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Social Networks are Good for Book Lovers but Show a Fall in Reading Among Young Russians

Lyubov Borusiak, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Communications, Media and Design, School of Integrated Communications will be giving a paper at the XVI International April Conference on Economic and Social Development about her research into social networks and what young Russians read. She talked to the HSE English Language News service  about her findings and about whether Russian reading habits are changing with the new generation.

— Your research is about how and what young Russians read. You made an analysis of the Russian social network site VKontakte. What were your conclusions? What surprised you and maybe put you on alert?

— What surprised me most was the appalling number of grammatical mistakes young users make when they write the names of their favourite authors and titles of their books. It made our job a lot harder because we had to devise a special dictionary with different spellings so the computer programme could recognise the surnames and titles and not mistake them for other authors and books. It upset me rather than put me on alert that only a small percentage of young people write about books at all on their personal pages. They write about their favourite films and music much more often. And they very rarely mention poets. Literature is generally understood to be prose. Also, contemporary Russian literature doesn’t interest young people, and layers and layers of literature (primarily, almost everything from the soviet period) have disappeared from young people’s sphere of interest today. There’s a fair chance it will vanish into the past altogether. 

My hypothesis was that young Russians do not put a high value on books and reading and the foundations of Russian culture are shifting into the past. My hypothesis proved to be true which is not good news.

— What do you see as the main difference between VKontakte and Facebook users?

— In Russia there are more Vkontakte users than Facebook users. On average, VKontakte users are younger than those of their web competitors. Almost all young Russians who have access to the internet use it. That’s why for our research we used this particular network which is popular with young people because it is better for sharing audio and video content, for watching films and serials and listening to music.

— Is it possible to control young users through social networks?

— The word ‘control’ is not quite right in this context. It’s definitely possible to influence in certain areas. Mainly in spheres of social, socio-cultural and political life that young people are curious about. If there is no interest, expectation or demand then it’s hard to achieve any effect. If we’re talking about literature, there are groups that love books and want to read. They are the ones we can and should work with through social media. Those who don’t have the habit of reading are probably beyond our reach.

— What do you plan to work on next? Are students and young people involved in your research?

— We’ll carry on working on the project. In our paper we talk about just one part of it - on the analysis of personal pages in VKontakte, but I’m also working on an analysis of communities dedicated to writers, books and reading. I find that a very interesting area that hasn’t been examined yet. As we are dealing with big data, processing it takes a long time and it is just the two of us, Maxim Karpov and I, working on the project without any organisational or financial support, unfortunately.

A lot of my students are writing coursework and final dissertations on libraries and reading, and for the research seminar our third-years have been developing a creative project to promote reading.

— What do you think is essential to develop a taste or passion for reading in young people?

— We learn to love reading in the family and school. If both of these social institutions inject children and teenagers with a passion for books then the situation will change for the better. For this to happen, parents need to start reading good books to their children in the first months of their lives, so that babies see their mums and dads reading, so that literature lessons in school don’t, as often happens, make children yawn at the mention of the work ‘book’. On social media, including VKontakte, there are thousands of communities devoted to new literature, books and writers, but youngsters who are not in the habit of reading are not drawn to them. For those who do find it interesting, these communities offer lots of opportunities to socialise with other fans, choose interesting books, and learn about the authors’ creative work.

Anna Chernyakhovskya, specially for HSE News service


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