Spatial & Social Connectedness in the Arabian Gulf: How to connect when connection is forbidden

Being back in the region after living abroad for too long has been eye opening for me in many ways. I consider myself a person with feet in two worlds: The West and The Middle East. It is a very unique place to be and I feel very privileged. I’m reminded of this privilege in the most random moments, for example, I will be dining  in a restaurant in Doha and I could clearly understand and empathise to both types of the restaurant clientele: the locals and the expats.  This superpower needs more than just being bilingual. It is not only a language power … language shapes maybe 40%. In my opinion, it is the understanding of the lived experience of both places, feelings of home and what ‘home’ means to both parties,  along with language and some other secret ingredients. Fascinating ! Right…

A photo from Susie of Arabia’s blog showing a restaurant dining area in Jeddah. In the photo you can see the segregation between expats, Saudi women and Saudi men more clear by color. The expats (wearing Western clothing) in one corner, the men (wearing white thobs) all together taking somewhat the bottom side corner, and then the women (wearing all black) clustered at the top corner. 

Anyways,  this experience inspired me and my mentor, Sarah Vieweg at QCRI to write together a position paper to the CSCW16 Workshop on Spatial and Social Connectedness in Virtual and Mediated Environments. The theme of our submission is focused on explaining the unique work environment in 2 Gulf countries (Qatar and Saudi Arabia) and how the day-to-day interactions are shifting slowly to mediated environment and in many cases aided by technical solutions. We provide the example of Instagram shops and how they are empowering to women who lack the support or approval of the family to either work outside the home or start their own business.

Here is a link to the submission. As usual your thoughts and comments are always welcomed.



Fatwas and Social Media

Norah Abhokhodair & Sarah Vieweg

We’ve recently been having long conversations, coming up with half-baked theoretical motivations, and thought of about 9 different conference and journal paper ideas…all around the socio-technical research each of us does in the Middle East. We specifically focus on the Gulf Cooperation Council countries (GCC), which are comprised of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Of late, there has been a lot of discussion, worry, and intrigue in this part of the world regarding the ways in which technology — specifically, web-based communication technologies such as social media sites — are changing the foundations of Gulf culture, and probably causing a shift towards modernity and a loss of traditional norms, practices, and perspectives.

Recently, a conservative newspaper in Saudi Arabia published an interview with a Sheik (Muslim cleric) who supports a recent fatwa (a point of Islamic law) that claims that women should not be allowed to access the Internet without supervision or permission from a muhram (related male guardian). This is to say that every time a girl or woman wishes to use her phone or other connected device to access the Internet for any reason — be it to get directions, do research, connect with friends and family — she must do so while under a muhram’s eye — usually a father, husband, or brother.

The primary fear or concern regarding Saudi women accessing the Internet unsupervised is that online communication on social media in particular may lead to committing a sin knowingly or unknowingly. For example, proponents of this fatwa claim that social media have opened a new way for unrelated males and females to communicate that is free from the social constraints that are more easily enforced in public places such as schools and shops. The concern is that social media communication might evolve into phone or face-to-face communication between unmarried women and men, which is forbidden under Sharia law. So we see distress regarding the perceived ease with which unapproved activity can take place via social networking sites; namely, men and women can communicate, which is not something that can easily happen in other, easily accessible environments.

Regardless of how we may feel about this fatwa, and whether we agree with the premise, what is of note regarding the “complicating the online/offline binary” is that this kind of online communication (i.e. social media) developed with Western users in mind and adopted globally, is causing discomfort to many, such as the conservative Muslim clerics who aren’t happy the new values introduced to their society that are in tension with their religious and traditional values. Many of these clerics are unfamiliar with social media (and the Internet overall) and as a result, the lack of control over an unknown realm is cause for reaction. For us as researchers focusing on this part of the world, this confusion with the foreign object is interesting to observe for many reasons. Something we will continue to follow going forward are the tactics clerics will formulate and utilize to influence laws and policies that equate social media communication with face-to-face communication, without taking the properties and nuances of each into consideration.

Invitation to Participate in a Study on Social Media Privacy

SocialmedialogoAre you a social media user?

Did you spend time or plan to spend time studying in the US or Canada?

Are you willing to talk about your opinions and habits regarding social media?

