Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Regional Web Sites Assume Ever Greater Role for Siberian Elites

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 11 – As rising costs drive the regional print media out of business, Moscow companies take over regional radio and television outlets, and the Kremlin moves to control the national media space, regionally-based websites are playing an ever greater role in the lives of Siberian elites.
That is the conclusion Dmitriy Tayevskiy, an analyst at one of the largest of these sites (Babr.ru), drew during a presentation yesterday at a conference at Irkutsk State University on “Mass Communications in the Era of Globalization: The Mass Media, Advertising and Links to Society (http://babr.ru/?pt=news&event=v1&IDE=41698).
The Internet in Irkutsk, Tayevskiy said, attracts as many as 120,000 people over the course of a month and perhaps 30 to 50,000 who turn to it on a daily basis, large numbers and ones that are increasing 80 to 100 percent annually but still only about 15 percent of the total number population of that region.
The Internet in Siberia thus remains an elite medium, but its audience in oblast centers is similar to that in Moscow itself – middle class, university educated, and aged 16 to 45. And despite the turbulence of regional sites – many are founded by enthusiasts and quickly disappear – this medium plays a large role for three reasons.
First, Tayevskiy noted, it provide information in near real time, thus making up for the delays and gaps in coverage of Siberian affairs in the central media or even the regional print media. The elite and near-elite groups that use it are attracted to the Internet precisely because it allows them to keep up with the very latest news.
Second, ever more of the Siberian sites are interactive, that is, they allow those who visit not only to learn something but also to share information. The most successful sites in Siberia, Tayevskiy suggested, have been those which serve as “virtual Hyde Parks” for a region in which vast distances and governmental obstacles keep people apart.
And third, the Internet by its nature is a medium that sets off what Tayevskiy said is “a chain reaction” to almost any report. Not only do users routinely post comments about stories they read online, but they often copy these stories into other sites or at least provide URLs so that visitors to one site often learn about materials on another.
The elite character of this medium, Tayevskiy continued, has meant that many officials and corporations have sought to use it to advertise their wares or to advance their political agendas. But typically these groups have done so without recognizing that the audience they are trying to reach this way is very different from the national one.
As a result, even though advertising online in the Russian net is growing more than twice as fast as the number of users, much of it is proving ineffective, as surveys show that the elite audiences tend in almost every case to dismiss such PR efforts out of hand.
None of these observations will be news to those who follow Internet developments elsewhere, but he insisted that they are especially important in evaluating the role of the Internet in the Russian Federation as a whole and in regions like Siberia and the Russian Far East that are far from Moscow.
On the one hand, he noted, “the Internet today remains the single medium not under the control of the authorities” and thus represents “a unique preserve of civil society, since despite its virtual quality, it has the fully expressed aspects of this society,” something that cannot be said of any other medium.
And on the other, given the vast distances in Siberia and the Far East, the Internet is making it possible for people to come together as a regional community directly rather than through the mediation of Moscow, something that Tayevskiy clearly believes could contribute to the transformation of both Russian and Siberian societies.

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