AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — A website created by two young Jordanians in a coffee shop six years ago has become the most popular site in Arabic, highlighting a vast vacuum: less than 1 percent of the Internet is written in the language spoken by 4.5 percent of the world’s population.
The growth of Mawdoo3.com — Arabic for “subject” — is part of a steep rise in Internet use in the Arab world in recent years, along with an Arabic content publishing frenzy in which governments, independent journalists and Islamic militants also compete for page views.
The idea for Mawdoo3 (“maw-doo’ah”) goes back to 2010, when Mohammad Jaber, at the time finishing his medical studies, teamed up with entrepreneur Rami Qawasmi. The two Jordanians, now both 27, shared a birthday and a vision for changing the World Wide Web.
“The content in Norwegian language is greater than Arabic,” Qawasmi said, explaining the impetus for creating a wide-ranging informational site akin to an Arabic version of Ask.com.
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Today, Mawdoo3 is the most popular Arabic language site, ahead of the entertainment site MBC.net and the sports site Koora.com, according to Effective Measure, a company that monitors Internet traffic in the Middle East and North Africa.
Millions of people visit Mawdoo3 every month. In January, 17.1 million people — nearly 60 percent of them women — visited the site, according to Effective Measure.
It deals with all sorts of topics of general interest, such as health, business, religion, advice, beauty and cooking, written by some 320 authors.
The site’s most popular article so far explained the health effects of ginger root. Other entries include biographies, such as that of the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, information on skin and teeth whitening, and tips on time management.
Mawdoo3, a transliteration that uses numbers for Arabic letters that don’t exist in English, plans to expand.
The two founders say they’ve reached a $1.5 million partnership deal with the Dubai-based investment firm EquiTrust, as well as a new revenue-sharing agreement with Jordanian content marketing agency SyndiGate.
Qawasmi wants to branch out into real estate, e-commerce, multimedia, and add Turkish and English content. With his medical background, Jaber is keen on developing the site’s health section and already has Jordanian university students translating scientific articles.
The growth potential seems vast — there are 370 million people in Arabic-speaking countries in the world— but less than 1 percent of the Internet is written in Arabic, according to the International Telecommunications Union.
With 4.5 percent of the world’s population speaking Arabic, according to the World Bank, the Internet doesn’t reflect the reality of mankind’s fifth largest language community.
Between 2000 and 2013, the number of Arab Internet users grew by close to 5,300 percent, according to a study by Google, in partnership with WAMDA, a digital entrepreneurship and investment organization based in Lebanon.
A U.N. report in 2012 called this a “quantum leap,” but said illiteracy and low Internet penetration, among other things, still limit Arabic online content.
Arabic Wikipedia content doubled from 2010 to 2013, but with 85 million monthly page views, it still lags behind 18 billion monthly page views in English, said WAMDA. Low quality content was a concern for 49 percent of youths and 66 percent of industry leaders polled, it said.
In the Arab world, where authoritarian governments are common, online publishing often serves as an important censorship bypass, said Lina Ejeilat, co-founder of the bilingual digital magazine 7iber (“he-ber”), Arabic for “ink.”
“It’s not like book publishing, magazines and knowledge creation is flourishing in universities and different places and we just need to get it on the Internet,” she said, speaking to The Associated Press at her office in the Jordanian capital of Amman.
The magazine’s investigations make it one of the most critical voices in Jordan, which the Press Freedom Index of the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders has listed as “not free.”
In Bahrain, near-total censorship is only bypassed on the web, said Ron Gilran, co-founder of the Levantine Group, a risk consultant that monitors web reports of violence for security alerts.
Gilran said he couldn’t imagine following Bahrain’s daily unrest without Twitter. “Each village had its own account,” he said.
Across the world, militant groups use social media to recruit, fundraise and publish propaganda, according to Gabriel Weimann, author of “Terror in Cyberspace.” He estimated that militants run about 10,000 sites in 22 different languages — including in Arabic.
The Brookings Institution, a think tank, estimated that between 46,000 and 70,000 Twitter accounts linked to the extremist group Islamic State were active as recently as last winter.
But this “jihadisphere” is minute compared to what Twitter says are about 17 million tweets in Arabic a day. Many seem to deal with mundane issues such as sports and the weather.
Michele Malkoun, chief operating officer for the Choueiri Group, a Lebanese media consultancy firm, said he expects the “digital rush” of investors in the Arabic internet to diversify.
While content sites like Mawdoo3 and the recipe-focused Shahiya.com, a cooking website that comes in both an Arabic and an English version, will continue attracting audiences, new platforms like the musical app Anghami are the next frontier, Malkoun said.
Consumer demand for information will continue to drive growth, Malkoun said.
“When an Arab guy goes on the Net and searches,” it’s hard to find what he wants in Arabic, he said.
“From tying my shoelaces to fixing my water heater — it doesn’t exist.”