Cartoonist Elkin illustrates how Frank – Livejournal’s mascot – is choked to death

For those of you who do not follow it yet: Global Voices Online’s RuNet Echo is a more than useful source of information for scholars of Russian new media. In the words of its initiators, RuNet Echo is “a project of Global Voices to expand and deepen understanding of the Russian-language Internet (RuNet) and related online communities.” Funded by the Open Society Institute, RuNet Echo analyzes topical discussions and trends in Russian-language online discourse — and it does so in well-informed and, as a rule, elegantly written posts. Illustrative: Alexey Sidorenko’s coverage, yesterday, of the new DDoS attack on Livejournal. To read Sidorenko’s thorough account of the transformative impact that this second intervention is having on Russian social-media usage, click here.

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Google just published what they call Language Graph of the Web
It’s interesting to compare these graphs to Susan Herring’s and Ewa Callahan’s research on Livejournal we heard about at F3.

If I search for the above phrase – ‘How Do We Search?’ from my home computer in Amsterdam, the Google results differ significantly from those received on my work PC in Bergen. Since many digital-humanities scholars rely on search tools in their research, it is of titanic importance that they are aware of that difference — and, more broadly, of the techniques that Google (as well as Facebook, Twitter, and many other Web 2.0 services) uses to filter out those results that it thinks you want to see. We have discussed the problem of unreliable search results repeatedly within the Future of Russian team, and it is a relief to see that the issue is being addressed more and more by shrewd voices in the field. Some recommended ‘sensitivizers’:

* In 2006, Amy Langville and Carl Meyer already published a booklength study of “the science of search-engine rankings,” titled Google’s PageRank and Beyond (Princeton University Press). A bit on the hardcore mathematical side for the linguists among us, perhaps, but worth a peep in any case.

* In 2007, a special section edited by Eszter Hargittai in the Journal for Computer-Mediated Communication explored how “search engines are also embedded in social processes and institutions that influence how they function and how they are used” — the quote comes from the section introduction. As all JCMC issues, the entire section is available online for free.

*  And this Spring, Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You (Penguin/Viking Adult 2011) is raising a lot of dust for its critical evaluation of personalized search tools. The book cannot yet be ordered online, but you can grasp the gist of Pariser’s argument perfectly by watching this short TED video. In his own words, this is how search engines work and why they require a sceptic approach:

“Most personalized filters are based on a three-step model. First, you figure out who people are and what they like. Then, you provide them with content and services that best fit them. Finally, you tun [sic] to get the fit just right. Your identity shapes your media. There’s just one flaw in this logic: Media also shape identity. And as a result, these services may end up creating a good fit between you and your media by changing … you. If a self-fulfilling prophecy is a false definition of the world that through one’s actions becomes true, we’re now on the verge of self-fulfilling identities, in which the Internet’s distorted picture of us becomes who we really are.”

Pariser’s tone is popular, Hargittai’s and that of her co-authors is more scholarly, and Langville and Meyer adopt, as said, a downright mathematical approach to search theory. Together, they may not solve the problems that digital searches entail, but they certainly help us in developing a healthy scholarly scepsis towards Google and other online search tools.

The Future of Russian project is well represented in the most recent, fifth, issue of the online academic journal Digital Icons. Two articles, a mobile phone ringtone (!), a report from the latest Future of Russian conference, a review of From Poets to Padonki and a review written by one of the core group members, means that this issue gives a good impression of what the project group has been up to lately.

Michael Gorham’s article “Virtual Rusophonia: Language Policy as ‘Soft Power’ in the New Media Age” explores two state-sponsored attempts to use language and new technology as tools for creating new spaces of ‘Russianness’ online — the ‘Russian World Foundation’ (Fond ‘Russkii Mir’) and the ‘.rf’ Cyrillic internet domain project. Gorham argues that “they present quite different, if not mutually exclusive visions, each fraught with tensions between the de-centred nature of web-based communication and the top-down, paternalistic penchants of the Putin-era political elite.”

In a German language article Henrike Schmidt turns to the evolving Russian e-book market in her article “LitRes. A Critical Review of Russia’s e-Book Seller No1“. She discusses how one of the leading Russian e-book book stores, LitRes, has had to position itself between various free-of-charge online libraries in its attempt to establish a legal service for e-books.

Roman Leibov’s contribution to the issue is tje self-made mobile phone ringtone Leviton. Leibov explains why “this pretty boring primitive and otherwise horrible melody” reminds him of “the summer of 2007, intertextual  studies, the awful taste of Russian beer Staryi mel’nik iz bochonka, and of the fast pace of frivolous life.”

