Snapchat and its attempts to win over the Middle East – #Mecca_Live and #WestBankLive

There’s two types of people in today’s digital world. Those internet users who are generally older who have never heard of Snapchat and who while away their hours on Facebook, and, when they’re feeling adventurous, get onto Instagram. And then there are those young people who can’t get enough of the video messaging app where photos and video shorts ‘disappear’ after being shared. For the half that doesn’t know, Snapchat would seem to be the fastest growing application in the Gulf. The application has proved incredibly popular with young audiences across the region.

Snapchat has also done itself a lot of good over the past couple of days by holding what it calls a live story event in Mecca, the spiritual home of Islam. According to Snapchat, Live Stories are a curated stream of user submitted Snaps from various locations and events. Users who have their location services on at the same event location will be given the option to contribute Snaps (videos to you and me) to the Live Story. The end result is a Story told from a community perspective with lots of different points view.

What this means in real English is that Snapchat curates lots of content from different users, brings that content together and combines it to tell a story. This week’s Live Story, which is usually 300 seconds long, took place in Mecca during the holy month of Ramadan. The ensuring Live Story of #Mecca_Live can be seen below.

The feedback for the #Mecca_Live event was nothing short of remarkable. By tapping into sentiment around Ramadan and telling the story of what it means to be in Mecca during the holiest month in the Islamic calendar through people who were there resonated not just with Muslims around the world, many of whom are tired of seeing their faith being associated with negativity, but also non-Muslims who were impressed by the faith and the devotion of those who were featured in the Live Story.

A sample of tweets around the #Mecca_Live hashtag

A sample of tweets around the #Mecca_Live hashtag

This isn’t the first Live Story in the Middle East however. The week before, Snapchat had curated a Live Story from the West Bank. Featuring Snaps from Palestinians, the piece aimed to tell the story of how ordinary people live in this beautiful part of the world. Palestinians gave glimpses into the cities of Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Nablus through 10-second tours of historic sites. They also talked about the wonderful world of Palestinian cooking (including some of my favorite dishes such as knafeh, qatayef and falafel. However, one aspect of life in the West Bank was left out. The allegation made by many was that it underplayed the Israeli occupation. The video is below.

The other allegation made about #WestBankLive was that it was a clumsy attempt to undo some of the damage done by a previous Live Story, #TelAvivLive. Shown the same week as #WestBankLive, this Live Story painted a picture of Tel Aviv, that, to quote the Mondoweiss website:

In the Tel Aviv story, young Israelis were represented as fun-loving, beach-going, peace-promoting people – a far cry from their roles as the occupying soldiers their Palestinian counterparts in the West Bank see on a daily basis. The story also included little in the way of representation of marginalized members of Israeli society such as Palestinian citizens or African refugees. Images of the historic Palestinian port city of Jaffa, referred to in the story by its Hebrew name, were depicted in a way that +972 Magazine says “reproduces the urbicide of this once-thriving Palestinian city in favor of a narrative that ‘keeps the peace.’” In addition, a few of the snaps presented foods like felafel and shawarma as typical Israeli meals, without any reference to their Arab origin. Israelis seemed to be using the Snapchat story as a way to show off appropriated Palestinian culture and locales, claiming them as their own without a second thought.

As Snapchat has found with both #WestBankLive and #TelAvivLive there are few stories that can be shared which are not controversial. Each group has their viewpoint, and, by attempting to be as inclusive as possible through its Live Stories, Snapchat will inevitably offend. Has #Mecca_Live helped to negate criticism of Snapchat? Possibly. But you can be sure that this app, which is already extraordinarily popular among the region’s youth, will continue to cause controversy as it tells the Live Stories of Snapchat users who see reality through their particular viewpoints, and smartphones.

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