Lehrveranstaltungen von Urmila Goel an der Europa-Universität Viadrina in Frankfurt/Oder
Wintersemester 2004/05: Virtual Ethnicity - Ethnic Identity Construction in the Internet
reports by Monica Bajan
The site has an inner dynamic that does not match constantly the observer’s expectations. Researching for today’s session I was confronted with 3 topics of high interest that seemed to divide the site into 3 areas. Although they had no connection or interlacing among themselves they gave me the idea of separate highways, that people choose in order to get in some place, disregarding sometimes all other opportunities. I will explain myself: first topic regards the possibility of having one’s studies recognized in a foreign country, the second concerns recovering data base from a hard disk, while the third refers to a charity action organized to save a little girl suffering from leukemia.
The three subjects have no other connection than the users that are replying. However unusual it may appear, the register of language changes from one topic to another, the users seem to adopt different types of expressing themselves, in such a way that they seem to play different social roles within each conversation. What stroke me most was that the last topic, posted 19 hours ago has had no reply until now, although the original message is written in a very emotional way. While reading it I was thinking about similar campaigns that I learnt about while being at home. When confronted with such charity actions people might first ask themselves if the subject is really true, or if they are subjected to a type of emotional manipulation aimed at depriving them of their money.
As I was reading the other 2 topics I was amazed by the liveliness of the dialogue and the immediacy of reply. This made me ask myself again whether the users are more inclined to deal with pragmatic subjects, rather than with heart-to-heart issues.
Without aiming at finding a response I have decided only to further analyze these two tendencies in a comparative way. In order to better do so I set as a goal following the thread of the discussions in the near future.
During the Christmas break I had the opportunity to observe the ongoing process of reshaping and rethinking the ‘Romanian-French’ Internet Community, as a dominant feature of the site. Articles had been gathered together, catalogued, divided in categories and sub-categories, in order to facilitate a better and more rapid access to the information. What I found extremely interesting was the fact that some of the ‘recent posts’ had traces long in time, discussions that have been started in 2002 still seem to have a place on the front board. The particularity of this is that a red thread of the discussion was kept from 2002 to 2005. There are posts that gathered 2 replies and others that already raised 23 comments and are still subjects of vivid discussions. Along observing many questions found their way to the surface. A first one regarded the basis on which some of the discussions were kept as recent posts, while others were erased or temporary removed. What seemed as a pattern for the kept messages was that no matter how long in time the discussions had been started, they still raised debates among the users. I could not determine though if these discussions were reactivated by the moderator from time to time or there are people that can access any past discussion whenever they like. My interest in this subject got shape when I realised that although I have been observing this site from the beginning of the semester, some of the ‘long- started discussions’ were not in ‘my range of view’ before the restructuring of the site. My first deduction was then, that probably these messages had been on the site since they were first written, but from various technical reasons I have been prevented from encountering them before. However, my theory was somehow shaken by one article wrote by the moderator, stating that with the new image of the site some of the discussions were replaced, other thoroughly removed or gathered together according to similar features or threads.
Along my analysis I have tried to follow all the ongoing discussions that took place during December and what stroke me in the first place was that some of the messages had been misplaced. Consequently, one message dated 2 December 2004, got one answer on the 3rd of December, another one on the 7th , followed by a feedback on the 4th of December. Due to this I have encounter difficulties in determining whether the date was wrong registered or the messages got mix up along the way. I could not reach any conclusion, mostly because most of the messages were ordered chronologically on a long period of time. Hence, it seemed unlikely that the webmaster just ‘got bored’ with some of the messages, or the sorting computer programme ‘mistook’ some of the dates.
