A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
The Internet came to Yemen in the mid-1990s. In its early years the service was exclusive, it came at a high cost and was offered by one provider. At the time, Internet use was limited to institutions and individuals who could afford the service in the main cities, especially in the capital Sana’a. Until 2004, barely 1% of Yemen’s population had access to the Internet.
It was only after the introduction of accessible devices such as smartphones that the Internet became widespread. Telecom operators provided Internet services across multiple systems and took over the two first monopoly operators, TeleYemen and YemenNet.
However, the availability of the service alone was not incentive enough to spread Internet usage. It was rather the emergence of new mainstream uses, beyond business or work. The events of 2011 and the following popular political activity drew the general public to the Internet. The spread of Internet usage allowed individuals to take part in the sphere of influence and to become active participants in what was then widely considered a popular revolution. This is where the increase in number of users surged from 420,000 in 2010 to more than 7 million users in 2018, marking an increase of almost 24% of the total population. This shift made it possible for public users to feel that they were not only social actors but also political participants, which was a new and meaningful addition to their lives; or at least to the lives of some.
The main motivation behind Yemenis joining the Internet, as far as we can deduce, was the desire to take part in an ongoing social and political event. That being the case, we can imagine that the majority would resort to platforms conducive to this need. Through active involvement with social media, they could develop an online presence, in a manner similar to a social gathering or virtual forum. As a matter of fact that is precisely what happened.
Data on the most visited sites by country indicate that Facebook is the most popular in Yemen, compared to other Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia where YouTube is the most popular. Although both countries are similar in population and geography, the differences in economic and political conditions may be behind the difference in user preferences. Additionally, the quality of Internet services plays a role, and Saudi Arabia exceeds Yemen in that domain.
This article is the result of a desire to reflect on the phenomenon of Internet usage in Yemen and to read it from the perspective that virtual interaction has become a dominant and influential reality in our personal, psychological, practical and cognitive lives. The majority of people we know, across a variety of gender and age groups, are active on social media. Together we follow each other’s lives, share news, concerns, ambitions and preferences. We live among one another more than we ever have before. In addition to the individual, personal aspect, there is a collective aspect, or a Yemeni ‘common thematic group’. For nearly a decade, the political and social conditions in Yemen have dominated the lives of the Yemeni population both within the country and abroad. These shared circumstances have had their influence on the topics discussed on social media, news and other visual media.
Within the Yemeni political context, most users on Facebook are following pages or groups representing figures or entities that are linked to the current political scene in Yemen, as well as the consequent economic, social and relational conditions. Against this background, we will expand on some of these figures, sites and channels in Yemen to demonstrate how political issues of an existential nature are at the forefront of users concerns.
According to the Social Bakers website, Tawakkol Karman is the most followed figure, with 3.4 million followers (keeping in mind that a large number of followers live outside of Yemen and many are non-Yemenis). Al-Mashhad Al-Yemeni comes in second with 2.8 million, and Balqees TV channel, which is overseen by Tawakkol Karman, comes in third with 2 million followers. Both channels are dedicated to representing the political and economic transformation in Yemen. These masses of followers are united by one concern: to follow what is happening in Yemen and its impact on their lives and the lives of future generations.
Here, I would like to reflect on the phenomenon of what is referred to in Yemen colloquially as al-Fasbaka. The term refers to the use of Facebook as a screen that reflects the lives of individuals participating and moving across chosen communities, on the one hand, and inevitably assigned communities, on the other hand. The inevitable here is a result of Facebook algorithms that determine which users are grouped together according to common preferences.
These conclusions are not empirical or academic. The data and statistics supporting this hypothesis are limited, aside from a few statistics that illustrate or support the initial hypothesis on which this article is based.
The Yemeni Facebook
As a social media platform, Facebook provides three functions for users: receiving news, entertainment, networking and building relationships. In a way, it is more than a media outlet, but at the same time it is based on concepts of media, which prompted scholars to develop the term ‘relational media’.
Facebook creates an urge to self-identify, to ‘get out of one’s shell’, meet friends outside of spatial limits. It encourages users to form a geography of broad friendships that are immediate and transcend the logistical constraints of real communication.
Images also have power over individuals and can play a dominant and tyrannical role. That is why many users find it necessary to record their presence – at least once daily in an image – if not through words, or quotations that range between religious, artistic and literary. This puts the user under a certain pressure and compulsion to communicate in a manner that may come across as ‘desperate’.
Facebook gives its users a chance to speak their minds and disappear, not necessarily for the purpose of informing others in a ‘revolutionary’ or revisionist context, but for the purpose of fulfilling a basic social and political duty or recording a presence through social media. Overall, it is an opportunity to express their voice in a way that other political and media platforms do not allow for. It is an invaluable opportunity to simply speak. Yemenis post on Facebook more than any other social media platform, with an average of 84% of all social media posts being on the platform. Against the harsh conditions of an average Yemeni’s life, her or his existence turns into a moving ‘wall’ of news or posts. In reality, people’s lives exist on Facebook.
