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Marija Mandić: I see the future of virtual communication in exploring new forms and in the courage to experiment

Marija Mandić, a senior research associate at the SANU’s Institute for Balkan Studies, who is one of the panellists of the 4th European Minority and Local Media Conference, is engaged in linguistic and anthropological research in Southeast Europe.

 

Her special areas of interest include linguistic anthropology, critical discourse analysis, ethnic and national identity, and social memory. She is the author of numerous studies in these fields, and is currently working on an international project with the University of Oslo entitled ’Probing the Boundaries of the (Trans)National: Imperial Legacies, Transnational Literary Networks and Multilingualism in East Central Europe’. Before the commencement of the European Minority and Local Media Conference, which will take place online this year on October 26th and 27th, we talked to Marija about communication as a constantly changing phenomenon.

 

Communication as a phenomenon is changing every day on several different levels. How is communication changing in the sociological context in relation to the changes in the digital environment (new, advanced technologies, applications, algorithms)? 

 

Marija Mandić: ’Changes in communication in the digital environment are directly reflected on the manner, content and quality of communication in the society. You’ll often hear people mentioning Facebook or Twitter or Instagram in conversations with each other. What happens on these and other social networks triggers events, affects interpersonal relationships. Let’s start from interpersonal relationships. Has anyone liked our posts? Has anyone told us something directly or indirectly via social media? Does anyone persistently fail to notice us? Do we find someone captivating, so we’re following that person more than is ok (stalking)? These are all factors that lead us to re-examine relationships in our everyday lives, as well as ourselves.

Without any doubt, tangible and virtual realities intertwine, but they remain separate as well.

We really like someone’s virtual character or avatar, while we dislike the person in real life, and vice versa. The song by Kralj Čačka ’My Avatar’ testifies to that in a poetic way. There are great people who are not good at virtual communication or we don’t really like how they appear on virtual platforms, and vice versa, there are stars of virtual space who stumble in everyday life.

 

We also mustn’t forget the role of virtual communication, online platforms and social networks in public and political life. All the media now cite posts of both famous and anonymous people made on social networks as public and political acts that have very real consequences. Due to a reckless statement on a social network, one may get fired, ruin a relationship, but may become an instant star due to an influential post just the same. Let me remind you of the latest scandal regarding a private post on Facebook of the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, Maria Zaharova, in regard to the official visit of the Serbian delegation to the United States, which caused a minor international shockwave and was officially commented on by Serbian President Vučić and the official Kremlin, among others. The still president of America, Trump, uses Twitter as an organ where he often makes official statements or announces decisions for the first time. And then his Twits are broadcast by the so-called ’serious’ media.

 

Moreover, the role of social networks and online platforms is changing the way we get informed. Our communication is increasingly interactive; we choose which platforms to follow, while machine algorithms recommend portals and news for us in accordance with our interests. And so, the way we get information is becoming personalised. Communication is definitely more intense, but the question is whether it gives us greater social power to change reality or makes us just observers of a social engine picking up speed. Do ’shares’ and ’likes’ offer us an illusion of social engagement? And of course, how controlled are we, that is, how shrunken is the space of our intimacy and freedom? All these open questions show that our reality is changing and that we must re-examine it if we want to preserve the minimum of our social integrity. Of course, it is possible to live outside of all that, but it is difficult.’

 

How is communication of man in the street changing, that is, the perception of messages communicated by various media? Do we, people, manage to decipher communication messages when we are bombarded with information from all sides?

 

Marija Mandić: ’We are getting used to it. We’re learning the alphabet of virtual communication, which in turn is rapidly evolving and changing its strategies and forms. People, as we’ve already said, get their information following more or less personalised algorithms, and they’re creating some of their own information hybrids. A great danger lies in the fact that people take the news appearing online for granted and fail to check the sources too often. That’s how it’s possible to have a lot of fake, semi-verified and unverified news, that’s how we get a lot of confusing messages. The informal group of artists ‘Ilegalni poslastičari’ made good point with deliberately placing fake news, which spread incredibly fast on all portals, without any verification.

Remember the multitude of clips, various interviews and testimonies during the global pandemic. When, for example, a clip appeared featuring a German doctor speaking as an expert who argues that COVID 19 is a scam and then news appeared that the clip was made by a Russian pro-government media agency, the video clip immediately took on a different meaning. We start asking ourselves not only what the doctor wants to tell us, but why the Russian agency wanted to popularise the opinion of this particular doctor, and not someone else? And we arrive again at a paradox of virtual communication: globally, we can be very gullible and pliable, but, at the same time, deep inside, after all the minor and major disappointments, we become deeply distrustful of all media. Personally, I take all media with a pinch of salt, meaning that I try not to trust them but to use them.

So, some media have an interest in more or less critically and objectively reporting on a segment of our social reality, and vice versa – the same media have no interest in critically observing or reporting objectively on another segment of our social reality.

 

Therefore, we need to recognize or at least sense the real social, political and economic interests behind the media and use them with the awareness that they’re limited means of entertainment and information. In the end, we are the ones who decide on their credibility, based on the sum of the information we receive.

I see the future of virtual communication in exploring new forms and in the courage to experiment. And one successful venture in the field of the minority media is your Storyteller portal.’

Your work includes issues of (national) minorities, folklore, and no less important – identity. How do fast communication, fast digital technologies and fast lifestyle affect identities – of national minorities, but also of individuals regardless of their ethnicity? What is changing and what is difficult to change, what is a permanent constant of human nature, perception and communication?

 

Marija Mandić: ’Uh, that’s a difficult question indeed and it may be impossible to answer at this moment. The Internet is a place or space where people live more and more, which is then inhabited by our identity worlds. We, as a society, can ask the question: how to establish and preserve a value system in such a virtual-material world that resembles a virtual flea market? Because a society without a value system does not exist.

 

Social networks have adopted their own value system, and some call it censorship. I’m convinced that communication with the past and tradition is a prerequisite for a healthy and creative future. I see the world of tradition, folklore and ethno-linguistic cultures as a source of inspiration. In a sense, the basic archetypes, contents and messages remain the same, and only the forms change.

 

What’s happening with national minorities? That’s the real question. And we really don’t know the answer.

 

Studies of my fellow researchers have shown that some internet platforms serve to revitalise endangered languages by bringing together the remaining speakers, who then have who to talk with and where to communicate. National minorities and all those interested in preserving language, folklore and tradition should in some way ’rebrand’ their values in virtual space. And the need for such content in virtual space exists.

 

The only way is to keep the pace with modern technologies both verbally and visually and in audio format. And use them to give a new form to contents of one’s own culture. Cultures of national minorities should explore ways for younger generations to see them as sources of inspiration and valuable resources that are somehow ’in’ in the era of merging and uniform identities. This search is not easy, and the approach requires flexibility, innovation and openness to hybrid cultures and identities, because in this digital era having illusions about the original and authentic cultures has become rather impossible.

 

I truly believe that it’s very important to pass on messages from the past and tradition to younger generations in a modern form. And then they have the freedom to do with those messages whatever they want – to accept, reject or modify them, but it’s important that the message reaches them.’ 

Photo by Čila David