Another question that popped into my mind while observing, concerned the motivations the drew people to reply at the end of 2004 to messages that have been posted early during the year, or even a year before. Were these people really in possession of the required answer so that time didn’t seem like an important factor to the accuracy of their reply? Were they so willing to help that they hoped, that however delayed, their reply could still help the initial sender ? Were they so eager to communicate on a familiar subject or merely recognised a familiar name and decided to try to get in contact with that person using every way possible? Or, were they just writing for the sake of writing? While asking all these questions to myself I realised that twice during my research I have done the same thing, picking up discussions that seemed to have reach a dead end long before. Both times I recognised the name of the user and got so excited that I didn’t even bother to check the date when their message was posted. What is particularly interesting is that in both cases I have tried to get in contact with persons with whom I would seldom interact while being at home. In one of the cases I have found out that I was trying to get in contact with someone that has posted the message in early 2003. Most unusual is that I have met this person during the summer break of 2004 and had no idea that the user has been in France in 2003. However, while accessing the site as I were abroad myself, I became more eager to learn as much as possible about the whereabouts of the two users mentioned before. The simple fact we found ourselves in a similar situation ‘being abroad’ made me perceive a connection between myself and them, and consequently act as such, disregarding important facts (date of the message, category, subject of interest) just in order to get in contact.
The same need of getting in contact, either to agree, or disagree, offer support or simply reveal one’s existence seemed as a key factor for the whole interaction that took place on the site during December. The period of time could not have been better chosen for a throughout observation. The site seemed to have been animated with emotions. On the front page, in the shape of a circle the Romanian and French flags were united. A Christmas tree, digitally constructed, glittered with messages of how people should become more generous, loving and close to each other at this time of the year.
More pragmatic, but in the same time full of meaning and explosiveness were the news concerning the elections. Two opinion pools (one from after the first election tour, and one from after the second) were maintained on the site and commented. On the part of the site concerning the news there were two articles: one from the French press and the other from the Romanian newspapers regarding the recent elections and the changes that are ongoing in Romania. The selected news contained possible future approaches of the relationship between Romania and the European Union.
As an element of my research I find it interesting to point out that due to the new format of the site some of the posts repeat themselves under several denominations. As a relevant example I could find some remarks included in the same time among the ‘recent posts’, the chapter entitled ‘news’ and the front page articles. For a thoroughly organised user the new division of the site into: Navigation (recent posts), News (French press, Romanian sources, Diverse) Agenda (Events, Meetings, Performances), Articles (Intercultural, Opinions, Visa...) and Sites (Essentials, Diaspora, La Roumanie, Romanians in France) offers a rapid connection with the areas that most raise his/her interest. A different approach would be that of indulging oneself with ‘diving’ into the colourful mass of collected messages and decide on the spot which one ‘glitters’ the most. However, the satisfaction offered by the latter approach remains questionable.
How Is the Web-site Used to Cater for Special Needs of Migrants
The new version of the site, although not too much different from the former one, seems to be more organised, in such a way that provides the users with better access to ‘certain topics’. In order to do that, certain topics have been moved from one ‘discussion forum’ to ‘another’, which seem to better host the subject. In addition, related topics have been ‘glued’ together under a more ‘general denomination’, favouring less time-consuming interactions between users and a more appropriate exchange of information.
What I have encountered as a difficulty was the apparent impossibility of verifying all the supplied information. Although, in general, one might argue that everybody can get almost instant feed-back, in most of the cases it is hard to obtain a firm statement that the feed-back was indeed correct. Consequently, on most of the subjects it is advisable to interpret sources and frequently confront them in order to extract the needed information. However, as an important feature that most of the times facilitate this ongoing process of action and reaction, one might find useful links attached to some of the users’ messages. Seldom are there cases that such links do not work or are outdated.
Trying to figure out specifically how this web-site caters for special needs of migrants, I have researched on as many forum topics as possible. The following topics seemed to be the most relevant for the subject in cause: ‘New in France’, ‘Formalities’, ‘Migration Law’ and ‘Suggestions and Requirements’. What was interesting was that some of the users seemed to actively participate on all these forums. One of them, I think I have identified as member of the staff. There are messages posted by this users, stating that he is no longer able to moderate the discussions and that he requires ‘external support’. Another user is the one I have been mentioning in most of my reports. He appears as holding answers to all the possible questions, although there are cases when his agenda seems to be outdated. A recent example concerns the topic entitled ‘Residency Visa; private- and family life’. A brief description of this example could be the following:
- on the 29th of October, replying to a message through which another user required assistance regarding the ‘Residency Visa’, the user ‘Sorin’ posted his feed-back
- on the 30th of October, there was a reply from another user, whom I have not seen before, who contradicted ‘Sorin’ ‘s sayings
- on the 31st of October ‘Sorin’ ‘s message attracted a vivid critique, emphasising the lack of pertinence of ‘Sorin’ ‘s reply
- on the 1st of November Sorin acknowledged how outdated his information sources were
I have chosen this example to better illustrate the impossibility of creating a true
reliable chain of information based on personal reactions of the users. However, it seems to me that the site is designed to help its users, as much as it is designed to create a link between them. Pieces of the provided information seems to be essential for a better social integration of the Romanian immigrants into the French society. There are constant postings about easy and cheap ways to stay in touch with Romania and all other elements connected to it. Hence, way might easily find links hosting cheap ways of ‘phoning home’, or advertising cheap ways to travel. Besides the most frequent ‘service’, that regards the possibility of travelling home together with other persons that drive to Romania, a new ‘service’ is advertised on www.franta-romania.com . This service refers to a charter flight between Lyon and Bucharest, that offers the best connection at a very low price.
