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Armenia’s New Media Landscape

Last week I was in Armenia looking at the current media landscape. It was a pleasure to be back again after I was there for Barcamp Yerevan back in April. It was fun to be back and exploring the media sector in more detail, applying what I learned from the civil society tech brainstorm sessions I held.

The country has been through a lot since facing a difficult transition from being a part of the Soviet Union to the present, having gone through a war to do so. Now the country witnessed a lot of growth that stagnated after the economic crisis. A lot of wages had been imported from Russia and this is now suddenly cut off, throwing many into turmoil. However, things didn’t seem as bad in December as in April. Which says a lot given the brutality of local winters. Even cabbies switched back to saying things were “same as always” rather than “difficult”.

The current media landscape in Armenia is expanding, but still somewhat controlled. As a young democracy, it is still struggling to move to being an authentic rather than potato democracy (ie. moving away from cronyism). Media is a key part of this as television continues to be  concentrated in the hands of the ruling parties. The quality of journalism is lacking to say the least. According to interviewees, TV is totally under the control of the ruling parties. One person going so far as stating that “Having commercials on public media channels is basically paying to the campaign of the government campaign.” A pretty serious accusation.

That could all start changing soon. Already there has been a community-led campaign to preserve alternative media. There now also exists a proliferation of technology throughout the country. Visiting a village outside of Gyumri I asked some teens to show me what phones they had. This is what they came up with (other than my n97 and my friend’s BlackBerry):

Mobile Phones in Rural Armenia

Mobiles present a huge opportunity for getting a conversation that includes the whole of the country. It’s a technology that is widespread and can easily be used for bi-directional broadcast in different and affordable ways. I found that not only are youth using cellphones extensively, but many are already accessing online resources through their mobiles. Generally this only extends to the site Odnoklassniki (Одноклассники)- a social networking site in Russian and/or Ukrainian that serves mostly for dating under the auspices of connecting “classmates.” Unlike Facebook, there’s little opportunity to make it more of a broadcast medium. The key feature here is that you can see who is visiting your profile and how often. So can others, hense it becomes very public flirting in a country that is otherwise very conservative when it comes to sex.

Beyond the wide penetration of Odnoklassniki, Facebook is starting to develop. While there are fewer than 1 million users in the country (and therefore unreliable statistics), the diaspora is roughly:  8,560 people who live in the United States age 18 and older who like armenia (+160 who like Hayastan). In Russia, there are 480 people age 18 and older who like Armenia. Livejournal is another popular site in Armenia, as well as Flickr for photo sharing. Many Facebook posts in the country are done via mobile and Facebook is optimized for this, keeping costs lower than for access to most sites that don’t have a mobile specific version. Twitter is starting to be used, though only in the capital and not very widely. And in terms of blogs, Live Journal is still leading the pack, with some sprinklings of wordpress and blogspot in the capital, and a lot of customized sites.

This phenomenon shouldn’t only be seen as for youth. Mobiles have penetrated older people as well, though with less features (i.e.. text, internet). While costs are high (Odnoklassniki charges for access in addition to rate charges per byte), that isn’t much of a deterrent even in poorer communities.

Since March (and just in time for Barcamp) a new opportunity opened up for geolocating information in the country. Mapping was unveiled in Armenia on Google maps as well as Open Street Maps. With the new ability to start georeferencing pictures, articles, etc, I’m interested to see what kinds of projects begin sprouting. Having more of a national conversation on issues means the need to have local info and to be able to verify it as such. Not only does georeferencing begin to allow for this, access to tools such as mobiles can potentially make this available in real-time. At the recent first International Conference on Crisis Mapping, I saw a myriad of ways this can be utilized to support communities. For example, Digital Democracy’s Handheld Human Rights is one such way.

To an extent, the proliferation of mobiles and their potential impact on the media sector is happening in countries worldwide. It’s a very exciting time. What I was more surprised by was free public wifi in a park. The internet is rarely seen as infrastructure by governments and so few measures are usually taken to support it and bring it to all citizens in the same way as water or sanitation. “Free” wifi spots are usually in cafes and coffee shops that are very expensive by local standards. Not surprisingly, the wifi node is supported by a wealthy diasporan, not by the government itself. Nonetheless, it’s a good start and they have some impressive stats: ~600 users per month, 100 unique. In this small city (~1 million) and far from the center, it’s still a start and more than I would have expected. The next step is figuring out who is connecting and to what. Details on viewership and readership for any media is almost entirely undeveloped.

What the new media landscape look like in the future is anyone’s guess, but the situation is ripe for major change and hopefully progress.

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