In January 2010, while planning and executing a relaunch project for the London and Amman based online Arabic news start-up, Aaram.net, a key objective of mine was to create a set of meaningful media collaborations that promoted the site as a democratic platform, an uncensored, responsibly liberal platform with no political affiliations or agendas, a moral beacon for clean journalism which avoided defamation and slander as a means to generate interesting news content. Unfortunately, we were operating in an Arab media industry (as a matter of opinion) engulfed in all of the above, and still operate in all of the above.
The aim of the relaunch was not solely to introduce a desperately needed newer design in comparison to the old static site, but it was a relaunch that aimed to unlock the potential of a platform that encouraged debate and critical thinking to a region and audience that we viewed as being force-fed international and regional news by the big guns such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya. It was a David vs Golliath battle. To emphasise this vision, we launched a video blogging section, dedicated to free debate, interaction and user generated content.
I approached various Arab governmental officials, ministerial offices, regional Royal Palaces, all in a bid to open dialogue, through our site, with the readers... the Arab people. Their responses (or absence of) angered me, frustrated me, it was not happening the way I envisaged, I naïvely thought it would be that easy. Not surprisingly, they didn't listen.
So the plan changed, my focus turned towards the West and in particular toward the United Kingdom and the United States (Foreign Office and Department of State, respectively). I made contact with both, pitching the idea of creating video blogs on Aaram, whereby on various occasions we would explore important developments in the region that the US and the UK wanted a voice on. The aim was for key spokespeople from their relevant media offices to take questions pitched by our readers, and answer via video blogs published on Aaram (in Arabic).
To my surprise, admittedly, the UK Foreign Office agreed and got the ball rolling with various video blogs, and the US Embassy in London soon followed suit. Upon being alerted on discussion topics through published articles and alerts on Aaram.net and also the Facebook Fanpage, readers were encouraged to email in their questions, or post through the Fanpage.
We would then filter all the questions (not censor or edit, just filter) and forward on to the relevant spokesperson, and after a day or two, a video blog would be published, answering the reader's questions, while mentioning the reader's name and location to add to the interactive, engaging, direct and personal appeal. This initiative allowed the US and the UK to communicate directly with the 'Arab street' and vice versa. No other Arab media publication did this, whether large or small. Together, we went on to produce many video blogs on various issues facing the Middle East and the West.
I built a level of trust between the UK Foreign Office Digital Media Department, and so too the US Embassy Regional Media Hub here in London, who were always very happy and very comfortable to participate in new initiatives and ideas to communicate with the Arab World, with absolutely no hidden agenda whatsoever, an opportunity that the Arab government and Royal Palace officials turned down, so nonchalantly too. This was about genuinely communicating and opening dialogue as opposed to improving reputations, they had other bigger and more mainstream platforms to do that on, and Aaram knew that too. My relationship thus developed further over the past two years with the US Embassy in London (and so too their Dubai based Embassy, who also participated in content collaborations too).
Due to this relationship (conscious that I'm starting to sound like Bush and Blair), I have been selected to participate in an annual International Visitor Leadership Programme trip to the US at the end of February. This is a media literacy programme organised by the US Department of State. The theme of the three week visit is to explore how to develop healthier and democratic societies using new and social media, a topic and phenomenon that increases in importance the more that new media becomes embedded in the very fabric of our society and daily lives.
I will be joined on this trip by a couple dozen selected participants from various countries globally, all from the lovely world of the media. We will be touring various areas across the US (Washington DC, Los Angeles, New York, Connecticut, Missouri) participating in workshops, forums and conferences, focusing on how American Public and Private Sector Organisations, NGO's, Government Organisations, individuals and the average citizen are all using new media to advance their societies.
This will be an exciting opportunity to exchange knowledge, facts and practices, an exchange of culture and lessons. We see such global networking more and more, and by the minute, over social networks, digitally, however absolutely nothing can compare to the real thing, the physical and face to face interaction, the physical networking, the commitment and warmth of a handshake and a nod of approval or understanding will always beat a retweet (please, feel free quote and retweet that one).
For me, it's a very exciting trip for many personal and professional reasons, I have always admired the American culture and way of doing things (maybe not always toward the Middle East), their innovations and their media, the list is endless. Furthermore, I have always been very curious as to how things work out there, beyond what I have studied or what I read and see through mainstream media, films and literature, and so too from learning from my wide network of American friends and colleagues.
I am looking forward to discovering the country and more about the theme we are working on, and definitely looking forward to meeting my fellow participants. It is well and truly a trip of a lifetime, an adventure to serve my hunger for knowledge, to quench my thirst for further enlightenment on the industry I work in, and as those who are close to me know, this didn't come easy, it didn't come expected and it was a surprise that I am really flattered to be selected for.
During my stay, I will be writing articles to update the interested reader on various aspects of this trip. It comes at a time where the US is gearing up for their elections in November 2012, and furthermore, in an era of dramatic and bloody change in my region of origin, the Middle East.
I thought that with the nature of the Huffington Post being American in origin and crossing the Atlantic last summer to launch a UK version, this would be a fitting series of articles to publish on the Huffington Post UK, given that I am the UK based selectee.
The next update in this series will come sometime next week, that is, whenever I find time during the busy schedule!
Wish me luck...and watch this space.
Follow Maan Al-Majali on Twitter: www.twitter.com/maan_majali