In addition the issue contains Daniel Müller’s report on the RuNet in a Global Context conference, Galina Miazhevich’s review of the From Poets to Padonki volume of the Slavica Bergensia series, and Martin Paulsen’s review of the two books Internationalizing Internet Studies: Beyond Anglophone Paradigms and Internationalizing Media Studies.

Last week three Futurants took part in the Week of Russian Literature in Oslo, an event that aimed at making contemporary Russian literature and culture better known among Norwegians. Several acknowledged Russian writers attended the event, which saw the launch of several translated contemporary novels and three collections of translated Silver Age poetry.

In addition to research, outreach is a cornerstone in the Future of Russian project. Contributions by participants of the project in different media can be found on our web site.

During last week’s event Ingunn Lunde and Tine Roesen participated in a seminar on Vladimir Sorokin’s literary style, where Roesen talked about her translation of Den’ oprichnika into Danish. The seminar was opened stylishly, when Lunde and Roesen, together with the Norwegian translator Hege Susanne Bergan, staged parts of Sorokin debut novel Ochered’.

Hege Susanne Bergan reads from her translation of Sorokin under the master’s watchful eye. Tine Roesen listening.

Lunde also interviewed Aleksei Slapovskii about his newly translated novel Oni. Martin Paulsen interviewed Vladimir Makanin about the novel Andegraund, ili geroi nashego vremeni, and chaired a seminar on the search for a Russian identity in contemporary Russian political movements. Later Paulsen interviewed Slapovskii during an ensuing event at Hå outside Stavanger in south-western Norway.

The event came with a pleasant surprise when it was announced that Annika Bøstein Myhr won the first price in a competition among young Norwegian translators for her translation into Norwegian of Andrei Gelasimovs short story “Nezhnyi vozrast”. Bøstein Myhr did her MA within the framework of the Landslide of the Norm project that preceded the Future of Russian.

Later this year the Landslide project will be remembered in an event that again links research with outreach. The highly successful Russian writer Mikhail Shishkin has accepted an invitation to give the Annual Landslide of the Norm lecture on Thursday 22 September, and the evening before he will talk about his recent novel Pismovnik in the Bergen Student Club.

Passau in the online Encyclopedia Britannica

This month the Future of Russian core team and its active partners crossed borders in more than one respect. From February 3 to 6 they gathered, together with eight invitees, in Germany for the third Future of Russian conference. “The Russian Internet in a Global Context,” as F3 was called, was a truly transnational endeavor: presenters scrutinized new-media developments in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, but also Kazakhstan, the US, and Scandinavia. They did so at the more than aptly located city of Passau. This lovely town lies so close to the Czech and Austrian borders that even mobile phone providers were at a loss: should they welcome their traveling owners to Germany or to Austria? Read the rest of this entry »

2010 has been a busy year for the Future of Russian project, with a particularly high number of FoR panels and individual papers at conferences all over the world – Los Angeles, Cambridge, Stockholm, Minsk, Moscow, Tampere, Seoul, Edinburgh.

In Bergen, Gasan Gusejnov and Vera Zvereva were of great inspiration to the core group during their guest research stays in April and May-June. They participated in seminars and gave several talks during their stay, and we have also had guest lecturing visits by Vladimir PlungjanVictor Sonkin, and Boris Orekhov, in addition to a presentation by Galina Timchenko and Artem Efimov (Lenta.ru) of their online dictionary project.

Dirk Uffelmann has organized a Future of Russian course in Passau, with the participation of Michael Gorham and Gasan Gusejnov – we hope to see a few of this course’s students at our February meeting in Passau.

A selection of F2 papers are being prepared for publication, and I hope to have some news about our proposal for a special issue of [a leading international journal] in February.

As for new plans and initiatives, we will be publishing a biannual newsletter starting this January. Ellen Rutten will be in charge of that. Also, we’ve just sent out a first Call for Papers for a conference in St Petersburg 19-22 October this year (“Virtual Russia: Digital Space and Post-Soviet Political Culture”), in co-operation with Helge Blakkisrud of the Department of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs as well as with the Bergen-based project Web Wars, led by Ellen. I do hope that many Futurants will be able to take part!

The FoR site’s section “Futurants in the Media” has not been updated for a while, but will be soon.

As a Landslide-cum-Future spin-off project, Martin Paulsen, Sasha Berdichevsky and I have, together with a few colleagues from the Spanish department, developed a course to be offered at this year’s international PhD summer school at UiB. The course is called “Norms and Language” – please help spreading the word to potential candidates (PhD students of all countries).

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2010 has also been a sad year. It is still unbelievable that Daniela Hristova, active partner of both the Landslide of the Norm and the Future of Russian projects is no longer among us, and her scholarly enthusiasm and cheerful spirit will be sorely missed when we meet again in Passau in a month’s time, for the third FoR conference.

