Innovation, Inclusive Research & Design, User Experience
Author: Norah Abokhodair
I'm an applied social scientist with a passion for researching and developing the next generation of social and collaborative technologies. Currently, I'm a Research Program Manager at the Microsoft Learning Innovation Lab where our cross-functional team of PMs, UX Researchers, and Software Engineers employ design thinking to discover the future of seamless learning experiences, leveraging the power of Artificial Intelligence.
This is super exciting! Our paper Holy Tweets: Exploring the Sharing of Quran on Twitter is now published in the proceedings of the ACM Human Computer Interaction Journal (link to free arxiv version). The paper is ready to be presented in Oct ’20 during The 23rd ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing.
The paper addresses an important topic, i.e., how Quran is being shared on Twitter and for what purpose — no, not for recruiting jihadist as approached by many Western researchers. We also share valuable discoveries regarding the top shared verses in our dataset, what Quran categories are often shared on social media, and when. We also discovered and shared the concept of “digital memorial accounts” and “digital remembrance agents” — bots that tweet on behalf of someone, alive or dead, to ensure the stream of good deeds continues for them, whether in their current life or when the die.
Abstract: While social media offer users a platform for self-expression, identity exploration, and community management, among other functions, they also offer space for religious practice and expression. In this paper, we explore social media spaces as they subtend new forms of religious experiences and rituals. We present a mixed method study to understand the practice of sharing Quran verses on Arabic Twitter in their cultural context by combining a quantitative analysis of the most shared Quran verses, the topics covered by these verses, and the modalities of sharing, with a qualitative study of users’ goals. This analysis of a set of 2.6 million tweets containing Quran verses demonstrates that online religious expression in the form of sharing Quran verses both extends offline religious life and supports new forms of religious expression including goals such as doing good deeds, giving charity, holding memorials, and showing solidarity. By analysing the responses on a survey, we found that our Arab Muslim respondents conceptualize social media platforms as everlasting, at least beyond their lifetimes, where they consider them to be effective for certain religious practices, such as reciting Quran, supplication (dua), and ceaseless charity. Our quantitative analysis of the most shared verses of the Quran underlines this commitment to religious expression as an act of worship, highlighting topics such as the hereafter, God’s mercy, and sharia law. We note that verses on topics such as jihad are shared much less often, contradicting some media representation of Muslim social media use and practice.
I’m excited to hear your thoughts and comments on this work.
00:00 – 00:10 Welcome and Introduction 00:10 – 00:20 Experiences and Goals Presentation 00:20 – 00:35 First round of discussion – Contextual Challenges of HCI Research in the Arab World 00:35 – 00:45 Present back to group 00:45 – 00:60 Second round of discussion – HCI Research Opportunities in the Arab World 00:60 – 00:70 Present back to group 00:70 – 00:80 What’s Next?
Recently, the following anecdote came up with my friend Fida, who’s a Computer Science Masters student at UW
After living in the US for 3 years, I went back to visit my family in Saudi Arabia. Among the many festivities of being home, my aunts invited my sisters and I over for lunch. “What time should we be at my aunts’ place?” I asked my sister Bushra. “After Noon prayer,” she replied. I was a little bit confused, “so, what time is that?” She answers: “the call for prayer is around a quarter after noon.” Her answer did not help very much, so I insisted: “should we leave our house at 12:15? How far is their place? Do they expect us immediately after prayer is adjourned or a little bit later?” The puzzled look on my sister’s face mirrored my own. “They’re expecting us after Noon Prayer,” she repeated. It was clear that we were using different units of time that indicate different perceptions.
Illustrated in this anecdote is the curious dilemma of “time” that the sisters were negotiating through their different perceptions. Bushra provided a general reference indicated by the time of a prayer, while Fida was waiting for time in units of hours and minutes. Fida and I have recently become interested in exploring the concept and notion of time. Specifically, we want to question how “time” travels as a value through technology and across borders. We are two Saudi researchers with our feet in two contexts: The Middle East and the US. We have been researching cross-cultural system design for a while in our mission towards more inclusive and culturally-sensitive technologies. In exploring the “Time by Design” dilemma, we take into account the reality that many of the most widely-used technologies—such as Google Calendar, Facebook Events, Maps—are imported from abroad with a Western notion of time. That raises important questions about the way information and communications technologies (ICTs) shape/influence or are shaped/influenced by cultural values endemic to the GCC region.
