Torn between two worlds — how Social Media is impacting Kazakhstan’s development

The harsh din of my alarm bursts rudely into my dreams and drags me slowly back into the real world.

Yes, 15 minutes before my actu­al wake up time, I look to my smart­phone to ground me from my hazy state, and I slowly come-to by catch­ing up with all the glob­al and per­son­al updates that happened overnight. As I scroll down end­less mes­sages, Ins­tagram updates and Face­book noti­fic­a­tions I real­ize that this sen­tence is sup­posed to be relat­able to all of us, who have a priv­ilege of liv­ing in the inform­a­tion tech­no­logy age.

Pan­or­amic view of Almaty from the hills of the Kok Tobe.

This trans­form­a­tion is truly glob­al; it impacts everything from the dis­rup­tion of tra­di­tion­al indus­tries and cre­ation of new ones to the ques­tion­able imprint of glob­al­iz­a­tion and chan­ging pat­terns of per­son­al inter­ac­tions. In Kaza­kh­stan, these changes not only shape the nature of eco­nomy but also have a sig­ni­fic­ant influ­ence on one’s iden­tity and self-image.

Over the past dec­ade, Kaza­kh­stan has wit­nessed a stag­ger­ing increase in Inter­net users from merely 3% in 2005 to more than 55% in 2016. And whilst my grandma is quite an act­ive Face­book user, a major­ity of Inter­net users in Kaza­kh­stan are urb­an mil­len­ni­als loc­ated in two major cit­ies — Almaty and Astana.

In fact, the split between rur­al and urb­an areas is so prom­in­ent that while more than 70% of the urb­an pop­u­la­tion has access to the Inter­net, only 45% of the rur­al pop­u­la­tion gets covered by nation­al pro­viders. This issue only high­lights the ever-press­ing prob­lem of an urb­an-rur­al split in Cent­ral Asi­an region.

Hav­ing been born and raised in Almaty, the biggest Kaza­kh­stani met­ro­pol­is, I always had a priv­ilege of being sur­roun­ded by clean streets, trendy res­taur­ants and shiny malls. It was only later in life that I have dis­covered the beau­ti­fully con­struc­ted image of my homet­own not to be a full reflec­tion of the nation.

For most rur­al Kaza­kh cit­izens; hav­ing access to clean hot water, heat­ing dur­ing winter, edu­ca­tion and health­care is a daily struggle to over­come. Poorly imple­men­ted agri­cul­tur­al policies com­bined with the sud­den col­lapse of the Soviet Uni­on have res­ul­ted in poverty and ill health of its rur­al pop­u­la­tion. Sim­il­arly, lim­ited access to world­wide know­ledge in rur­al regions fosters a pre-exist­ing income inequal­ity and hinders social mobil­ity for the young.

On the oth­er hand, while the Kaza­kh health­care sys­tem is col­lapsing with under­paid and over­worked doc­tors and nurses; the inher­ent kind­ness in Kaza­kh cul­ture, com­bined with the age of social media, has cre­ated a unique type of non-profit organ­isa­tion. In essence, these NGOs con­sist of online-oper­ated char­it­ies such as Dara and Kus Zholy, which are provid­ing people with second-hand cloth­ing and food — and have cre­ated crowd-fund­ing pages to help sick chil­dren get access to world-class health­care, along with sup­port­ing chil­dren with spe­cial needs. All this is being made pos­sible because of gen­er­ous dona­tions from com­munity-minded private cit­izens, who often live on the brink of poverty them­selves. This unique gen­er­os­ity is deeply inter­twined with­in Kaza­kh tra­di­tions, but is also influ­enced by Kaza­kh ego and self-image.

Uyat boladi” is a phrase that I, as a Kaza­kh woman, grew up hear­ing on daily basis. This almost always meant the end of a dis­cus­sion. For a for­eign ear this phrase, which is being repeated in each and every single house­hold sev­er­al times per day, sounds harm­less and almost poet­ic. Yet, its trans­la­tion — will be shamed — com­bined with an already self-con­scious nature of social media, serves to cre­ate harm­ful effects.

