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Russia: A Study of Local Discussion Boards

Online forums in Russian cities are in a certain sense a unique phenomenon. It's not blogs that became the major platforms for open discussion in the regions, but discussion boards (called more often forums). Unlike Moscow or Saint Petersburg, where blogs or LiveJournal communities represent the most important spots in the information space, other Russian cities usually have a different structure of the blogosphere – if we count the forums as part of the blogosphere, of course. And, obviously, we should, as they play the most important role there.

At the same time, forums are underexamined. It's not only that they are sometimes underestimated by RuNet researchers, it's also because they're worse indexed by the search engines. In my Ph.D. paper, I performed a study of the Russian local discussion boards. Below are the summarized results of this research.

A body-laptop interface, by sternlab.org, photo by Bekathwia

A body-laptop interface, by sternlab.org, photo by Bekathwia

Technology

Forums are usually hosted on open platform engines (like phpBB [EN], Invision Power Board [EN] or vBulletin [EN]). Forums differ by type, size and the level of political independence. On the one hand, forums imply a higher level of anonymity. On the other hand, users on such forums have significantly fewer rights than forum administrators.

Role of forums

The impact of forums on the social capital and political mobilization is still quite questionable. Theoretically, forums should contribute to building local communities online, filling the “offline gap in the space of social relations” that is often present in Russia. However, in reality this is often not so.

Of course, sometimes forums become a platform for public campaigns (which lead to both negative and positive consequences). In 2006, the Kondopoga riots [EN] were initiated on the local city forums. Sometimes forums become the leading information sources in times of disaster (the way it happened with the Perm forum teron.ru during the fire in the restaurant in 2009 [EN]). In the city of Ryazan, portal forum.rzn.info is mainly dedicated to politics and is one of the most popular websites in the region. However, in some cities there are no political forums. For example, in the city of Orenburg the most popular forum is devoted to fishing (orenfishing.ru) [RUS].

Some forums, like Virtual Grozny (forum of the Chechen Republic‘s [EN] capital, Grozny [EN]), virtually “die” (it means that forum users no longer post messages), yet continue to be an important source of online documents that reflect the time and the people. Back in 2006, GV covered Natasha Raslambekova's story [EN] of the First Chechen War, which she had shared at Virtual Grozny. Even after the forum is dead, some of the discussions there remain quite interesting.

Forums and freedom of speech

It seems that forums are monitored very carefully by the regional authorities. Sometimes monitoring is combined with control. In 2007, independent journalist Dmitry Tashlykov was accused of defamation against the governor of Vladimir region [EN] because of a comment posted on a Vladimir city forum.

Audience and transformation to multi-service platforms

The size of the forum audience (that was measured on the basis of the open statistics services like LiveInternet, SpyLog or Mail.ru) correlates very well with the size of the city (correlation coefficient = 0.63), which means “the bigger the city – the larger the forum.” In the largest cities, forums have evolved into multi-service portals (just as lots of search engines in the US turned into portals in the early 2000s, though not many of them have survived since then). The audience of some portals can be compared to radio stations or even local TV channels. For example, the Yekaterinburg regional portal e1.ru [RUS] boasts 2 million users monthly, while in Chelyabinsk 74.ru [RUS] has 675,000 users. Of course, it's important to treat such numbers with caution, since online statistics services often exaggerate the number of visitors.

The table below presents cities with the most popular forums:

Russian cities with the most popular Internet forums

City Monthly audience of the city forum*, thousand users
1 Yekaterinburg [EN] 957
2 Nizhny Novgorod [EN] 350
3 Chelyabinsk [EN] 338
4 Novosibirsk [EN] 286
5 Tyumen [EN] 207
6 Perm [EN] 198
7 Veliky Novgorod [EN] 154
8 Volgograd [EN] 148
9 Novokuznetsk [EN] 144
10 Lipetsk 142

* – with the correction coefficient 0.5.

In several cities, popular forums have not been found. Most of them are capitals of Russia's national republics. The absence of forums can be explained by poor Internet connection conditions. (It is important to note that only Russian-language forums were studied; there are also forums in local languages as well as in English). The other group is comprised of industrial towns (like Dzerzhinsk [EN] or Balakovo [EN]). A possible reason is that people in smaller towns tend to visit forums of the regional capitals, which have bigger audiences and are usually more influential.

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