A decade ago everyone was buying satellite dishes, which seemed almost revolutionary, transforming the audience into channel hoppers, with the full spectrum of Arab (and sometimes European and American) perspectives available at the press of a remote control button.
Now, as internet access becomes easier and more affordable, younger Libyans are increasingly switching off the TV and logging in to the internet – ideally this would be a positive development from a passive TV viewer to an Internet surfer, with an infinitely expanding world wide web a mouse click away.
But walk into a net café in any Libyan city and there are knots of teenagers crowding together around one monitor to egg on their friend ‘chatting’ to the keyboard, making the supposedly boundless possibility of the virtual world seem pure fantasy.
Of course as the cliché has it chat, like the rest of the internet or the TV for that matter, is just a tool, its how you decide to use it; like forums and social networking sites, it’s a great way to keep in touch with family and friends, and to exchange ideas with people from around the world.
Perhaps another, more creative way to the same end are blogs, websites published chronologically, regularly updated with fresh posts, usually allowing readers to add their response.
The Libyan blogosphere has grown considerably in the last few years, although a late developer compared to the Egyptian or Jordanian for example, and it’s a Libyan blog that has won the Best of the Blogs award this year.
As blogging has become a wider phenomenon, interest by traditional media has grown proportionally. DW, Germany’s answer to BBC World, has since 2004 organised an international competition, somewhat redundantly called the Best of the Blogs; with a jury award (decided by a committee of "independent journalists, media experts and blog experts") and a user prize (for the blog with the most online votes) in each of the 15 categories.
The competition includes blogs in Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, English, French, German, Persian, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish; and they can be text based blogs, videoblogs or podcasts (multimedia broadcasts which can include pictures, video and audio); and range from the personal diary to political podium, from celebrity scandal to the art appreciation.
Imtidad (http:imtidad.blogspot.com), a blog and podcast by Libyan writer, Ghazi Gheblawi, won the BOBs user award for Best Arabic Weblog after receiving the most votes; despite stiff competition by blogs on everything from pop culture to business, from technology to politics.
Imtidad received 15 % of the votes, compared with 13% for the blog selected for the jury prize in the same category, Aljazeera Talk, a very impressive group blog with over 70 writers – or citizen journalists as they prefer to call themselves.
Al Jazeera, whose dominance of the Arab satellite era is undisputed, seems to want to make sure that the next generation also grow up in an ‘Aljazeera decade’; not only do they have one of the most visited Arab websites, but they’re financing Aljazeera Talk and making sure it is one of the most talked about blogs by frequently inviting its contributors for interviews and debates.
By contrast Imtidad is a personal blog without such support, and with a ‘niche’ focus on culture and literature, which if we accept the stereotype of the representative Arab internet user as chat addict would not find an audience.
Imtidad is both a regular text based web journal and a podcast; both are mainly in Arabic but there are also blog posts and podcast episodes in English, as part of Gheblawi’s aim is to “bridge th[e] gap between Libyan creative writing, in its original Arabic language, and world literature, in the form of English language”; which does not mean that he focuses exclusively on Libyan or even Arab culture - his podcast recently featured a Ghanian poet, a South African novelist, an Iraqi artist and a Mexican director.
The bilingual podcast (English and Arabic versions) received 16% of the votes for best podcast, coming in third behind the Brazilian Nerdcast and the French Oh la! Radio, and beating a German blog on “Literature, trash and bad moods”.It was the latter, Die Gefühlskonserve, that received the jury prize for best podcast, which was an interesting contrast because the user prize in German went to a humorous blog by an undertaker.
This was reversed when it came to the Best Arab Blog award, with the jury consistently opting for more political Arab blogs, as fitting in a ‘middle-eastern’ context, while the voters picked Imtidad this year, and the Lebanese literary blog The Nostalgic Storyteller last year.
So Imtidad is, as it presents itself, part of a wider trend; and Ghazi Gheblawi’s recent work (his second short story collection contains a story written collaboratively with Adel Aziz on an Arab literary website, and he shared the first chapter of his novel-in-progress on the blog with his readers) shows him to be part of a “new generation of Arab intellectuals, who are active online, enriching the Arab online cultural scene” and revitalising offline literary life as well, with new energy, new readers, and new means for creative cooperation between writers.