What Youth Can Teach Us: Learning from Young Russia, VK, and the Changing World of Russian in Social Media

Illustration by the author: “Youth In-between Sides of History, as an Orthodox Icon”. Gouache and pencil on watercolor paper.

Note: This article was first written in 2012 for a trade journal in translation studies but in the end the editor found it too narrow and specific, so it was not published by them but I posted it on my Academia.edu account and received very good feedback on it there. Since then, I have only seen the points I made in this article proven more and more true insofar as Russian youth on social media. What is more, post-Soviet youth culture has grown beyond its cloistered setting of the former Soviet states with singers like the Ukrainian Ivan Dorn, rappers such as Russia’s genre-switching Pharaoh, and fashion designers such as the Russians Gosha Rubchinskiy, Tolia Titaev, and Anton Lisin winning world-wide praise and interest. In example, Gosha’s and Tolia’s latest project “рассвет” sold out at the New York-based Dover Street Market in less than a single day—something we rarely see with even the hottest designers in Paris, Milan, London, or NYC much less Russian twenty-somethings without formal arts training. But it happened: Gosha has found his market, and he’s dedicated to bringing to the table his friends like Tolia and the massive influence of Russian youth culture to his collections instead of trying to seem more Western. The trendiest skaters in LA or NYC or London or even Tokyo are wearing shirts designed by young Russians: don’t think that VK is to remain an eastern analog or country cousin of Facebook, for it is on the up, along with a general interest in Russian youth culture.

All cultures are driven, transmitted, and recorded for history’s sake via language as their primary modality—at least all literary cultures. Even as important as music or fashion or film or visual arts are to broader contemporary culture, the use of language has to be integral to spreading ideas and saving them for the historical record. Thus slang and the general application of argot are crucial to understand, especially for the translator or localization professional. Not understanding such in current context can lead to errors both glaringly inaccurate and embarassingly insincere. The focus of this article is how Russian youth communicate—because no longer can we say “how youth talk” since so much is indeed textural, online, and mitigated foremost by non-verbal communication, which is a situation in youth argot I don’t think the world has ever seen before: in the rest of history, we have expected textural language to ape and replicate the nuances of verbal communications, especially with youth, but now the opposite is at least in part true.

Mike Walker

What Youth Can Teach Us: Learning from Young Russia, VK, and the Changing World of Russian in Social Media

We often think of localization as a process undertaken by language and marketing professionals for their clients to introduce a product or service into a new market via mechanisms that are sensitive to the local culture, however localization is, more and more, a very organic process driven by an international youth culture that controls its own media experience. As Internet-based social media and a high degree of mobile communication bring the world closer to even those who live in remote regions — providing they are somewhat affluent — it also brings about a change in how language is used. While the Internet has always been very inclusive of various languages and orthographic presentations (Walker, 1999), English has always been its default standard language and the inroads English has made via films, magazine, pop music and other vehicles have only expanded through the Internet’s own growth. Nowhere might this be more apparent than in today’s Russia, as Russian youth use the social networking service VKontákte or VK, (В Контакте) which is much like Facebook but developed with a Russian user base originally in mind — although now VK has set its sights on Eastern Europe and beyond.

The idea for this article came to me when I spoke with a friend online about translation services in Russia — a friend who has been in the business many years — and he said “you know, what we were doing in the year 2000 teenagers are doing now”. That stuck with me all day and I stopped to consider VK in depth. I have a VK account just as I have a Facebook account and these services in many ways mirror one and the other — some even go as far to claim VK is a “clone” of Facebook in services provided and even its basic graphic design and it is rumored there have been talks between Facebook and VK executives as to some form of merger in the future. However, what those in the business of localization were doing a decade ago isn’t exactly what the kids on VK are doing now: Under the concept of what sociologists call “ambient awareness” as applied to social networks online, those who use platforms like VK and Facebook as a core part of their daily communication pick up in proximal information neither provided to them as directly as would be a conversation between friends nor in as organized a manner as a news broadcast. Instead, through viewing the content on friends’ “walls” or profiles on these social networking sites, they pick up on jokes, news stories, photos and other content that is quickly becoming shared on these networks and thus “trending”, or garnering a great portion of viewership. Hence, we all know who “Grumpy Cat” is after the dour-looking feline has appeared in many visual memes and other content, even if we’ve never had a direct conversation with anyone regarding Grumpy or viewed a news report on him. This is, according to the cultural anthropologist Mizuko Ito, a departure from how both pre-industrial and industrial societies have by convention shared information — somewhere between direct, informal conversation or correspondence and official media propagation (Ito, 2008).

From the language professional’s viewpoint, what is most interesting about VK — and perhaps more interesting in its evolution than Facebook or any other social networking site — are these key points:

— “VK” is now the official name of the site, no longer В Контакте. Moreover, the default language when a new user registers is no longer Russian Cyrillic but English. The apparent rationale here is to expand the network into non-Russian spheres in Eastern Europe and beyond.