If so, I would really appreciate about an hour and half of your time.

I am Norah Abokhodair a Saudi Arabia Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington (Seattle), in my research, I seek to understand what does “privacy” means to young Saudi women and men in the age of social media. My target participants are young Saudis who spent time studying in the US/Canada, or plan to spend time in either countries, and use social media applications such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.

Interview procedure: I will spend 1:30 hours (could be all at once or divided) with each participant (individually) to talk about social media use and related concerns. The interview can be performed in Arabic or English – whichever language you are comfortable with.

During the interview time participants will engage in a short activity that involves creating a collage using a collection of pictures and words (no design or art skills are needed for this).

I will not be collecting any personally identifying information. As a researcher I have a received approval from the University of Washington Human subject division to pursue this research under the condition of complete confidentiality.

Please let me know if you are willing to participate. Also, if you know of any others who may be interested, please pass this email along.

Thank you!

دعوة للمشاركة في دراسة بحثية عن الخصوصية في وسائل التواصل الاجتماعي‎

السلام عليكم ورحمة الله وبركاته

أرجو التعاون معي في اجاد من هم رغبين في المشاركه من الشباب والشابات السعوديين في بحث عن الخصوصية في وسائل التواصل الاجتماعيه. هذا البحث يعتبر الأول من نوعه في مجال التفاعل الإنساني الحاسوبي (HCI) لفهم تأثير عادات و تقاليد المستخدمين العرب (السعودين بالذات) على هذه التقنيات وتأثيرها علينا و على عاداتنا كمستخدمين. الرجاء من من هم جادين التواصل معي عبر البريد الالكتروني.

هل تستخدم شبكات الإعلام الاجتماعي؟ هل قمت بالدراسة لبعض الوقت في الولايات المتحدة أو كندا أو تخطط للقيام بذلك؟ هل أنت على استعداد للحديث عن آرائك وعاداتك فيما يتعلق بوسائل الإعلام الاجتماعية؟  في حال الإجابة بنعم، سأكون بغاية الامتنان إذا  أعطيتني حوالي ساعة ونصف من وقتك.

اسمي نورا أبو خضير وأنا سعودية مرشحة لنيل درجة الدكتوراه من جامعة واشنطن في سياتل، وفي بحثي أسعى لمعرفة ماذا تعني “الخصوصية” للشابات والشباب السعوديين في عصر الإعلام الاجتماعي. المشاركون المستهدفون في الدراسة هم السعوديون الشباب الذين درسوا لبعض الوقت في الولايات المتحدة أو كندا، أو الذين يخططون للقيام بذلك في أي من البلدين، ويستخدمون تطبيقات الإعلام .Instagram و Snapchatالاجتماعي مثل فيسبوك و

إجراءات المقابلة: سأمضي ساعة ونصف (قد تكون متواصلة أو موزعة على جلسات) مع كل مشارك (بشكل فردي) للتحدث عن استخدام الإعلام الاجتماعي والمشاغل المرتبطة به. يمكن إجراء المقابلة بالعربية أو الإنكليزية – بأي لغة تفضل.

 خلال المقابلة سينخرط المشاركون في نشاط قصير يتضمن إنشاء صورة مجمعة من عدة صور وكلمات (كولاج ) و لا يتطلب  مهارة في التصميم أو الفن للقيام بذلك.

لن أقوم بجمع أي معلومات شخصية. وقد تلقيت موافقة من قسم موضوع الدراسة البشري في جامعة واشنطن كباحثة لمتابعة هذا البحث بشرط السرية الكاملة.

يرجى إعلامي إذا في حال الرغبة بالمشاركة. كما يرجى تمرير هذه الرسالة لأي أشخاص آخرين قد تهمهم المشاركة.


Hello from Qatar’s Computer Research Institute !

A quick update, I am currently interning at Qatar Computer Research Institute (QCRI) where I will be working on research related to Arab youth, especially, gulf youth and social media.

The institute is very well equipped with the researchers and resources to conduct thorough research in this area and many others. From my first day here I quickly realized that places like QCRI will bring the GCC on the map of leading countries producing important scientific research.

I will be posting quick notes and updates on my journey at QCRI and Qatar so please stay tuned.


