On the weekend of March 7-9, I went to quite a few sessions at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. Today, I’m going to write about what I heard (and learned) at a session called “The Blogging Panel”:
Do you blog? Why would you? Who would you write to and is it just another reason to be hooked online rather than talking to people in the room you physically inhabit? Like it or loathe it, there are millions of bloggers worldwide all with a reason to write and, thanks to the worldwide web, with a potentially captive audience. Our panelists are all bloggers – join social commentator, writer, and journalist Shobhaa De, Russian crime fiction writer and social activist Boris Akunin, CNN journalist Caroline Faraj, and locally-based newly-published author Kathy Shalhoub to learn their motives to blog.
Social Media in the Arab World
I got stuck in traffic and arrived at this session a little bit late, so I missed the very beginning. When I arrived, the moderator (Alexander McNabb of Fake Plastic Souks) was talking about how social media is relatively new to the Arab world, and Faraj responded that social media has become popular here because it is an open platform that has no restrictions or censorship as to what people can say. McNabb said that this means that social media is exposing something unpleasant, and that it gives a platform that is dangerously public in a part of the world where many governments like to control what is said within their country. Faraj said that, as an editor of blogs posted on CNN Arabia, she doesn’t take responsibility for the content of those posts. She also pointed out, when asked about the possible danger, that once someone writes one word online, they don’t own it anymore. It’s difficult to control.
The Speakers’ Personal Blogs
De said that she cross-posts her columns to her blog, though she also posts plain blog posts that aren’t columns. She said that all columnists are, by definition, opinionated, and that she doesn’t think that one can have safety nets when they are deciding what to write about (or not). I thought she made a very good point when she said “there is absolutely no point in writing a column if you’re going to stay safe”. Akunin, on the other hand, replied by saying, “I do not like to exchange opinions with passionate people”, which brought on a laugh from the audience. McNabb asked him about politeness, and he said that “we see from the internet that that’s not what interests people today”.
The discussion then moved on to Shalhoub, pointing out that bloggers can bring forward perspectives that we might not otherwise have had in mind. She said that the Lebanese emigrants that she wrote about on her blog had “become global citizens – foreigners at home, citizens when abroad”, that there had become no space for them. When asked how her blog had been picked up as a book, she said that she thinks it’s because it was accepting these people for the way they are.
Evolution of Citizen Bloggers
Faraj said that the majority of blogs in the Arab world are about politics, with a few touching on about sports and entertainment. At first, she said, there was lots of plagiarism or made up stories, and she often had to check the authenticity. Now she says that the challenge has shifted to having to check for personal attacks, and that she has seen growth. She also pointed out that there is a huge difference in how Arabic and English bloggers tackle the same issues, something that doesn’t really surprise me. I often wish that I could understand Arabic so that I could see more primary sources rather than having to read about the opinions of Arabs through English-medium news. Faraj pointed out that people in the Arab world are using Twitter more and are frequently accessing the internet from American IP addresses. In recent years, YouTube has become more popular than blogging, followed by Facebook. She reminded the audience that the Arab Spring had been organized primarily through social media.
The focus then shifted to Akunin, who said that everyone has become politicized in the last two years in Russia. He said “writing is like a thermometer, you can understand the temperature of a society when you watch writers … you can break a thermometer but it won’t heal the disease”. He said that he never regrets anything he has done before, and De agreed with him, saying that there is “no room for regret when you believe in what you’re saying and are willing to put your credibility on the line”.
Blogs for Book Promotion
Shalhoub said that readers are interested not just in what authors write but in who they are. She said, “if you’re giving your readers something to think about, you’re going to build your readership. Connecting with you as a person will get them to come back for more”. De said that she finds the “hard sell” very tacky and demeaning, and that she will only use her blog to promote other people’s books under her imprint, and not her own. Akunin said that the people who read his blog and those who read his books are not exactly the same audience. De also said that writing her blog frees her from other writing, as it is her own personal space, and that she’s a completely different person while blogging than she is when not blogging.
Journalist vs. Blogger
Faraj said that journalists have a code of conduct they must abide by, that they must report stories that are not their opinion, while bloggers have no code of conduct, can write anything they want, and mostly write about their own thoughts and opinions. She said that it is sensitive to be a journalist and have a personal blog, because you could be seen as representing the position of your employer in one way or another. She said that, because of this, journalists often don’t want to attach their personal thoughts to a blog.
Dealing with Censorship
McNabb asked De and Akunin how their blogs would change if they were located elsewhere, in countries with more censorship. De said “I would find ways around the censorship issue somehow”, and that if she couldn’t, she would stop writing. Akunin, on the other hand, said that he “would shut up for quite a while, feelers to the ground to find out what is going on inside myself; after a while, I would begin to write but I have no idea what it would look like as it’s a much different world from what I know”.
Good/Bad Blogs (or Bloggers)
Shalhoub said that makes a good blog(ger) is a clear direction and clear opinions, that people revisit your blog because there’s a central theme to it. Faraj said that a bad blogger keeps attacking people for the sake of attacking and generally has no vision. Finally, Akunin said that the same rules apply as to any other sort of creativity, that it is a case of being dull or interesting.
I had a lovely time attending this panel discussion. Do you have any thoughts on anything they talked about? I’d love to discuss it with you in the comments.