Russia: Online Cooperation as an Alternative for Government?

Coordination center of Ushahidi-based "Help Map". Photo by Anton Gerdo

The role of social networks and the blogosphere is usually viewed through a context of transparency and accountability. Social media activists can help in exposing the state’s failures and holding the government accountable. During this summer's wildfires [ENG], however, the role of the Russian media was more than that. Bloggers not only exposed the government’s unaccountability but demonstrated a high degree of solidarity and self-organization in fighting the disaster.

The activity of the Russian online community wasn't limited to helping wildfire victims. Bloggers created units of volunteer firefighters, went into the field and eventually provided immediate response. Along with the comprehensive instructions on how to become a firefighter, how to fight various types of wildfires, and what equipment volunteers should have, the Internet provided a platform for 24-hour coordination and exchange of information about the rapidly changing situation.

The fact that bloggers had to take matters into their own hands sent a message that was much stronger than any critique of the government. To some extent, Russian bloggers filled the gaps created by the government. This situation might surprise since quite often the ability of the Russian blogosphere to cause any effect beyond the virtual space was more than debatable.

So, what caused such an extraordinary effect?

Failure of the government as a trigger for online cooperation

There are several explanations. The skeptical approach says the major reason for the awakening of Russian netizens is a high degree of personal threat. Unlike other cases, the wildfires affected the entire population of Moscow. An anonymous user explained [RUS] this approach to

Когда горела Сибирь, нам было, честно говоря, пофигу. Когда пожар был в соседнем лесу, мы ковыряли в носу на даче и загорали под солнышком. Когда сгорела Выкса, мы проснулись и вскрикнули: “Власти бездействуют!” Через полчаса мы припомнили какую-то там бучу с Лесным кодексом и кинулись к компьютеру. Через час блогосфера бурлила. А на следующий день, когда Москву заволокло дымом, нам стало страшно, и мы бросились работать на благо страны.

When Siberia was burning we, honestly, couldn't care less. When the wildfires were in the neighboring forest, [we were doing nothing], sunbathing in the countryside. When Vyksa was destroyed by fire, we woke up and shouted: “The government isn't doing anything!” Half an hour later, we recalled something about the Forest Codex and we rushed to our computers. An hour later, the blogosphere was boiling. Next day, when the smog covered Moscow, we got frightened and rushed to work for the good of our country.

Beyond the cynical point of view, however, high degree of cooperation might be explained with two factors. On the one hand, cooperation was empowered by a shared understanding that the government has failed to get the situation under control and, moreover, didn't want to be held accountable for it. On the other hand, it was information technologies that provided both information exchange and tools for coordination and effective collaboration.

The feeling of total distrust in the government was one of the major leitmotifs in the online discourse around wildfires. Anna Baskakova, an art expert who took an active part in firefighting, published an appeal to Sergey Shoigu, the Russian Minister of Emergency Situations. The appeal received over 2,400 comments and became one of the most popular posts of the week. Baskakova wrote [RUS]:

… у меня исчезли последние детские иллюзии, связанные с тем, что кто-то там, наверху, о нас заботится и нас защищает (нет, я не о Боге, я говорю о руководстве страны и о Вас в том числе). Теперь я стала взрослым человеком и рассчитываю только на себя.

… I've lost the last childish illusions that someone up there is taking care of us and protecting us (no, I'm not talking about God, I'm talking about the leadership of the country, you included). Now I've became an adult and count on myself only.

One of the peaks of the bloggers’ dissatisfaction with the government was the moment when PM Vladimir Putin co-piloted a firefighters’ plane [EN]. It was widely recognized as a PR action. Some bloggers wondered if Putin had a legal right to co-pilot. One of the bloggers asked [RUS]:

Премьер-министр тушит пожары; Премьер-министр реанимирует 80-летних бабушек; Премьер-министр сеет пшеницу. А кто управляет страной?

The prime minister is fighting wildfires; the prime minister is resuscitating 80-year-old grandmothers; the prime minister is seeding wheat. And who is running the country?

In a sarcastic post titled “Innovation in firefighting,” Leonwolf listed [RUS] ways in which the government was putting out the fires. It included:

  • “Administrative method” (marking a wildfire situation as “closed” in a special journal);
  • Firefighting by setting a forest on fire first – in order to show off the firefighting efforts by activists of the Russian ruling party “United Russia”;
  • Firefighting by praying for the rain;
  • Firefighting by Photoshop [EN];
  • Firefighting by “rynda” [EN] etc.

