Have you ever been to a dinner party where you don’t know a single person? The scenario sounds terrifying, and frankly not too likely, but it is becoming a regular occurrence in Beirut. I went to my first Lebanese ‘tweetup’ last night at a sushi bar in Gemmayzeh and found myself in just this situation.

A ‘tweetup’ is essentially a real world meet up of people who know each other through the online micro-blogging, social networking site Twitter. It can be said to be a bit like speed dating without the romantic overtones and it is happening more and more around the country as the site grows in popularity.

Around the table when I arrived at Soto on Gemmayzeh’s main street were a seemingly disparate crowd of people: Company CEOs, AUB undergraduates, Western journalists, web designers, Fed Ex employees and photographers, who were all engrossed in a conversation about the growing importance of Twitter in the Arab world. They have been brought together at this restaurant at the particular time by their interest in Lebanon and their desire to share it with others who will listen on Twitter.

I recognize some of them from their profile pictures, for some I need an introduction. I know what many of them were doing last night, where they work and what most of them think about Iran’s post-election protests but I couldn’t identify them in the street quite as easily.

Yesterday’s meet up all started two days ago when Lynn, an AUB architecture student who tweets under the name ‘Lnlne’ asked if anyone wanted sushi on her Twitter profile. Samer Karam, a web developer who tweets under his name, then picked it up and re-tweeted the message on his own profile and from there an impromptu tweetup was arranged.

“No one knows more than three people here – it is a unique situation that only Twitter can make happen. I think it is only going to get bigger and bigger in Beirut,” according to Karam.

The site has a social aspect but its primary role is to share interesting information and to enable global debates and conversations. Lynn says Twitter has come to replace other popular sites she used to rely on: “I find I spend so little time on Facebook now – what’s the point – you want to connect with people you don’t know who can share information with you. Facebook is redundant.”

Facebook doesn’t encourage its users to reach out to the world in the same way Twitter does. Facebook is about letting your friends see your profile while blocking people you do not know, while Twitter is the precise opposite. People you do not know most often offer the most.

The Lebanese Twitter community were particularly active during the June 7 elections, with tweets coming in from around Lebanon about people’s own experience of the day: “I hear a lot of gunshooting from Basta,” read one post from tweetup guest ‘Plus961’s’ account, “I voted a white paper in this election, and I am excited to see it in the stats today!” read another.

Some were more personal, like 19-year-old AUB engineering student Samer N’s post: ” I am indifferent as to who has won. Same warlords or their children! Now let me sleep :).”

Fearing pre-election violence, ‘Zaher’ tweeted “a guy was just shot near my house.maktab intikhabi 4 Jean. Called police & it’s like one hour and nobody showed up.”

For most Lebanese tweeters the most important thing is engaging with a community, being heard by as many people as possible, which can be difficult if the posts are in Arabic. Most of the urbane, bilingual tweeters around this Gemmayzeh table write in English but for many others it is not as easy.

One Lebanese entrepreneur and tweeter Habib Haddad, who tweets under the name ‘habibh,’ created a website called Yamli.com which can be used to automatically change tweets written in Arabic to English to enable Arabic speakers to connect with the wider world. He made the World Economic Forum’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2009 list for “empowering the Arabic language and users on the web.”

Samer Karam, whose website bloggingbeirut.com has its own gravitas on Lebanon’s digital scene, says of the technology: “You can’t underestimate programs like this – it bridges the Western world with the Arab world, and it is all in the spirit of Twitter when writing can be made more accessible.”

Twitter is still quite a novel thing in Lebanon; many only became aware of it after the Mumbai bombings last year. Twitter really came into its own after the terror attacks, as moments after the first shots were fired, Twitter users in India were providing instant eyewitness accounts of the unfolding drama. A few months later Twitter broke news again when the first pictures of the Hudson river plane crash in New York appeared on the site after someone on a nearby ferry took photos and uploaded them onto Twitter using his phone.

Twitter is now helping people in Iran give a voice to protesters during a time when they have been silenced and censored in most other ways. And for as long as there is an internet connection the world can see what is happening through Twitter.

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