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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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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.

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 »


Lebedev and Tolstaia during the interview (picture Eugene Gorny)

Last Saturday, Columbia University´s New Modes of Communication Group – a group with whose members the Future of Russian collective is well acquainted – invited both the renowned writer Tat´iana Tolstaia and her son, designer-cum-blogger Artemii Lebedev, for a double interview at the Harriman Institute. Our colleague Eugene Gornyi blogged about the event, adding photographs and a podcast of the entire interview. The latter – to be found here – is worth listening for the full 1,5 hour: it brims with intriguing (and, as was to be expected from the Tolstaia-Lebedev tandem, provocative) comments on the Russian-speaking Internet and new/social media.
UPDATE 08.04.2010: a video recording of the interview is now available online. A quick glance suggests that the quality of the recording is more than OK. Enjoy!

snapshots from openspace new year’s presents

By way of a belated happy new year’s wish for us/the FoR team, I’d like to recommend all of us – and others who read this – to have a look at openspace.ru‘s delightful online new year’s greetings. They are worth a peep both for scholarly reasons and purely for the fun of it.

Openspace editor-in-chief Mariia Stepanova wishes users an inspiring year in a multimedia rather than textual editorial. Interesting in itself, her video is a mere introduction to a whole range of multimedia “new-year’s presents,” all custom-made for the site. Together they take you on a journey through the fine de fleur of contemporary Russian art, theatre, literature, (animation) film, and (classical and modern/pop) music. Think a wintery video by internationally renowned artist Olga Chernyshevaa live registration of (fragments of) a poem read by Dmitrii Vodennikov, a music-cum-video remix by DJ Andrei Panin… and there is much, much more online creativity out there.

In other words, recommended – either as an academic exploration of shifts in Russian media-production practices, or to merely extend that holiday feeling.

In 2010, the Future of Russian project will welcome a younger sibling: yours truly received HERA funding for a three-year project on memory debates in Russian and Ukrainian new media. The project is part of a larger project, led by Dr Alexander Etkind from the U of Cambridge, which will focus on the ongoing “memory war” between Russia, Ukraine, and Poland. Memory at War – as the project is called – explores how, in these countries, political conflicts take the shape of heated debates about the recent past, and especially World War II and Soviet socialism.

As you may understand from the above, the project at large does not focus on new media per se. It is a trans-institutional endeavor in which the Universities of Cambridge, Helsinki, Tartu, Groningen, and Bergen cooperate to scrutinize Eastern Europe’s memory wars from varying angles. The Bergen team focuses on its outlines in new media – and in social media in particular.

In Russian and Ukrainian blogging communities, and in social media such as vkontakte or odnoklassniki, the recent past is as alive and kicking as if it never ended. How, in these media, do new technologies alter public and private commemorative discourse, in other words, the language of memory? That question is central to the Bergen project, titled Web Wars: Digital Diasporas and the Language of Memory. Web Wars will be coordinated by me, but executed by a parttime postdoctoral research assistant. We plan to recruit that assistant next Spring, so spread the word if you know anyone who might be interested in the job. Activities include the organization of an international conference and the production of a documentary film with Dutch filmmaker Maartje Gerretsen.

The findings of the Future of Russian team will naturally be pivotal to this new digital-media project – but possibly the information flow will work the other way as well: after all, Web Wars has language culture as a focus, too.