One of the sharpest responses to the government's actions was provided by Yulia Latynina, an Echo Moskvy journalist. She claimed [RUS] that the state system reached a new degree of failure when even Putin’s presence wasn't bringing about any changes:

Мы видим, что система по-прежнему не функционирует. Над Москвой стоит смог, московские морги переполнены. Лужков даже не вернулся из отпуска. Система продолжает выделять 9 млрд. рублей на чистую воду, переименовывать милицию в полицию. Здорово, ребята, давайте лучше не милицию в полицию переименуем, а сразу, как кто-то пошутил в блогах, ВАЗ переименуем в БМВ, те же самые три буквы. И тремя буквами всё это накроется.

We can see that the system is still not functioning. Moscow is covered by smog, Moscow morgues are filled beyond capacity. Luzhkov [Moscow's mayor] hasn't come back from vacation. The system continues to allot 9 billion rubles for clean water, renames militia to police. It's great, guys, let's rename not militia to police, but, as some blogger joked, VAZ [a Russian car factory] to BMW – the same three letters. And by three letters all of it will be covered [a hint at a popular Russian curse].

"Have you signed up to volunteer?". An illustration by a LJ user ryskan.

Technology helps online communities to replace government

The wildfires showed that with the help of technology, online community can replace both the functions and the structures of the government.

One of the most significant signs of the government's failure was the fact that bloggers had to buy equipment – including fire hoses – for official units of professional firefighters. Igor Cherskiy, one of the leaders of online volunteers, a writer and a blogger, asked [RUS] Shoigu not for help, but for instructions on which fire hoses to buy:

Назовите, пожалуйста, адреса, где вы прячете эти сокровища. Мы приедем и даже купим их у вас же, чтоб вам же привезти, чтобы вы потушили пожар. <…> Понимаете? Наши женщины не боятся покупать пожарные рукава для ваших героических войск. Они только боятся “купить ненужное”.

Please, give me the addresses where you're hiding these treasures. We will come and buy it from you and then give it to you so that you could fight wildfires. …Do you understand? Our women aren't afraid of buying fire hoses for your heroic troops. They're just afraid of “buy the wrong ones.”

Shoigu didn't reply to Cherskiy, but another blogger – LJ user fort_i_ko, a former firefighter – explained in detail what fire hoses to buy. Cherskiy concluded [RUS]:

Ура! Теперь любая кухарка сможет управлять МЧС. Ибо очень доходчиво всё изложено.

Hurray! Now any cook will be able to run the Ministry of Emergency Situations. Because now everything has been explained very clearly.

Vladimir Lenin's famous saying that “every cook has to learn how to govern the state” did not, of course, apply in this situation. It was self-organization of bloggers that provoked the emergence of several leaders of the rescue operation, and, consequently, separation of duties between them. LJ user _alisa wrote [RUS] after one of her trips to an area affected by the wildfires:

вчера мы ездили в Кулебаки чтобы отвезти им все это – необходимые пожарным инструменты, продукты, средства защиты были приобретены на деньги блоггеров, организовал наш десант по заброске всего этого в «горячую точку» i_cherski , который как известно на общественных началах замещает временно недееспособное руководство МЧС.

Yesterday we went to Kulebaki to bring them everything they needed – firefighting equipment, food, protective devices that were purchased with the bloggers’ money. Our mission to the “hot spot” was organized by i_cherski, who, as you know, is filling in voluntarily for our temporarily incompetent leadership of the Ministry of Emergency Situations.

If i_cherski played the part of the Minister of Emergency Situations, the role of the Minister of Health and Social Aid was played by Elizaveta Glinka, aka doctor-liza. Her apartment was turned into the headquarters of aid coordination and a storehouse at the same time.

With the help of pozar_ru LJ community, Cherskiy and Glinka became the two leaders of the volunteer cooperation. Despite their successes, collective action of this type often lacked coordination. Overwhelming numbers of help offers, together with information overload, threatened the whole idea of efficient coordination. Moreover, some organizations that took an active part in rescue missions had no Internet representation whatsoever. For instance, an important role was played by a charity branch of the Russian Orthodox Church [RUS].

