Historicizing Arab blogs: Reflections on the transmission of ideas and information in Middle Eastern history

by Brian Ulrich, Arab Media & Society, Spring 2009.

[This is an excerpt; to read the whole article, click here.]

Arab blogs have caught the attention of Middle East watchers. Much of the attention dedicated to them, however, has dealt with their political importance, whether as a mobilizing tool for activists or as an alternative source of news reporting. Blogging is also interesting, however, as a new and perhaps significant departure in the history of media in the Middle East. By this I do not mean “media” in the common late 20th century usage in which it applies primarily to those who work within unidirectional mass media, but rather as a medium of communication. In particular, I am interested in the way media enables and structures relationships between and among senders and receivers of ideas and information, as well as in the mechanisms of reception of messages and the perceptions of media forms and transmitters which circumscribe their authority.

This article is not designed to answer such questions, but to raise them through a brief survey of the immediate impacts of new media forms as currently understood by historians. Its approach to the history of technology is that while new media forms can enable certain changes in social practices, both the development of new forms and their utilization and impact are heavily, if not decisively, influenced by cultural, social, economic, and political factors. The intent is to use this survey to provide a general background giving rise to new comparisons and models which scholars may find useful, both in evaluating blogging in the Middle East as an activity and situating it in its historical context. It is necessarily preliminary, as many topics within the history of communication in the region require further investigation.

Parchment to print

In her study of blogging in the United States and Western Europe, Jill Walker Rettberg examined blogs in terms of their similarity to other forms of mass media introduced across centuries. For Rettberg, printed texts represented the first true mass media, and she suggested that blogs represent a similar increase in the ability to make texts available to wide audiences.[1] In the Arab context, we should note the introduction of paper nearly one thousand years before print, when the Abbasid dynasty sought to provide for the needs of government bureaucracy by supporting a paper industry to replace the expensive parchment and rare papyrus.[2] Once readily available, paper became the medium for a vibrant book industry allowing for the rapid dissemination of knowledge in a number of fields.[3] …

Blogging and new rituals of engagement

Cassettes deserve mention as a possibly significant point of comparison for blogs. Both emerged among those culturally linked to the medium and were used to express dissent with the established order. Sermons have long been an important part of the Islamic Revival, and had been recorded on tape since the early 20th century.[52] The origins of blogging are tied to those with an interest in computers. Lynch characterizes the first wave of Arab bloggers as, “young, technologically-oriented, and politically unengaged.”[53] Although it seems intuitively that blog reading before a computer screen would represent a break with the common practice of group reception of information seen in previous media forms, the existence of comment threads on many blogs may introduce a new element to that dynamic, as within virtual space time becomes more malleable and physical absence insignificant as those reading a post participate in a shared experience of the presented ideas and engage in discussion, not only with each other, but frequently with their originator in a new form of social rituals of engagement.

It is in such open rituals of engagement that blogs’ true revolutionary potential may lie. As suggested by the term “cyberspace,” the on-line creates a virtual space for the interaction of individuals regardless of physical distance. If this is the case, then within the history of the Middle East, the most apt comparison may not be to a media form, but rather to the rise of the coffeehouse as a new space for community interaction. Ralph Hattox’s study is potentially instructive. As he says: “In place of newspapers or public forums, the coffeehouse quickly became the place of exchange of information, where news of the palace or Porte was spread by word of mouth…A forum for the public ventilation of news, views and grievances concerning the state possessed the potential for becoming a political ‘clubhouse’ from which concerted action might be taken by those with a common distaste for the regime.”[54] In addition, coffeehouses were the sites of much less controversial conversation, as well as games and entertainment, in keeping with the multitude of topics addressed by blogs.[55]

If the internet represents a new public space in the Middle East, then many of its characteristics are shaped by the physical world within which it is embedded. For example, many blogs are most commonly found through national aggregators, such as Bahrain Blogs.[56] This has implications for the types of community created around a particular blog or between blogs. At the same time, the anonymity for which blogging provides makes it tempting for those seeking to escape an architecture of isolation created by the interface of their identity with that of those around them. As Courtney Radsch writes about Egypt: “As the blogosphere expanded and diversified, identity communities began to form. Bloggers who identified themselves as homosexual, Coptic, Bahai, and salafi created blogs and commented on each others’ posts.”[57] Sharon Otterman[58] and George Weyman[59] have both written excellent studies of women’s use of blogging in this fashion. Such involvement would have been all but impossible with previous media forms where a combination of convention and the frequent need for at least some physical communication rendered anonymity problematic.

This democratizing feature of blogs may be the most important. In most forms of mass media, some members of publicly marginalized groups have been able to participate in discussions of sensitive issues. However, the much lower barrier to entry for blogs, which require only the rapidly spreading internet access, means that anyone can jump in. Someone who would find it either impossible, or only possible with an unacceptable level of sacrifice, to say what they have to say in other formats will often find it easier to work behind an on-line pseudonym. At the same time, much as many in the 16th century Ottoman Empire looked down at coffeehouses, so its use to oppose dominant social discourses may discredit blogging in the eyes of many, as Radsch noted is already happening with some Egyptian professionals in response to bloggers’ political activism.[60] The social, cultural, and political conditions which inspire many to blog affect not only its pattern of voices, but the patterns of perception of the medium itself. At the same time, as economic imperatives dictate the spread of the internet which enables it, blogging holds out the potential of creating new perceptions of and means of exercising authority in the distribution of ideas based on the interaction of otherwise unknown on-line personas with given communities of interest. Given the importance of knowledge and ideas to social construction, the potential is there to shift the forces which help shape society itself.

Brian Ulrich is a visiting assistant professor of history at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. He is currently working on a book project concerning Arab tribalism during the caliphates. He also blogs on topics related to the Middle East at American Footprints and Brian’s Coffeehouse.