In a society where men and women live in two separate worlds, and the overlap between them is narrow, limited and full of challenges, communities on Facebook are also a relative reflection of this social reality. Since the virtual barrier is not a strict one and allows room for communication, Facebook became an outlet for communication between women and men. In the process, it offered the possibility of hiding behind pseudonyms and practicing a life different or outside of constraints imposed by a real social context.
77% of Internet users in Yemen are in the 19 to 34 years age group, and the ratio of males to females is 68%. This age group, which would otherwise be full of life and hope, finds itself prey to unemployment. This is due to restrictions in movement, among other difficulties, which are the result of the ongoing conflict in Yemen. However, this age group are not purely victims, and many youth are engaged in the conflict on the ground or through inciting further conflict through their social media activity.
The Yemeni community on Facebook also reveals the dominance of the male voice, as is the case in Yemeni society. A large number of male Internet users circulate their masculine discourse amongst themselves. These male users have a large blind spot when it comes to the visions of the opposite sex towards the current state of affairs.
Fast increase in users and exclusive bubbles
As noted, social networking has witnessed a big leap in Yemen in the last ten years. However, this communication is limited by a polarized dynamic between political and social constituents. Facebook or other networks are a mere reflection of this polarization. Users choose friends that have similar social and political orientations, which then produces isolated bubbles or ‘islands’ of communication. There is no universal and common ‘wall’ where rational dialogue takes place in the Habermasian sense. Instead, there are small walls that stand as symbolic barriers preventing any form of rational communication among opposing parties.
The civil verses the national
‘Bubbles’ are formed in a seemingly spontaneous manner, but are in fact technical due to the algorithms adopted by Facebook. Most networking takes place in closed communities or groups that adopt a common cause and maintain consensual positions. The community then devotes its activity to a single discourse that lacks diversity and is limited to the ‘cause’. This discourse often does not accept criticism or revision and forms a certain ego bubble. From here, communities harbor civil sentiments that are often at odds with wider more mainstream national sentiments.
Death and Facebook
Death is, of course, a true and reoccurring inevitable event. Humans as beings who cling to life, treat every death as if it were the first. This means that there is an absence of rationality in how humans react to death, and that an irrational emotionalism dominates the experience.
Facebook makes life a make-believe world, where relationships are virtual and characters are constructed (the duality of interactions and multiple accounts may not match the reality of the individual in real life). Emotions are simulated and death turns from a tragic event to a post that appears as you scroll down a blue screen. The announcement may be followed by another that carries another category of information that produces conflicting emotions, like joy in the event of a birth or wedding announcement.
The user wanders between life and death, strolling through a landscape of instant emotions, where a pause to contemplate life and death is brief.
The dematerialization of death
Writing and publishing on Facebook is a form of documenting and recording. Previously the recording of everyday life took place on a material and tangible surface that was later kept or preserved. Today, documenting a death through Facebook is placing it in an intangible world. Death turns into a few words, into an intangible image, and a dematerialized event.
What are the consequences of this virtual experience and dematerialization?
From event to brief news
Before social media, a family would find consolation for its loss by amplifying the narrative of death and its surrounding circumstances, providing an opportunity to reinvent the incident of loss. Thus, death here extends beyond being a public post where responses are superficial and weakened, and carries a stronger emotional weight that lasts beyond the brief duration of a Facebook post. In the case of the Yemeni war and its Facebook representations, the narrative of death is not amplified, but the number of deaths continues to multiply. Death here is accelerated, and obituaries are reduced to public posts, with a few condolences that carry a banner of martyrdom and sacrifice for a great cause such as the nation (martyrdom comes under many banners, including religion and nation).
The trivialization of death
The discrepancies between the virtual and the real make death into a make-believe event, and trivializes the tragedy.
Frequent news on the death of individuals and groups due to the conflict and its extended consequences, like disease and famine, have made death in Yemen both a lived and un-lived experience. It is both real and imagined. Social media has turned death into another occasion for users to collect sympathy, similar to how they collect ‘likes’. Death has become irrelevant, trivialized and widespread.
Users rush to share the joy of a new birth, and likewise hastily share news of death. With the frequency of deaths, each tragedy does not have the chance to carry the impact it should. The mourning period is brief, because soon another mourning is expected. People are busy with public events that have overtaken the private. As a result, private events have lost their intimacy and personal expression has shifted towards ‘participation’.
Through its very nature and interface, Facebook displays life as a sliding wall or a flying carpet. That is why death as an event has become posting material. It is an event, a post, with or without an image, and one can simply click and scroll from one image or post to another.
Places and times overlap across the territories of the country, the region and the globe. Facebook’s interface does not function like a newspaper. There is no section devoted to obituaries and condolences, nor is there a classification of news where certain information can be skipped and avoided. Everything is displayed in one place.
That is why death interferes with life without any warning signs. Everything is a ‘post’ or a story, and death has lost its poetic tragedy.
Mustafa Naji is a researcher and former Yemeni diplomat based in France.