Mari Bastashevski and Sergey Ponomarev have produced a series of texts and videos to describe the blogosphere of the Russian North Caucasus. While there are existing studies that address the use of social virtual space across all Russia (notably, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society has done valuable work in this field), virtually no information is available about the blogging world of the Russian North Caucasus. How similar are that region’s online dynamics to what exists in other parts of Russia and the world? To what degree does the North Caucasus’ blogosphere really belong to the “RuNet”?
The uniqueness and novelty of this study is that it reflects on differences within the Russian blogosphere between ethnic Russian bloggers and bloggers of North Caucasus. The conditions, themes, and approaches to Internet use and netizen activism vary significantly in comparisons of Russians and North Caucasian bloggers, and among North Caucasian bloggers themselves.
In this study, our researchers have focused on the region’s five key Russian republics: Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Ossetia. The study also addresses the North Caucasus’ most popular blogging mediums: image sharing, micro-blogging, status-updates, journaling, group organization, and independent domain blogging. The methods employed by Bastashevski and Ponomarev are both interactive, including interviews with individual bloggers, and observational, focusing on interpretative text analysis. Ponomarev traveled to the region and met directly with different popular bloggers.
Bastashevski and Ponomarev identified and interviewed influential and representative bloggers from across the region’s social spectrum, gathering data for storytelling that captures narratives both individual and collective. The interviews consisted of semi-structured, open-ended questions.
The project also includes in-depth content analysis of the North Caucasus’ most popular blogs, studying multiple popular platforms, with particular focus on data collected from LiveJournal. In this section of the research, Bastashevski also spoke to ICT professionals, in order to grasp the industry-insider’s perspective.
While the study in not based in scientific arguments, the project’s focus on individual agency as revealed in personal storytelling gives the work a different kind of merit. Like quantitative work on the RuNet, this project does map the blogosphere of the Russian North Caucasus, but its methodology is qualitative and interpretive.
The blogosphere of the Russian North Caucasus is a hyperactive and rapidly developing community that has changed and expanded dramatically, particularly in the last two years.
Becoming a widespread form of self-expression at the turn of the century (with the arrival of mass Internet culture), blogging entered the North Caucasus’ mainstream shortly after its biggest cities “came online.” Gaining visibility with the earliest Internet cafes, the region’s first netizens were predominantly young men, using the Web for multiplayer computer gaming, text-based chat, and the exchange of multimedia. This trend, while still extremely popular, has shifted largely to 2G and 3G mobile devices. Developing largely by word of mouth, this early Internet-user culture appears to be an import from the Russian heartland.
The linkages between Russian and North Caucasian Internet cultures make sense, given national boundaries and the practicalities of telecommunications, but the blogospheres remain quite distinct. Both communities, of course, share a common language, just as the spread of English has promulgated particular blogging conventions prevalent in Europe and the United States. Indeed, as bloggers in the North Caucasus build their English language skills, it is possible that Anglophone netizen customs could spread to the region.
Bloggers in the North Caucasus regularly note the hostility and racism of the Russian online community (directed at North Caucasians) and make no secret that they would distance themselves from the Russian language blogosphere, if they could write in a different widely read language.
For now, bloggers in the Russian North Caucasus write mainly in Russian—a language they utilize (largely instrumentally) to expand their reach. This choice of language does not mean that the region’s bloggers write in an attempt to dialogue with ethnic Russians. The Russian tongue is simply the best lingua franca available to most bloggers in the North Caucasus, as that area’s native languages are rare indeed outside the region.
One unsurprising consequence of the strained relationship between Russians and the North Caucasian republics’ titular nationalities is a Russian comment culture that is often racist and aggressive towards those who are “dark-skinned.” Russian bloggers commonly resort to chauvinist tropes, and many are now dabbling in English language commentary, just as North Caucasians draw on Russian as a means to access broader audiences.
An overwhelming majority of bloggers in the North Caucasus uses LiveJournal as its main platform. While the region enjoys a thriving (and indeed growing) “echo chamber” of reposted and retweeted material, much of the community’s content is self-authored and original. Most of this material consists of text, but photo-blogging is increasingly popular.
Censorship and self-censorship are prevalent. Typically, the agents of surveillance and censorship are an intermediary set of individuals responsible for managing the region’s blogging platforms—people with vested business interests in the blogosphere’s continued stability. Police and other officials meddle indirectly with netizen content by manipulating these ICT professionals, who in turn intervene against bloggers. Bastashevski has interviewed individuals involved in this process.
In terms of size and influence, Dagestan dominates the region’s blogosphere, followed closely by Ingushetia and Chechnya, with Ossetia and Kabardino-Balkaria trailing behind. Bloggers of the region’s online community author most of their own written content, complemented by photographs and various types of syndicated materials.
The blogosphere of the North Caucasus is a tight-knit community. Most of its active members are interested in issues local to the region and lack any real national or global reach. That said, the substance of their concerns and the subjects they address—along with the blogging methods they employ—are not all that different from what one finds in blogospheres worldwide.
Interviews suggest that the North Caucasus’ bloggers would happily interact with other netizens from within the region or around the country, but they assume their activity holds no interest for outsiders.
This study explores how blogging—a medium tailored to borderless exchange—led to such isolation and localization in the North Caucasus. As a survey of the region’s online communities, this material should appeal to anyone who wants to learn something about the North Caucasus. This research engages the region’s bloggers directly, separating it from the analyses of many foreign experts, who often write about the area’s culture and politics without interacting with the individuals there or ever visiting the place.
The study challenges many of the most common and often erroneous stereotypes about the North Caucasus, revealing and unpacking the normality obscured behind the exoticism and imagined differences popular in mainstream work about the region’s culture and netizens.