The pundits have spoken, and, contrary to my earlier prediction that Kyrgyzstan’s uprising would be labeled another “Twitter Revolution”, they are now insisting the opposite — that the Kyrgyz tweets, videos and blog posts are irrelevant. The main proponent of this theory is Evgeny Morozov, who, as Michael noted earlier, views the internet activity of Kyrgyzstanis as meaningless because the country is of little global interest.
I’m not going to argue that the international news media are invested in Krygyzstan — the CNN transcripts I posted earlier make their lack of interest all too clear. What bothers me about Morozov’s argument is how he determines the value of online dissent. Once again, Central Asia is deemed irrelevant because it is Central Asia. The tweets, blog posts, and news articles written by people in Kyrgyzstan — often with great emotion and care — are dismissed because they were written for people in Kyrgyzstan. But for whom, may I ask, are people in Kyrgyzstan supposed to be writing?
As Registan readers well know, Central Asia is the black hole of international media. It is not the “other” but the other’s “other” — Russia’s orient, a region whose history and political complexities are poorly understood even by some who proclaim to be experts; a region whose best-known ambassador is Borat. In the world media, Central Asia is most notable for its absence; the only region not even worthy of inclusion in the international weather report. No one cares if it’s raining in a place that doesn’t, as far as the media are concerned, exist.
Yet as Registan readers also know, a lot happens in Central Asia. And I would argue that, over the last few years, a great deal of what happens in Central Asia happens online — not only what is reported on websites that boldly defy government censorship like Ferghana.ru, but what is written by ordinary people who share, as we do, their thoughts on the internet. The problem, of course, is that they do not generally do this in English. There is another internet, a secret internet, in which meaningful political conversations take place in Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Turkmen, and Tajik, yet the majority of the world remains none the wiser. (Russian, of course, is less of a barrier in this respect.) In numerous cases, Central Asians are talking about issues that could never be discussed in public in their home countries. They often do so in a way that would make little sense to a foreigner even if he or she could read it. They focus on internal politics, national concerns, personal grudges. In short, like most people in the world, they write about each other, and for each other.
I would argue that when most Kyrgyz posted on Twitter, they did so for each other. They searched for meaning and answers, using the internet to forge a connection to their countrymen as chaos reigned outside. And through it all, they evaluated Kyrgyzstan’s politics, providing a rich and ongoing commentary of events. In Morozov’s view, this is irrelevant. He compares Kyrgyzstan unfavorably to Iran, noting that the Kyrgyz did not use the internet for strategic purposes, but merely to spread information. He notes that Kyrgyzstan did not rate as highly as a “trending topic” in Twitter as did Iran in the summer of 2009 (while failing to mention that Iran has a population more than ten times larger than Kyrgyzstan’s). Such an evaluative perspective, in which countries are judged winners and losers by virtue of their search ranking, leads to headlines like Andrew Sullivan’s “This Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted” (an article about Morozov’s article). This revolution was tweeted. But unfortunately, the significance of those tweets is decided not by the people who wrote and read them, but by observers in the West. As a result of this, Kyrgyzstan becomes relevant only in its relation to other nations and other revolutions. This is the virtual equivalent of the Great Game, with Central Asia but an afterthought to which people can apply their pet theories.
What we make of Kyrgyzstan’s internet content may seem irrelevant in light of the enormity of what has happened. But it is indicative of a deeper problem — a refusal to consider Central Asia in terms of Central Asia, a refusal to see the actions and ideas of Central Asians as meaningful in their own right. Central Asia is no longer an inaccessible hinterland. Thanks to the internet, the world can hear what innumerable Central Asians have to say. The question is whether they care to listen.