The online revolution

Arabian Business talks to the man with the Arabic answer to Facebook, Majied Qasem.

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By  Claire Ferris-Lay Published  August 2, 2007

Facebook, Orkut, MySpace, Hi5. All successful social networking sites. All in English. Enter the new kid on the block, the six month old www.d1g.com. Not another social networking site you cry? Oh yes, but its founders say they are taking the networking phenomenon one step further, not just by setting the default language to Arabic, but in the tools and the type of advertising they offer.

While many will roll their eyes at the thought of yet another social networking site - that they are a waste of employee time or even are a pointless activity - they in fact bring in big bucks. For example, last year Yahoo looked to acquire Facebook with the bidding reaching a massive US$1bn, while in August 2006 Google signed a US$900m deal to add its search engine facility and advertising onto MySpace. And the value and success of Facebook is the reason why the so-called founder, Mark Zuckerberg, and his old college friends are currently battling it out in the US courts over the rights to the website.

d1g, however, is the Middle East's answer to the web 2.0 craze. The founders claim that the website is the fastest growing Arabic community on the web. Still only six months old, it boasts 150,000 registered users and two million visitors.

The CEO of d1g, Majied Qasem, admits he based the site on Facebook, but is keen to list the differences. "d1g is different to the likes of Facebook and Orkut and I would like to think we have a different perspective to those sites. The main difference is that the Middle East has different communities and needs. Online social networking is not a case of one size fits all. While the other sites cater to the needs of the population of America, Europe and many of the Western educated people in this part of the world, as these sites grow in complexity, language begins to become a barrier."

We saw a 100% increase of users from Thailand following the ban of YouTube.

While MySpace and its contemporaries are typically Western, d1g is typically Middle Eastern, even the name. d1g is internet lingo for "deewanji, from the Arabic word ‘dewan'" a term used to describe a place where Arabic communities come together to converse, share information and chat to each other. Qasem finds no confusion over the internet-speak "Older people tend to miss the meaning of d1g but ask the younger generation, who have internet and text language entrenched in their language, and they get it straight away," he says.

Other than offering online networking solutions in Arabic, the site offers a number of "new" tools. Following the acquisition of seenandjeem.com, the first Arabic questions and answers service portal in the region, the site offers a Q&A service as well as a video clip sharing facility and a comic sharing portal, among others. Qasem says, "Even the classical services are a little different, for example, with the chat facility, if users have a microphone and a video they can integrate those so they can see the person they are speaking to."

"We have not simply changed the language and layout, it's the way we are integrating the services we offer. For example, we put an emphasis on family life and mobility." Last month the company bought Saudi-based website www.66g.com, which provides games, MP3 downloads, films and other content for mobile phones. Taking things one step further is the name of the game with d1g, and the acquisition will help "offer users a range of rich mobile services," says Qasem. "We are looking to develop the online/offline application of the website so you don't have to leave home without it. We are taking the concept of social networking and making it more generic," he adds.

Users of the site are predominately Arabic youths between 14-24 years of age but the website is also available in English. While many English speaking internet users will stick to the websites with defaults set in English, people from non-Arab speaking countries also subscribe. The site has a sizable following in Thailand following YouTube being banned in the Kingdom. Qasem says: "We saw a 100% increase of users from Thailand following the ban. At least that shows we are doing something right," he explains grinning.

Advertising is the obvious way to generate money through social networking sites, but Qasem, ever keen to develop ideas one-step further has introduced a different kind of advertising, namely TV commercials. Rather than the traditional form of online banner advertising, d1g offers companies the opportunity to jump on board and show TVC's. "Advertising is an important aspect of our service. The price of online banner style advertising is diminishing. For example, five to seven years ago, the online advertising revenue used to be US$1m for a series of 1000 banners at around US$30 to US$40 each, now, we are lucky if we get US$15 to US$20, but the revenues are US$80m and are continuing to grow."

"Video is another medium for online advertising and because it is different, it is not as intrusive as pop-up advertising. Our video adverts are played before an uploaded video or clip is played. The advert doesn't need uploading so it's played quickly and only lasts for five seconds so it's not intrusive. You will never find yourself in a position where you end up watching five adverts in a row though."

"With the adverts of d1g and video advertising, we are able to provide advertisers with a new digital outlet for their ads. This service is a new and effective medium," Qasem continues.

The site now shows two million clips per month and already has big names such as Coca Cola and Snickers on board. "Coke has already tried it and loved it. Having a strategically significant advertiser like them participating in the program clearly demonstrates the high value of our advertising strategies. We are also currently piloting the scheme with other brands."

d1g was only launched in February of this year but the site is already making money, however Qasem won't say how much. "I can't disclose exactly how much but we are aiming to break even towards the end of this year. This means it will have taken us only 10 months - February to December - which I think, in this industry is almost record time," he boasts.

Controlling online content is always an issue, particularly in this region, which has seen the recent ban of Orkut following a number of complaints to the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) about inappropriate material found on the site. Screening inappropriate material is a topic of debate at d1g but Qasem believes a certain amount of control is necessary. "Culturally we believe a bit of control and responsibility is required. Even when we do exercise control over content, it's not out of fear of certain governments, it's because we have a responsibility. Our team sees everything that is published. They look at the comments and all of the uploaded material to ensure that nothing obscene or politically devastating or violent is on the site."

If something is deemed inappropriate, a member of the team personally calls the user and explains why the material has been taken off. "We go through so many layers, as the material is often very subjective. We talk to a lot of our customers over the telephone in order to offer a more personal service. To maintain this approach we are exploring models to see how we can outsource services like call-centres so people can phone if they have an issue."

"We want to educate our users. The ability to share everything you want with the world is still relatively new to this region. That kind of responsibility - and it is a responsibility - is something that people don't necessarily know how to deal with. By picking up the phone we offer a more personal service."

3688 days ago
Salem

I"ll start my reply by this question: 
 
Define Social Network Service ? 
 
If the answer simply refer to a comparison to facebook or hi5, I would say the answer doesn't take in consideration real facts .. Social Networks simply is term for connecting people regardless what model to use, and facebook is one of the most popular models. 
 
Alexa actually doesn't give you an accurate results. Only those browsers hooked with alexa toolbar will send information to Alexa site from clients. 
 
I wokred with Majied Qsem in Arabia at that time. Arabia was on top when Majied left! and unfortunately went down after 3 years if I'm not mistaken.

3691 days ago
Fadi Asfour

After reading the article, I was a little bit surprised how it tried to promote d!g site as the #1 middle eastern community networking website ... I also visited the website and had the following feedbacks

3702 days ago
Eddie Steel

Jonathan is right on the money and I am actually impressed at his insight. I am tempted to think that you are an ex-employee of D1G, but then again you project higher level of knowledge than someone in such a startup. True. D1G is NOT social networking NOR Web2.0. I checked on the applications and facilities and it is basically aggregating content from users and perhaps scrapping other Websites. The girl dancing in her bedroom video seems to be a prerequisite for any Website with online video posting capabilities. D1G is entertaining at first, but further use of it proved to offer little "stickenss" factor that will grant further visits. In such sites, it is not the # of visitors that you get, but the number of repeat visitors that keep coming on.

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