Digital Mahalla

Welcome to the first edition of the “The Digital Mahalla” – a blog addressing themes and topics of digital scholarship in Central Asia. The explosion of research on Internet Communication Technology, trends in social media usage, web analytics, human-computer interaction, and other such topics has been embraced by all disciplines. Every day the web reveals new areas to explore, new websites to analyze, and enlightening perspectives generating new and exciting questions.

In Central Asia digital content development over the decade has moved from a trickle to a torrent of people- from private companies to individual bloggers to citizen journalists to library patrons- flooding the web with new perspectives and opportunities to communicate.

Every week I will present a topic related to digital scholarship in Central Asia that I believe is worthy of discussion. Sometimes, such as this week, it will be a topic that is often discussed in Central Asian ICT and digital content research. Over time, I hope to include profiles of digital projects and ongoing research projects, computer-based education initiatives, challenges to information dissemination and access, among many other topics. I will do my best to capture and distill everything that is happening in the field, but I am only as powerful as the sources at my disposal. I would ask readers to send me information, links, or any other sources from the region that you think deserve attention. I want to engage as many people as possible in discussion of the topics presented. The digital community – the digital mahalla – is as strong as we the contributors.

I chose the digital mahalla as both the title of the blog and the inaugural theme because in addition to serving as a philosophical metaphor for information sharing it also represents the marriage of trends and ideas between Central Asia and the digital world. Social networks are a constant in the lives of all citizens of the region, and these community structures have been well documented by scholars such as Kandiyoti, Sneath, Howell, and Werner. Collins, Huskey, Radnitz, Roy and others have pointed out that these social networks have strong influences on the political networks in the region.

The digital world maintains some characteristics of this social network as well, but it is a reinterpretation of a traditional culture. Central Asian digital communication studies agree that because social internet users represent a portion of society (most often cited as urban populations under the age of 30), it is impossible to claim representation of the entire population in digital content. Studies by Ibold, Wei and Kolko, Srinvansan, McGlinchey and Johnson, and others have worked to define this digital community. Wei’s discussion of the differences in use between cellular communication – a largely local phenomena – versus the more international and intimate use of email indicates segmentation of communities based on communication method.

In the same way that different communication platforms elicit different community engagement, the way users represent themselves online is also dependent on what they wish to communicate. Average internet users in the region prefer to consume news and information through digital media sources over television or newspapers, but rarely post digital content pertaining to news issues (Ibold). Censorship and repression plays into this decision, as the recent Kazakh wikipedia controversy highlights. The community segmentation and the use of the web to receive but not generate news allows the individual to serve as direct pipeline of information into their real-world community, a digital town crier. Early technology adopters serving as hubs in the community network is common discourse in network science. While the members of the digital community might be less representative of the population as a whole, their role in the community is increasingly becoming more significant than their non-digital counterparts. Examples of these individuals serving as information conduits can be found across the region from Xinjiang to Kyrgyzstan. Further support for the strength of these individuals was provided last month at the OSCE Internet 2013 Conference in a discussion on advancing regional change and promoting freedom of speech through social media and online tools.

The digital mahalla is a community that navigates traditional values while addressing the deluge of information available online. These netizens are a bridge between two worlds, the gatekeepers and pioneers of a new Central Asia, and many are conscious of their role. The preference of qualitative data over quantitative analyses in studies of Central Asian internet usage indicates that the digital mahalla is not just a web community, it is a Central Asian institution that reflects the culture and tradition of the region.