For all of you coming here through my poster presentation at IIT Gandhinagar, thank you and welcome back! Here are some concepts which I would like to further elaborate on, given the space constraints of a poster. 😀 This post will be an analysis of the theoretical aspects of digital diasporas, interspersed with my personal experiences with it.
In the world of digital communication, we often find ourselves expressing ourselves, learning and realising our desires through the interconnected networks of cyberspace. Virtuality is here to stay, and we seldom take a pause to think about how far our online activities influence our real life. Rapidly moving towards a future that promises technological singularity, where a mere wish or idea would instantaneously materialise into reality, the boundaries between real and virtual are quite often blurred.
During my initial days of settling down in Singapore, I sometimes felt rootless and lost. Being fresh off the boat from Kerala, I had no friends in this new city apart from my husband. The typical feelings of nostalgia and a yearning for Mom’s food washing over me, I hesitantly searched the internet with key words like “Malayalis in Singapore” and “Kerala clubs” for people with whom I could share common interests. Lo and behold, there tumbled onto my browser a number of websites and Facebook groups with names like Singapore Malayali Association, Singapore Malayali Literary Forum and Music Minds. I eagerly registered, followed and set into motion all the courtesies of online communication and friendship. I saw that these groups organised events which brought together the dispersed Malayalee population in Singapore to showcase their skills, talents and orchestrated social service initiatives.
Impressed by the diverse nature of these organisations, I went to a few of their offices and met fellow Malayalees who organised them. Having become a formal member, I now found myself in the midst of a tiny little Kerala right in the heart of Singapore. The friendships I made through these communities helped me navigate through the logistical aspects of living in a bustling cosmopolitan city like Singapore. It also opened the doors to a vibrant cultural arena which encouraged the singer and writer in me to improve and restart her artistic endeavours.
Looking at the efficacy of online platforms to further communication and connectivity amongst people with common geographical and cultural roots, I would like to introduce the concept of “bridgespaces”. Introduced by Rina Ghose in a paper titled ‘India.Com: The Construction Of A Space Between’, she talks about these bridgespaces as “a collection of interconnected virtual places that support people’s movement between two regions or countries and the sustenance of cultural ties at a distance.”A professor at the University of Wisconsin, Rina talks about how these online diasporic communities act as links of support and empathy, displaying a wide contact base for immigrants fresh-off-the-boat from their native lands, in a foriegn country.
When analysing the online diasporic communities I am familiar with, I do see them acting as spaces that promote intra-community interaction. These spaces are built in and through the internet and other media, through links created by people. These links, which are absolutely crucial for being traced and popularised from the perspective of digital connections, also becomes relevant as connections between the members of that community, in the form of sensitive and pragmatic directions to living in a new place.
Although there might be criticisms directed at the inherent alienations of connecting on cyberspace, and distancing oneself from the real-world interactions, we can say that bridgespace is an environment in itself, and not an actor. Considered from a geographical perspective, this environment shapes the limits of the possible or the probable on digital platforms. Its efficiency depends on human agency and the time-space routines and environments of that agency. The various discussions that happen on such online communities are anonymous, and enable people a level of intimacy and freedom seldom enjoyed in real-world interactions. For instance, looking at forums for immigrants and expats, like Expat forum, we see how the discussions revolve around navigating the culture, language and housing in foreign countries.
Now, coming to my favorite topic, the woman’s question. It is extremely important to women in today’s cyber-savvy age to gain digital literacy. This enables them to understand the debates of the world better, from diverse perspectives like political, cultural and economic developments . The access to online websites enables them to glean knowledge which might be hard to come by through formal, real-world education. For instance, South Asian Women’s Centre has a very active online presence that strives to reach out to women from the underdeveloped regions of South East Asia, like Philippines or Cambodia, and enable them to gain literacy and connect to others who share similar experiences. They also have women members who help them out of their subjugated life experiences through hands-on workshops and classes that aim to integrate them better with the mainstream society. Such voluntary organisations play a key role in increasing the self awareness of women and empower them to develop their social and cultural potential. Acting as a bridgespace for women of all backgrounds and ages, they help them access a variety of programs and services. SAWC also provides an environment where women can work together to promote their well-being. Becoming strong forms of female resistance against the conventional, rigid frameworks of patriarchal social institutions, these groups try to inject a spirit of non-conformism into the lives of women in order to encourage them to fight against oppression and stereotypes.
Although these connections operate through online platforms, their real world impact cannot be neglected. Many of these websites act as a space to present the diverse kinds of work being done for bettering human lives. They use the tools of the internet to market the potential of their activities. They use the medium of cyberspace to reach out to patrons who help them financially and culturally, and thereby acquire more visibility. They also streamline information and provide relevant details about job opportunities, subsidies, health advices and entertainment news to the members of their communities. All these initiatives, combined together, make digital diasporas an entity to be reckoned with. All of us should contribute to the growth and reach of such communities, whichever ones we can be part of, and thereby contribute our efforts to enabling people to live in peace, love and dignity in the world.