Social Construction of Time
Offering an example of the notion of time in clockwise manner; we begin from the US or the American concept of time, which mostly is discussed as Monochronic in the context of hourly pay, ‘me’ time, work/life balance, being on time. From these examples, it becomes clear that there is a strong association between time and monetary value in America, making time an expensive unit and asserting the importance of punctuality. Similar to the US, with some minor differences are other Western cultures, such as England, which are known for being very strict when it comes to punctuality, and consider it to be rude if a few minutes late.
Eastern cultures, on the other hand, perceive time differently as they view time in a cyclical manner [1,2] meaning that time is “not a scarce commodity,” and there is always going to be tomorrow to make up for lost time. The treatment of time and punctuality differ between countries in that region though. For example, in China it is common to arrive to a meeting 15-20 min earlier to get done faster, comparatively, it is more common to arrive either on time or couple of minutes late (5 mins) in the US. India is another story, there are many online articles that discuss — and warn Western tourists — the concept of time and that it is perceived in a slower manner. In other words, “Indian Standard Time (IST) is sometimes refereed as Indian Stretchable Time and that “Indian’s’ [sic] rather value the outcome than the Time itself.”
Our discussion and ongoing exploration of the concept of time cross-culturally highlights the ways in which time as a concept influences and is influenced by digital and non-digital technologies. Notably, these values are not necessarily understood—much less taken into consideration—when designers and developers create and/or augment technologies. Working within this vein of inquiry, we assert that a way to reduce cultural bias and design for globalization is to consider cross-cultural studies of certain values, like time.
Consider the Facebook Events feature as a design example. Many of us have used this feature to plan a birthday or a simple gathering with friends. Planning social events through Facebook in Saudi Arabia is not widely adopted thus far for some reasons. For one thing, people prefer to explicitly invite others in this hospitality-focused culture as it is politer (e.g., send a personal WhatsApp messages for the invite). Another reason is concerned with how invites specify time, Arab’s have a much open and flexible idea of time than other cultures. So, being late for an appointment or an invite is the accepted norm. In addition, Muslim cultures, in general, associate a great deal of their daily activities around prayer times. For example, socializing usually occurs after the Dusk prayer –last prayer of the day – because it is more convenient to meet at these time when you’re not obligated with another prayer. Also, in professional settings, it is known that employees will pray the noon prayer and then head to their lunch break.
One way Facebook Events can scale and become more culturally-sensitive to the values of the local population is through the inclusion of some simple design additions, such as payer times. So, instead of having one specific time to start or end an event (8pm or 7pm) a more flexible time option would service better (after Dhuhur prayer or Before Dusk prayer). In addition, knowing that people prefer to perform their prayers at the mosque or at a comfortable place, including a map that shows where the nearest mosque is will be beneficial. While fairly inexpensive to implement, this addition could have substantial impact on adoption in the Muslim part of the world.
My ongoing research with this population continues to reveal the need for more user centered research to address how technology and social media systems might be designed in a way that grants the needs of Arab Muslim users. These simple culturally-grounded and value-driven design decisions will have a definite impact on the usability of these technologies as they become more intuitive and simpler to use.
Very proud to have received an Honorable Mention from the ACM #CSCW Best Paper Award Committee for our paper on “Photo Sharing in the Arab Gulf: Expressing the Collective and Autonomous Selves” with my great collaborators and team Adam Hodges and Sarah Vieweg!
I am excited to announce that I am the receiver of the GHC Scholarship by the Anita Bog Institute to attend the 2016 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) in Houston, Texas, October 19-21, 2016. I will be in Huston from the 18th of Oct. so connect with me if you want to meet there.
I just got back from a very eventful DIS’16 where I was serving as a student volunteer and was also speaking at the conference. I got to meet other amazing student volunteers and attendees who came to Brisbane from all around the world and met at DIS. The best part were our volunteer t-shirts which read GENIUS on the back; we all did feel like geniuses, especially when people needed help and they yelled: “Excuse me, genius!”
Some photos from the conference with my fellow geniuses (Student Volunteers)
To me, DIS had a different flavor than the conferences I usually attended (CSCW & CHI): it was more compact, which allowed for many good conversations to occur with researchers and other students. (Also, it was easy to remember people’s names because you get to see them more than once a day.) In addition, the conference was very focused on tangible design, more so than theory or social science, which made for a really fun and very interactive experiance.
Being hosted by the awesome crew of QUT’s Urban Informatics Research Lab, it also had many interesting displays of user-centered smart cities and urban planning projects. Marcus Foth, the conference chair this year, did a brilliant job in organizing the conference. The way the conference was planned offered us many opprotonities to leave the conference venue and experience and interact with the city of Brisbane.
