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Mapping digital diasporas


A major research project is focusing on BBC World Service diaspora audiences.
Matilda Andersson reports

What does a shop owner in Bradford have in common with a graduate from Princeton USA, a construction worker in the UAE and a banker in the city of London? Apart from being users of the website they are also part of the global Pakistani diaspora.

Diasporas are of growing economic, political and cultural significance. In a world where migration, geopolitical dynamics and communication technology and transport links are continually changing, it's clear that culture and geography no longer map neatly on to one another.

Understanding diaspora groups inside and outside its base at Bush House is ever more important for BBC World Service, too. Diaspora audiences are influencing the conception of BBC audiences and output. For example, 60% of the weekly users of are not from within Pakistan, a trend that has also been observed for other BBC language websites.

From roots to routes

Of course, global diasporas are not identifiable communities in any clear cut geographic or cultural sense. Just because diasporic groups share roots - whether defined by a place of origin and/or history, language, ethnicity, religion or culture - it doesn't necessarily follow that their migratory routes are similar or that they even share a common sense of identity. Diasporic groups are complex social formations increasingly engendered by communications and cultural networks - BBC World Service is one of those defining links.

Bridges between cultures

Transnational networks can foster cosmopolitanism and build bridges between cultures, but they can also fuel regressive political formations and religious extremism. Recognising the heightened relevance of diasporas for peace and security, conflict resolution and diplomacy, the Arts Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has funded a five-year research programme. One part of this programme is Tuning In: Diasporic Contact Zones at BBC World Service, led by Professor Marie Gillespie from the Open University. It was awarded £500,000 for a three-year study involving partnerships between academics and BBC World Service practitioners. The project uses BBC World Service as a prism through which to view issues of diaspora, migration and identity - comparatively and historically.

One important angle to our project will be focusing on the often unique and personal relationships built between diasporic broadcasters and their audiences via the BBC, including the role played by the many contributors drawn from exile, dissident and refugee groups.

There are several examples of situations, too, in which exiles and dissidents have taken an active part in communicating conflict, organising aid and lobbying for a political outcome. Recently, we can point to the Tibetan freedom protests against Chinese rule but there is a precedent for involvement that dates back to the Second World War and the Cold War era. It's claimed, for example, that BBC Hungarian service radio programming helped keep "the home fires burning" in Hungary during the uprising of 1956.

While little is known about why and how certain groups connect with their home countries via BBC World Service, many praise its work and, increasingly, the opportunities it offers for online public debate are being capitalised upon. Diaspora groups are connecting to each other via online services and these myriad interactions present a real opportunity for enacting the kinds of 'global conversations' BBC World Service has been building into its strategy.

BBC World Service can no longer see itself as a broadcaster targeting audiences that are conceived of purely in national terms. It now needs to grapple with and understand how technology is building new audience configurations. Some of these configurations extend beyond diasporas, with certain audiences aligning themselves as communities of interest or of conviction. Politics and cultural groupings are challenging the significance of nationality as a defining factor for audiences.

Diaspora users

Over 50% of the users to the BBC World Service sites in languages other than English can be defined as diaspora users. How should BBC World Service capitalise on this? Some diasporic user groups range over 150 countries extending to markets not usually defined as BBC World Service targets.

Initial findings from our project suggest that users of come to the site mainly to consume news about Iran. In addition, the BBC Persian service caters for diasporas by giving them a voice in the output of the site via special indexes about life in the diaspora. In contrast, generates more cultural and information traffic between the Middle East and the Arabic diaspora on topics such as religion, language and the 'war on terror'.

If BBC World Service is to maintain its global reputation as a leading news provider as well as a meeting point for the many cultures and peoples that comprise its audiences, then rethinking audiences and programmes as well as the use of platforms poses a real challenge - one that will continue to develop in the years to come.

Matilda Andersson
Matilda Andersson is leading the audience strand of the Tuning In project in partnership with the Open University. Prior to that she worked as a Senior Insights Analyst - Digital Platforms at BBC World Service.

A special issue of the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and TV entitled BBC World Service, 1932-2007: Cultural Exchange and Public Diplomacy is available from October 2008.

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