One of the oldest definitions of culture is the one written by the 19th-century British anthropologist Edward Taylor. Culture, he said, “is that complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, arts, morals, laws, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by [a human] as a member of society.”
According to this broad definition of culture, we should understand that we now live in two societies. One is a real-world society that has its own culture, and the other is a virtual-world culture of social media that also has its own culture. Each world influences and impacts the other.
Since people today rely less and less on traditional media sources such as newspapers, television, and radio for their information and instead spend time in a virtual world teeming with social-media sites like Tik Tok, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook and others, new figures and symbols have been having a greater and greater impact on them as trendsetters in this new society. They are known as “influencers”, and the successful ones now decide discussion topics among their followers through direct and regular communication with them.
The narrow definition of culture, for example meaning literature, cinema and the plastic arts, has also changed due to social media, which has become a platform and outlet for all forms of art. There are new criteria for cultural life around the world. Generation Z, which uses social media the most, is the generation that followed the millennial generation, and it has entirely new views on what makes a celebrity. Teenagers today admire online influencers much more than they do traditional celebrities from the traditional media spheres.
The social-media sites ComScore and YouTube recently conducted a survey on 2,940 YouTube users about their favourite videos. Millennials chose videos by ordinary people more than clips produced by companies or institutions. It seems that this new audience is more receptive and trusting of social-media influencers than traditional celebrities and cultural figures. As a result, the latter are taking a back seat to the new influencers who are the stars of social media.
It is another question whether the social-media platforms are merely the instruments of the big tech companies and ways for the new media circles to promote their culture over the Internet, or whether they have the potential to become genuine actors in their own right and strong agents of change in creating cultural content aligned to and complementing the new public taste.
Every period produces literary forms appropriate to it. Mohamed Senjala, a Jordanian writer who has produced interactive novels, says that “the form of the novel is now seen as boring for the writer and for readers. It is outdated because times have changed. Cultural geography is no longer the same, and people are no longer the same.”
In the same vein, in an article that appeared in the British newspaper the Guardian, the UK writer Andrew O’Hagan said that social media was responsible for gradually “murdering” the novel, erasing it from people’s lives, because many people no longer read and instead check social media. There has been a change in how people spend their time on public transport — once a place where people would consume books — since Wi-Fi services became available, he said.
It is undeniable that social media has brought great changes to authors and non-professional writers alike, giving them a forum to express themselves on digital walls such as on Facebook, the most popular of social-media sites for publishing content. Social media cuts through publishing restrictions and costs and is not at the mercy of reading committees, critics, or the cultural cliques who decide what deserves to be published and what does not.
Those in charge of newspapers, magazines and publishing houses traditionally imposed their tastes on readers, but today social media is imposing new criteria on publishing. Some publishing houses will even first ask a writer if they have any followers on Facebook, and based on the number of the writer’s followers, not the quality of the work, will then decide if they want to publish the work or not.
It seems that today for many, writing, publishing and sharing your status with others on Facebook is a stronger desire than almost anything else, because digital writing allows for immediate interaction between the writer and the reader through likes and comments. This creates “digital acculturation”, meaning the instantaneous exchange of ideas between people that is not available through printed books.
A new literature
According to Fatemah Al-Breiki, a critic from the UAE and an expert on modern criticism, today’s “interactive literature uses modern technology to deliver a new literary genre combining literature and technology that can only reach the audience through an electronic medium.
“This literature cannot be interactive if it does not give the audience an equal or more space than the original writer,” she said.
However, another effect of technology for many has been the new urgency in jotting down digital thoughts of mostly sub-standard content. Some people deal with content on social media less seriously than printed content, due to their being swamped by content from friends and its short-term interest.
Some view this content as unsourced, though friends of writers on social media tend not to be interested in traditional culture or connoisseurs of creative writing. Their likes and comments are not a gauge of literary quality as a result, since most of their interactions are compliments that they expect to see reciprocated on their own posts. The presence of the reader, and his or her ability to promptly infer and inquire while being free from the author’s authority and able instantaneously to discuss, attack, or praise, makes this “literature of posts” very popular.
According to the 20th-century Romanian playwright Eugène Ionesco, “all new literature is absurd,” and this may explain the disparity in how critics today view digital content. In general, most of what is published on social media, if judged by the standards of instantaneous production, is positive and has created a new literary genre known as the “literature of posts”. Sometimes, these posts can be collected into a printed book, such as Ahmed Atef Megahed’s 36 Likes and 12 Comments. This book is drawn from real Egyptian Facebook accounts.
Blogger Sara Hagrass, author of Sara [Good] News, bases her material on her daily Facebook writing about children. Mohamed Shair’s book On Facebook is a collection of content he originally published on Facebook that was liked by his followers.
The Book of Recovery by Egyptian writer Hossam Mustafa Ibrahim is one of the most successful recent such works, and it began as a series of posts about relationships that the writer published in book form in December 2018. The first four editions of the book sold out at the Cairo International Book Fair in January 2019, and it has now reached its eighth edition.
Ibrahim believes “some posts are written to create art, and art evolves. Every day there is a new form, so why don’t we consider posts as a new genre of literature? If they are judged according to artistic criteria, they can be viewed as a ‘very short stories’, such as those written by Noble laureate Naguib Mahfouz and others.