Saudi youth and Social Media

I read this article in the NYTimes and it is right on topic. I am currently preparing for my proposal defense and I believe that this article is a great teaser to what my study is going to be about, and the study expected results and contributions.

Some interesting points:

“Young women who cannot find jobs sell food or jewelry through Instagram. Since they are banned from driving, they get rides from car services like Uber and Careem. ” This is a true statement. In recent years the number of shops on Instagram tripled and the sale usually is conducted through WhatsApp. What is interesting in this behavior is that Saudi Sales men and women decided to ignore sites like Etsy and ebay that make the shopping experience easy and are designed specificully with shopping and selling in mind. To social media platforms like instagram and WhatsApp that were designed for different purposes in mind.  This is one of many other examples where Saudi youth made technologies their own, or in the words of the article author “Many have used the new technologies in uniquely Saudi ways.”

Another one is regarding the use of social media for romance and intimacy

“For Raqad Alabdali, a conservative 22-year-old from a Riyadh suburb, romance began when a man she did not know responded to her melancholy posts on Twitter with a private message. They were soon messaging constantly.” Romance and intimacy over social media is not very surprising … many stories here in the US and Europe show how applications like Tender and Grinder are helping men and women find their other half.. What is unique in the Saudi version of the story is that women and men are segregated in many aspects of the public life in Saudi.. so when they meet on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook it is totally random and some could end up in marriage and some dont.

The article shares the example of Raqad who continues her story ” They exchanged phone numbers for an occasional call, and she eventually sent him a photo of herself unveiled, in a white dress with bare shoulders and eye makeup on her uncovered face. He said he wanted to marry her. His mother called hers. The couple is planning a family meeting to make their engagement formal, Ms. Alabdali said. It will be their first time in the same room.“I don’t have any doubt that he’ll marry me or is serious about me,” Ms. Alabdali said. Why so sure? Her older brother and his wife met on Facebook.”

I will be sharing a version of my proposal once it is ready for publishing. Stay tuned…

Facebook Scraper Update

Hi all,

Thank you to all of our supporters and users for the comments and feedback they shared with us ! Your feedback was heard and an updated app is now available.


How to use it: 

First thing first, select from the dropdown menu whether it is a page or a group. Then enter the Facebook “page” or “group” name into the text box and the date range. And voila…

What is new: 

1- The results now appear in a table indicating the type of the post (image, text, URL, etc.)

2- We added all the types of posts .. not only text.

Please feel free to share your comments and feedback to help us improve.

***If you are planning to use this tool in your publishable research I would appreciate it if you referenced the tool/blog in your reference list.  The citation style will be for a “website” and the author is Abokhodair, N.

Arab Youth and Social Media: The case of Saudi Arabia — My paper at CHI 2015

Last week I was at CHI 2015: The Conference on Computer Human Interaction, which was held in Seoul, Korea. CHI is one of the worlds leading conferences in the field of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) and part of The Association for Computing Machinery’s (ACM). I am honored to have been a part of the conference Doctoral Consortium to present on my dissertation research titled:Transmigrant Saudi Arabian Youth and Social Media: Privacy, Intimacy and Freedom of Expression (PDF). You can also find it in the ACM Library online.

Paper abstract: The diverse ways in which Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are modified and appropriated into local contexts is an important theme in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) research. In my dissertation I propose to investigate the use of social media by transmigrant Saudi Arabian youth living between the USA and Saudi Arabia. In particular, I aim to understand how youth conceptualize values such as privacy, intimacy, and freedom of expression across different cultures, and how they appropriate social media during their transnational experience.

Talking about my background and how it relates to my dissertation research. #chi2015
Talking about my background and how it relates to my dissertation research. #chi2015

I highly encourage Ph.D. students in their dissertation proposal stage to participate in Doctoral Consortiums at their favorite conference. Cause it is a great opportunity to receive feedback from experts in the field and other Ph.Ds, in addition to being the best environment to meet and make new Ph.D. friends.

With my friends from the Doctoral Consortium posing in traditional Korean outfits.

If you had questions regarding CHI DC please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Thank you!

On using automated social actors to spreading political propaganda

If you are interested in the different ways bots could influence the social discourse online I totally recommend reading this great article I recently read on how bots can manipulate social media and spread political propaganda .

The author of the article is John Borthwick. Also, Gilad Lotan discusses this issue in his Medium.