program. The lectures aim to challenge faculty and staff by introducing them to the latest thinking in media research and practice. The second talk in the series for Winter 2017 explored how the Arabian Gulf uses social media. Coverage of the lectures is provided through a partnership with the University of Oregon.
When Sarah Vieweg was researching human-computer interactions in the Arab Gulf, it wasn’t uncommon for her to meet people with a second cell phone dedicated exclusively to their favorite social media applications.
“Social media are everywhere in the gulf,” Vieweg explains. Snapchat and Instagram are the regional favorites, but when a new app comes out, she says, people in the region adapt the technology faster than most Americans.
In talking with locals – who are majority Sunni Muslim – Vieweg noticed something else: a tension between social sharing and the traditions of modesty and privacy that govern customs in the conservative arab region.
“Social Media, for the most part…is theorized and defined in American and Western European perspectives,” Vieweg argues. “These perspectives don’t really translate well in a way that allows for something like privacy or modesty or honor, which are so critical from a Gulf Arab perspective, to be fully acknowledged or understood.”
Vieweg researched this disconnect, and the ways that Muslims in the region adapt the platforms to fit their customs, during the nearly three years she lived in Doha, Qatar. Late last year, she took a job at Facebook, where she continues to research user experience in social media.
At the heart of Vieweg’s research is the importance of modesty in Sunni Muslim culture.
In the Arab Gulf, the customs that dictate appropriate levels of modesty on a personal and social level are complex, and typically revolve around the conduct of women. Women are expected to dress in concealing clothing, to cover their hair and to have limited interactions with members of the opposite sex who are not parents, siblings or children. Some women also conceal their face and name from people outside their gender or immediate family.
These customs demand privacy standards that “are much more complex in the Gulf than they are in the West,” Vieweg points out. Since protecting that modesty is of the utmost importance to upholding family honor, concerns about privacy on social media are considerable.
If a woman over-shares with people outside of her gender or her tight family circle on social media, she could damage her honor, and the reputation of the entire family.
“I try to think of an equivalent thing in the west and I can’t,” Vieweg says. “If a photo of you naked got out it wouldn’t have repercussions to your cousins, for example.”
“If a woman’s picture gets out, it’s not just her that’s affected. It’s potentially her sisters who will have a bad reputation come about them, and the boys in the family will really give her a hard time and they’re going to take a lot of heat from their friends,” she explained. “It’s getting to this idea that you’re not an individual – you are part of a collective, very much.”
Instead of avoiding social media for fear of accidentally sharing too much, younger generations in the Gulf have developed workarounds and “privacy hacks” to use their favorite apps.
Vieweg’s team found that it was not uncommon for women to have multiple accounts on Facebook or Instagram, one of which was restricted exclusively for other women and their inner family circle, where they could post more candid photos. One woman confessed that she had six or seven privacy settings on Facebook, ranging from “limited” to “very limited,” where she could hide posts from people outside her family, or maybe hide posts from her family if she was afraid they wouldn’t approve.
Of course, even with these privacy settings in place, social media users susceptible to changes in platforms that can take them by surprise.
One man told Vieweg’s team that after Facebook changed their privacy settings a few years ago, he was taken off guard when a friend “liked” a previously private photo of his family. The man’s sister had her hair uncovered in the image – and he was so embarrassed about it that he stopped using Facebook for six months afterward.
Though social media platforms can sometimes cause unique problems in the Gulf, Vieweg points out that they can generate solutions, too.
For example, Instagram has become a makeshift marketplace in the Gulf – allowing women who are sometimes restricted from working in an office setting to run businesses from their homes.
“There is definitely a very gendered culture..but women are very empowered in many ways,” Vieweg suggests. “Women owned businesses are thriving.”
Vieweg’s research team has come up with a number of potential design elements that could allow people in the Arabic Gulf to use social media more comfortably.
Her ideas, which would require users to “opt-in” to specific settings, include offering “private” accounts a default setting, reconsidering the requirements of using one’s real name and having only one account, and allowing gender exclusive friend recommendations.
Facebook is interested in these insights, Vieweg says, both to serve their motto of “making the world more open and connected,” and also because the more users are on Facebook, the more advertising is being consumed.
“We want people to be constantly signing up for Facebook,” she pointed out. “If there are cultural barriers to that, I want to be aware of that so I can create features that allow it to be more appropriate.”