Armenian Bloggers Seize Influence With the Power of … Live Journal?

When the Live Journal “virtual community” first came online in 1999, it basically operated as a venue for whiny American middle-schoolers to overshare, write bad poetry and meet pedophiles. At least that’s how I saw it. I was in middle school at the time.

By Nicholas Clayton

Ten years later, after Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, and iPhones apps seemed to have successively killed off the first generation of blog platforms and social networks, I was stunned to find that not only was Live Journal not extinct, but was in fact an influential vehicle for grass roots activism, social discussion and independent news sharing in Armenia — a country lacking in all three.

Armenia is rated “partly free” on democracy and “not free” on the status of its freedom of the press by Washington-based pro-democracy NGO Freedom House. According to internetworldstats.com little over six percent of Armenia’s population uses the internet, while most turn to exclusively pro-government broadcast media for information. But for Armenians, seeing isn’t believing.

According to the OSCE, 10 people were killed March 2008 when the government violently dispersed protesters who disputed presidential elections widely considered to be fraudulent. The mainstream media coverage of this event, however, proved to be to a total pro-government wash, causing confidence in media institutions to plummet and blogging boomed.

Today, Armenia’s most popular bloggers get tens of thousands of page views a day while the average circulation of Yerevan’s many newspapers is around 3,000 each. The community of approximately 500 live journals and stand-alone blogs has become an active force in Armenian society, meeting in person and in cyberspace to organize petition campaigns and flash mobs to protest local policies and use their growing influence to spread information.

The government has taken notice.

Artur Papyan, creator of the Armenian Observer Blog, said government officials have hired staffs of consultants to deal with the phenomenon and many high-ranking officials have created blogs of their own. And, earlier this month, when unveiling a controversial new proposal to create a small number of foreign language schools in Armenia, Armenian Education Minister Armen Ashotyan held a nearly 3-hour-long meeting with various bloggers to present the government’s plan.

This makes Armenia a unique case as blogging in the other two countries of the Caucasus region, Georgia and Azerbaijan, largely reflects each of the countries’ respective political environments. In pro-Western Georgia, where freedom of expression is arguably the most respected, the number of blogs is higher, but the blogging community has a much smaller impact on the political dialogue, and in dictatorial Azerbaijan nearly all blogs are apolitical — with two political bloggers already having been sent to prison for “hooliganism.”

In Armenia, meanwhile, the contrast between the country’s largely closed political and media society and the level to which new media has been able to drive the discourse is striking.

Not all Armenians are optimistic about the future of its small, influential blogging community, however. Anna Simonyan, one of the founders of the online magazine Yerevan.ru, which heavily incorporates blogging into its interactive format, believes that Facebook, currently the fastest growing social network in Armenia, will gradually usurp the discussion. Independent bloggers will either be disempowered, or will take salaried positions in media organizations and will be gradually brought into the fold, she said, as very few have made any real advertising money from their blogging exploits.

But information security analyst and blogger Samvel Martirosyan disagrees. He said that Yerevan’s blogging community is already seeing a collaboration between individuals using both Live Journal and Facebook.

“It is a real cooperation; Facebook is good for activism, but blogs are better for brainstorming, creating ideas,” he said. “Platform is nothing, the idea is everything.”

In the end, although Armenia’s low levels of internet penetration may hamper the impact of new media activism within its borders, it hasn’t been an obstacle for the overall consumption of blogs as much of the existing Armenian blogosphere is geared more towards the larger, more internet-savvy Armenian diaspora, which greatly outnumbers the population of the small Caucasus nation of 3.5 million.

With issues like the normalization of ties with Turkey, resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan and balancing the influence of America, Russia and Iran on the country’s politics and economy — issues on which residents and diaspora are often fiercely divided — there’s bound to be plenty to talk about and plenty of places to do it for years to come.

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10 thoughts on “Armenian Bloggers Seize Influence With the Power of … Live Journal?

  1. Totally disagree with Clayton’s take on the Internet in Armenia as it compares to Azerbaijan and Georgia. In fact, I maintain that the problem in Armenia is that alternative voices are not empowered enough here and most blogs merely replicate a politicized media.

    Meanwhile, the use of new/social media in Azerbaijan is the most evolved in the region and the level of training of journalists in this area currently the most advanced and professional. I’m expecting significant developments in Georgia this year, though.

