Last winter, when Ahmed Zaki became the 20,000th fan of the Shankaboot’s official Facebook page, the cast and crew of the Arab world’s first web series rewarded him with some “shankin” paraphernalia. “We sent him a few t-shirts and USBs,” said Arek Dakessian, who manages all things related to Shankaboot’s online social media. “We make it a point to not only respond to our fans, but to also entertain them.”Shankaboot Producer Katia Saleh told NOW Extra during a phone interview that this type of entertainment is exactly the reason why the BBC World Service Trust and Batoota Films landed a nomination for the category of Best Fiction Program at the sixth International Digital Emmy Awards, which is taking place in Cannes on Monday. Shakaboot will be competing against three other productions from the Netherlands, the UK and Brazil.
“The nomination is for the project [as a whole]. [Shankaboot is] about interaction, about the online platform and the community management we are doing,” said Saleh. “It is more than just a series.”
Indeed, a glimpse of Shankaboot’s Facebook page confirms the show is more than a story about a young delivery boy.
“I will upload pictures soon [showing] my prizes… Thanks again,” read a recent post by Zaki on the program’s Facebook wall. The Shankaboot team responded enthusiastically, wishing Zaki luck with grabbing the prize reserved for the 100,000th fan.
Without a doubt, interaction between Shankaboot and its fan base is at the core of what makes the year-old series a success. “This whole online community management thing is a trend […] It’s all about getting in touch with fans,” Dakessian explained. Though the technology of online social media is already well-developed in Western societies, “Shankaboot might very well be setting the standard at the regional level,” he added.
But since the Emmy’s are an international event, Shankaboot must offer something more.
Dakessian explained that Shankaboot’s attempts to reach out to fans online might help the production stand out. It goes beyond responding to fans, he said, emphasizing the importance of engaging with the program’s supporters. To do so, Shankaboot scriptwriters touch on Lebanon’s controversial social issues, such as women’s rights as well as the rights of domestic workers. This added a new dimension to the web series. “People want to talk about these issues and need an outlet… So we encourage them to share their experiences [on our platform].”
In fact, a quintessential part of the project is the sections on the Shakaboot website dubbed “Shankactive,” where fans are welcome to post their Shankaboot-inspired multimedia ventures, and “Shankabotees,” which invites bloggers to share their posts that address themes similar to those shown on the program.
This encouraged blogger Anas al-Salah to share his caricature of children pretending to shoot guns under the title “[It’s] better without guns,” at a time when Shankaboot was addressing the topic of arms. “It’s a nice way of breeding interaction,” Salah said, who was also keen on upping his readership.
But what might surprise many Arabic speakers is that the web series have carved itself a niche among foreigners wanting to learn the language.
Juliette Bussy-Virat, a French woman working in Lebanon, said she uses the webisodes to help practice her Arabic. “A friend recommended I use the show to help practice my spoken skills. I watch it regularly, because I find the dialogue is clear and concise.”
In fact, using the series for learning purposes has gone transnational, with one Lebanese-American professor at California's prestigious Stanford University basing his lectures on the program.
“In teaching my courses, I always make sure to bring in a cultural element, [especially for] colloquial Arabic,” said Ramzi Salti, who has lectured in Arabic Language and Literature for over 12 years.
“I stumbled onto Shankaboot and was extremely impressed […] The story line is exciting, the acting is amazing, and most importantly, every webisode comes with English subtitles. My students at Stanford simply love the program,” added the professor.
“Loads of our fans are actually Lebanese [living abroad] who miss Lebanon,” confirmed Dakessian. “[The story is] about everyday problems… and I think that ideally, that’s what the Emmy people are interested in.”
According to Shankaboot Producer Saleh, viewership extends to the US, France and Canada. But the largest number of viewers is in Lebanon followed by Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. This is particularly impressive considering Lebanon’s jurassic internet speed.
“It’s hard, but we manage,” Saleh admitted, “and we believe that if people want to follow us, they can still find the means to do it if they really, really love us.”
With more than 600,000 views of Shankaboot’s YouTube episodes, 23,000 Facebook fans and over 2,000 followers on Twitter, it is safe to say that the web series is rather well received.
Shankaboot has already taken home the award for the Best Web Series at Geneva’s 2010 Cinema Tout Ecrans Festival. Monday might very well be the next milestone for the flourishing project “from the streets of Beirut.”