But a funny thing is happening in the chaos of today’s Russian Internet use: people are starting to feel overwhelmed, and they’re turning back to ways of writing and reading online that feel more like old-school blogging. Ironically, the bellwether of this new trend is the instant messaging service Telegram, designed and funded by Pavel Durov, the man who launched Russia’s most popular social network, Vkontakte, before being ousted a few years ago (in a scheme apparently orchestrated by the Kremlin to grab more control over the website).
Telegram’s new feature is called “Channels,” and its appeal is built on doing relatively little. Anyone can create a channel, which is essentially a stream of messages that other Telegram users can subscribe to receive. Those messages roll in like other chat messages (intermingled with messages from people you’re actually talking to), and you can either receive push notifications for every new missive, or “mute” incoming texts. There is no way to respond, meaning that commenting is off limits.
“Channels” are strictly one-way, offering an elegant, if slightly tyrannical, solution to the epic problem of trolls, bots, and generally stupid people bent on sharing feedback and trading insults online. You can see the time that a message was posted, the number of views that post has received, and the number of total subscribers a channel has. That’s it. Enjoy.Earlier this month, the website Afisha Daily asked industry leaders in Russia to share their thoughts about Telegram’s channels feature. Daniil Trabun, Afisha magazine’s chief editor, called Telegram channels “the new blogs”:
У них нет дизайна, их нельзя найти на сайтах большого интернета. Остается главное — свобода самовыражения и удобная доставка контента прямо в телефон. Даже комментировать подписчикам здесь нельзя, что кажется абсолютно логичной вещью. Действительно, вы комментарии на своих любимых сайтах читаете? Ужас ведь.
Yuri Saprykin, the new editorial director of the Moscow Times publishing house, was similarly pleased with the abolition of comments, telling Afisha that the effect of Telegram channels is like getting access to someone’s bedside diary, filling readers with a pleasant sense of “irresponsibility, if not freedom”:
They’ve got zero design, and they’re impossible to find on the websites of the rest of the Internet. The main things they’ve got are the freedom of expression and a convenient way of delivering content straight to your phone. Subscribers can’t even comment, which seems absolutely logical. Honestly, do you ever read the comments on your favorite websites? No because they’re a nightmare.
Главное достоинство канала в Telegram — что там нет комментов, и значит, под любым твоим самым невинным постом не будут собираться незнакомые люди, чтоб рубиться безжалостно на темы Порошенко и ДНР (как это часто случалось в прошлом году).
Grigory Prorokov, another journalist who now also runs a Telegram channel about pop culture and technology, argues that the public is losing interest in the professional mass media. He says Internet use is returning, in various ways, to its habits from more than a decade ago, when smaller media operations were all the rage:
The main advantage of Telegram channels is that there aren’t any comments, meaning that you won’t find under your most innocent posts a bunch of strangers fighting mercilessly about [Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko or the DNR [the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic] (as was often the case last year).
Telegram словил важную штуку: сейчас интернет в какой-то степени возвращается в начало 2000-х, во времена, когда можно было все делать самому. […] При этом вещи, которые люди делают в одиночку или маленькими командами, популярны как никогда: подкасты вернулись, видео на YouTube в порядке, даже блоги какие-то держатся.
Telegram has caught onto something important: right now the Internet is returning, to some extent, to the early 2000s, when it was possible to do everything yourself. […] Amidst today’s trends, things that people are doing by themselves or in small teams are more popular than ever: podcasts are cool again, YouTube videos are in vogue, and even blogs are making a comeback.
There’s no one official repository of Telegram channels, making it difficult to find the ones you might like best. Quite possibly, that mystique is intentional, preserving the service’s status as something for insiders. Perhaps the whole project will collapse, when too many people start offering Telegram channels, and it becomes as bloated as the social media available in years past. Some Russian outlets, like the news site Gazeta.ru, already seem committed to ruining Telegram’s reputation by lazily using its channels to repost the same content they blast out over Twitter.The real lifespan of Telegram channels probably relies most of all on how long it can sustain its spirit of “free expression,” which so many of Afisha’s contacts stressed. Here, even the absence of reader feedback might not be enough. For instance, columnist Oleg Kashin recently launched his own Telegram channel (@kashinguru, which has almost 1,600 subscribers at the time of this writing). On Monday, February 15, Kashin joked, “I’ve got a lot fewer [members] of the liberal intelligentsia here [on this Telegram channel], so I can be a little more forthcoming than on Facebook.”
This is a strong indictment of what Facebook has become for Russia’s chattering classes, but Kashin’s confession also begs the question: what happens if too many people migrate to Telegram, and the whole fiasco of self-censorship begins again?