Cartoons + social media = e-civil society?
Media and Internet, Photoblog, Turkmenistan10 Comments
Editor’s note: The Turkmen-language Facebook page “JaPBaKLaR”, originally intended as a forum to share popular Turkmen cartoons, has emerged as the biggest Turkmen Facebook community. More importantly, it’s exhibiting some behaviors that seem surprisingly civic. NewEurasia’s Annasoltan reports.
So, first the naysayers: yes, Turkmenistan has got the slowest Internet in Central Asia. The speed for landline Internet a mere 72 KBps, and to get anything faster can cost as much as 7,000 USD (= for “unlimited” access). It also looks like that within my nation, the number of my fellow Turkmenetizens ranges between 80,400 to 127,000, which is roughly 1.5 to 2% of the population.
But for that tiny percentage, the Internet, especially social media, has been a world-transforming experience. Take for example the Facebook page “JaPBaKLaR” (https://www.facebook.com/japbaklar), named after the fictional youngsters of the serial novel by the famous Turkmen writer Berdi Kerbabayew. Would you imagine that here, in such an innocuous place (and remember: Facebook is blocked via landline access) we could expect to see an exhibition of a civic sensibility?
With nearly a thousand likes (as of this writing), and according to one of its moderators with as many as 30,000 unique visits per week, JaPBaKlaR is currently the most active Turkmen community page on Facebook, outstripping many other pages. I contacted “Instant”, on one of the moderators of JaPBaKLaR; this is what he had to say about the page:
“We have built a really strong community at JaPBaKLaR. Currently we have 950 users; 1,187 people are talking about our page on their profiles; over 30,000 unique visits our page per week. We have more than 2300 Turkmen photos, and its growing daily; we post 15-20 pics per day. The highest number of comments received for a single post were +400. Over 95% of our visitors are Turkmen speakers. People rejoice when we post their photos or they ask to share them…”
That’s amazing for a webpage that was originally intended just for sharing cartoons and jokes! Indeed, to reach such impressive targets are the dream of some of well-established Turkmen language news sites.
Although I cannot independently confirm this data from the Facebook corporation, frankly, I see no reason to doubt it. Here’s why: my experience with the still-young Turkmenet is that my countrymen will practically colonize any uncensored digital space available to them. A certain momentum builds, not unlike an Internet meme, until a critical mass is reached, typically provoking a response from the Turkmen authorities or a cooling-off period.
There are two sides to this dynamic. On the one hand, there’s the old story of censorship. Turkmenistan’s problems with this are notorious, but what’s not often realized is that as a result the Turkmen media environment has become strictly divided into a false dichotomy of “news” versus “online social media” The latter has to market itself as a “neutral” and “non-controversial” space for file-sharing and gossip so as to not attract the negative attention of censors. On the other hand, there’s something legitimate to the need for precisely such a “neutral” space, since even that is missing for my countrymen, since even pop songs must sing the praises of the president! (I’ll just dangle the Zuckerman “Cute Cats” connotations of this situation and say nothing more…)
But there’s more going on with JapBaKLaR’s rise than just this dynamic I’ve noticed with other Turkemenet sites.
JaPBaKLaR is experience the development of what looks like some kind of civic sensibility. Instant recounts to me an incident in which the JapBaKLaR team had to take action to protect the rights of their female users:
“Recently, a person has opened a fake profile page by copying the photos of some girls without seeking their permission. [The girls] turned to us; we called upon the members [of our page] to report this page and within 15 minutes the page was closed.”
Check that out: collective action to protect members of the group! Maybe some of my readers think I’m making a big deal out of nothing, but I ask them to think about this a bit. That one little incident was encoded with feelings of solidarity and the right to privacy.
The JapBaKLar team is getting its users involved in other, very simple ways:
“Every week we are conducting a contest of Turkmen singers by voting and this week we are conducting the ‘Mr. and Ms. Turkmen’ photo competition.” [Ed. note: This can be confirmed by checking out the page right now, but out of respect for privacy we are not publishing a screen-capture here.]
These kind of involvement from the administration and user levels is probably even more key to JapBaKLaR’s success than just the “digital colonization” effect. It makes me think there’s a valuable lesson in here in terms of promoting civil society via the Internet…
“This month, we received an offer from a person who wanted to buy the page, and an offer from a large traditional media organization which has a Turkmen division to replace the banner of JaPBaKLaR with the logo of a company, and other offers for for photo and content sharing. But we have turned down all of them. We have some great plans for the future. We want to maintain our unique brand.
“Perhaps our activity exceeds the limits of what Facebook can do. For example, we can’t change the structure of the page, and the posting quality is rather low, you can’t post photo-voting. Following abilities are limited, as I don’t receive notifications about the posts. Archiving and statistics are not developed. If I’m offline I miss what has been posted. Most of what we share goes unnoticed and [trouble-making] users cannot be blocked.”
Why, then, did the JapBaKLar team choose a Facebook page?
“Facebook is the most active social site in the world. We feared that if we set up a separate website, we could be subject to hack attacks, because we have a lot debate going on.”
Oh boy, is he ever right! I’ve been following the ongoing troubles with hackers ever since the appearance of “Mr. Empire”/”unknownturkmen” in the Autumn (see my post: “Hack the Turkemenet!”) and I’ve been meaning to write a huge update on everything that’s happened with this story.
More to the point, Japbaklar’s success suggests that another key to getting Turkmenetizens to really embrace a webpage and make it their own isn’t just the culture, but also infrastructure. Media that vests power within the hands of administrators who are able communicators and networkers, combined with an interact visual environment, seems to be the leg up. Indeed, to paraphrase the old saying about photographs, a few visuals appear to be worth a thousands of words…