Designing for Difference: Video on Demand in the Modern Muslim World

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Much of the recent market data produced on Southeast Asia paints a picture of a rapidly developing digital infrastructure. However, this data does not provide a depth of insight into how people in this region are engaging with this digital infrastructure. It is important to understand the political and cultural contexts in which digital technologies are being adopted and consumed in different parts of the world.

In this blog post, the fifth in a series exploring video on demand around the world, I discuss several of the major influences on technology use in the region and the implications for video on demand in the region.

‘Magnificent Jakarta’ by Luke Ma on Flickr. Used here under creative commons license.

Magnificent Jakarta’ by Luke Ma on Flickr. Used here under creative commons license.

Smartphone penetration in Southeast Asia is rapidly growing, particularly among the urban youth, according to research by Ericsson. Fuelled by the influx of affordable models from Chinese manufacturers such as ZTE and Huawei, this is providing increasing online access points for people in the region.

Nielsen suggests that this growing number of devices and increased connectivity is leading to changes in consumer behaviour. Media consumption is shifting away from traditional formats and viewing times, as consumers watch more online video, desiring control and choice over what they watch.

This year, Southeast Asia is also seeing that start of its own VOD-rush, with the launch this year of start-up iFlix and the Sony-Singtel joint venture HOOQ, both of which provide access to major US TV and movie content.

Indonesia in particular has received a great deal of attention. It has the world’s 13th largest online population, with over 42 million people online. In 2012, Jakarta was billed as the ‘world’s most active Twitter City’. The online population is still less than 17% of the total country, suggesting to strong area of growth.

 ‘Texting’ by nSeika on Flickr. Used here under creative commons license. Cropped from original.

Texting’ by nSeika on Flickr. Used here under creative commons license. Cropped from original.

While these statistics point to a rapidly developing digital infrastructure, they do not provide a full picture of how people in the region are adopting and appropriating these technologies. In order to understand audience engagement with online video in Southeast Asia, it is important to appreciate the political and cultural context of their use.

One of the stand out characteristics of Southeast Asia is internet censorship, for which the governments of Vietnam and Indonesia have both come under criticism. Vietnam’s Decree 72, prohibiting the discussion and sharing news and current affairs has been criticised by groups such as Reporters Without Borders for censoring independent information. In Indonesia, content controls have been described as inconsistent and lacking transparency and have resulted in numerous cases of over blocking. Last year Vimeo was blocked over allegedly hosting indecent content.

Consequently, both countries have high levels of VPN use (see slide 19), with young people in particular seeking to access blocked sites, particularly social media. This has an impact on DRM for online video services in the region.

Culture and religion also has a major influence on the way technologies become adopted. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world. Anthropologist Bart Barendregt has written extensively about how technologies and new media have become an integral part of the development of modern Muslim lifestyles and identities in the country.

The initial rise of mobile phones in Indonesia, Barendregt says, coincided with the end of the Suharto regime and the start of a worldwide digital revolution. Technological innovation, in particular the mobile phone, became synonymous with the development of modern Muslim lifestyles which have emerged over the past twenty years (Barendregt, 2008).

Barendregt predicts two scenarios for technological adoption in Muslim communities. On the one hand, as digital platforms are developed to suit the particular needs and tastes of Islamic users. On the other, Islamic practices will be increasingly able to transcend national boundaries (Barendregt, 2012).

A project which sits at the intersection of these two scenarios is the video on demand service Alchemiya, which uses digital technology to give a voice to young modern Muslims around the world. Alchemiya’s mission is to provide quality content for an intelligent, cultured and creative Muslim audiences. The multi-platform service aims to present a positive side of Islam, providing access to content reflecting the values and ideals of the Muslim world, and supporting creative producers of Muslim content. Although based in the UK, the product has an international scope which goes beyond national borders.

We took inspiration from traditional Islamic motifs and combined these with contemporary design trends.

  • Pippa Batey, Ostmodern
Alchemyia Home Page

Source: Alchemiya

Ostmodern’s Pippa Batey, who worked on the project, talks about some of the visual design decisions:

“We took inspiration from traditional Islamic motifs and combined these with contemporary design trends to create a product which would appeal to a modern Muslim audience. We wanted Alchemiya to feel exciting and new whilst being respectful of cultural heritage. For example, the ‘dynamic square’ play symbol, which is used throughout the site, was based on the use of geometric shapes in traditional Islamic designs.”

Alchemiya provides content for the needs and tastes of its modern Muslim audience, whilst its digital format allows it to transcend national boundaries and reach a global audience. By appealing to the cultural sensibilities of its audience, both in terms of content and design, the product has every chance of succeeding in technologically developing countries such as Indonesia.

Around Putrajaya Mosque by Sham Hardy on Flickr. Used under creative commons license.

Around Putrajaya Mosque by Sham Hardy on Flickr. Used under creative commons license. The visual design of Alchemiya was inspired by the geometric patterns used in Islamic architecture, such as Putrajaya Mosque in Malaysia.

This blog post has sought to demonstrate some of the cultural and political contexts which businesses, technologists and product designers must be aware of and provide for when trying to enter different regions around the world.

In territories where censorship is high, attention must be paid to user-led solutions, such as VPN use, to circumvent restrictions, as these will have an impact on the provision online video services in the region.

In a more nuanced way, cultural and religious contexts also affect how technologies are adopted and used, as well as the type of products which resonate with users. In Indonesia, where people are embracing a modern Muslim lifestyle, a product like Alchemiya, which has been created with the same cultural values, has great potential to succeed.


Barendregt, Bart (2008) 'Sex, Cannibals, and the Language of Cool: Indonesian Tales of the Phone and Modernity' in The Information Society: An International Journal, (24, 3), pp. 160-170.

Barendregt, Bart (2012) 'Diverse Digital Worlds' in Digital Anthropology, London: Berg, pp. 203-224.

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