A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
Language and expression are essential subjects of interest in the human sciences. The humanities are keen to study the concept of free time, the feelings, expressions and behaviors that arise within it. Individuals may not intend to document these blocks of time, but for the past decade Facebook has provided an ongoing record. A chronicle for a state of inertia that is documented in the form of a detailed diary, where individuals collectively monitor themselves.
In a previous article, I wrote that the lives of Yemenis revolve around social media platforms, especially Facebook. There are many reasons for this, including the speed of interaction, as well as the political and social circumstances that accompanied the surge of Facebook use, at least since 2011. In her book, Mind Change: How Digital Technologies are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains, Susan Greenfield gives us a comprehensive account of the changes that occur in the brain and in the chemistry of the body when using social networks, specifically Facebook.
In this article, we will also focus on Facebook, since it allows for a greater maximum character limit compared with other social media platforms, and the majority of posts are public.
First, we will take a closer look at Facebook posts in terms of style. The aim is to provide a brief analysis that allows us to examine the freedom of expression facilitated by social media and the consequences of this expression on social life. Since the individual is the focus of the examination, our analysis will be limited to personal posts that do not include content related to public affairs, political activism or human rights advocacy.
This study arises from a group of Facebook accounts that I have been following for a long time. These accounts are unique because they bring new people to the social media scene and are publicly available. They rely on words more than images in their posts, which is a point of interest, and the reason behind this study.
The nature of Facebook texts
Literary studies are interested in the written text in social media in terms of its content, structure and expressive methods, as well as its interaction with its environment. The nature of social networks facilitates an influx of many news-oriented topics and instant comments, which closes the distance between the source of the text and the recipient. As a result, the flow of writing on Facebook is also instantaneous, urgent and interactive, corresponding to multiple and accelerating daily events.
Facebook opened up the horizon for popular writing and created a platform beyond the limits of publishing and the monopoly of the printed page. In a way, it has created a community of writers. Everyone can create a page and gain followers and audiences who post comments to encourage and praise the writing outside of objective criticism. As a result, instant reflective writing flourished.
When we refer to Facebook writing, we are referring to writing that conveys experience, feelings, sensations, introspection, psychological perceptions and perspectives. All of which fall into the criteria of a literary work based on the techniques of the genre and its function: narration, description and aesthetic harmony.
In general, writing on Facebook contains descriptive news, which tells and transmits a story. It is closer to a report than an essay, which would make use of metaphors, expressions and figures of speech that belong to lavish language and vivid imagination. In other words, a smooth non-fiction does not necessarily require overly expressive and ornate language, but is colloquial, realistic and specifically local. At the end of the day, Facebook immerses the recipient in a flood of reports and dialogues that escape the intricacies of formal language and shorten the distance between the spoken and the written.
In terms of style, Facebook writing is divided into two genres. The first is colloquial and does not necessarily follow the rules and standards of formal Arabic writing. The second, however, is a genre that complies with the rules of grammar, but the literalism of its language distorts the formal Arabic sentence in its construction and style. Mainly it makes use of limited verbs that are repeated, and rarely uses the dual conjugation. It relies heavily on the use of emojis to express the emotional state accompanying the moment of writing, a supplement to the lack of body or facial expression in face-to-face conversation. This approach reflects a desire to increase the level of interaction between the writer and their intended audience through emojis, and reflects the writer’s imagination concerning their virtual readers.
Hence, the writing is more of a disclosure than a philosophical reflection. Often it reveals a sense of longing and expresses grievances. In some instances, the language gives the impression that it is a literal translation from a language other than Arabic.
Self-disclosure: Between the duality of betrayal and free speech
Facebook is founded on the basis that it urges its users to express all aspects of themselves. The status update prompt on Facebook is ‘What’s on your mind?’ The question varies according to the language; but across all languages, it is displayed in the status box in pale ink. Facebook places the user in the foreground, and urges users to express in first person. Once you start writing in the status text box, the letters become enlarged and the sharpness increases, making the process of writing more attractive in its embodiment of an answer to a public question. This is a call for self-disclosure that creates a feeling of participation and enhanced identity. It taps into the sense of pleasure and contentment in users’ brains, similar to that of food, sex and dance.
Reflective writing is a process that involves intensive reading. However, on Facebook it involves living a moment and transmitting it directly and literally. Many Facebook posts are everyday stories about family events, friends and daily experiences with food, fashion, music, wedding celebrations, life and death. Here we find relatively amusing anecdotes on Qat gatherings, ‘gossip’ sessions, weddings celebrations, dabab tales, stories at the margins of language.
Often the events are confined to certain contexts and people, family, co-workers, fellow students or a close circle or group of friends, with all the intimacy, exclusivity and privacy which this carries. However, once published, these experiences appear in public and become a text produced for circulation. Whether amusing or scandalous, the customary group dynamic that involves singling out one person in the group to make fun of continues even on a virtual platform.
In his book, An Infinite Networked Modernity, Hani al-Selwi writes about his experience with writing on the internet as an infinite network. When an individual sits at his computer or grabs his phone to write, he feels relieved “from the customary responsibility”. This feeling facilitates free writing, unrestricted by social norms, on the one hand, and escaping the possibility of censorship, in the event of publication on print, on the other. Writing about one’s daily life becomes a form of free association and rebellion, but it also risks betrayal of the sanctity of a gathering or place, where the rule is ‘what happens here stays here’.