Browsing through the topics one might also find essential information on how to find a job, what are the necessary documents, which steps should be followed, which is the organisation that has to be contacted- all in all, the required formalities. There are pertinent insights on how one could buy a house in France or how could one obtain a ‘nationality certificate’.
What I considered to be also interesting was a link to a radio version of the apparently most free Romanian newspaper. As I have seen it by now, this is the most well developed connection that this site holds with a Romanian publication. I could not stop but wondering whether this indicated that Romanians abroad are getting another pulse of ‘my country’ ‘s breath. How is it from outside? Do these Romanians feel also a special need to feed themselves with pure, cutting truth, along with their other special needs that seem vital for surviving in ‘their new world’ ?
For the last two weeks, the site I am researching on, has been subjected to several modifications. Although, due to a temporary blocking of all files, I found it almost impossible to work on my web-site, I have realised that this ‘sudden reconstruction’ was, in itself, a sign that something was moving within the site. My first question was whether this could be a clue that finally there is a team that has decided to ‘take care’ of the site and better its features. At a first approach it seemed that the process of reshaping the site has been going on for a certain amount of time. But then, my second question was, why have ‘they’ decided to change the site right at this precise moment- does that meant that from this moment on there would be moderators and a ‘guiding team’?
I suppose it would be presumptuous to form any judgements. At the moment the new version of the site is already available, but I still cannot say that I find it thoroughly ‘transparent’ and ‘readable’. Consequently I have tried to get more feed-back by posting a new message related to the ‘Suggestions’ Topic, on the Forum. My intention was to get in contact with the persons that are responsible for the site.
What stroke me the most during the period of time, when all Forum Topics were suspended, was that the front-page articles remained active. The most important one, which has been present on the front -page since I have first accessed this site, concerned ‘The Voting for Presidential Elections’. What I have not noticed before was that the subject had an article attached. The article speaks about the following years, which are supposed to be crucial for Romania’s future evolution. Written in a colloquial language, it addresses a large audience. It appears to be part of a campaign, which is organised through Romanian Diaspora sites and which tries to raise the consciousness of all Romanians that are living abroad. Although statistics are seldom reliable, according to one source of this article, more than 10% of Romanians are living abroad and, all the more important, a huge majority of them holds voting rights.
This got me again thinking in terms of how important remains the ‘mother country’ to those who have ‘deserted it’. What gets the Romanians, that no longer want to belong to their country, go and vote ‘for a better Romania’? Is it only nostalgia, pure goodness or the bitter reality that they would have not ‘deserted’ the country, if ‘the country’ hadn’t ‘desert’ them in the first place.
As I was trying to depict the Diaspora elements on the site I am researching, www.franta-romania.com, I could not reach any proper conclusion. Personal opinions of the persons I got in contact with and objective impressions I gathered on my own, while observing this site, seemed to be contradictory. This contradiction, if not fundamental, deviated my analysis from the abstract search of Diaspora elements towards a more subjective interpretation of the feed-back I have received.
Three weeks ago I have posted a message on the site requesting useful insights on www.franta-romania.com . Last week I have received two messages. The first one seemed to portray a kind of nostalgia and yearning for “home”, although the feelings were held back and somehow disguised. It seemed to me ‘the first user’ tried to be objective and reserved, emphasising the fact that “home- is a state of mind”, and that, in her opinion, a large majority of those visiting the site do not yearn for “home” in the strict sense of “Romania”.
