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.
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.