Saturday, March 9, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Online Social Networks Seen Restoring, Re-Enforcing Local Identities among North Caucasians

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 9 – The most modern form of communication, on-line social networks, are paradoxically re-enforcing or even restoring some of the most ancient communities and identities among the peoples of the North Caucasus because these networks allow those who have moved from their native places to continue to live in them in the virtual world.

            On the portal this week, Badma Byurchiyev explains this process and why individuals and groups who move from their villages and towns into urban areas are less “incorporated” in the latter than they were because now they can create their own communities online (

            While this process appears to be taking place everywhere, Byurchiyev says, it applies with particular force to the North Caucasus because of the nature of social relations that have existed among the peoples of that region for centuries and particularly because of the fear of their members of being excluded from the community of their birth.

            Faced with accelerating social change and the atomization of society that leads to ever greater isolation, he argues, individuals “create their own context” and it is “not important whether this is provided by an organization of people from the same region [zemlyachestvo] or by friending on a social network.”

            “If a zemlyachestvo by definition presupposes a closed off space, then social networks at first glance create the illusion of maximum openness.” But that is only an illusion, the journalist suggests, because friending allows people to methodically create “a space of those who think like them.”
            Indeed, Byurchiyev continues, “the longer you use a social network, the more tightly is defined the circle of your communication and the more strongly is restricted the perspective of your worldview.”  That means “a return to the chaos and infinite variety of the post-modern to the order characteristic of so-called traditional society which existed up to the 19th century.”

            “However strange it may seem,” he says, this “isolation is an subconscious flight from loneliness” and represents an striving after security, after the comfort that being among those whom we understand and who understand us can provide in our encounters with “a hostile world.”

            And it is precisely here that one finds “certain curious similarities between communities on the Internet and the traditional mountain societies” of the North Caucasus, Byurchiyev suggests.

            The isolated communities of that region provided a sense of security to their members, he writes. Their spatial isolation “from other social groupings” imposed a distinctive mark “on the character and traditions of the mountaineers,” a fact that can be seen from the fact that “under conditions of a closed society, to become an outcast was to find oneself in absolute loneliness.”

            Because of that danger, members of these communities did everything they could to stress their membership in the group both by maintaining its traditions and by accepting its values.

            Those who use social networks do much the same and for the same reason. They try to cut off for themselves in the flood of information a place where they feel comfortable because they think and feel like others who are in that same virtual place. And they do so because they are afraid of being alone.

            It may even be the case, Byurchiyev continues, that this fear is greater among those turning to social networks now than it was among their ancestors in the villages.  That is because for the latter, this feeling was sub-conscious but for the contemporary individual, it is a conscious and primary matter.

            And that in turn means that as the individual continues to isolate himself from the broader community by relying on his virtual one, he will find himself increasing alienated from the others and increasingly concerned to maintain his ties with his online community. Such fears will drive him to rely on “the largest and most static forms of social solidarity – nationalism, patriotism, and religion.”

            Put in simplest terms, this means that the members of these online communities will become “’ever less urban’” and cosmopolitan even if they are residents of a place designated as a city on the map. That is particularly the case in post-Soviet Russia which has not established “a culture of the urban milieu” or the institutions of civil society.

            Russia has in prospect two possible paths of development. First, it may allow for “natural self-organization” of social groups, something that will mean that “with time, the social networks will create a milieu like that which existed in the Caucasus before the 19th century” and lead to a situation where there will be “a multitude of isolated communities.

            If that occurs, Byurchiyev argues, there will emerge a kind of “anarchy,” and one will be able to speak of the state only “in quotation marks” because most people in the population won’t feel any need for it and there will be enough “coordinating centers created according to circumstance.” 

            Or second, the state in order to justify its existence and maintain its privileges may initiative “an urbanization from above,” not so much by some kind of Soviet-style industrialization but rather by the planned introduction of a genuine and encompassing urban milieu.

            The rapid growth of social networks means, Byurchiyev says, that the authorities will soon face “a fateful choice: either they will create conditions for the establishment of civil society or the need for it will fall away.”  “To speak metaphysically,” he adds, Russian society is presented with a dilemma: will it be “the city or the mountains” that will define the future.

            Those terms of course are provisional but behind them stand some important values. The first involved “freedom but also risks; the second, isolation but a feeling of security;” the first presupposes hierarchy, the power of some over others while “the law of the mountains is self-administration and equality.”

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