I also gave a talk, which was one of the most attended talks at the conference (yay!). I presented early results of the research I’ve been conducting with Sarah Vieweg on social media and the Arab Gulf in our paper “Privacy and Social Media in the Context of the Arab Gulf.” The work is also explained in my previous blog post.
Thank you for all the new friends and the entire DIS team. In addition, I’d like to thank QCRI for funding my travels to attend the conference and my collaborate Sarah Vieweg for her continued Support.
Finally, my dream came true and I made it to Australia!
I am currently in Brisbane, Australia to participate in the DIS 2016 conference. I am excited to partake in the conference in 2 different ways: 1- I will volunteering with other awesome students from around the world to organize the conference. 2- I will be presenting my paper on “Privacy and Social media in the context of the Arab Gulf,” which is summarized in my last blog post. The paper presentation will be held on Tuesday (June 7th) during the session 5.1 About Design that begins at 13.30 – 14.50. Please feel free to attend if you are around the area.
For years now, I have studied a topic that is both deeply personal to me as well as largely understudied in the academic world – online privacy in the context of the Middle East. This blog posts summarizes one of my recently published research papers that delves into privacy and social media in the context of the Arab Gulf. I conducted this research in collaboration with Sarah Vieweg; our findings are reported in our paper titled “Privacy & Social Media in the Context of the Arab Gulf.” The results of this study will be presented at the ACM conference for Designing Interactive Systems (DIS) held in Brisbane, Australia on June 4th of this year. I hope you will be able to attend our presentation, as we will be discussing a topic that is relevant in today’s world more than ever. If you are unable to attend, this post summarizes some of the main ideas.
During my time at the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) program, my research group and I invested a great deal of energy in researching the meaning of “privacy” in the Arab Gulf. Our main goal was to understand how Arab youth use social media platforms and the workarounds they employ to protect certain cultural and religious values while interacting with these technologies. While conducting our research in this context, we found that the concept of “privacy” in the Arab Gulf differs from the way it has been shaped by the available definitions and theories of privacy with origins in Western literature and philosophy. Though there are similarities, there are important distinctions.
Due to a lack of Western understanding of what the concept of “privacy” means in the context of the Arab Gulf, we decided to research it. We accompanied and supported our deep knowledge of the Arab culture and religious background with data, conducting 45 interviews with men and women from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. We delved into their understanding of privacy in relationship to social media – analyzing how their cultural and religious context impacts their usage of this relatively new, global, modern, “exposed” form of communication. We also studied the historical meaning of “khososyah,” which is the closest word in Arabic to “privacy.” Our early research results revealed the following aspects.
Privacy is inextricably linked with modesty & respect.
While prevalent conceptions of privacy in the Western world focus on the individual, and their relationship to “a group” (namely, notions of seclusion and control), we found that Arab Gulf notions of privacy are interlinked with the importance of modesty. Rana Sobh and Russell Belk explain that “the notion of privacy in the Arab-Islamic paradigm is largely related to the requirement of modest self-presentation for Muslims in public, particularly women… the underlying meaning of privacy in the Arab-Islamic culture is respect and not seclusion.” In our data we found that presenting oneself as modest, in both dress and behavior online, is of great importance to being a respectable member of Gulf society. Privacy plays an important role in how modesty and respect are maintained in online environments.
Privacy is the protection of the sanctity of one’s body and house.
“Hurma” (حرمة) is an Arabic word that means sanctity, and it symbolizes the concept closest to the notion of privacy in the English vocabulary. In the Quran, privacy is first mentioned in the context of instructing people to seek permission before entering another’s home. The purpose is to protect the sanctity—or hurma—of the house and the body. One is required to knock on a door three times before accessing another’s space. This rule is in place to avoid walking in on another while in a state of undress, or while with one’s spouse/family. Entering without permission risks exposing one’s “awrah” (عورة). In Islam, “awrah” literally refers to the intimate parts of one’s body.
In this figure, we depict awrah at the center, as it is of the most value; it is the object to be shielded. We show hurma encompassing awrah; it is the space that surrounds the awrah, protecting it. Haq al-khososyah (which is the common term used in Saudi Arabia to refer to privacy as a right) encircles the both hurma and awrah; it empowers people to legitimately protect their awrah.