“They are situational, have a beginning and an end, and a moment of enlightenment in the tag or punchline,” he added.
Another example can be found in the work of Rupi Kaur, a Canadian poet of Indian origin born in 1992 who shares her poetry on Tumblr, a platform that allows users to blog in text or photo format. At first, Kaur used a nom de plume without revealing her identity. But she then began to blog using her own name on Instagram in 2014 and add simple and moving illustrations to her poetry. Today, she has 3.7 million followers.
Her first published book was a collection entitled Milk and Honey that sold more than 2.5 million copies around the world and stayed on The New York Times bestseller list for more than 77 weeks. It has been translated into 25 languages.
Like other art forms, poetry has thus been influenced by technology and social media. A search of Instagram using the hashtag “poetry in Arabic” turns up 21.8 million results, including copies of written poetry and videos of young poets reciting their poetry. Social-media poets have also appeared and have found large audiences on social media.
In Egypt, poet Mohamed Ibrahim, born in 1992, has 1.2 million followers on Facebook, and Mustafa Nasser has 3.9 million. Amr Hassan, born in August 1987, is considered the most famous poet of his generation and gained his popularity through social media. He has 1.2 million followers on Facebook, 52,200 subscribers on YouTube, and 164,000 on Instagram. His poetry is very popular with teenage and young adult fans who enjoy poetry.
If you want to increase your audience and readers on social media, don’t write too deeply or at too great a length. The poet Amr Hassan wrote the following verse on his Facebook page in January 2018, for example: “Something that is clearly evident, and I am certain about / If a girl goes to sleep wounded, she wakes up distrusting everyone”. There were 16,000 likes and 1,000 reactions to his poetry, but at the same time there was also some ridicule of such two-line poetry on social media. For some, this was not poetry at all despite its popularity.
There are various reasons for the popularity of this kind of digital poetry. First, most of the poets writing it focus on daily truths that they develop into poetic form and rhythmic phrases that everyone can empathise with. They are skilled at honing in on elementary phrases that can make the reader or browser say, “oh yes,” or “you’re right,” or share the text on Facebook with comments. Digital writing can thus be considered writing through the eyes of the reader, or, back in the days of radio, what was called “what listeners want” and not necessarily what the poet wants to say.
Meanwhile, many such poets manage their accounts on social media with great skill and are fully aware of their audience’s passion for memes. Poetry videos with sound and visual effects help to amplify their work. One of the distinctive features of poetry on social media is that it has worked to close the gap between poets and readers, making it much easier for the two to interact through comments and messages. This creates a closer relationship, which a writer often cannot reach through printed poetry alone.
Social media allows a poet to understand, test and measure what people like and what is impactful and thus begin to tailor his or her literary output to the taste of the audience.
Social media is thus not entirely detrimental for publishing, since there are many positives coming from it, especially marketing via social media and the ability to tear down the barriers between authors and readers.
Copyrights in the Digital Age
Digital publication can be a great gamble in this open forum, without guarantees of copyright. Literary theft is an unfortunate reality.
It is possible to write a post, and within seconds see it stolen and republished on someone else’s social media, perhaps even a friend’s, without referencing the original writer. Quote pieces, for example, or chunks of old content, can very often be published out of context on social media. This is common on Twitter, which only allows 140 characters per tweet and is thus particularly well-suited to quote pieces.
A major problem with digital quotes is copyright, or, more simply, who said what. Some bloggers attribute the quotes to themselves, and others attribute them to others incorrectly. Sometimes they even make up a quote and attribute it to a famous writer in order to give it more weight and importance and encourage more people to share it.
A special case of the fate of content in the digital era has been educational programming on Egyptian television, including such programmes as “Sea World”, “Animal World” and “The Secrets of Earth”. Another programme, “Science and Faith”, was the icon of educational programming on television in Egypt and the Arab world and was presented by the late Mustafa Mahmoud on Egyptian television for 28 years. Mahmoud’s distinguished and dignified voice was iconic, and the programme dealt with science on the basis of faith, combining the wonders of the universe with religion.
Mahmoud addressed many of the wonders of the universe in his programmes, and as social media has emerged, there have been more recent attempts to develop science and educational content on YouTube. The best-known is Ahmed Mohamed Ghandour’s “Al-Daheeh” (The Nerd), produced by this Egyptian YouTuber born in 1994 and a graduate of the American University in Cairo.
Ghandour created a YouTube channel to publish videos on educational subjects, and he has become famous for his work in Egypt and the other Arab countries. Today, he presents his programmes on the online channel Aljazeera Plus.
Unlike Mahmoud’s “Science and Faith”, “The Nerd” does not address knowledge from a faith perspective or paint science with a religious brush. Instead, it focuses more on scientific sources, and as a result it has been accused of atheism. Some people believe Arab audiences are not ready for such an abstract approach to science programmes. But “The Nerd” is famous for its youthful and humorous delivery, adding simple colloquialisms and punchlines to complex scientific concepts. In one interview, Ghandour has said he wants to “popularise” science to reach the masses and those who are not necessarily well-informed about science.
As a result, “The Nerd” has become one of the key new influencers in Egyptian culture today, and it has some 1.4 million followers on Facebook, with more than one million views per episode.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly