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Arabic Social Startup Stays Local shows the value of building a social networking site around local customs.

In Arab culture, a diwan is a traditional ruling council, a social watering hole, and a political forum. A website called (pronounced “diwanji”) aims to replicate this institution online.

Launched in 2007, is a platform for sharing videos, photos, audio, a forum, and a Q&A facility. Users can create new diwans around any subject. While less successful in the region than the U.S. giants Facebook and Twitter, the site is one of the Arab world’s fastest-growing social-media and content-sharing websites, with more than 13 million users, 4.8 million unique monthly visitors, and 15 million videos. The company streams more Arabic videos than anyone else—600 terabytes of data per month. Many attribute the site’s success to its adherence to local customs.

“People are crying out for quality Arabic content,” says Marwan S. Juma, Jordan’s former minister of information, communications, and technology. “There is clearly a niche there, a huge opportunity. It’s not only the content, it’s the culturalization. How can you make your content relevant to a regional audience? It’s not a question of taking something in English and translating it.”

Almost 100 percent of d1g’s content is user-generated, and the small amount produced by the company is developed in Arabic in-house. Early diwans covered everything from movies to motorcycles. But became the most popular Arab social-media site (after Facebook and Twitter) when a user created the “Egyptstreet” diwan during the Egyptian revolution.

“We saw a huge spike in our traffic,” says Fouad Jeryes, who oversees business development at the company’s offices in central Amman. Unique visitors rose from three million to five million per month, and visits per month grew from six million to 13 million.

Although Facebook and Twitter, which both have Arabic functionality, dominate social networking in the Middle East, Jeryes says many users still prefer local sites. “From content to user interface, is tailored to address the needs of Arab users and fit our culture,” says Jeryes.

The technology is also designed with the local audience in mind. Outside Jordan, broadband in the Arab world is generally capped at 1,024 or 512 kilobits per second, and many users are on dialup modems—a challenge for video streaming.

“If you put a video on YouTube and a video on d1g, and you stream them both to your computer, d1g will actually stream faster—to the Arab region at least,” says Jeryes. “We take a hit on the quality in terms of getting the video delivered to the user.”

Abdelmajeed Shamlawi, CEO of Jordan’s Information Technology Association, agrees that non-English-speaking Arabs remain wary of global sites. “On Twitter and Facebook, I don’t think that people are actually going for the Arabic versions,” says Shamlawi. “In Saudi, the number of page views of d1g is almost equivalent to Facebook. It’s not the Arabic content, it’s the Arabic culture. It’s user behavior.”

Suspicion of foreigners is compounded by concerns about privacy and censorship, both required in traditional Arab societies. Fifty d1g moderators check each upload and remove material that could be culturally offensive or politically dangerous.

Mahmoud Jalajel, a Jordanian blogger and tech entrepreneur, says Arab society is not ready for an unfettered Web. “If you open a forum and your father opens the same forum and finds nudity, he will ban the whole family from the Internet. It’s a cultural thing that it has to be this way.”

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