We found that participants think about these three aspects of privacy when they are making a decision about sharing photos online. A Saudi male participant said:
“Four years ago when Facebook changed the privacy settings, one of my friends liked a picture of my family, the picture had my sister in it, and I got really upset and embarrassed that he could see that picture of my sister in it, so I deactivated my account for about six months, I think.”
The participant has a responsibility to protect his hurma, in this case, his sister’s reputation. A non relative male was able to view a photo of his sister, which was in effect an exposure of his sister’s awrah (in this case, her face). This is considered shameful situation, and one which brought embarrassment to the participant and his family.
Privacy is more than managing interpersonal boundaries.
Altman’s Privacy Regulation theory argues against the meaning of privacy as total withdrawal, and instead advocates for understanding it as a process of optimization. In other words, privacy is attained as individuals arrive at the acceptable personal balance between withdrawal and disclosure to a group. So you can think of it as a lever where individuals and groups are negotiating boundaries. However, our data shows this theory falls short when explaining privacy in the context of the Arab Gulf for two reasons:
The collectivistic nature of the society allows us to assume that the concept of privacy is not solely about achieving interpersonal boundaries.
In this context, we need to consider the role of religion and tradition and how they influence the need and expectation of privacy.
Privacy is a societal expectation.
Our participants were very clear about how they experienced privacy in different ways relative to different contexts (i.e. West vs. Middle East; offline vs. online). One participant explained that privacy “is not about me and my beliefs; it is about the audience and what they believe in and their objective.” Another explained that privacy isn’t something they need to pursue and that it “is a lot more of a right over here [in Saudi] than anywhere else. People actually respect your privacy here, where in the West you will be asked too many details. Generally speaking, the idea of privacy in the West is hard to achieve…sometimes it is something you have to stand up for.”
These were some of the main points we found in our early investigation of this topic. To me personally, these new realizations of what privacy means in this context and how it is deeply rooted in Islamic practices and cultural tradition, explained the behaviors I see with how my sisters and my friends back home use social media. It is fascinating to see how people around the world make this technology “their own”, a technology that was developed in the West with a different set of users in mind and then appropriated to fit the global context. This type of research is important because the more we know about how different cultural groups use technology the more we are able to influence policy and suggest culturally sensitive design principles that will make technology more usable by the wider audience.
The tragic terrorist attacks of November 13, 2015 in Paris sparked a massive global discussion via social media between those attacking and those defending Islam and Muslims. The March 22, 2016 terrorist attack in Brussels is now sparking a similar and heated online debate. This caused our research team from Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) – Walid Magdy, Kareem Darwish and myself (Norah Abokhodair) – to ask: what is the breakdown of this sentiment?
We analyzed 8.36 million tweets beginning seven hours after the Paris attacks and continuing for another 50 hours. Searching for words and hashtags relevant to the event, we then identified about 900,000 tweets relating to Islam and Muslims. Our results showed that a majority (61%) of these tweets defended Muslims and Islam using the hashtags #MuslimsAreNotTerrorist (34,925 tweets at the time of writing) and #MuslimsStandWithParis (1,228 tweets). On the other hand, a considerable number of tweets – originating from Western countries such as the Netherlands, France and the U.S. – used language that blamed all Muslims and Islam for these attacks. These tweets ranged from asking their government to take action against Muslims to using the hashtag #KillAllMuslims (206 tweets). Check out the graph below for a per-country breakdown:
For example, one of the most followed accounts that appeared in our most retweeted attacking tweets was the U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump’s.
Why won’t President Obama use the term Islamic Terrorism? Isn’t it now, after all of this time and so much death, about time!
In the tweet, Trump slams the Democratic Party and president Obama for not referring to the Daesh/ISIS attacks as Islamic Terrorism. When reviewing Trump’s timeline, one can see that this is part of a series of similar generalizations about Muslim culture. But can following and reading @realDonaldTrump mean you are also more likely to blame all Islam and Muslims for the tragic actions of a few?
To investigate this, our follow-up study (recently accepted to the ACM WebScience conference in collaboration with researchers from Melbourne University in Australia, will link in later post) focused on U.S. Twitter data to examine the effects of social network interactions on future attitudes. By studying pre-event interactions – including who you follow, who follows you, and the content and people you tweet and retweet – we can predict your attitude and your political stance. We confirmed that by assessing users’ stated stance based on their post-event tweets. Most impressively, we found that pre-event interactions predict someone’s attitudes towards Muslims with high accuracy, even if they never discussed the topic before. Social media messages and networks therefore have profound influence on political attitudes and shape national and international policy. Future research will allow for more accurate predictions of community response to crises and the drivers of policy change.