A management platform that made cooperation-based mutual aid more effective was “Help Map” [RUS] – the first Russian Ushahidi-based platform [ENG] that aggregated information from all possible sources and organized it according to categories, geolocation and time. The crowdsourcing element of “Help Map” made it possible to expand the range of people who could share information beyond bloggers and Internet users. “Help Map” created a useful database and launched a coordination center that connected those who needed help with those who offered help, relying on the information submitted to the map section. Blogger ottenki-serogo, who visited the Ushahidi-based coordination center in Moscow, described [RUS] the role of “Help Map”:

Карта Помощи – без сомнения проект года. Возможно, его даже наградят, посмертно, когда пожаров в стране, наконец, не станет. Скорее всего это будет какая-нибудь интернет-премия, но никак не признание заслуг государством. Впервые (вы можете вспомнить что-нибудь подобное?) интернет добровольцы не только объединились в желании помочь, но и создали сайт, колл-центр, систему мониторинга и обмена информацией.  […] Они не связаны ни с какими организациями и политическими партиями, они сами по себе, они тихо растворятся среди нас, когда беда отступит, и соберутся снова чтобы помогать, если, не дай бог, случится. Система создана, обкатана и готова к повторению.

“Help Map” is, no doubt, the project of the year. Maybe it will even receive a posthumous award, when the wildfires are, at last, gone. Probably it will be some Internet nomination, but definitely not recognition of achievement by the government. For the first time (can anyone recall anything like this?), Internet volunteers not only united in their will to help, but launched a website, opened a call center, deployed a system of monitoring and information exchange. […] They are not connected to any organizations or political parties, they are by themselves, and they will slowly dissolve when the trouble retreats, and they will gather again to help if, God forbid, something happens. The system has been created, tested and is now ready to be used again.

Coordination center of "Help Map". Photo by Ottenki-Serogo

“Help Map” not only sent a strong message to the government that it wasn't capable of taking care of its own citizens, but also presented a new accountability mechanism that is emerging among citizens. Ushahidi has become a civil society institution. These were the first steps to a reality in which the public would form alternative mechanisms and institutions, in order to fill the vacuum of government structures.

The combination of a dedicated online community as a main platform for discourse, several leaders and a coordination center based on an Ushahidi map, created a new model of effective online cooperation that can provide efficient and timely response. Blogger grey-wolk summarized [RUS] the role of the model that has emerged:

Люди без указаний, без поощрений и жажды славы просто начали сами исполнять функции государства. […] Выяснилось, что сочетание активных людей, новейших технологий распределенной работы,  отсутствие формальных ограничений и неограниченного источника знаний в виде сетевых ресурсов Интернета приводит к тому, что данный “виртуальный” коллектив весьма небольшой численности может проводить операции, реально влияющие на огромное пространство – несколько областей России.

Without any orders, without encouragement and not craving fame, people just started to fulfill the functions of the state. […] It turned out that a combination of active people, the newest technologies of distributed work, the lack of formal restrictions and unlimited source of knowledge on the Internet, leads to a situation when this relatively small “virtual” working group is able to carry out operations that make a real impact on a huge territory – a few regions of Russia.

Described above is an example of the “governance without government” phenomenon (a term coined in 1992 by James Rosenau and Ernst-Otto Czempiel [EN]). ”Governance without government” became relatively efficient and sustainable because of the role of the information technologies. Moreover, information technologies helped create platforms that inspired growth of new offline institutions (e.g., the coordination center that was set up as an extension of “Help Map“).

Some Russain bloggers already see that the online response to wildfires might be the beginning of a new political model for Russia, when citizens armed with technology take governance in their own hands. Blogger grey-wolk developed this idea in a post titled “Wildfires as a catalyst for self-governance in Russia” [RUS]:

При всех ошибках и несколько хаотической  форме создания “виртуальной организации” можно выделить несколько главных положений:

- в России существуют люди, способные самоорганизовываться и осуществлять существенные макроскопические воздействия
– “виртуальный коллектив” такого уровня может быть создан практически в любое время и способен осуществлять серьезную деятельность через 2 -3 недели после старта проекта.

Таким образом, после июля – августа 2010 года в России наконец то появился зачаток позитивного движения, и не считаться с его наличием формальные власти уже не в состоянии. Данное движение пока затрагивает в основном сферу деятельности МЧС. Что на очереди?

