The UAE places a high value on privacy, yet since Twitter took flight here two years ago, it has become one of the most popular social media sites.
Meet the twitterati
Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace and many, many more. If you haven't put your profile out there then you're not in the social media circle of trust. But one of the most diverse social media sites to take flight in the UAE is Twitter, not only because the medium allows anyone to follow you but because the "tweeters" or "twitterers" posting their real-time thoughts and movements are speaking openly in a society that is often very private. Launched globally in 2007, the social media platform that lets users update their Twitter status via micro-blogs of up to 140 characters was at first blocked in the UAE. It was unblocked by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority in August 2008. "Blocking Twitter was a technical misunderstanding versus censorship," says Carrington Malin, the managing director of Spot On Public Relations. "Social media sites often get incorrectly labelled in the same categories as dating sites, so are blocked."
Today, the site has more than 100 million users worldwide and an estimated 15,000 in the UAE with approximately 3,000 to 4,000 daily posters here. Malin, who has conducted several surveys on Twitter usage in the region, says, "At the beginning of last year the majority of users were online professionals and business networkers but then the Twitter hype kicked in regionally and the platform attracted more consumer users. Now there are thousands of people using it to talk to their friends and organise social meetings."
The social platform was created when Jack Dorsey, an American, suggested the idea during a brainstorming session at the podcasting company he worked for. Initially "twttr", as it was first known, was used as an internal communications device for company employees in 2006 before launching publicly in August of the same year. The craze caught on quickly, rebranding as Twitter in May 2007. Three years on and Twitter users now send 55 million tweets a day with the number of tweeters increasing by approximately 300,000 daily. So what is the appeal of Twitter?
Malin adds, "It stops people talking too much because you have to think very carefully about what you can say in less than 140 characters that will be appreciated by your followers. And because it is built as a completely open platform and most conversations are held in public, nothing is hidden so there is a mutual respect that is inherent in the site. If people were rude, then others wouldn't be interested in following you."
The growth of Twitter has also been driven in part by its popularity with "twitterlebrities". A-list tweeters include Hollywood stars such as the actor Ashton Kutcher, with 4,991,525 followers and his wife Demi Moore with 2,734,290, who use the medium as a way to connect directly with their fans (and even each other). Kutcher has the highest number of followers of any tweeter, followed by the singer Britney Spears at 4,818,356 and the comedienne Ellen DeGeneres at 4,563,076.
Another Twitter star is the British actor Stephen Fry, whose 1,531,870 followers have been kept entertained with his regular witty updates. He once tweeted about being stuck in a broken lift and famously announced he was quitting the medium after one follower dubbed him "boring". While the site has also been credited with breaking hundreds of news stories such as the Mumbai attacks in 2008 and the Turkish Airlines plane crash at Amsterdam's Schipol Airport in 2009, it has also come under fire for twitterers saying too much. In the run-up to the 2010 UK general election, a Labour candidate was sacked over highly offensive rants he posted on the site about voters, politicians and fellow Labour Party colleagues.
M magazine has tracked down six of the most prolific tweeters in the UAE . They share their reasons for tweeting and their most intimate Twitter habits with us.
Briton Kellie Whitehead is the managing director of Mamavents, a freelance copywriter and mother of three children aged nine, four and three. Kellie has been tweeting since March 2009. Twitter Bio: Freelance copywriter, editorial, PR , commercial scriptwriter and all-round creative marketer. Mum to three feral kids and corporate wife. Following: 704 Followers: 1,669 Number of Tweets: 13,784 Tweet: I HATE it when mags don't give prices on stuff they feature. I don't *think* I can afford it, but I want to be SURE I can't afford it *lol* "I don't know what I'd do without Twitter. I work from home and it's my water cooler, where I go for a break. I use it for work but most of all I'm a social tweeter and I'm totally addicted. "I'm sure people out there think I do no work whatsoever because I tweet so much. My attention span is awful; I'll write a paragraph and then go on Twitter. I tweet a lot because I have verbal diarrhoea. Sometimes I just like to rant about customer service or a news story, but I mainly write about my family and myself. The other day one of my children fired me as mummy so I tweeted: 'Job going at the Ranches.' I probably tell people too much but it's all just banter.
"I try not to be facetious but if I do say something negative about someone, it's coded. And I don't have a switch that says don't post something because I'm not a private person. I'm very open, wear my heart on my sleeve and I'm very self deprecating. "Being on Twitter has led to a lot of things. I get introduced at parties as DubaiWriter and even though it's embarrassing to say, I get invited to events and listed as a twitterer. I've also won competitions.
"I've met a lot of people whom I now consider friends and whenever we meet up at 'tweetups', you'll look around the room and there will be 18-year-old students talking to 45-year-old housewives. It's weird meeting the other personalities. You're standing there with a name badge on, not knowing anybody and then someone introduces you as DubaiWriter and everyone goes 'ohhh'. I went to one event once and this student came up me and told me what a huge fan he was as if I was J-Lo or something. "
Emirati brothers Mohamed Parham al Awadhi, 36, who is married with a four-year-old son, and Peyman, 34, who is single, have been tweeting since February 2009 to help them market their new venture as restaurant owners. Twitter Bio: Wild Peeta is the world's first fusion shawarma restaurant. The founders are two ex-corporate Emirati brothers who've decided to follow their dream. Following: 1,949
Followers: 2,873 Number of Tweets: 10,603 Tweet: Jst got bk frm emergency room. Apparently, hd fever 4 past few days. Why don't they tell u NOT 2 fill urine cup? I gv thm a year's supply. "Initially, we followed a handful of people at a time, started a conversation with them and gradually built up a relationship. We did this because we wanted quality followers who understood what Wild Peeta was about. We both have 12 years of corporate marketing experience so were pretty seasoned in all the brand spiel - but we wanted a human element. Wild Peeta is us, so it was important that we were ourselves and only talked about our interests, such as supporting UAE produce, health, sport and music.
We documented our daily lives, like a reality show, and posted pictures of the food we would be serving or the furniture we were thinking of buying and asked our followers their opinion. They felt empowered, and it showed that we were listening. "In the corporate world, companies spend millions finding out about their customers but never actually meet them; we were speaking to our future customers every day. We called them our invisible board members.
"Wild Peeta launched eight months later in October 2009 and people just flooded in. Since then we've been invited to speak about Twitter in the media and at corporate events, so we're lecturing the corporate guys now. "When you take all of that and value it, it's priceless. We're spending zero dollars on marketing and Twitter still has an impact every day. We now tweet under several avatars and even our delivery guy has his own Twitter account to take orders. We're opening four more outlets this year and that is down to our followers - we have all these people thinking for us and giving us ideas."
Broadcaster Jessica Swann, 34, from Australia, is the host of 103.8's Dubai Today. Jessica is single and started tweeting in February last year. Twitter Bio: Deputy programming director/producer/presenter Dubai Today, Dubai Eye Talk Radio 103.8 Following: 557 Followers: 1,315 Number of Tweets: 3,200 Tweet: I have a Van Gogh on my bedroom wall - Cafe De Nuit. I often wonder what prompted him to cut off his ear. Brilliance comes from many places.
"I decided to use my own name rather than the show's to give me the freedom to say what I want, but a lot of my followers see me as a representative of my show and think I should always fit that role. I remember frustratedly tweeting once about not being able to cover a particular story because of the environment we live in and I received a number of tweets back including one that said, 'You shouldn't be like that, you're meant to say positive things'. But aren't I allowed to have a bad day, too?
"Incorporating Twitter into the show started about five months ago. I lost my co-presenter for a day and decided to ask my followers who they wanted on the programme. The response was phenomenal and the number one nominee was Wild Peeta's Mohamed al Wahdi. When he said yes, the Twitter community was saying, 'tweet cheers, we picked the co-presenter'. It was like a Twitter democracy and that was a turning point, because everyone felt they had a voice.
"Now Twitter has taken the show to another level. It's a tough job managing all the input. I monitor an SMS feed, phone calls and Twitter, self-censoring as I go, as well as the controls on the desk. It's pretty crazy because we're talking, reading and typing tweets all at the same. "For me, Twitter is something I associate with my job, so I mainly follow media organisations, rather than people. "I played around with a secret alias so that I could talk about more risqué subjects but it was too difficult to maintain; following Twitter is a full-time job. My job is exhausting and when you have a public profile people expect you to carry it on and talk about the show whereas I just want to go home and read."
Ashraf Ghori, 36, from India, is a maker of animated films and father of three children aged eight, six and two, recently had his film Levity - Xero Error Minus1 - the first computer generated film to be produced in the UAE - shown at the Gulf Film Festival. Ashraf has been tweeting since January 2008. Twitter Bio: Artist, CG FilmMaker, Friend to all. www.xero-error.com; www.facebook.com/AshrafGhori
Following: 3,830 Followers: 4,897 Number of Tweets: 5,228 Tweet: Wonders never cease, A-list Hollywood producer in town wants to say hello. "A friend I was working with on this film said, 'Dude, you need to be on Twitter', so I logged on and got hooked on it. Initially it was all about making a presence, so I started doing the follow, unfollow routine to increase my number of followers. It's not a great way to go about it and as I continued tweeting, I realised it was important to be a person rather than a robot. I started seeing the people behind the numbers, got into conversations and that's when it really became a friendly, useful application.
"I tweet about my life, sci-fi, comics, any Dubai-related events and anything that really affects me. I also have accounts for my film and my company, but my personal account has the biggest following. One of the most significant things to happen was asking people to audition for the film via Twitter. A lot of UAE twitterers ended up in my film and I don't think it would have come together without their help. But it would be boring if I just tweeted about my film or myself, so I keep it fairly light-hearted.
