Bloggers and the blogosphere in Lebanon and Syria: “Meanings” & “Activities

Maha Taki, PhD candidate, The Media and Communications Research Institute (CAMRI) Univ. of Westminster
For the past three years I have been researching the varied and unique ways in which blogging is perceived, appropriated and valued by actors in Lebanon and Syria. Since 2005, hundreds of enthusiastic articles have appeared in the Western and Arab press about Weblogs in the Arab world. This enthusiasm resonates loudly in this region due to the general dissatisfaction felt towards the state of the local mainstream media. Arab media is for the most part, either state controlled, censored, heavily divided amongst political ideologies and run or sponsored by politicians. In sharp contrast, Weblogs are deemed to offer a space where users can escape the boundaries (and ideologies) of the dominant social, cultural and political milieus, resulting in voices not often reported on being brought to the foreground, such as those of religious minorities, homosexuals, and the ‘opposition.’ The collective discourse makes unfounded assumptions about why bloggers blog rather than analyses why they actually do blog.
The present research project aims to go beyond this and interpret how bloggers feel about blogging, what it means for them and how they interpret it. It does so by exploring and comparing the process of blogging and the blogosphere in Lebanon and Syria. While this work bases its examination on a first hand study of microscopic perspective of the process of blogging, it is not limited to that. Rather, it investigates the bloggers’ positionality (how they are positioned and how they position themselves) within the wider social space that they inhabit, thus, taking into account the wider issues of access, social inequalities, censorship, self-censorship, the roles of institutions, government and society that affect their blogging activities. Through face-to-face ethnographic interviews with bloggers in their respective locales, online participant observation, an online questionnaire, and semi-structured face-to-face interviews with ISPs and others involved in Internet development projects, it explores the structural and cultural variables that have allowed actors to appropriate this technology in their own unique ways.
The analysis of Lebanon and Syria will be a comparative one that also considers the transnational forces between the two countries. Lebanon and Syria were both part of Greater Syria sharing much historical culture and change. It was not until 1920, when the League of Nations Mandate divided the Ottoman territories between Britain and France, that Lebanon and Syria emerged as two mutually, exclusive autonomous countries. Since then, Lebanon has been under an unstable, confessionally-based, capitalist state where a power-sharing formula attempts (unsuccessfully) to resolve competition among the main religious groupings, and Syria is under a relatively stable, secular, self-declared “socialist”, authoritarian regime. There has been a battle of continued and contested (sometimes bloody) disputes from within the government and different communities in the two countries on how the two countries should associate with each other. The research comparison will pursue the same questions and instruments of observation across the loose but vast divides of power and culture drawing on original field data, online observation, and historical data in the two national contexts.
In these societies, the blogosphere has constituted a complex and contradictory experience of modernity. Since the Internet and the frames in which users interact in allow for a different kind of communication to occur, my research questions revolve around how do bloggers negotiate social interactions online? How do they choose to articulate their identities? Why do they choose to blog? What do their Internet experiences tell us about the context they live in? Are affiliations in the offline world the same on-line? How is anonymity used and for which reasons?
The challenge that I face in working in such environments is the strikingly little literature that conceptualizes or even describes the micro everyday life of those living in contemporary Lebanon and Syria. Very few scholars have attempted to conceptualise what it means to be Syrian or Lebanese beyond the nation/confession/tribe labels and have often used lay or folk terms as analytical categories. These accounts have missed saying anything on how the macro structures have affected the micro occurrences and vice versa. In such a context, what are ways in which a researcher could deal with/compensate for the scarcity and disparity of sociological and anthropological literature?
Moreover, with such scarce literature, how does one test the macro level by capturing views from below through ethnography? Can conceptualising occur beyond the stories that bloggers tell me about the context in which they live in?

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3 Responses to Bloggers and the blogosphere in Lebanon and Syria: “Meanings” & “Activities

  1. Darine Sabbagh (Marketer) September 11, 2009 at 5:02 am #

    Very interesting research, one I have long been waiting for. You are creating teh basis of the literature that is lacking. Keep us posted on the progress.

  2. Maha Taki (PhD student, Uni of Westminster) September 20, 2009 at 6:20 pm #

    Thanks Darine. A Syrian blogger took the iniative to translate the above into Arabic. You can see it on his blog here:

  3. Mohammad Al abdallah September 20, 2009 at 8:25 pm #

    thanks Maha for the article, have you published the research yet? would love to have a look at it.

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