The structure, taxonomy, function, and significance of social networks on the Russian Internet: that is the topic of the issue 2 of Digital Icons: Studies in Russian, Eurasian and Central European New MediaDigital Icons, previously The Russian Cyberspace Journal, recently changed its name to reflect a widened geographic scope and an increasingly complex media orientation.
Digital Icons it is, then. Titled “From Comrades to Classmates: Social Networks on the Russian Internet,” issue 2 was launched this week and is fully accessible online. A tip of the veil: the contributors consider the role of social media in contemporary Russia, with a special eye for the paradoxical stereotypes of Russian society — as collectivistic on the one hand, and amorphous and apathetic on the other. They determine, too, the role of social networks in maintaining Russia’s regional integrity by binding together the widely dispersed Russian-speaking diaspora. They do so in statistically (Alexanyan) and psychoanalytically (Mikheeva) oriented analyses of the Russian blogosphere, in articles on political and ethnographic identity-building on RuNet (MacLeodSuleymanovaKatsbert), on online Russian libraries (Mjor), and in explorations of the specifities of Russian as opposed to global social networks (Golynko-Volfson).
Together with three reviews of recent RuNet-related publications, the articles make for a lavish discussion of Russian social media. Enjoy.

Although the Future of Russian team had to miss some delegates at the AAASS 2009 conference, it was a more than fruitful event for the project, I would say. Next to panel sessions, the project group activities included a meet-and-greet with scholars from Columbia University’s New Modes of Communication project. They pointed our attention to their upcoming conference, which some of us – or other readers of this blog – may want to visit. The Etiology and Ecology of Post-Soviet Communication is hosted in May 2010 by Columbia’s Harriman Institute. The organizers – Eugene Gorny, Florian Toepfl, Catharine Nepomnyashchy, Alan Timberlake, and Guobin Yang – welcome panels on:

“the emergence and evolution of social networks; patterns of interlinking; the phenomenon of social contagion in online communications; political clustering in the blogosphere and beyond; public versus private identities; doublethink, cynicism, coded language; the emergence of opinion leaders in the blogosphere; freedom of the press on the internet; forms and degrees of censorship, online activism/social movements on the internet; dissenters and political activism; democracy to autocracy in the Russian internet.”

One-page abstracts can be sent to nmc.conference@gmail.com by February 1, 2010. For those who can’t make it: the conference culminates a one-year project which has its own wiki site. Worth a visit, not only for the contents proper, but also as a sample of a new type of scholarly platform — one which utilizes cutting-edge digital research tools to facilitate, among other online services, internal communication and a collective virtual biography. Next year, the site may include podcasts of the May conference presentations – or so Eugene Gorny and Florian Toepfl suggested during our meeting.

shadow mechanism, vlad kuntsman, 2006

On June 3-4, 2010, the University of Manchester hosts the two-day conference Affective Fabrics of Digital Cultures: Feelings, Technologies, Politics.  Organized by Adi Kuntsman – the author of a recently published book on online hate speech – the event brings together contributions from an exciting blend of scholarly fields: sociology, for one, media and cultural studies, arts, politics and science, and technology studies. Submissions for papers or round-tables are welcomed before February 1, 2010. “How does affect work in on-line networks and digital assemblages?”  Is one of the questions participants could ponder. Or: “What kind of perceptions, sensations, affective movements and public feelings emerge in our highly mediated and digitalised environments? What is the cybertouch of war, violence, terror? What are the structures of feeling that operate in the digitalised everyday and computerised ordinary?”

With such keynote speakers as Patricia Clough and Athina Karatzogianni – authors of Autoaffection: Unconscious Thought in the Age of Teletechnology and The Politics of Cyberconflict, respectively – the event sounds more than promising for the scholar of new media, politics, and emotion. With Kuntsman as the initiator, it is bound to be of interest to academics who scrutinize the RuNet in particular, too.

How to study online audiences? How does online communication and writing affect views of the self and of humanity? The Russian journal 60 parallel’ touches upon these and related questions in its latest issue, devoted to Internet and society. Apart from contributions by Elena Goroshko, Anna Sysoeva, and Evgenii Dukov, the issue provides an interview with Russian Cyberspace Journal editor Vlad Strukov, on the RuNet as an object of scholarly inquiry.

Remarkable, given the thematic focus: teasers of the different articles can be read online, but for the entire issue you have to buy a print copy, which can be paid… in cash via mail transfer only. Now there is one of the paradoxes of living in a digital era which is only just beginning to outgrow its cradle.