    I’ve left comments to that effect on his piece.

  2. Ah, you’ve replicated the entire article here so I might as well post those same comments on this as well…

    Actually, I totally disagree with you on your comments about the apolitical nature of blogs in Azerbaijan. That is, the most impressive use of new and social media tools is happening there, offering alternative information and empowering new voices whereas the situation in the blogosphere in Armenia merely replicates the politicized and discredited local media.

    I hope that changes as I really consider that the most significant developments are happening in Azerbaijan, that Georgia will see a huge surge in terms of civil society using new and more powerful tools more appropriately, and that the situation in Armenia needs to be less “elitist.” Certainly, online youth activism is more evolved in Azerbaijan and the training for alternative media increasing and more professional.

    True, the US Embassy is about to make $4 million available for alternative media resources, but a lot is also dependent on the cost and speed of Internet in Armenia. In that area as well, the situation is less than ideal, but of course, I hope that will change. Until then, I have to say again, the use of social media and online tools remains the most evolved and impressive in Azerbaijan.

    I nonetheless consider that Georgia might well surpass that from 2010 onwards, and that there is potential in Armenia if costs are reduced and speeds increased. Another issue is that the local Armenian blogosphere remains in a bubble. It is also wrong to consider that the imprisonment of Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli have prevented bloggers from tackling sensitive issues.

    Instead, the opposite has actually occured, and their bloggers can be counted as the most brave and impressive in the region.

    Incidentally, recent overviews of the current situation re. the Internet and online blogs/resources from the Caucasus Analytical Digest, including one on the situation in Armenia by myself:


    No. 15: The Internet in the South Caucasus
    This issue of the Caucasus Analytical Digest examines the use of the internet in the South Caucasus. Firstly, Onnik Krikorian examines the use of the internet in Armenia, which ranks as the lowest in the region. Secondly, Alexey Sidorenko and Arzu Geybullayeva argue that Azerbaijan boasts the greatest internet penetration rates of the three South Caucasus countries thanks to government support. In particular blogs and video blogging have become increasingly popular tools for civil society activism in Azerbaijan. Finally, Alexey Sidorenko examines the effect of the internet on society and democracy in Georgia.

    http://www.isn.ethz.ch/isn/Digital-Library/Publications/Detail/?ord588=grp1&size588=10&ots591=0c54e3b3-1e9c-be1e-2c24-a6a8c7060233&lng=en&page588=1380&id=115031


    Don’t hate the media, become the media — Jello Biafra

    Onnik Krikorian


    Oneworld Multimedia | http://www.oneworld.am

    The Frontline Club | http://frontlineclub.com/blogs/onnikkrikorian/

    Caucasus Regional Editor | http://www.globalvoicesonline.org

  3. Perhaps the one bright area for the Armenian blogosphere, however, is the emergence of LGBT bloggers in this area. I would also like to see other specialized and sometimes marginalized groups, such as those working on gender issues or the environment, also use new/social media tools more effectively.

    And in that area I can quite happily report as Armenia coordinator for the recent Social Innovation Camp (http://sic-caucasus.net/) in Tbilisi, Georgia, that Mariam Sukhudyan’s victory with an environmental project using Ushahidi was well deserved.

  4. Onnik jan, you can`t monitor entire Armenian blogosphere and social activity, because it is mainly in Armenian and Russian.

    What about report on Internet in Armenia – you are using old stats penetration is much more. For example, only in Odnoklassniki there are more then active 200 K users. You can check also FB – now iti si almost 60 K (month ago it was less then 50 K)

  5. Samvel, I don’t need to monitor the entire blogosphere just as you don’t monitor or understand the entire Azerbaijani or Georgian online world. I can also see the quality of training and outreach efforts in Azerbaijan and Georgia are also higher with mostly top names conducting them.

    Of course, that is likely to change when the US money is in circulation assuming it is spent correctly. Meanwhile, I have to use penetration figures but I also point out they’re flawed and controversial. Moreover, if Armenia is higher, it is likely Azerbaijan and Georgia is too.

    And I don’t think you need much intelligence to work out the following.

    If an iCON connection up to 256k/s costs $30 in Armenia and a 4mb/s connection in Georgia costs less than $20, who do you think is going to have a higher penetration rate? Meanwhile, the bandwidth in Armenia severely limits development, especially for video.

