A review of The Map and The Territory: Russian Social Media Networks and Society by Karina Alexanyan.
Karina Alexanyan’s 2013 dissertation, The Map and The Territory: Russian Social Media Networks and Society, makes a significant contribution to our understanding of Russia’s contemporary social media networks. The text draws on a broad admixture of communications theory, media studies, sociology, and cultural studies tools to map out the unique features of Russia’s social media networks. As such, it will be of interest to a broad range of communications, area studies and cultural studies scholars, professionals and interested laypersons.
Much recent communications scholarship has examined the social and cultural effects of the spread of digital media platforms within the industrialized world (e.g. Derek Pardue’s analysis of contemporary hip hop in Brazil, and Ravi Sundaram’s study of informal digital networks in India), while other scholars have analyzed the effects of the digital commons on media production and consumption (cf. the work of Hector Postigo, Mia Consalvo and Yochai Benkler). The importance of Alexanyan’s work is one of the first sustained analyses to focus on one of the most important – albeit least studied – social transformations underlying the digital media boom. This is the emergence of large-scale, digitally-literate audiences throughout the industrializing nations, a phenomenon especially noticeable in the “BRIC” nations of Brazil, Russia, India and China.
These nations matter due to their demographic heft (by population, they are 42% of the humanity), their economic success (comprising 20% of the world economy in 2012), and the fact that each nation has become a key center of commercial broadcasting and non-commercial digital media production in its respective region (Russia vis-a-vis Eurasia, India vis-a-vis South Asia, China vis-a-vis Southeast Asia and the Pacific Rim, Brazil vis-a-vis Latin America). Alexanyan’s study will be especially helpful to scholars of the post-Soviet nations, who are constructing their own mass media systems and digital cultures in the context of social conditions and historical legacies broadly comparable to those of Russia.
In this respect, Alexanyan’s work usefully complements Eugene Gorny’s dissertation, A Creative History of the Russian Internet (Goldsmiths, University of London 2006), one of the first analyses to examine the role of user creativity in the rise of the Russian internet. Where Gorny focuses on the question of how Russian users organized themselves on specific platforms, Alexanyan focuses on the question of how Russian audiences are structured in terms of social media ecologies.
The first chapter of Alexanyan’s dissertation notes that while some of the features of Russia’s social media ecology are rooted in is specific trajectory as a post-Soviet state, other features are rooted in Russia’s status as a middle-income industrializing nation. Thanks to Soviet-era investments in science and education, Russia has one of the best-educated populations of any industrializing nation in the world. Yet like many other middle-income nations during the late twentieth century, Russia experienced a catastrophic economic crisis during the 1990s, thanks to the looting of the economy by neoliberal oligarchs (or what political theorist Boris Kagarlitsky acidly termed “market Stalinism”). This epoch bankrupted the former Soviet middle-classes, and created the urgent need for cheap, affordable digital platforms and entertainment.
Alexanyan notes that this history was crucial to the choice of LiveJournal as a key media platform during Russia’s initial internet boom in the late 1990s and early 2000s:
In particular, Russia’s Internet penetration grew hand-in-hand with Russia’s pioneering social media platform, LiveJournal, enshrining LiveJournal’s unique mix of long form public content and closed social networks within Russian social media. As a consequence, the various features of Russian social media – private, public, blogs, online journals, social networking sites, friends, readers and communities – overlap and converge in a distinctly different manner than in the US, with different socio-political implications (p. 45).
Far from converging with the neoliberal U.S. model of corporate-dominated media oligopolies, Russia’s media industries and social media networks are following their own unique logic. One of Alexanyan’s most salient points is that this divergence is not rooted in Russia’s comparative economic underdevelopment vis-a-vis the U.S., but in an alternate growth trajectory. Russia’s economy stabilized in 1999 and grew rapidly thereafter, enabling millions of Russians to become digital consumers. However, this consumer boom did not fundamentally alter Russia’s unique social media ecology, a polite way of saying digital commerce did not hijack the digital commons. Instead, Russian firms such as Vkontake tried to avoid criminalizing the informal file-sharing which most Russian consumers routinely practiced, while the Russian government invested heavily in wiring Russia’s schools and universities and promoting e-governance initiatives.
The second chapter of the dissertation proceeds to map out the largest networks of Russian social media circa 2009-2010, using a social network analysis framework. This involves using the large-scale aggregation of social media links, designed to measure how information flows through a given network. This involved tracking a data-set of 1 million active blogs, which was eventually winnowed down to 12,000 blogs and 4,000 hyperlinks (p. 79). It is worth noting that the study employed search data from Russian search engine company Yandex, Russia’s equivalent of Google, pointing to the interconnections between today’s digital tools and digital audiences.
The third and fourth chapters employ the tools of content analysis to measure and classify some of the key structures of Russia’s social network, including the interrelationship between the identities of specific audience members and the role of nationality, profession, gender, political beliefs and other factors. One of the interesting findings here is the deep diversity of Russian’s social media, which does not function according to the neatly homogenized political categories of the U.S. political system. This diversity does not mean that Russia’s internet has more internal consensus, but that the categories of ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexuality and professional identity are significantly different from their U.S. counterparts. For example, the meaning and significance of Russian nationalism functions very differently than in the US, due to the legacy of Soviet-era identity-politics (overt nationalism was frowned on as regressive and chauvinistic) and the more recent legacy of the violent ethnic separatisms which flared up in Russia in other post-Soviet nations during the 1990s. Adding to the complexity, large populations of ethnic Russians continue to reside in contemporary Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus and the Baltic states, making the notion of a territorial nationalism deeply problematic.
Chapters five and six examine the interplay between Russia’s social media, and the more traditional mass media (especially television broadcasting), and the increasing influence of digital networks on Russia’s still-young democracy. What is especially striking is the correlation between the increasing prevalence of digital tools, and increasing levels of political contestation and democratic mobilization, especially after 2010. While the most famous example of this contestation was the wave of political protest against Putin’s reelection in 2012, the deeper significant of social media is that it now reaches into every level of Russian society. Social media networks are not just challenging the monopolies of state-owned radio and television channels and privately-owned national cinema and advertising companies, they are also transforming the field of cultural production, e.g. Russia hosts one of the most vibrant and innovative hip hop music cultures in the world today, thanks to the digital networking of Russian artists and their fan communities.
In conclusion, one the most important achievements of this dissertation is to illuminate the complexity of Russia’s social media ecology, and to highlight the ways in which this ecology has became a key driver of Russia’s political governance, Russian democracy and civic mobilization, and Russia’s flourishing media culture.
Department of Communications
University of Texas at San Antonio
Survey of 1,880 blogs and Outlinks
Columbia University. 2013. 283 pp. Primary Advisor: Todd Gitlin.
Image: Image of the RuNet Discussion Core, as identified by Karina Alexanyan, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and Morningside Analytics.