[image credit: @newamerica]
Emily Parker’s book Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices from the Internet Underground has long been awaited by some of us for a while. The book follows the stories of bloggers and internet activists in China, Cuba, and Russia. (The striking title is from something Chinese blogger Michael Anti said to the author.) Parker spoke to us via email about her work.
I primarily know of you from your work on China. What is your history with the two other countries featured in the book, Cuba and Russia? How did you come to the decision to write about these three countries in this book?
I didn’t want “I Know Who My Comrades Are” to be a “China book,” because this is a global story. My book describes what happens when people whose views differ from the official line discover, via the Internet, that they are not alone. That is where the title of the book comes from: “Now I Know Who My Comrades Are.” I have heard some version of that phrase from Internet dissidents all over the world. There has been so much written about the role of the Internet in the Middle East, and I wanted to turn my attention to the communist and post-communist world. I was also able to spend time in both Russia and Cuba and develop relationships with bloggers there.
The book is about the personal stories of bloggers. What do you hope that readers can get from these personal stories?
You are right. This is a book about people, not simply a book about “the Internet” or “social media.” Internet trends come and go. My book is about what happens when ordinary people in repressive environments find people who think like them. How does that realization change them, how does it change their countries? I wanted to get away from generalizations and focus on real people.
Do you worry about the difficulties of writing a book about the internet, since things change so fast? For instance, you refer to Weibo quite a bit in the book, yet Weibo appears to no longer be nearly as popular or influential as it was even a year ago.
Actually, Weibo doesn’t play a very big role in the book. Chinese Internet users, like Internet users around the world, can be fickle. First Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) were cool, then they were lame. Blogs were all the rage, until microblogging came along. Weibo was the hottest thing imaginable, and now people are talking about Weixin. And every time one of these transitions take place, people start proclaiming the end of an era. But according to my observation, over the past decade or so the overall China Internet story has stayed essentially the same. It doesn’t matter if it’s BBS or Weibo or Weixin or whatever, the Internet is transforming the lives of ordinary Chinese and threatening the state’s control over information.
You write that even though the internet may not be directly causing revolution in the countries you write about, it nonetheless is causing a psychological transformation. How big do you think the psychological changes really have been, and how lasting?
I think the psychological changes can be enormous. In my book, for example, you have a fierce Communist Party loyalist who became a dissident after he sees disturbing images online. You have a Russian lawyer who, via his blog, rises to become the country’s most prominent opposition figure. And you have ordinary Cubans, once scared and silent, who find their voices online and are empowered to fight for justice. These are some of the more dramatic examples, but there are plenty of quieter stories as well.
Is the Internet always a force for good? Of course not. Authorities also use technology to curb dissent. The book contains examples of censorship, surveillance, intimidation of bloggers, even arrests. And not everyone who finds their comrades online is a pro-democracy activist. Nationalists and other groups also assemble on the Web. I am not denying any of this, but it’s not the whole story. The Internet can also play a positive role by helping ordinary people overcome fear, isolation and apathy. The people in my book were largely shaped by their experiences online.
In your book, you report that the writer Murong Xuecun told you that “he didn’t really use Twitter, largely because he doesn’t want to deal with the mafan, or trouble, of getting over the Great Firewall.” What struck me about this statement was how easy I personally find it to use a VPN, and yet, many (probably most) people in China feel the same way Murong Xuerong does. Does this lack of motivation to get to the uncensored internet worry you?
I do think that comment by Murong Xuecun (who actually did start using Twitter) represents the views of lot of Chinese people. Not everyone is desperate to jump over the Great Firewall to access “forbidden” Western media. Take the millions of people on Weibo, for example. But the Chinese Internet story is not simply about censorship and circumvention. The Internet is enabling a kind of collective action, or freedom of (virtual) assembly. On the Internet ordinary Chinese people find their individual voices, fight for their rights, stand up for one another and understand that they are not alone.
You can follow Emily Parker on Twitter at @emilydparker. Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices from the Internet Underground is out now in hardback and ebook.
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