The other night I was watching a program on one of those many religious channels on satellite TV. I am not a fan of either religious programming nor a fan of a satellite TV in the Arab world as both feel like they are constantly trying to sell me something, and a lot of the time, they usually, and quite literally, are. Nonetheless, this program featured the standard man with a beard, in front of an audience, preaching about various subjects. Tonight’s topic was about reading.
After giving a fairly interesting lecture about the importance of reading, mixed with recycled statistics as well as a trip down memory lane – also known as the Islamic Golden Age – he then proceeded to take questions from the audience. One of the first was about what to read, which was a great question because it offered him a golden opportunity to showcase some of his own books, most of which are lists of what to read.
Now, over the span of two posts, I want to respond to the answers he provided to two essential questions. The first was the following:
Is the Internet considered reading material?
You might have needed to play the preacher’s instantaneous “no” in slow motion to catch it at the speed that it flew.
Only books can provide that kind of value, he said. Obviously, this guy was old school.
Now, keep in mind that throughout his lecture he did refer to several websites so this isn’t a technologically illiterate individual, nor would I consider him to be an idiot in the classic sense of the word. For despite his mid-show sales pitch his answer was really just a reflection of the broader thinking that has engulfed the Arab world and will surely leave us lagging behind at the heels of the rest of the world.
His reasoning was that the Internet merely informs and does not provide “thakafa” – the Arabic word for culture, education and enlightenment. And I agree that distinguishing between what can be considered information and what is considered “thakafa” is important, yet in this context I have to disagree.
Many times I’ve heard fellow Arabs scoff at the Internet and especially about the rise of social media tools and platforms, including blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Their reasoning is quite similar to preacher above: it’s generally a waste of time and provides no real value – no “thakafa”, no enlightenment.
This reasoning is interesting to me because historically, human beings have always failed to see value in the most important of things, and the few that did were the ones who went on to succeed and even ventured towards greatness. When it comes to the Internet and social media, people fail to see that is just another means, just another platform, just another meduim, just another tool; how you weild it is what’s important.
In my mind, the Internet may be no different than various other technologies we have no problem in accepting as staples of our daily lives – technologies we were born in to. Some of these technologies are used for bad and some for good. The same can be said about pretty much any tool or medium in life.
The key is to find value in these tools, and the same can be said about the Internet and social media.
Yes, depending on how you look at it, many use the Internet to indulge in time-wasters such as chatting or posting their photos on Facebook and installing a bunch of frivolous applications, etc. But that in no way is the measure of the experience. To view something like Twitter as a place where people talk about what they ate for breakfast – a common definition of it by those who see it as a time-waster – is to look at with an incredibly narrow view.
To an extent, this isn’t their fault entirely. Many of these tools are used rather frivolously (again, like many other non-Internet tools), and some of them were even designed for that very purpose. During a 7-minute talk at TED, co-founded of Twitter, Evan Williams, mentions how the original idea was to really allow people to send status updates to their friends about what they were doing. Naturally, that sort of concept isn’t meant to generate tremendous results in value, but those users who saw news ways to create value out of Twitter using that same technology, went on to create tremendous things. The ideas that made Twitter popular were all user generated.
In essence, the same can be said of the Internet and all social media tools. And for the old-schoolers, the same can be said of books as well; most books provide no value whatsoever, we simply grant them a sense of respect because they are socially considered to be the traditional source of “thakafa”.
So, how do you find value in these tools?
In my opinion it comes down to one word: networks.
Whether it’s the Internet at large or social media tools specifically, the key is to create networks of value. It does take time to create such a network, but it would probably take just as much time if not more, to create a similar network using books that allow you to derive real value on a given subject. What I mean by networks here is putting together the different pieces that create the puzzle you want.
To use Twitter as the most fundamental of examples; this is a platform that allows you to follow rock stars, geeks, queens and CEOs. Each user sends out data that is relevant to their lives and the key is to make determinations. Is what this user sending out 90% of the time of any real value to me, my life and what I do? If so, follow them. Read what they have to send out. All it takes is a dozen of like-minded individuals, or even people who inspire you, to quickly derive real value.
For aspiring entrepreneurs, what greater opportunity is there than to follow the day-to-day happenings of the world’s top CEOs? Keep in mind that most of their tweets are related to what they do and what they’re reading online at the moment, rather than their breakfast order.
I am not even looking at Twitter’s use for helping to induce a revolution – that’s an extreme and rather rare utilization. I am looking at the everyday uses of a social media tool like Twitter. The same can be said of Facebook – it is a platform that gives you the opportunity to derive tremendous value. As a blogger and a writer it is the first place I go after publishing something, allowing me to make these words in the farthest and unknown corners of the digital world, viral. Creating a network of people on Facebook or on Twitter who are both an audience and like-minded people help make what you do viral. They derive value from it, you derive value from it, and you both help others derive value from it.
Delicious bookmarking provides one of the best definitions for what I mean by network. The ability to save any link and share it with the world is great, but adding selected delicious users whose links you find to be interesting as part of your delicious network is priceless.
The creation of networks that bring information to the user is of immense value.
I understand when people distinguish between information and “thakafa”; reading a book on say, social media or business, by an “expert” may be considered a source of enlightenment as opposed to the scattered nature of information on the Web. However, that scattered information, running within the right network, is pure, unfiltered, knowledge. Both the Internet and the interactions of users on social media platforms have allowed us to read an enormous amount of information on a subject of interest within the span of a single week than we would in an entire lifetime only decades ago.
The type of thinking illustrated by the preacher that started this mess of thoughts in my mind is definitely reflective of the broader thinking I’ve been exposed to in recent years while in Jordan. And it saddens me. While the rest of the world scrambles to find value out of the most simplest of ideas, we reject them because they do not conform with our traditional notions of knowledge generation and knowledge creation. It is the same reason we find ourselves running at the heels of the rest of the world, conforming and mimicking (at times reluctantly) to the value that they’ve created from such technologies. It is the same reason local media practically ignored the recent acquisition of Maktoob. No one bothers to dig beneath the seemingly useless desert sand to find oil, until someone comes and does it for us. Arab countries like Jordan say they want to be technologically advanced, but to what extent are they searching for real value in the most fundamental of modern technologies: the Internet, rather than passing it off as something completely trivial?
In short, it’s essentially up to the end-user to find value in these tools and technologies. They can equally provide great time-wasters as well as great value-providers.
It all comes down to the types of networks you create.
(stay tuned for part ii.)