— While English is the default language, VK supports an expansive and laudable seventy-some different languages, mostly making use of the latin or Cyrillic alphabets.

— For Russian, VK now not only supports standard Russian but also a pre-reform variant with proper orthography for this and a novelty “Soviet” variant that uses terms and phrases favored during the Soviet period.

— Most interesting of all, many young Russian users of VK appear to use a combination of both English and Russian in daily discourse on VK and what is more, the shift in the official stance of the social network as being more international and encouraging of English appears to mirror a socio-cultural shift along the same lines in youth culture.

Why is this? If anything, the majority of young people under Vladimir Putin’s tenure in Russia seem to have been rather proud of Russia with the far extremes of this leaning into rigid nationalism and even violence directed at Chechens, Dagestanis, and other minorities in Russia. Certainly, English has always been a priority language for Russian students to learn and the current interest in business expansion in the international sphere by young Russians only furthers this interest, but why such broad use on personal social networking sites? Even on the personal pages of young Russians who seem most politically-aligned with United Russia and even more extreme nationalistic views, there is often a plentiful if not fluent use of English. At that, the application of English is not always in the instances where one would most expect it, either: in example, on one profile a teenage football fan had shared a friend’s analysis of a Russian team’s recent match, however the pairings of British football teams were surprisingly provided in Russian — names of teams transliterated and all! In other instances, English was used when it was not necessary and was applied to issues happening in Russia with no bearing on the UK, USA, or other English-speaking sphere.

The most apt explanation I can arrive at — and the one best-supported by the work of social scientists — is that the increasingly international nature of social media is feeding the increased use of English while in in turn, the youth who are using English alongside Russian are also driving the need for such multilingual support. VK’s commitment to providing language support even for minority languages (mostly those of the Russian sphere) is comprehensive and has allowed some minorities to carve out their own uses of VK that mirror or even exceed the efforts in actual life and public discourse of these minorities to restore their cultural and linguistic homogeneity in the post-Soviet world. Dilyara Suleymoanova’s work on the application of VK by Tartars as a forum for ethnic identity underscores this fact, but the trend extends beyond the Tartars as a specific ethnic group and is inclusive even of very small, remote, minorities such as the Evenki. As the Russian language is surprisingly uniform over its geographical coverage as a primary native language and/or official language, especially when the size of the Soviet sphere is taken into consideration (Offord, 1996), it is only logical that native speakers of less-common languages would either adopt or in many cases retain it as their preferred language of communication online. By some logic, these same groups might extend the contents of their linguistic quiver to include English as such encompasses an even greater readership in the Eurosphere. Such is the case with the pop musician known as “Fingalick” (and known also by his real name of Tomas Narkevičius) who uses English and Russian in his promotional materials online despite being Lithuanian himself. But then again, how many people can read Lithuanian compared to how many can read Russian or English? Mr. Narkevičius undoubtably has a high command of all three languages given his young age and the fact he was brought up in the multilingual world of post-Soviet Lithuanian society, so the pragmatic choice seems to be taking the pick of the one best-suited in reaching the greatest number of fans.

The Russian hip-hop artist Alexander Antonov — who goes by the rather Anglocentric-sounding stage name of “Carterr” — tends to write in Russian on his official and personal VK pages but when a need arises, will also resort to English. With both Carterr and Fingalick, the main effort put forth for such multilingual communications appears to rest with the artist himself. Granted, neither are in the rarified arenas of U2 or Madonna, but still there is something to be said of both the confidence in ability with a second language and the social sense of obligation to make use of it, probably because other, everyday, Russians including their fans are making use of the same. The Moscow-based youth-oriented clothing retailer Creamshop even (obviously) makes use of an English-language name and while their store mainly communicates on its website, VK page, and Facebook page in Russian, it also has been known to use English. Fingalick, when he recently played a gig in Saint Petersburg in December of 2012, produced a flyer that was distributed on VK and elsewhere both online and in printed hardcopy which was about 90% in English. With a Lithuanian, is some of this use of English instead of Russian — even when communicating to a Russian audience — in part a resistance to use of the language of Soviet domination? Perhaps, but probably not. The real catalyst appears to be practical, not political.

Where things get interesting is when professionals come into — or at least should come into — the picture. White Rabbit is one of Moscow’s most-popular and trendy high-end dining establishments with prices to match and a clientele that would make any Hollywood club green with envy (http://www.whiterabbitmoscow.ru). Despite this, its website is offered in both Russian and English yet the English version until very recently suffered from a lack of skilled translation. In the past two months, an update of the website added more content and greatly improved upon the previous effort at translation into English and the menu is thus no longer comical but actually makes sense. Moreover, a Chinese version of the website also has been added, though as I do not read Chinese I cannot comment on the quality of this subset. However, though the main menu is vastly improved, White Rabbit’s gift shop still leaves a bit to the imagination as with this remark on plush stuffed animals for purchase:

“They can not help falling in love: plush, knitted, woolen, cartoon characters, cartoons and fairy tales. Only in the restaurant White Rabbit can admire such a unique collection of designer toys. Toys can not only admire, but also buy.”