    And then you just have to look at what online youth activists are doing online and its more impressive, evolved and mature than anything here. Their use of social networking tools is incredible and initiatives such as ANTV.ws something I’d like to see here.

    What we need are alternative voices, but as far as I can see the blogosphere remains polarized and merely reflects the existing situation in the traditional government and opposition media. Instead of trying to make out Armenia is the best in everything I think it’s time to recognize the problems and seek to resolve them.

    On the other hand, while bandwidth remains low and speed increases and costs decrease at a significantly faster rate in Azerbaijan and Georgia, I think this remains the main issue to resolve. The same also applies to mobile Internet as well.

    Not sure about costs in Azerbaijan, but speed/cost in Georgia is much better than Armenia. And I know this because I have used it extensively in both countries in the past six months.

  6. 1. Sure in Georgia internet is better. In Japan is much better. But we are speaking about Armenia.

    2. I am monitoring azeis blogs also. And can somehow compare. But don`t do that- because I dont know azerbaijani.

    3. Ucom brings 1 Mbps with 20$. Dont use Icon

  7. And I am incredibly impressed not only with OL! and AN TV online youth movements (there is nothing like them in Armenia or Georgia) but also linked initiatives such as the Free Thought University which has a great online’s presence.

    These are examples of things I’d like to see here along with some professional training programs for journalists. Now, A1 Plus is showing some great potential for using online tools here in Armenia, but there are still two main issues they need to resolve.

    The lack of objectivity and quality in their reporting and also the low bandwidth for video consumption. I’m sure Armenia can manage to receive the same quality of support as part of the $4 million US Embassy initiative that Azerbaijan and Georgia have received.

    However, the low speed and high cost of the Internet compared to especially Georgia will always see it fall significantly behind in the region. As far as I see it, connectivity remains the number one problem. Yes, throughout the Caucasus, but the quality and cost here remains by far the worst.

    And that is always going to mean penetration is also by far the lowest. I also think that the political situations mean that each country will be in different situations. Georgia has the potential for civil society and normal citizens to thrive online.

    Meanwhile, as Azerbaijan has no real established opposition, more neutral voices have emerged without falling slave to partisan party politics as most bloggers and journalists have here in Armenia.

    Of course, open borders leading to more open minds is also another issue in my opinion, but that is a controversial one and subjective. Probably best discussed over a beer, methinks… :)

  8. Samvel, I really think we should stop talking about individual countries. The point of my comment was in response to Clayton’s “comparison” with Azerbaijan and Georgia. And in that, I disagree.

    Meanwhile, I think there are lessons to be learned from all three countries — and by all three countries. Firstly, Azerbaijan has the most impressive use of new/social media by youth activists, for example.

    And that’s my point. We don’t need politicized voices in the blogosphere. We have them already saying the same thing in the traditional and online media. What we need are new, alternative voices.

    And that, after all, is precisely what the $4 million US Embassy assistance is meant to be supporting…

  9. I also think it’s about time someone really tackled the issue of limited bandwidth in Armenia. I’d also like to see the actual measured speed of the Ucom connection. My 256 k connection only manages a 0.02 mb/s upload, for example, whereas the figures I gave for the 4mb/s connection in Georgia were the actual measured speeds and not the advertised ones.

    Also, it’s important to note that as more people go online, actual connection speed is dropping. A friend’s ADC connection which was once around 7-9 mb/s connection upload and download is now only 1 mb/s.

    Again, this remains the main problem facing the Internet in Armenia. The highest costs for lowest speeds in the region and a bottleneck we might well have already reached?

  10. Onnik, what do you mean about ‘bottleneck we might well have already reached?’ – do you refer to Internet speeds and availability of internet channels in Armenia?

    If yes, I have to blame it mostly on poor business practices, rather than the access. The country can ‘import’ as much bandwidth, as we need. The problem is – businesses don’t think long-term here. They sell internet – without building the appropriate infrastructure. Take the Orange’s 3G internet for example – one wonders, did they do any proper market study before they launched the service? Because they were out of both bandwidth and 3G modems within the first month of selling.

    Interestingly, I happen to know, that they did indeed do market research. I don’t know what their conclusions were, however. Apparently, not quite the right conclusions, given the mess we saw with bandwidth…

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