Social media in the Arab Gulf: Studio interview and Q&A with Sarah Vieweg

Story by Margaret Connors
Video and photo by OR Media

Sarah Vieweg holds a unique position — both in her career and in the research world. She works as a user experience researcher at Facebook. But her backround, which includes training in economics and linguistics, is as a social scientist. She has worked in Qatar, among other places, studying the intersection of human-computer interaction, computer-mediated communication and computer-supported cooperative work, especially as it pertains to social media in Arab Gulf countries. Today, the major focus of her research is defining design principles that consider non-Western cultural values and examining how advertisers worldwide use social media for marketing and advertising.

When Vieweg came to the UO School of Journalism and Communication in March as a speaker for the Demystifying Media Series, she talked to SOJC students and faculty about the specific ways people in the Arabian Gulf use social media. Spoiler alert: According to Vieweg, it differs from U.S. social media use in some key ways. Although her talk was titled "Sex, Surveillance and Shopping," she explained how, in that part of the world, even those three categories of use don't mean the same things they might in the West.

We sat down with Vieweg to find out more about her background, her research and social media use in the Arab Gulf.

Sarah Vieweg presents on social media use in the Arab Gulf for her Demystifying Media talk.
Sarah Vieweg presents on social media use in the Arab Gulf for her Demystifying Media talk.

How did you become interested in this type of research and the Arabian Gulf?

I was living in the region, so it was easy access. I was a researcher recruited to work at a government-funded research institute. I went over there to study social media use in mass emergency, which has been my dissertation work. But then I started to make friends, get to know people in my office and environment and chat more with Qatari people.

I started to notice that Qataris and people from regions outside of where I was familiar used Facebook and Instagram a lot, and likely for different reasons than I was using them. I knew Qataris in particular were on Instagram and Snapchat all the time, so I just became really curious, wondering “How do you use it?” and “What purpose does it serve?”

And what did you find out? How does the Arabian Gulf use social media, especially in regard to sex, surveillance and shopping?

The “sex” part refers to gender segregation and how important it is in everyday life in this part of the world, but also how that translates to social media use. For example, female social media users on Instagram tend to have private accounts. They don’t publicly allow others to follow them. Those they do allow to follow them tend to be other women and maybe close male relatives, like fathers, brothers and uncles, because it’s not appropriate to associate with “non-mahram,” or men that you could potentially marry, past about the age of puberty.

“Shopping” refers to how social media, Instagram in particular, has empowered a lot of women in the region to have jobs and make money, something they didn’t have before. There’s a lot more selling on Instagram of clothes, accessories, cakes and flowers in Arab countries than in any other place in the world. So it’s a marketplace.

“Surveillance” in the Gulf region, but also many parts of the world, is what we call social surveillance instead of traditional surveillance. In the West, we use surveillance as a scary police state kind of activity, whereas in the Gulf, social surveillance is about the community. Everybody monitors everybody else’s activity, and that’s how social norms and regulations stay in place. In the West, we have this notion of an objective, rule-based system that’s not as respected or understood in a more relationship-based culture. [In the Arab Gulf, people are] constantly relying on relationships with others to make sure that social order is maintained. So surveilling someone on social media or using social media to scold someone is a perfectly acceptable behavior.

Have you found anything surprising in your research? Something that has stuck with you?

When social media sites make design or functionality changes, we don’t always think about the effects it will have elsewhere. For example, when Facebook changed privacy settings a couple years ago, a Saudi guy who didn’t know that all of a sudden had a photo of him and his family made available for others to see, and one of his friends liked it. His sister was shown in the photo without a hijab, her head scarf, and this guy was mortified that his friend had seen a photo of his sister uncovered. It’s just very disrespectful, so he went off Facebook for a few months because he was so upset that his friend had seen a photo of his sister in a state that he shouldn’t have seen her in.

There’s also this notion of the individual self and the collective self. For instance, if something shameful happens to you, it also happens to your family and potentially to your tribe, depending on what the activity is. Just knowing that if a photo of me got out, it might not just be me that becomes unmarriageable. My sisters might also become unmarriageable, and my brothers might be so shamed that they can’t find a wife.

What are some of your findings, based on principles of design and media in non-Western countries, that you find most compelling?

When it comes to friend recommendations, [it’s important to] make it gender specific, so only men or only women. What we call privacy in the West actually translates to three different things in Arabic. We don’t have different words for these different types of privacy, so if we in the West who are designers of technology can better understand the nuance of privacy and these different layers of privacy, we can translate that to design in some way.

We had this idea on Facebook: For example, you can share with different groups, but that can be a lot of overhead and a very hacky way to just be able to be culturally appropriate for some people. So it starts first with understanding the hacks and workarounds that need to take place, and then saying, “OK, can we create that into something that’s design focused?”

For students who are looking to get into an important and unique type of study like yours, where is a good place to start?

That’s a great question. [Don’t be] afraid to contact people. I’m telling people, “If you have questions for me, get in touch.” Don’t be afraid to harness your network, and your network does include your professors. They’re happy to help. If they can’t answer your questions, they might know someone who does.

Don’t be afraid to say yes to things you’re not so sure about. If you get asked, “Hey, can you work on this thing or do this thing?” say yes! My husband pointed this out one time. For my Ph.D., I ended up in a field that I wouldn’t have guessed I’d end up in, so he said, “I kind of think your discipline found you.” Some people find their discipline, and some disciplines find them, and I’m definitely a case of the discipline finding me.

Margaret Connors is a senior studying advertising with a concentration in photojournalism. She plans to graduate from SOJC this spring. This is her first year interning for the SOJC Communication Office. Previously, she was an intern for The Big Issue SA, where she traveled around South Africa finding stories and learning about the industry. She is eager to create ethical, authentic, and passionate work to share with the world. You can follow her on Instagram @marge.elizabeth and view her work at

OR Media is a multimedia/video production team housed within the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication that expands on the success of OR Magazine, a student-produced iPad magazine that continues to be acknowledged for its innovation within college journalism. Staffed by current and former SOJC students, it is a laboratory for experimentation and innovation, and a place for the school’s top talent to test their production skills.