1 Billion Summit in Dubai: Why UAE is the best place for content creators

In town for the 1 Billion Followers Summit, Yusuf Omar, who's pioneered the use of mobile journalism, talks about harnessing the power of social media to tell stories that truly matter

by

Somya Mehta

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Photo by Muhammad Sajjad
Photo by Muhammad Sajjad

Published: Wed 10 Jan 2024, 8:28 PM

Last updated: Thu 11 Jan 2024, 12:35 AM

While scrolling endlessly through your Insta reels, consuming viral mashups, cat videos or dance hook steps that everyone wants to try and emulate, it’s easy to believe that it is all what social media is really about — showing off the perfect highlights of your otherwise imperfect life and watching others do the same. But one quick stroll around the bustling 1 Billion Followers Summit in Dubai and all those perceptions will quickly come crumbling down.

The Summit, taking place in Jumeirah Emirates Towers and Museum of the Future on January 10 and 11, showcases a totally different side of social media, emphasising its potential for forming meaningful connections, global impact, and discussions beyond viral content. It’s a reminder that social media can be a powerful platform for positive change and collaboration.

Uniting over 7,000 participants, including 3,000 content creators followed by 1.6 billion people, the summit in its second year is hosting influential figures and content creators across diverse fields such as entertainment, sports, education, technology, gaming, e-sports, comedy, economy, and tourism. One such prominent creator is Yusuf Omar, a journalist and digital storyteller known for his innovative use of mobile journalism (mojo) and social media. In a conversation with City Times, Omar, who’s co-founded the digital news media platform Seen TV, talks about harnessing the power of social media to create new ways to engage and inform audiences and how his third culture identity, growing up in UK, Australia and South Africa has influenced the choices he makes. Edited excerpts from an interview.

How did you get into content creation?

I've been a journalist for 11 years. Previously, I worked at CNN International. Before that, I was with the Hindustan Times in India and earlier, with a 24-hour broadcaster in South Africa. I've had a diverse journey, starting from newspapers, then working as a foreign correspondent covering wars globally. Eventually, I recognised an opportunity to establish a media organisation focused on amplifying marginalised voices.

How did you make that transition?

Around 2017, we initiated the switch. Now, we're a team of 65 people spread across the globe at Seen TV (@seentv). We've published over 4,000 videos, amassing a billion views annually. It's been an exhilarating ride.

How has your multicultural upbringing influenced the content you create and your decisions?

When I worked at CNN International London office, with around 200 staffers, I was the only one that I knew of, who identified as Muslim. If you think about it, it’s quite a crazy idea, especially when you imagine the amount of content there is about the Muslim world. So, the lack of diversity in traditional media is really what sparked our interest in creating something new and something different. We came from backgrounds and positions where we felt unseen, where our stories were not accurately represented. That's why we approached Seen TV from a position of, ‘How do we challenge people's prejudices?’

You’ve lived in many different parts of the world. Where do you feel at home?

That’s a very interesting question. I was born in the UK, raised in Australia, married in South Africa, my parents are in South Africa, I’m of Indian origin. I truly feel like a citizen of the world. We travel so often you could say we live in the clouds. So, home now is wherever my wife and son are. And right now, my home is in a hotel room in Dubai. But what this does is that you start identifying with different parts of your mixed cultural background, depending on the aspect of life you’re covering. In terms of my lifestyle, I feel very Australian but in terms of my political position, I'm very South African. I believe in advocating for the truth. So, it purely depends on the context of my life.

How has being a third culture kid shaped your worldview?

I definitely am a third culture kid but being Muslim, I really feel like a fourth culture because on top of your cultural upbringing, there’s also huge influence of Arabic. We pray in a different language, imbibing a lot of the Arab culture. But being a third culture kid also teaches you how to understand the prejudices that people have held against you for your life and makes you want to do your best to not repeat that behaviour in your own life or maybe even empower those that may be disadvantaged. For example, most of our editorial team at Seen TV are young women of colour. I think it’s very important for third culture kids to be a part of the solution.

Transitioning to digital media, was this part of your solution-driven approach?

One hundred per cent. Mainstream media lacks diversity and they will never be diverse enough to cover our global and interconnected world. My wife and I quit our jobs, we travelled the world, to about 100 countries, trained 20,000 people in 140 countries on how to tell stories with their smartphones. By aggregating these stories, we provide a platform for diverse voices, painting a more accurate picture of the world. For me, diversity is large amounts of people across the spectrum with shared lived experiences and our venture is focused on showcasing that side of the world.

How do you navigate the challenges of digital media platforms?

Striking a balance between engaging content and substantial storytelling is crucial. It’s this fine line of giving people the dessert but with the vegetables. What I mean by that is, on the Internet, it's very easy to get into a very clickbaity space, doing frivolous things in search of creating content that sells, gets clicks and views. While the clickbait content might draw attention, it's equally essential to cover vital but often overlooked topics.

What works for you at Seen TV?

Tackling taboos and stigmas has been impactful for us. For example, menstrual hygiene is something that 50 per cent of the world population wants to know about, yet you don't see a lot of coverage in the mainstream media. So we try to communicate these stories with heart, empathy, love, and understanding.

How do you handle misinformation in the online space?

I believe that having diverse perspectives helps combat misinformation. Rather than relying on one traditional media source, having multiple angles from various individuals can sometimes capture the truth more comprehensively. One hundred people covering something is better than just receiving one person's version. In my opinion, it gives us more perspectives and a more accurate version of the truth. We find voices that would never otherwise be heard and give them a platform. We have a team of over 65 journalists, producers, editors across the world that are making sense of it and creating really high quality journalism.

Seven years into this journey, are you satisfied with your progress?

We're just getting started. The future of media, in my opinion, lies in immersive storytelling. It's about telling authentic local stories that resonate globally. If you find a story in an informal settlement in Kenya, it could easily cross over and be relevant to people in India or the US. Each time we choose a story, we ask three key questions — whether it's debatable, relevant, and visually compelling.

How has your Dubai experience been?

I believe that the UAE understands the value of influencers, perhaps, more than any other country in the world. The 1 Billion Summit is a testament to that. They're trying to incubate this next generation of Arabic-speaking talent and funnel that into things that are already booming, such as their tourism, making this a global destination that it already is. This place is way ahead of the curve.

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