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Понеделник, 21 Март 2011 23:57

Poke Bulgaria!

Milla Mineva

It is rather easy now to find out how many fans Bulgaria has: thanks to Facebook we’ll discover that “Bulgaria” – a group defined as a “state government” type – has 181 friends; its profile picture is the Bulgarian coat of arms, and the news posted on its Wall reads “Bulgaria has changed its website”.

Srachkai_Bulgaria1.jpg


Srachkai_Bulgaria2.jpg

The state “Bulgaria” (as it was defined by its founders as a Facebook group – “Geography – State”) also has a profile, but far fewer members – only 12. Even so, there are several groups of the same kind and under the same name, initiated by different people, and with different number of participants. One of the group members has picked the name “Forward, Bulgaria!” for his or her personal profile, conveniently shortened by Facebook to “Bulgaria” which allows for surprising possibilities such as, for instance, “poking” Bulgaria, or even becoming friends with Bulgaria, not simply “liking” him or her. Furthermore, the individual with the profile name “Bulgaria” has been remarkably active and has become a member of a number of groups such as:

We are against overbuilding in Bulgaria!, Lost Bulgaria, The Cyrillic Alphabet, Proud to be Bulgarian, I LOVE BULGARIA, I L♥VE Pleven, UNITED BULGARIA, ON BEHALF OF TWO BULGARIAN CHILDREN!!!, Let’s vote preferentially!, What have we given the World?, The beauty of Bulgaria, The Bulgarian Woman – the most beautiful creature!!!, Keep traditions alive!, CALLING MYSELF BULGARIAN – A PRIMAL JOY FOR ME!!!, Descendants of refugees from Vardar and Aegean Macedonia, and Thrace, Bulgarian Beauty

In fact, there are more than 300 Facebook groups with “Bulgaria” featured in their names. Should we add the predicate “Bulgarian”, the number of the groups would exceed 500; it would further double, should we run the search transliterated in Latin characters. Some groups are particularly popular, while others remain populated only by a single member. Some groups are open, others – closed. The group “Solidary Bulgaria”, for instance, defining itself as a political group, is a closed one – in order to be “solidary”, you need to be invited. The more distinctly “nationalist” a group is, the larger its membership base grows: the group “Great Bulgaria”, for example, has more than 9 000 members. Groups that identify themselves through passion for history, traditions, or national pride, are likely to expand more than groups that refer to “Bulgaria” only as their target group or territory. Unquestionably, one of the biggest groups is “Bulgarian language mandatory IN BULGARIA” with a total of 20 491 participants. Obviously, there is an exceptionally active community behind this group (even if its actual size is unknown), which loves using Web 2 platforms and producing content: most highly rated (with 11 640 votes) on the Bulgarian website Svejo.net is an article appearing under the keyword “Bulgaria”, which advocates in support of point 4, Article 16 of the Law on Public Education; moreover, this is the most enthusiastically signed petition (with 174 127 signatures) on the Bulgarian website for petitions. Curiously, it is precisely Bulgarian language which becomes the focal point of a range of online infatuations. The holiday most highly honored by the above-mentioned “Great Bulgaria” group is no other but May 24th. The greeting posted on the Wall reads: “Happy May 24th to all Bulgarians! Let us love and protect our native Bulgarian language. Praise Mother Bulgaria!!!”.

Many of the above-mentioned Facebook groups do not define themselves as nationalist; only few of them would rather be labeled as “patriotic”. Interestingly, “Bulgaria” is found in the names of groups bringing together people as diverse as bloggers, mothers, and fighters against news broadcasting in Turkish language (in their own wording).

The present article attempts to give an account of the transformation of the network of users into a “national” media. It therefore takes interest in and describes the various forms of nationalization of web content. It is only in this sense that we could refer to groups that don’t define themselves in this way as “nationalist”, i.e. as inscribed in a multi-layered process of nationalizing the new media. That is why the article looks for phenomena labeled under the most common denominator possible – “Bulgaria” (and, of course, its derivatives such as “Bulgarian”). The content produced under such headings is nationalist in a range of meanings. What is important in the context of this article, however, is that it structures the communication process within the framework of the national state. A further clarification needs to be made at this point – the text does not attempt to recount the uses of the national on the Net, initiated by the institutional players, i.e. we are not interested in the websites of the political parties and institutions; the effort is focused on the process of nationalizing the Internet undertaken by the citizens.