My first question after reading this concerned this tendency of forgetting one’s roots in the process of shifting “homelands”. Hence, I have started to ask myself if this was a general tendency. More than that, I have tried to figure out the pragmatic reasons that glued together the visitors of this site. What were those strings that made them constantly meet each other, though sometimes they seemed to vehemently adopt opposite sides? Although unintentionally, the first user provided me with the answer. This site physically portrayed a “pact of virtual fellowship”, based on a common language and nationality. I have acknowledged this ad-hoc definition as a first distinct element of “powerful liaisons” amongst Romanian co-nationals in France.
However the second feed-back I have received proved to be more aggressive and negativist. The user that posted this message is one of the most active participants on this site. Unfortunately the essence of his message was truncated, in the sense that he seemed to put too much effort in denying his Romanian “roots”. My impression was that he was trying to blend in the scenery so much that he tried to block out all possible good things related to his origin. In a perfectly trendy slang, this Romanian, holding a double citizenship and living for 14 years in France, stretches the absolute meaninglessness of “Romanian culture”, emphasising the fact that he rejects the idea of “living the illusion of home”. His bitter critique of all traces of Romanian culture, seems to be the effect of the fact that “the majority of those that came in France to become French constitute a thoroughly devised community, that is unworthy of this name”. He claims that the only “connections” form between people of the same origin that work in related fields or come from the same region in Romania.
As I was browsing the forum my eyes were caught by another message posted by this user. The content of the message holds little importance for the present essay. However the reactions it startled are rather relevant for the subject. In what was meant to be a strong argument against S.’ s opinions, another user expressed the idea that “the Romanians that have lived in France for a long period could offer their help to the new incoming Romanians, provided that this would not harm their wealth”. This seemed to be an open and honest statement that one might find support if deciding to immigrate in France; however expectations should not be high and fantasised.
If there is no such thing as a thorough community, if there is no nostalgia about returning home, how could than one advertise a photo shooting on ‘ Romanian Diaspora in France’? What would be the purpose of holding such topics as “Practical Advice for the New Comers”?
Looking more deep into the site I got again the impression that there are more than one approaches possible. Following one link I discovered a web-page hosting a petition against a TV- Show hosted by CNN and regarding the so called “Sex- Trade” in Romania. The petition was signed by hundreds of Romanians living abroad, in the unconscious attempt to exemplify Safran’s definition regarding the Diaspora members that are “committed to the maintenance or restoration of their homeland”.
 I will use the „S“ initial while referring to this user.
I couldn’t help myself realising how vivid the Romanian culture is maintained through the forums of www.franta-romania.com. Although embracing a logical tilt towards irony, I could not, but observe the valuable pieces of advice regarding the “job black-market”. I believe that the tendency of turning to the “black-market” as soon as one gets the impression that nothing can be done legally, is not only of Romanian tradition. However, it came as no surprise finding such a topic placed at the top of the forum about “what was new on the site”.
Thoroughly adopting an objective side, I should say that the topic is very dynamic and vivid. What stroke me most was the language register used by the persons involved. It seems that the features of an artificially created meeting-environment generate the basis of “an informal to familiar communication”, between the so called ‘senders’ and ‘receivers’ of the message. However, one might also easily detect a kind of insecurity of some of the “speakers’” use of language. I observed this, comparing the language of the users who’s identifications appeared more frequently on the site, to that, used by people that seemed to be less accustomed with the forums.
As an important characteristic of the first category of speakers was the fact that they showed somehow a superiority towards the new comers. I found as a strong argument for my reasoning, the “father- to child” approach of giving advice, from the more “French” to “the others”.
I also found it interesting to trace the features of a “scale” ranging the multiple stages one might take in becoming French from a Romanian- that is to say: Romanian, as the starting point; Romanian immigrant, as the next logical step; Romanian in France, as an intermediate level and Romanian holding a French citizenship. I could not argue vehemently that on the way such a person, as in the above example, will be thoroughly depicted of one’s ethnic roots. What I could argue so far is that the process is never complete. One cannot be less Romanian during one’s life, as well as one cannot die less. Although national majority may become ethnic minority with a twist of situations, it will stay within the person as a print that can be as much erased as the genetic code. This is an idea that repeats infinitely on the site’s forums.
