By Arjun Singh, PA social intelligence expert
Around 25% of the 7.1 billion people on the planet use social media and the number is growing fast. There was an 18% increase in 2013, with an expected 2.55 billion total users by 2017. The impact of this is being felt profoundly within the Middle East and Africa (MEA) region, which also boasts the fastest growing population of digital natives in the world. This cohort of population in the MEA region is expected to grow by 191% to 209.4 million in 2017 and is expected to cross the 700 million mark by 2050.
Today, around 1.7 billion natives have crowded together and actively use social media to be a part of this new world. These predominantly young people – many of whom have been familiar with the internet their whole lives – have an insatiable appetite for social media and digital content. The numbers in the region talk for themselves, with countries such as the UAE (54%) and Kuwait (49%) showing a high penetration for digital consumption and online streaming.
Given the rapid rate at which social media penetration is growing in the region, the expectation is that social media could be the biggest disrupter to the way we live our lives since the internet. Online groups are already transforming lives and businesses across the region – building influence and exerting political, economic and intellectual power. And yet they are also revealing themselves to be highly predictable in their behaviours and opinions.
This brave new world brings opportunities and risks for organisations and governments of every kind. In essence, it comes down to a combination of predictability, power and influence.
For years, scientists have been modelling human behaviour to try to understand why we do what we do and how we are likely to react in different situations. Social media provides an opportunity to do this on an unprecedented scale and – because billions of people now record and share their lives so openly on social media – in intricate detail. When individuals who share similar behavioural patterns are connected, they form an affinity group or a segmented crowd whose behaviour in any given situation is highly predictable. Recently, GE used a proactive approach to collecting ideas from their community of followers. They called it a ‘social airplane’, targeting the community of more than 90,000 people who follow their @ecomagination Twitter account. Over a short period of time, they received thousands of ideas that had not been discussed or published elsewhere. GE used the information to fine-tune their understanding of airline passengers’ expectations and to create new processes for injecting stakeholder input into strategic planning and product development.
An event in the recent history of the MEA region, the ‘Arab Spring,’ provides a dramatic example of how social media brought together the people within each country. Social media enabled the uprisings in the Arab world by aiding free and open communication within and among populations, and giving them the means to tell the world what was happening in their communities in near real time. Importantly, key actors in the movement for reform could remain anonymous on social media and promote their agendas easily. Meanwhile, governments targeted by the uprisings struggled to police the flow of information through social networks and to restrict crowd gatherings in the online space. Traditional mechanisms of social control proved ineffective and the Arab Spring has become a key example of how social media is influencing, facilitating and enabling fundamental societal change.
The battle for influence and control will be a primary factor for success and this influence will not come from traditional sources and in traditional manners. We expect ‘tribes’ of these digital natives to form around people of influence with global reach and power. This will diminish country and cultural influences and generate new centres of power. A good example is the potential influence that a pop star such as Justin Beiber could/does have on his followers. At around 47.6 million, his number of followers exceeds the population of the GCC (42.1 million). This phenomenon is not only prevalent in the West, but is also starting to take shape within the MEA region. Influential individuals in the region include:
- HH Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai and Prime Minister of UAE (2.4 million followers)
- Queen Rania of Jordan (3 million followers)
- Sultan Al Qasseimi, a commentator on Arab affairs (146,000 followers)
- Dima Khatib, the Syrian-born Palestinian journalist (155,000 followers).
The digital natives’ affinity with social media and digital content started out as a way for them to communicate and network online, but it has morphed into a world-changing phenomenon.
Rapid growth in mobile subscriptions, increased availability of broadband connectivity and cheaper smartphones and tablets have made this trend into a rampant force that will transform everything it touches, and it will take no prisoners. Organisations and governments that want to stay in the race – whether for power and influence, or for commercial success – cannot afford to be complacent about the needs of these natives. To survive, they must understand, predict and influence these natives, and initiate a response as bold and significant as the changes being wrought by social media itself.
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