Whereas Facebook groups rarely define themselves as nationalist, there is a web portal one might come across while surfing from link to link, which openly proclaims itself as nationalist and catering to “the nationalist users in Internet”, as one of the numerous websites (in this case – a blog) puts it. These websites share similar politics on posting comments in Cyrillic and adhering to the official Bulgarian spelling. Many websites offer downloads of “old Bulgarian” fonts such as Glagolitsa and Izhitsa (see for instance this section of “Ancestral heritage”). Ancestral heritage is one of the oft-quoted websites; its homepage depicting a gate, leading visually to “the cell of Paisius of Hilendar":

http://bgrod.org/

Most nationalist websites employ the most canonical images of the national – the map of Bulgaria, the national flag (in various forms), portraits of the national heroes. The website Beyond Silence might serve as a visual illustration of such usage of canonical imagery (except for “Stambolov” which is a deviation from the pantheon of hardcore “national saints” – a figure whose canonization is problematical even at the present moment):

It is striking that even on these “nationalist” websites, often verging on racism and fascism in terms of content (one of them carrying the proud name Warriors for the Advancement of the Bulgarian spirit), at the core of self-presentation (not necessarily in the content of the postings) one finds the struggle for the Bulgarian language, “spiritual” heroes such as Paisius dominating, and a pantheon based on literature (we need to recall Albena Hranova’s thesis on the literary sources of the history of the “Revival” period).

One final remark on the “nationalization” of Internet completes the above description, and that is – the perception of “threat”. Altermedia which adds “the voice of the people” next to its name (actually, this is hardly the only website presenting itself literally as “the voice of the people” – see also the Bulgarian National Media), defines itself as offering critique on the traditional media, accused not only of serving foreign interests, but also of talking “politically correct”. Political correctness in this perspective, however, gets in the way of telling the truth. That is why the website is striving to present opinions beyond correctness (which leads to some openly fascist content). The important thing in this case, however, is something else – the targeted users of the site: “Patriots, nationalists, free-thinkers, anti-globalists, environmentalists, alternative music fans, or simply people who are struggling to preserve their identity…” Were we to look at the website’s content and the featured links to other websites, we would notice that environmentalists and “alternative music fans” have not recognized this media as their own; unlike the “patriots”, the “nationalists”, and the “anti-globalists” to some extent. In short, websites defining themselves as nationalist see themselves as subversive at the same time, as sites for the endangered and inconvenient individuals, for those fighting “for the good of the fatherland”, marginalized by the mainstream discourse, constructed as anti-nationalist. If we look back now at Facebook groups which don’t define themselves as “nationalist” but employ “Bulgaria” as their asset or cause, we would notice that the most active among them are also constructed in defense of the national. Paradoxically, Facebook is quoting “Istoriya slavyanobalgarska (Slavonic-Bulgarian History)”: one finds the canonical phrase “why are you ashamed of…” quoted independently by different Facebook groups. Even when it comes to present-day causes such as elections, fighting against overbuilding, saving children, or point 4, Article 16 – these are recounted as jeopardizing “the national”.

I don’t argue that Internet is for the most part nationalist in content – it is only one of the possible courses of action adopted by the users to produce content – in this article it is precisely this course of action that I am interested in, for it seems that the new media enables us to describe the old phenomenon of the nationalist imaginary in a “thicker” way. Obviously, I assume that online space is neither isolated nor independent from offline space, but rather closely linked to it. Or, taking into consideration the thesis offered by Daniel Miller and Don Slater, my research is guided by the presumption that we need to interpret “internet media as continuous with and embedded in other social spaces, that they happen within mundane social structures and relations that they may transform but that they cannot escape” (Miller, D. & D. Slater 2001: 4). Thus, the idea is on the one hand to give an account of those codes and everyday realities in which Internet users are embedded, and on the other hand, to try to trace the ways in which user-generated content transforms, re-defines and re-invents these everyday realities and mundane social structures.

If we think of the Net as fundamentally linked to the presently established social reality, its nationalization would not seem so paradoxical. It is important to underline that this nationalization is not revealed only through the production of nationalist content by the users. We could interpret in this vein the introduction of local versions of platforms, otherwise designed as global – Facebook in Bulgarian, Svejo.net – a Bulgarian platform similar to digg.com, or baidu – a Chinese search engine which outdoes Google in China in terms of user numbers (see an article by Tom Chatfield). In fact, the expectations that a technological device capable of linking up the whole world would actually succeed in doing so, plays up the role of technology in the first place, and the value of innovation in the second. What we are witnessing is the triumph of inertia in a sense, i.e. the global network becoming localized in different ways in different national settings, learning the languages, getting to know the communities and the causes in the respective national (rarely regional) contexts. This domestication, however, triggers a process of re-negotiation of the social certainties. In other words, it is because the Net is taking roots that it succeeds in transforming the social realities and opening up space for re-negotiating “national imaginaries” as well.

