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 bbcurdu.com 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 bbcurdu.com are not from within Pakistan, a trend that has also been observed for other BBC language websites.
From roots to routes
Bridges between cultures
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.
Initial findings from our project suggest that users of bbcpersian.com 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, bbcarabic.com 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.
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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