Yavuz Kurt is the PR director of salamworld, a new social networking website founded on core Muslim values. Settling into a sofa in one of the company’s elegant reception rooms in Salamworld’s compound high above the Bosporus, he begins his pitch: “There are 250 million Muslim Facebook users who use that site because there is no halal alternative. We will provide this alternative.”
Salamworld’s creators believe that Facebook’s individual-centric system, promoting uninhibited sharing of pictures and personal information, is unappealing to Muslims. On Salamworld the emphasis will be not on the individual but on the “communities” that they join. A user’s profile will contain “badges” -- links -- connecting to the communities that they sign up to. The communities will be user-created and moderated. These communities will allow users to share what they feel is appropriate content with different groups -- posting vacation pictures in a “Travel” community, for example. In this way, users will only share information relevant to the forums of the communities they join, eliminating the user-centric aspect of social networking. A five-tier filtration process will screen users from the “harmful content” of other leading social networking sites -- content including everything from photos of girls in bikinis to provocative jokes about religious leaders.
Salamworld began widespread testing a few days ago, with plans to roll out in 17 countries by October. But is it really possible to construct commercially successful social media on the foundation of religious moral values? Projects based around similar premises have consistently flopped in the past. Godtube, a video-sharing website focused on promoting Christian content, was founded in Texas in 2007. Between 2007 and 2008 it was the fastest-growing website of its kind. However, in 2009 its popularity stagnated, and it lost 75 percent of its users. These days, Godtube still runs, but it’s far from being a dominant video-sharing site on the worldwide web.
Anthony Rotolo, faculty head of the social media program at Syracuse University iSchool, suggests Salamworld could face a similar fate. “Will the appeal of the ‘halal experience’ weigh as heavily as the site’s creators believe?” Rotolo asks. “Many users have learned how to respect their own privacy and the privacy of others on social networks. People of faith use existing networks alongside others with different or opposing faiths. It can be argued that this is not only positive, but that the open environment is preferable to many. ... The site’s potential is based on the premise that Muslim users are longing for something different. That assumption could be wrong.”
Salamworld’s creators have heavyweight financial backing, with investment funding already secured for the first three years after the launch, but if they are to hit their ambitious target of 50 million users within the first five years, they will have to find a way of maintaining interest in the site after the initial waves of user curiosity have subsided. Although Rotolo is skeptical of the site’s prospects of “becoming the dominant or preferred social network for Muslims,” he does believe that “Salamworld can succeed in attracting a large number of visitors.”
Facebook’s market domination may be difficult to topple. Speaking to Sunday’s Zaman, Erdem, a university student studying in İstanbul, said: “I don’t believe in bringing an alternative site to Facebook. The way in which Facebook functions is what we Muslims need. There is no point in hiding ourselves from the non-Muslim, and [from Facebook’s] ‘harmful content.’ All there is to be done is to stand close to them so that we can understand the threats, and maybe we can change the way we use Facebook, by our manner of approaching them.”
Perhaps equally worrying for Salamworld is the explanation given by Charlie Gere, professor of media theory and history at Lancaster University, for Facebook’s unhampered success with religious users. “Humans are culturally complex and have an excellent ability to compartmentalize different aspects of their lives,” he explains. “So it’s easily imaginable that even conservative Muslims will regularly use non-religious social networking sites, in spite of their allegedly un-halal content.”
And yet, compartmentalization appears to have its limits -- as Kurt points out, Facebook’s relationship with its Muslim users has been strained at times. Take April 2010, for example, when the social networking site was used as a platform for the notorious “Everybody Draw Mohammad Day,” kick-starting events that led to a standoff between the website’s moderators and 2.5 million Muslims, who threatened to abandon the site for good.
And not all young Muslims are as untroubled by Facebook as Erdam. Norhan told Sunday’s Zaman, “Some shared videos or some immoral advertisements, etc. are very harmful to young people, so it would be very useful when these are filtered out in Salamworld.” Moreover, “I also don’t find it appropriate to share every bit of one’s personal life with others,” she says. “Facebook encourages people to display their modesty, at some point causing immorality.”
Salamworld circumvents the potential problem of deciding how much personal information is too much by encouraging users to only share information with specific groups as opposed to creating personal profiles. Kurt feels that this emphasis on community rather than on the individual “will boost Salamworld and will make it successful.” In fact, “community”-based social networking will also appeal to businesses: By joining a community, a business will be able to easily access the niches of a Muslim market growing at a staggering rate.
Salamworld’s eventual success or failure will help to reveal what current social media options like Facebook mean to the Muslim world, particularly to young people. As Gere says, “What’s interesting about Salamworld is that it is predicated on the idea of [religious] identity -- I am on Salamworld as a Muslim.” Whether Muslims will want to join small Islam-based communities, or if they see a benefit in a system like Facebook’s that encourages profile identity building through sharing information, remains to be seen.
Pınar Karaca and Rabia Yazıcı also contributed to this report from İstanbul.