In Yemeni society, home has absolute sanctity, and the events that take place at home remain a private matter that must be strictly protected. Occasionally a child will innocently and naively tell one story or another to the neighbors, lending wood to the fire of gossip. The amusing fact is that ‘home’ in colloquial Yemeni is not only limited to home as a place but also refers to those who reside within it, mainly the wife or female members of the family. This local specificity increases the sensitivity of the concept of ‘home’ and its secrets in a patriarchal society that views women, whether mother or wife, as vulnerable and fragile.
Ruining family relationships and friendships
Facebook is the platform where some family members become the child who embarrasses the family by mentioning the mother’s name (which is considered private in local customs) or revealing disciplinary measures taken at home, such as misplaced strictness or the authority of a ‘cruel’ mother – a narrative that is inconsistent with the classical idea of the tender never reproaching mother – or, more trivially, complaining about home cooking.
Some of these users later face harassment because they shared private family matters with the public and ‘exposed’ the mother’s name, even if this involved news that concerns her, even if she is a grandmother. Often disputes arise because a user published a picture of a female family member, to the objection of other male relatives.
Family aside, sharing marital troubles publicly is considered the most grave act of all. In this case, Facebook becomes a window to express anger, pain or hurt in turbulent times. People often trade stories about couples who met on Facebook and got married, but there are barely any stories on divorces that were caused by Facebook use. It is not far-fetched to imagine such cases exist, and many countries have more detailed statistics on causes of divorce, including those related to social media.
Sharing private matters is not only taboo within the family. Many friendships are torn apart, occasionally because of posts that reveal a person’s ideological position in a country that is full of political tension, but more often as a result of disputes on public disclosure.
I am ‘not your idea of me’
Many argue that social media promotes narcissism among users. It maximizes the user’s individuality and makes it a hypothetical focus of interest that demands the continuous production of something new. This hypothetical sense of stardom drives individuals to present the details of their life in this blue world, with all its contradictions and faults. From the praise of laziness and failure and letting ones friends down, we are at the stage of reshaping the value system, where people present themselves boldly, intentionally shocking, as if to tell others, ‘I am not your idea of me’.
New forms of expression have emerged. Some are satirical, followed by an intensive use of hashtags, which often evoke sayings or local expressions in various dialects. Others are more subtle but include the casual slur, and the insult between the lines. There are no red lines. Many of those who write reveal the facts of their homes without fear. They include everyone in their desires, resentments and choices; interacting with the public in a way that resembles reality television.
Women on social media
Overall, the number of female users is low in comparison to male users in Yemen. Despite this gap, many women have managed to enhance their virtual presence, using real names and sometimes including a personal photo; both of which are a challenge in themselves. This additional barrier leads many female users to establish their accounts and public presence for a long period of time before they reveal their identity.
Similar to their male counterparts, the women’s and girls’ content ranges from everyday stories to political debates. Those who live outside Yemen often write nostalgic anecdotes about the past, longing for their home towns, local food and Qat gatherings.
Conflicts often arise on Facebook over the role of women in society and the extent of their openness on the platform. In response, women take fiercely defensive positions which are not free from verbal violence regarding the various forms of harassment they are continuously subjected to.
Generally, accounts of Yemeni women on Facebook include everyday reflections and musings, as well as political debate, while the disclosure of family or personal details is rare or limited to details of the past, which do not carry the same sanctity. There are even groups created to share past confessions, often filled with ironies or intimate stories.
Recently, Qat emerged as a theme of discussion, and writing about, or publicly professing chewing Qat, is another attempt to challenge social norms that consider this to be mainly male territory. The age range and social status of these account holders require a more careful examination in order to understand the specificity of the challenges these female users face.
Facebook users in Yemen write with boldness and are intoxicated by words to a degree of sheer exposure. It goes without saying that online behavior patterns are not free from the influence of the current situation and living conditions in Yemen. Prospects for economic and political reform are at a standstill, and the realization of ones identity in a country crushed by war seems impossible. Surrounded by a restricted public sphere and with limited possibilities of hope, both materially and morally, irony and satire become the last resort.
Facebook created a platform that made every user a writer and exceeded the limits of receiving and sending. In the long run, this could lead to a greater benefit because the desire to express could motivate users to improve their writing abilities. In the meantime, the current writing scene on social media favors diaristic informal writing at the expense of formal language and other genres. In many cases, it includes texts that are difficult to categorize into a specific genre.
Mustafa Naji is a researcher and former Yemeni diplomat based in France.
 Naji, Mustafa. “Life on Facebook and the Dematerialization of Death in Yemen.” al-Madaniya, September 2019. https://almadaniyamag.com/2019/09/26/life-on-facebook-yemen/
 Greenfield, Susan. Mind Change: How Digital Technologies are Leaving Their Marks on Our Brains. Translated into Arabic by Ihab Abdul Rahim Ali, Knowledge World Series, No. 445, National Council for Culture, Arts and Literature, Kuwait, February 2017.
 Ahmed, Momen. وسائل التواصل ترسم خريطة جديدة للكتابة الأدبية [Social Media Redraws the Map of Literary Writing], al-Bayan, 18 December 2018. https://www.albayan.ae/five-senses/culture/2018-12-16-1.3435538
 Ibid, p.130.
 Dabab is the local name of a public transportation minibus.
 al-Selwi, Hani. الحداثة اللامتناهية الشبكية [An Infinite Networked Modernity]. Arweqa Foundation. Cairo, 2015.