As the Turkmenet slowly blossoms, is a new strategy in order?
Editor’s note: Recently, there’s been a blossoming of Turkmen social websites and Facebook groups, and the activity therein has been incredible. neweurasia’s Annasoltan thinks she sees the opportunity for a new strategy of engagement with the people of her isolated nation. “The way to engage the Turkmen people and to get them to think critically about their society may [now[ require talking with the population rather than at them," she writes.
The recent weeks have been full of reasons to celebrate, and I don’t mean for the wedding celebrations that are taking place this summer throughout Turkmenistan. There's been a small explosion of new Turkmen social websites and new Facebook groups. Here are some examples:
Turkmen Online (http://www.facebook.com/turkmenonline): A few months ago, three Turkmen students studying information technology in Turkey registered the domain name http://www.tmonline.com to fulfil an academic requirement. At the time, the site's administrator explained to me, rather optimistically, "I don’t see any other way for the Internet in Turkmenistan other than to develop. In six to seven years it will be in every home." Currently, the site is unavailable; the Facebook page is a temporary stand-in, and its co-founder is busy tweeting (@Azadik).
Turkmenkinofilm (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Turkmenkinofilm/184983968221106): This is the umbrella Facebook group for a small alliance of cinematic sites and organizations, apparently the successor(s) to the Soviet-era film studios. These include http://www.turkmenkino.com/ and http://tmfiles.ucoz.com/ where you can download audio and video clips of Turkmen language movies; http://turkmenfilm.com is as-yet unused.
Zehinli Turkmen Yashlary (http://zehinli.ucoz.com/): This is a social networking site. At the moment it's offering basic e-mail and forum services. Its Facebook group (http://www.facebook.com/#!/home.php?sk=group_148007175267895) is very active.
Turkmen Dunya (http://www.turkmendunya.com): This site offers chats, events organization, group management and photo uploading. One of the founders declared on his personal site, http://www.sahipanet.com, "We hope that this site will contribute to the enrichment of the Turkmen Internet world." [Ed: As of 05.07.2011, both URLs were inaccessible and no logos were available.]
What is really important about these sites is that they are not blocked in Turkmenistan.* In fact, their accessibility reinforces the flow of Turkmenet users, who would otherwise be disinclined to use tools to bypass censors as IWPR reported back in April.
The Turkmenet is slowly but surely blossoming. For example, http://eyesinden.com, an established e-commerce site along the lines of bestbuy.com, has 50% of its visitors from within Turkmenistan, mainly Ashgabat, according to its administrator; likewise, the technology site http://tilsimat.net/ claims 20%. Meanwhile, http://www.ehabar.com/, an online news site created around two years ago by Turkmen students in Turkey, claims a weekly readership of 2100. The site actively translates from English and Turkish sources, and its Facebook profile (http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001179303376) has over 2800 friends.
Some of the sites are quite amateurish, contain trivial content, or are being used just to spread the use of the Turkmen language and to make some money while doing so, yet they are all pulsing with life. My countrymen are cramming every space they can with their thoughts and feelings (and lots of flirting) regardless of what the specific site is actually about. There’s a profound craving for connection in my country.
This makes me think that a new opportunity for engaging my countrymen may be emerging, and with it, perhaps a new strategy needs to be developed. There are two things to think about: (a) Whether we like it or not, for many Turkmenet users, their friends’ opinions are more important than those of unknown journalists, who are often suspected of having “hidden agendas” anyway. (b) Meanwhile, the mere act of posting and responding to opinions is an incredibly empowering experience for the average Turkmen, especially the young and intrepid new generation (another example is the huge rate at which our nation’s Twitter users have also multiplied; a few months ago there were almost none of them).
The way to engage the Turkmen people and to get them to think critically about their society may therefore require talking with the population rather than at them. I don’t mean just getting them to post URLs from RFE/RL, EurasiaNet and neweurasia content, because they probably wouldn’t do that anyway. No, I mean finding ways of introducing new vocabulary and critical political and cultural concepts by way of Facebook status updates and 140-character tweets. We must enter into a conversation with Turkmenistan. If the outside world can get the Turkmenet to engage with ideas rather than just data — i.e., rather than just our data — I think the Turkmens will do a lot the necessary and hard work of debate and reform themselves.
It won’t be easy. The Internet’s suppression within Turkmenistan continues unabated and the government is investing in new filtering and blocking systems. Meanwhile, the cybernetically freest Turkmens remain those abroad, which makes them easily censored — not to mention targeted.
* Specifically, their main URLs are not blocked. Facebook, and with it, Facebook groups/pages/etc., is blocked; only its mobile version is accessible.