With all the mistakes and a relatively chaotic way of creation of a “virtual organization” we can make several conclusions:

- there are people in Russia who are able to self-organize and achieve significant macro-impacts
– “a virtual working group” of this type can be created at any time and is able to maintain serious activity after 2-3 weeks after starting the project.

As a consequence, after July-August 2010 we can finally see the first signs of a positive movement in Russia, and the government can not ignore it anymore. So far, this movement mainly affects the activity of the Ministry of Emergency Situations. What's next?

“Governance without government”: challenges and obstacles

Successful cooperation can’t work without a high degree of mutual trust between people. John Clippinger, in his book “A Crowd of One: a Future of Digital Identity” [EN], argues that the degree of online cooperation depends on the ability to evaluate reputation and credibility of online community members.

On the one hand, the wildfires showed that online community members are more trusted than the government is. Anna Baskakova wrote [RUS]

[…] я поверила в человеческую доброту. Потому что мне отовсюду под честное слово шлют вещи, деньги и продукты, чтобы я потратила все это на тушение пожаров. Даже совсем незнакомые люди из-за океана говорят, что мне доверяют, и переводят суммы на мою карточку. Вам не шлют, Сергей Кожугетович? Странно. Отчего они не хотят вам помогать??

[…] I've gained trust in human kindness. Because people [trust me enough] to be sending goods, money and food, for me to spend it all on the firefighting effort. Even complete strangers from across the ocean say that they trust me, and transfer money to my bank card. And what about you, Sergey Kozhugetovich [Shoigu]? Have you received anything? No? strange. Why aren't they willing to help you?

On the other hand, online activity was still accompanied by mutual suspicion and incidents, especially since the Russian Internet is known as a space with a high degree of engagement of pro-government bloggers.

One may suggest that in an emergency situation there is a rise in the degree of trust, and, as a consequence, online cooperation grows more sustainable. This sustainability, however, is very fragile. Once the emergency decreases, the degree of suspicion and tension rises.

More sustainability requires more options to evaluate who your partners are and what their reputation is. It should not be a surprise that leaders of the online movement were well-known. Clippinger argues that the development of online trust through the development of online identity can create a new social reality with more advanced levels of cooperation and self-organization. The Russian wildfires case is another proof that “governance without government” requires a high degree of mutual trust. It also provides hope, since members of the online community have an opportunity to examine the track record of their fellows. It means that online cooperation not only requires a developed online identity, but is also a part of online identity development. As a consequence, next time when cooperation is required it can be based on trust that was developed previously.

Certain obstacles of online cooperation should be mentioned, though. One of them is the “Iron Law of Oligarchy” [ENG]. Suggested in 1911 by sociologist Robert Michels [EN], the “law” says that any form of organization develops competition for leadership and creates its own “oligarchs”. In an online environment, information hubs become oligarchs of sorts. If that happens, information hubs turn from cooperation to rivalry, thus threatening the efficiency of networked actions.

Another problem is the audience. LiveJournal blogs and communities primarily address active Internet users. Ushahidi-based “Help Map” tried to expand its audience by including SMS-messaging, but still information about the website is primarily distributed on the Internet. At the same time, the Russian “conventional” mass media (primarily TV) are controlled by the government and are instructed [RUS] to “avoid exaggeration and dramatization” of the wildfires. As a consequence, the audience available for online cooperation is limited.


In summer 2010, the Russian blogosphere became an example of “governance without government” that emerged in the conditions of the government's failure to handle the disaster. The mix of blogs, online communities and an Ushahidi-based platform, together with the emergence of new offline institutions to support this structure, provided a framework for relatively efficient and coordinated response.

Russia isn't the only example of this phenomenon. In his recent, still unpublished, report – “Mobile Telephony & Governance in Weak/Non-State Areas” – Steven Livingston [EN] from the George Washington University showed that information and communication technologies might be a catalyst for new forms of governance in weak and stateless areas. The report demonstrates how mobile phones can “create new sorts of institutions that allow people to manage issues (such as banking, security, and information for trade) more effectively” without the government's involvement. It means that cooperation mediated through technology gradually becomes a more significant alternative for governance by the government and a new framework for accountability, in various parts of the world. In this case, the Russian online response to the wildfires might be just one of many examples.

The problems of trust and relationship, as well as the limited ability of the Internet to reach more people, are still here.  One may add that once the government recognizes network as a potential rival for governance, it might take steps to restrict online cooperation.


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