Over the last few months, Turkmenistan has seen an explosion of new social groups forming online.
What is really important about these sites is that they are not blocked in Turkmenistan.* In fact, their accessibility reinforces the flow of Turkmenet users, who would otherwise be disinclined to use tools to bypass censors as IWPR reported back in April.
The Turkmenet is slowly but surely blossoming. For example, http://eyesinden.com, an established e-commerce site along the lines of bestbuy.com, has 50% of its visitors from within Turkmenistan, mainly Ashgabat, according to its administrator; likewise, the technology site http://tilsimat.net/ claims 20%…This makes me think that a new opportunity for engaging my countrymen may be emerging, and with it, perhaps a new strategy needs to be developed.
This is absolutely right on. And engaging with civil society groups is one of the most reliable and long-term sustainable ways of opening and transforming a culture. However, and this is where Annasoltan and I are in violent agreement, it must be done properly. For example, many civil society programs are not engagements, but rather dictations: do this, and do that, and then you’ll be just like us. They aren’t focused on helping the local culture be more like itself, but rather more like ourselves. That’s backward. Turkmenistan, like every other country in Central Asia, deserves its own culture, and the right to choose its own destiny. Allowing that to happen would require a substantial departure from the normal methods of engagement the west tends to use.
What’s so interesting about the current flowering of Turkmenet, as it’s being called, is how effective it can be at gathering information. For example, last night there was an appalling explosion at an arms depot outside of Ashgabat. If you’re reading the major news feeds, good luck getting much information: even the European press, which covers Central Asia with a depth the American press does not, often can’t get decent first-hand reporting (the AP has filed oddly vague dispatches from the capital, while the AFP has been running much more detailed copy).
While the wires did their usual work, Neweurasia.net offers a different picture of how Turkmenis themselves were trying to cover the disaster.
What was really striking about this experience was that those who were not on teswirler during the Internet blackout had no idea about the scope of the explosion and its resulting damage, due to the typical news blackout that follows any unexpected event or crisis in Turkmenistan; all they knew through rumors was that something terrible had happened — and boy, you can imagine the terrible imaginations let loose in such a situation.
Those of us online may not have been a whole lot better informed, but the simple act of crowdsourcing and discussing helped us maintain a grip on reality. This is an example of another side of social media, one that doesn’t happen often: how crowdsourcing information can sometimes actually act as a way to calm, concentrate and even organize scared people.
To someone in the west, who’s used to watching Twitter explode with news whenever something happens, this might seem like a tiny, almost insignificant development. It may be, but in the context of Turkmenistan it’s also very important. Change starts in small places, and watching the Turkmenis try to crowdsource coverage of this horrible disaster was, in its own way, heartening.
What is interesting now is what comes next. We can probably assume the government will not lean back in its collective chair and let this kind of social organization happen. But it’s also not clear how they might stop it: censorship, IP logging, and monitoring can be effective, but unless the activists behind this movement are removed from public discourse that won’t have much of an effect. Does Ashgabat have the technical wherewithal to coopt and corrupt social media the way states like Iran and China have tried to do? It remains to be seen. Either way, it will be fascinating to watch.