"It takes up a lot of time so I keep a window constantly open so that I can update every half an hour. "I've also made a lot of friends through Twitter. When I was at school I used to draw comics for a newspaper out here: I was actually one of the first comic artists here, and people who knew me then have got back in touch through Twitter. "I've been to a few 'tweetups'. For me it's opened up a whole new social world outside my limited circle."
Susan Macaulay, 54, a Canadian divorcee, is a motivational life coach who says her job is to inspire. She spreads her message through public speaking workshops, life coaching and through her website amazingwomenrock.com. She has been tweeting for two years. Twitter Bio: Funky, fit & quirky maverick; passionate re women's issues, learning & life. Love 2 celebrate, motivate & inspire. Humble traveller & amazing woman.
Following: 331 Followers: 988 Number of Tweets: 10,776 Tweet: Feelng exceptnly joyful 2day 4 no reason. Sendng joy to u & everyne - have an AMAZINGLY AWESOME day :) RT! "The beauty of Twitter is that people have to be fast, quick-witted, able to get their thoughts down in 140 characters and be up for a little mental gymnastics. What that means is that it takes a particular kind of mind to use the medium effectively and there are some interesting personalities there. Because I consider my role in life to inspire, I tweet about inspirational articles on my website and issues relating to women and also use twitter as a means to interact with people.
"I only follow people rather than companies because I'm more of a social figure on the site and I like to converse with real people. I follow a lot of the Dubai twitterati because they go to the 'geekfests', 'twestivals' and 'tweetups' - all ways of meeting people from twitter -and I like to have some face-to-face contact. "What's interesting about 'tweetups' is that you don't always know what people look like. You see their little avatar online but they may not look like that in real life and often it's surprising how their personalities differ. There's a couple of women I follow who are very bold online and you meet them and they are so quiet. I suppose the medium allows that aspect of people's personalities to emerge. I go to as many 'tweetups' as I can. Anyone can organise one by sending out a 'twitvite' to their followers. "My twitter claim to fame is #PINK. I wear pink a lot and tweet '#PINK' all the time because when people know you for a single idea they remember you. I also tweet #MUAH a lot, which is air-kissing."
Mani Karthik, 33, is an Indian who works in search engine optimisation for Flip Media in Dubai. He is married with a three-year-old son and has been tweeting since 2007. Twitter Bio: Blogger.Indian.Learner.Geek.Livewire. Amazed learning new things, listening new tunes, going new places & enjoying the energy around. Flipper @FlipMedia
Following: 14,669 Followers: 22,772 Number of Tweets: 19,570 Tweet: I'm a bit nervous when people with 50-100 follwers follow me, they're gonna shout at me smtime soon, for all those tweets I send their way. "I'm a daily blogger and blog about tech-related stuff, so Twitter was a natural step for me and it seemed different from the rest of the crowd. At first I didn't think it would be popular; I registered my account and left it at that. But six months later I came back and that was when the Twitter revolution caught up and it rolled on from there.
"I'm now pretty high up the rankings in the UAE in terms of the number of followers - probably number three - and at one point I reached number 83 in the world but I've slipped back as I don't tweet quite as much as I used to. "Although it feels good, I don't know how accurate those grading lists are. People say, 'Oh, you've got so many followers' but I'm not a fan of having a number to show off because the true value is the interaction and the number of people you talk to on a daily basis.
"I tweet about whatever interests me about design, social media, technology, Apple and blogging as well as the latest gadgets and movies. I'm a media junkie so I'm on all the social networks, but I keep personal tweets to about five per cent even though that's where the fun is. "I tweet a lot, maybe 30 to 40 a day but it's part of my job and even how I got my job. I don't think I could take a break for more than two or three days because it is an addiction but that addiction is about me; I like to be on the edge, reading about the latest stuff and staying connected. "I'm a geek and because of my geeky nature I'm sticking with it. I can understand why some people don't understand why I spend so much time on there but if you want to get something out of it, you spend time on it."
The @ symbol precedes all twitter usernames DM: Direct Message. This is a private message sent to a particular Twitter user, rather than to all your followers Tweet: A message sent by twitterers
Follow / Unfollow routine: A method of increasing your number of followers by following people so that they follow you back Hashtag or # : By using a hash in front of a subject, e.g #UAE, it allows the twitter community to group tweets by topic RT: To ReTweet is to repost something that has already appeared in your Twitter feed Tweeps: Twitter followers who are your social network posse or peeps
Tweetup: When twitterers meet in person Tweeter / twitterer: Someone who uses twitter Twestival: A global series of events organised by twitter followers Twitvite: An invitation to an event via Twitter Twitterati: The A-list twitterers