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A Happy New Year 2011 to all FoR partners and supporters.

The Cyrillic letter ë (pronounced “yo”) is a matter of widespread debate in Russian society. It has for a long time been a less priviledged member of the Russian alphabet, frequently replaced by e.

In recent years, language purists of different backgrounds have gone to great lengths to revive the letter, seeing it as a symbol of Russian uniqueness. There has even been set up a site, yomaker.ru for the promotion of the letter ë in Russian.

Recently the Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov released a hybrid car entitled ë-mobile, exploiting the letter for commercial purposes. The release led to a long discussion on the web site snob.ru about whether the letter is necessary in the Russian alphabet today. Most of the contributers to this discussion were strongly for the continued use of the letter, and some even wanted to make it compulsory. The discussion raised questions of the importance of identity (ë as a symbol of Russian uniqueness) and technology (it is not always easy to find the letter on a computer keyboard).

The yearly convention of the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian studies (formerly known as American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, or just Triple A double S) was held in the far away Los Angeles this November.

Due to some very unfortunate circumstances the Future panel was reduced to one presenter. Our dear colleague Daniela Hristova, who was supposed to give a paper on the linguistic specifics on Russian Internet advertisements, very sadly and unexpectedly passed away just a month before the conference. In addition Aleksandr Berdichevsky, who should have given a paper on some quantitative distinctions between oral speech, written speech and instant messaging in Russian, caught a flu and could not make the trip.

This meant that my contribution, a paper on the politics of Cyrillics on the Internet was the only one at the panel, with Michael S. Gorham serving as discussant. In the paper I showed how Belarus, Russia and Ukraine have reacted very differently to ICANN’s invitation to establish so-called Internationalised Domain Names. While the Russians grabbed the opportunity straight away and have already set up the country code top level domain “.рф”, the Ukrainians have so far been unable to register “.укр” and the Belarusians have ignored the process completely. Russian president Medvedev has connected this process to the interests of the Russian language, and in my opinion the reactions of relevant actors in the three countries show that the Cyrillic alphabet means more to Russians than it does to their Slavic neighbours.

Michael S. Gorham and Dirk Uffelmann, members of the Future of Russian research group, presented papers on other panels at the conference. The representatives of the Future project were well received, and on several occasions recognized as part of “that Bergen group,” an indication that LA is perhaps not as far away after all.

It is not often that Russian literary works are given Latin letter titles. The young Valerii Pecheikin’s short story “ICQ” from 2008 is a rare exception together with Viktor Pelevin’s novel Generation “П” and Sergei Minaev’s Духless. In fact Latin letter titles and digital media seem to typical features for Pecheikin, he has also written the short story “YouTube“.

Pecheikin, who was awarded the literary price Debut in 2007, has written a short story situated in an Internet café. The intrigue revolves around the appearance in this very juvenile setting of an old lady, Marina Andreevna, who would like to send a letter to her sister, with whom she has lost contact. She has been told that through the Internet you can get in touch with everyone, and makes this last attempt to find her long lost sister. The literary value lies in Pecheikin’s ability to show the tension in the meeting between the young administrator of the Internet café, Timur, who ends up typing down Marina Andreevna’s hand written letter on a computer, and the old lady.

The short story contrasts the linguistic resources of the young computer geek, which do not allow for the description of tragedy (he has to make do with phrases like “Tipa prikol. Tol’ko ne prikol.”), and the old lady who tries the impossible speech act of reestablishing contact with her sister and telling her that their common sister has recently died, while at the same time reprimanding the addressee for having turned her back on them.

Two different sets of linguistic resources clash when Timur types Maria Andreevna’s letter. “Здравствуй, Наташа!” becomes “Здравствуй Наташа. :-)”, and the rest of the typed text is showered with smilies in different variants. This undermines the tragedy of Maria Andreevna’s life story, while, one could add, it increases the tragedy by leaving her unable to convey her grief. The smilies are thus an integral part of the story.

As are the Latin letters. Both the title and the nick names that appear when Timur and Maria Andreevna enter the ICQ instant messaging program to search for the latter’s sister, are symbols of the digital technology and signals that this technology is the domain of the Latin alphabet. In addition, the vulgar phrase “Nah?” is written in Latin letters to avoid digital censorship. Still phrases like “и-мейл” and even “зи энд” are written in Cyrillic letters. The latter example is somehow ironic and demonstrates the opportunities for creative linguistic play opened by the co-existance of the two alphabets in contemporary Russian.

There appears to be an insurpassable gap between Maria Andreevna’s handwriting and Timur’s digital typing, a technological gap that duplicates the traditional generational gap. Pecheikin succeeds in transfering this into good literature.