What I would like to add is that, as I have stated in my first essay, the feedback that one gets as an answer to the message one has posted, is highly prompt. Although, sometimes the quality of information is conspicuous, the rapidity in reply induces the feeling that one can get the needed support before setting oneself for the big adventure of “starting to live” in another country.
As a conclusion it is important to say that this site is a living organism who’s pulse I am struggling to take.
My first attempt of starting my analysis on this site’s features was to observe and decode its interface. In doing so, I have tried to discover which are the key elements, seldom meant to be subjected to thorough changes, as well as the constantly developing elements, whose evolution could help me better understand the mechanisms of this site.
What I found most difficult was to find a starting point, since there seems to be no trace of this site’s origins. Most unusually, there is no indication about those that had the initiative of this site and the original scheme that they imagined upon creating it. Although I have followed the many links given on the front page, I still could not find a proper solution to this problem.
Another problem that I have encounter was the lack of any contact address, as well as the absolute non-interfering policy of the moderators. Hence, although I have already posted a public message on the site requesting as much help as possible for my research, I could not yet provide myself with the necessary feed-back.
However, though likely unbelievable, the site is a continuously moving organism, which seems to function at its peaks without any supervising direction. The subjects that are heartily debated concern matters that help preserving the Romanian ethnicity, as well as integrating the new incomes in the unknown France. From “Go To Vote” campaign to Romanian-French intercultural meetings- links, this site offers not only a wide space for all Romanians somehow connected to France, but also a sense of home, belonging and reliability.
The main services offered by this site range such fields as- “fresh stuff”: information about visas, best translators and monthly meeting via net connection; “news”: French, Romanian and Other sources; “articles”: intercultural, my opinion, visa, practice, of Romanian origin, members. Last but not least the most important ranged field is “forums”. Split into two areas, this field manages to cover both the most recent topics and the most debated ones. Thus, just by signing in, one can actively participate in any debate, state opinions and bring one’s own contribution to the development of this site. All the more surprisingly the feed-back is most of the time almost instant. However for a proper chatting one must schedule a meeting.
After having thoroughly researched the internet data-base, looking for complete and reliable Romanian virtual communities, I have decided to start my research on “ www.franta-romania.com“. This site seems to blend all the necessary components that could make it a “success-story” case. At a first approach, its simple structure allows the not familiarised new user to easily access all the information. Important matters are emphasised in bold letters and instructions of how to use the site await the user at any step.
Having gathered until recently only basic knowledge about the internet, I have considered it would be best to look for a site that would “uncover” its language to me, in a way that would make me actually relate to the people behind the cold screen. In my opinion, this is in fact the purpose of all virtual environments, that is to say- bringing people together in the attempt of compressing time and space. My interest in the “ Romanian Diaspora” in France could be most easily connected to the fact that my aunt, my uncle and my cousins have moved to Paris some years ago. Hence, I could say that I have nurtured this interest for a long time and by choosing to observe this site, I have only taken a step further in understanding the background that my relatives are facing everyday. One of my cousins has told me this summer “You don’t know how lucky you are at home, with all your good friends around you. Here, my brother and I are lucky if we manage to get one good friend”. Coming from a 20 years old guy this seemed even more sad, as if said by an older person.
So that got me thinking! What does it mean to be stranger among strangers? Who is setting the borders-is it the “ethnic minority” or the “surrogate mother”, that is to say the great majority, who’s RH- positive rejects the less frequent, but still viable RH- negative of the foreign “baby”? Is there really rejection from one side, or is it all more philosophical, in terms of humans’ limitations in what concerns “embracing the diversity”?
I cannot but hope that this site will provide me with strong insights that will help me form a mature judgement upon “ethnicity” in general, and “Romanian ethnic groups” in particular. After all, one of the greatest contemporary Romanian writers that lived most of his life in Paris wrote “We do not live in a country, but in a language. This is what country means and nothing else.” ( Emil Cioran). As a conclusion, I should say, I’m aiming to see whether he was right.