Trust me: Coming out as gay in this country isn't exactly easy. But, based on what limited knowledge I have about the area, I suspect it's much more difficult in the Middle East. A promising new web start-up hopes to change that. Ahwaa.org, a product of Mideast Youth, is "a bilingual tool for LGBTQ youth in the Middle East that leverages game mechanics to facilitate authentic, high-quality interactions."
Once users join the site, they're able to build out their individual profiles as much as they want; plenty of information can be kept private. And then they dive in: Ahwaa facilitates respectful conversations on a variety of topics surrounding homosexuality.
One of the biggest problems with any website is that famous Internet archetype, the troll. They move from post to post leaving ugly comments after not reading anything written on the page. They're often mean and hurtful. And, with sensitive subjects like those faced by gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people in the Middle East -- Ahwaa's target audience -- the troll could be much more than a pesky annoyance. Ahmed Zidan, Mideast Youth's Arabic Editor, thinks that his company has solved that problem. By "game mechanics," Ahwaa means a point system. "The functionality is what makes this unique -- the site uses game mechanics which, based on how many you collect, gives you access to more hidden sections of the site, which will be introduced in version 2," according to Esra'a Al-Shahei, the group's director. "You collect points depending on how many people find your comments to be useful. When you click 'This was helpful!' on a comment, that user gains 10 points. By leaving a comment/advice/experience, you get 5 points. It's a way for us to deal with trolling, the system takes care of them by gradually making them irrelevant -- and they disappear."
At this early stage, it's unclear if Ahwaa's point system works the way it's meant to, but it's worth watching as the site grows, which it could do quickly. "By making the site bilingual in Arabic and English, Ahwaa throws out bridges from the Arabic and Muslim worlds to Western Muslims and non-Arabs," according to ReadWriteWeb's Curt Hopkins. And by opening up the site to both gay and straight individuals, and allowing new users to remain anonymous, the site has a lot of potential for expansion.
By opening up the site to English-speaking users, Ahwaa is doing much more than keeping itself accessible to a larger user base, it's giving its Muslim members the chance to communicate with similar individuals from dissimilar environments. "The LGBTQ community in this region goes through so much with so little support," Esra Al-Shahei, Director of Mideast Youth, told ReadWriteWeb. "We felt a tool like this can help build a vibrant and supportive community in a way that was unique and interesting."