ZOiS Spotlight 11/2019

The life and death of the Russian blog

by Gernot Howanitz 20/03/2019
Readers and authors all sit at the computer and look at the same website using the same programmes and tools. Yury Gubin / Alamy Stock Foto

The blogging craze took Internet culture by storm in the early 2000s, but its popularity has waned since then. Yes, people still talk about “blogs” but generally only in a figurative sense: they usually mean the video blogs (vlogs) that are very popular on YouTube. Reaching the number of clicks received by YouTubers is beyond a blog writer’s wildest dreams. Nevertheless, from a literary studies perspective, an exploration of the blog phenomenon is relevant, as it allows conclusions to be drawn about how diary-writing and other (auto)biographical forms are changing under the influence of the new media and how this will impact on literature as a whole in future.

Within the Russian-language online community (Runet), traditional blogging is inextricably linked to the LiveJournal platform, affectionately known as Живой Журнал (Zhivoi zhurnal) – “Alive Journal” – in Russian. LiveJournal is still very popular, although it is coming under growing pressure from social media such as Facebook and its Russian rivals VK.com (Vkontakte.ru) and Odnoklassniki.ru. The death knell was first sounded in April 2017, when two things happened: first, the blogging platform relocated its servers from the US to Russia, with the result that it is now subject to the jurisdiction of the Russian state authorities; and second, LiveJournal updated its terms of service, transferring the copyright for all published texts to the platform itself. As a result of these two changes, many well-known bloggers, most of them writers, turned their backs on LiveJournal. As Russia’s best-selling author Boris Akunin wrote on 5 April 2017: “ZhZh was alive once; then it was half-alive and now it is dead. Sadly, its death was not a pleasant one.”

From blogs to social media

Although these Cassandra cries were somewhat premature, what is certain is that Russian literary life online is increasingly shifting away from blogs towards social media. With many older blogs vanishing or being taken down, an integral aspect of Russian online culture is being lost and is impossible to recover. As part of my studies for my doctoral thesis, I therefore looked at the blogs published by the 29 best-known Russian writers and compared them with their social media profiles. This approach allows key characteristics of Russian literary blogging from 2000 to 2017 to be reconstructed.

In order to manage the vast amount of material, I applied quantitative methods to automatically identify and categorise the main topics in the posts. With the automatically modelled topics, it was then possible to target my searches for interesting, controversial or otherwise conspicuous posts for in-depth study. By adopting this approach, I was not only able to identify general trends in the content but also to examine individual posts by specific authors.

The first point to be noted is that blog readers implicitly assume that there are real people behind the posts, even though this is impossible to verify online. The human behind the screen is therefore a real presence in readers’ minds as they reflect on their own situation and project it onto the author. This process is intensified by the pledge – made by almost all the online platforms – that the millions of profiles they host were set up by real people and are not fake accounts. Readers on the one side and authors on the other all sit at the computer and look at the same website using the same programmes and tools. Not everyone can have their writing published by Ad Marginem, the Moscow-based specialist in contemporary Russian fiction, but they can publish their work on ZhZh or Facebook. They can also post feedback for the authors in the comments section, which generally appears below the texts, and this evens out the status difference further.

Linor Goralik and her virtual alter ego

The increasingly close relationship between author and public is leading to a subversion of the established view of authors of Russian literature and their sacrosanct status. Conditional on technical knowledge being available, this is giving rise to exciting new forms of media-based self-representation. The author, poet, cultural studies expert, activist and programmer Linor Goralik, for example, shows how a web presence across several platforms can represent diverse facets of the staging of the self, with continuity created across all the platforms using visual or content-based elements such as nicknames and avatar images. Goralik, for example, is particularly fond of rabbits: the two comic-strip bunnies Valery Markovich and Pts adorn her website, and Goralik even describes Pts as her alter ego and writes some of her texts under his name, for example about the cultural role of – yes, you guessed right – of the bunny (Booknik.ru 2013). This self-representation, replete with lagomorphic motifs, is taken up and spun by the media: in an interview with Seledka magazine, Goralik is photographed wearing bunny ears.

For Goralik, assuming an animal guise may be a way of escaping entrenched gender roles, which are developing worrying potential in Russian literature. Self-representation in animal form can be interpreted as neither an affirmation nor a rejection of femininity. Admittedly, Goralik’s animal roles toy with clichéd attributes of femininity, such as cuteness and harmlessness, but on closer inspection, multilayered “animalistic” personalities are revealed that evade such descriptors. However, Goralik’s self-representation strategy, focused on multiple facets, contrasts with the online presence of many other writers who do not make consistent use of the platforms or tailor their (auto)biographical practices in a platform-specific way.

Today, it is easier than ever to publish one’s texts. The real challenge is winning over the readers. If the strategies for self-representation are successful and open the way for online writers to publish their texts in book form, then writing on Runet will have an impact on Russian literature offline. Brief, anecdotal, laconic – these characteristic traits of the printed works by Linor Goralik or other blogger-writers such as Yevgeni Grishkovetz and Marta Ketro are relics of what is, to some extent, the already lost art of Russian blogging.

Gernot Howanitz is a postdoctoral researcher at the Chair of Slavic Literatures and Cultures and the Passau Centre for eHumanities (PACE) at the University of Passau. For his PhD, he studied the online self-representation of Russian writers.