Language and its uses become a battlefield and a cause to fight for, precisely through the activities on the Net, as it seems. My generation remembers well the time when writing e-mails in Cyrillic was impossible; later it became a way of drawing distinctions and many people used to add “I don’t read monkey-alphabet” instead of a signature. The localization of the products comes down to translating labels mostly, which stirs up heated battles. Facebook, for example, invites its members who use the Cyrillic to join the community which is translating the platform into Bulgarian. The battle for the Bulgarian language as concerns the Net, however, is a particular kind of battle. I still haven’t heard of a Bulgarian translation of Facebook (translation is running only within the platform), not to speak of a web browser in Bulgarian. On the other hand, the proclaimed support for the Cyrillic alphabet and for the Bulgarian language with its set of rules is rather impressive.

We should perhaps resort to the term “weak nationalism” in order to interpret this phenomenon. As Maria Todorova (Todorova, M. 2009) claims, a characteristic trait of the “weak” type of nationalism is that it succeeds in mobilizing social energy only for weak causes. This does not make nationalist talk less tolerant or less devoid of passion (usually xenophobic) but it takes away from its power to generate change. “Weak nationalism” is nationalism of the status quo, as Maria Todorova illustrates. If we come back to the petition in support of point 4, Article 16, we’ll see that it is in fact a futile battle. As a matter of fact, it was the legal, not the anti-nationalist logic which demanded the revocation of point 4, since Article 16 regulates an entirely different subject, not the control over Bulgarian language. Nevertheless, authentic civic energy was focused on this particular problem. At the same time it overlooked the bigger debate on Bulgarian education (despite constantly engaging in some smaller battles). The other thing which seems rather interesting is the re-negotiation of the language rules. Earlier, when I was quoting user comments, I pointed out that I deliberately kept the original spelling. Curiously enough, the advocates for the Bulgarian language are systematically violating the rules, while fighting for them. I am emphasizing this fact as it seems indicative of the way negotiation is occurring at various levels, rendered rather visible in this case. Writing “Bulgarian” and “Bulgarians” capitalized could have been influenced by the English spelling or is perhaps a way of imbuing written language with emotions.

This is nevertheless a form of change, even if pursued within the battle for the status quo (as it is defined by the group itself and by the initiators of the petition). If we take into consideration the thesis that the production of “nationalist” content on the Net is premised on the perception of threat and marginalization from the public space, we’ll touch upon a most interesting phenomenon – the civic production of the status quo. Web 2 illustrates perfectly the multiplication of the definitions of the “national” and the multiplication of the actors having a stake in this game. This is hardly a new phenomenon. Ever since the 1980s popular culture has been analyzed as “cultural repertoire” used by various social groups to re-negotiate the meanings of the “national”, collective identity, memory, etc. (see the description of this process in Edensor, T. 2002). Here, however, we are witnessing a different process – it is the users themselves who start producing “cultural repertoires” and new definitions in the online public space (not only by substituting and re-negotiating them through consumption). In this sense the multiplication of the actors along with the multiplication of the makers of definitions of the “national” appears to be a specific phenomenon. These “makers”, of course, use the “raw materials” already at hand.

Thus we have come to a particularly intriguing phenomenon, which is that the citizens and the authorities operate within the same frame of reference. Earlier in the text I described how the “national” is manifested online. The interesting thing is that the offline public sphere employs the very same images and discourses employed by the Net users. The Cyrillic alphabet and the Bulgarian language are in the spotlight not only in Internet, they are the main source of pride, constructed by the political figures in Bulgaria. Let us recall that after the country’s accession to the EU, Bulgarian language became an official European language which endowed Bulgarian politicians with symbolic capital (at least they tried to use this fact to such benefit). Bulgaria officially congratulated the European parliament on the occasion of May 24th and awarded the other EU members with a translation of the hymn “March ahead, o revived people…” in all European languages. If the case with the language is not convincing enough, we could consider the election campaigns (carried out after the signing of the EU Accession Treaty) to realize that the central message communicated by all parties was “the protection of the Bulgarian interest”, with some variations, of course. We could also recall Katherine Verdery’s thesis that nationalism is not a political platform here in as much as it does not draw a dividing line between the political players (Verdery, K. 1996).

In brief, there is an “official” public sphere constructed through the national framework; the online sphere is reproducing this construct. The radical version of this thesis would claim that both the authorities and the citizens support the status quo of the national imaginary on discursive level. Nevertheless, there is a difference, and it is an important one. The authorities employ the “national” as a source of pride and legitimacy; Internet users transform the “national” into a space for civic action and an instrument for critique. This, however, could bring about some revolutions within the status quo.

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