Big­ger expos­ure to Kylie Jen­ner types on Ins­tagram has fuelled a new wave of insec­ur­it­ies faced by Kaza­kh women. Now expec­ted not only to be an example of a mod­est and saint-like bride to all the neigh­bours, the Kaza­kh woman is now forced to become two-dimen­sion­al: her worth is also determ­ined by the num­ber of likes and com­ments she gets on an Ins­tagram post. Being con­stantly pres­sured to be the per­fect Step­ford wife with a per­fect body and per­fect man­ners; young women enter a vicious self-depre­ci­at­ing cycle fuelled by a stream of neg­at­ive com­ments. All the while, they are forever torn by the tug of two polar oppos­ites: the hyper­sexu­al­ised female body, so nor­m­al­ised in the media; and the “Uyat boladi” con­ser­vat­ive and pat­ri­arch­al mind­set.

See­ing glor­i­fied West­ern life­style on their feed, young people strive for everything West­ern — from Caucas­oid facial fea­tures right through to the way they dress and speak. Major­ity Muslim, Kaza­kh soci­ety is now under­go­ing a trans­form­a­tion. This comes as no sur­prise to me; adverts, clin­ics, and cases of oper­at­ive adjust­ments — such as double eye­lid plastic sur­ger­ies — are becom­ing omni­present, not just in Kaza­kh­stan, but through­out the East Asi­an region as well.

Although harm­ful to the self-esteem of the young, social media has undoubtedly boos­ted Kaza­kh eco­nomy. Accord­ing to CNP Pro­cessing, an inter­na­tion­al busi­ness research firm, the e‑commerce sec­tor of the eco­nomy has gen­er­ated more than $5million in 2010 on advert­ising; while over­all the sec­tor has gen­er­ated $300 mil­lion in sales in 2012, and the fig­ure has been on the rise ever since. Online busi­nesses such as Lam­oda and Choco­life were very quick to spot the untapped poten­tial that a sparsely pop­u­lated and tech-savvy nation prom­ised. Mean­while, a niche of inde­pend­ent online retail­ers mostly oper­ated through Ins­tagram caught onto the wave, and in doing so gen­er­ated jobs and fostered the country’s eco­nomy.

As e‑commerce mar­kets grew and online news con­sump­tion became con­ven­tion­al, anoth­er trans­form­a­tion emerged — Kaza­kh­stan developed a prof­it­able blog­ger sphere. Facebook’s live stream­ing allowed inde­pend­ent voices to be heard, while You­Tube provided a legit­im­ate and user-friendly plat­form. One of the most prom­in­ent examples of these inde­pend­ent voices is Yerzhan Rashev — a cre­at­or and host of the Rashev Show and an occa­sion­al live stream­er, who not only freely expresses his opin­ions about the nation’s devel­op­ment but also is expli­cit about cor­rup­tion with­in the branches of gov­ern­ment. He cham­pi­ons for trans­par­ency, a good mor­al code, and self-improve­ment; all delivered in an artic­u­late man­ner that encour­ages dis­cus­sion and fur­ther debate (usu­ally in the com­ment sec­tion). Young­er comedi­ans — teams Yuframe and Joke­asses, high­light import­ant social issues in a more light-hearted man­ner, but yet again encour­age their audi­ence to be bet­ter than the gen­er­a­tion of post-Soviet tur­moil with its pre­ju­dices and “Uyat boladi” mind­set.

Social Media is already mak­ing its impact on Kaza­kh­stani self-image as young people are becom­ing more tol­er­ant towards each other’s dif­fer­ences; it also fills them with hope for a bet­ter future by bring­ing the sum of human know­ledge in the world to their fin­ger­tips — and hope­fully by exten­sion help­ing them to learn to think crit­ic­ally. Social media and the Inter­net have just star­ted to pen­et­rate the Kaza­kh mar­ket, and there is a lot of pro­gress to be made in terms of digit­al free­dom and cen­sor­ship of the inform­a­tion. I can’t help but won­der what would the future entail for a young and pro­gress­ive Kaza­kh soci­ety? Would the pro­gress made in the last dec­ade and the kind inher­ent in Kaza­kh cul­ture be enough to cre­ate a mod­ern, demo­crat­ic and open-minded soci­ety — or would social media con­tin­ue to harm self-esteem of the young while also widen­ing the eco­nom­ic inequal­ity between urb­an-rur­al pop­u­la­tions? Yet again, Kaza­kh­stan is at the cross­roads. The ques­tion is: what path will the nation choose to take?