(from White Rabbit’s official website: http://www.whiterabbitmoscow.com/wr-store/toys/)

The translation of the porcelain figures for sale in their gift shop is even worse but given my personal adoration for White Rabbit’s cusine and desire to remain welcome in its dining room, I will refrain from saying anything further on that. In all seriousness though, how does this happen? How does a leading enterprise with a very affluent and diverse client base and an obvious need for communication to ex-pats and others who lack a conversant ability in Russian fail to provide a level of English-language communication on par with a rapper in his teens like our friend Carterr? In every other aspect, White Rabbit’s website is beyond exceptional with a plethora of photos — even videos — and other materials. It is actually perhaps the best website overall I’ve ever seen for any restaurant. What happened with the English translation however, regardless of who or what firm was responsible for it, I suspect was a result of the exact inverse of the trend that allowed Carterr and other even more everyday Russian youth to communicate so fluidly in English: it was an outright translation project and not a constant, evolving, communication. Here is the key: as users of VK and the entire Runet in Russia adopt English as a de facto second language to be used when needed, the status of use is no longer one of outright translation but bilingual application. This is a real game-changer in how localization proceeds: both the content-creator and the end-user are themselves communicating in the language of choice as they sees fit and not employing someone else to either write the actual communication nor determine when such is most needed.

Beyond the understandable economy of this approach, there may well be something else on a psycho-social level at work: The first wave of wealthy Russians after the fall of Communism were all too quick to embrace and import Western goods and mannerisms as icons of their new wealth and sophistication. Now, the next generation of oligarchs are on the rise and this time around the focus is still worldly but not apologetically so. Moscow is home to more billionaires than any other city in the world and Russian wealth can easily afford to be unique in its national pride. When external languages are employed, it is not simply for the service of courting those who speak them but as German was in the time of Catherine the Great, the application of English can be seen as flaunting the mastery of another language while still sticking to one’s Russian roots in full. English may be the common language of the arts and of international business, but using it in casual conversation with friends on VK frees it of its academic/business status and even its external, second-language status to an extent. As one friend who is college student in Moscow aptly put things, “we can use either [English or Russian] because my English is nearly as good as your Russian! And I use it every day.”

What is most interesting in light of the above is how I’ve seen some professionals in the translation/localization field proceed in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Kazan, and elsewhere in Russia. That is to say, many of the nuances that can only be gained by a devoted and regular presence on VK in everyday usage of English — as well as Russian — by young Russians is lost to many professionals. Why? Because they may not be considering that English is being used in this capacity at all — that non-native speakers are in essence using English as a second language in a textural yet informal manner constantly. This youthful cohort’s critique of Russian is not lacking, either: as VK’s offering of a pre-reformation variant of Russian as one of the site’s official languages can attest, there’s a nostalgic interest on the part of young Russians for a time they — nor even their parents or probably grandparents — never even knew. Youth still in their teens “miss” the yat and welcome the character’s triumphant return in the guise of the pre-reformation VK option. Even the rare iotified yat (йоти́рованный ять) I’ve seen mentioned now and then and by not linguists or historians but computer science, business, or math students at university.

Part of this interest both in the nuances of Russian itself and in a combined use of English may stem not from an attempt to be universal but in fact the exact opposite: with a diverse cultural and geographical range of friends online, a math student in Moscow (by way of example) can muse over the orthographical history of Russian or the new Saint Etienne album either one and know he will have several friends who will be interested. The scope of communication is vast, unlike a few friends in a bar or living room. Thus, specific if limited interests can be shared yet in a manner that places them (on a person’s VK “wall”) where all “friends” can see these posts — as if they were micro-broadcasts of a news station. A post regarding the popular football team F.C. Zenit may attract the interest of seventy friends whereas the one on the poor lost yat may only garner five responses but still there is room for this even in the overall online landscape. This is possibly another aspect of online networking — especially in Russia via VK — that escapes the conventional wisdom of localization: there is a “local” but there is a lot beyond the locale, too. There is a common sense that runs through the undercurrents of what composes at innate levels the corpus of young Russia — what words, what football teams, what singers, what little jokes that allow even myself to be one of them though I’m not Russian and a bit older than the college set. It’s the current pop-culture that is necessary to understand contemporary young society and while such pop-culture has always been extant — even centuries ago — it has a growing importance today due to the way communication takes place, the very fact that casual discourse is now textural online.

Aspects that even in the 1990s would have been either the realm of talk between a few friends in person or otherwise located in fashion or music magazines published monthly — not instant communication — are now immediate via the Runet, and reaching friends both far and near. This status of instant communication — mobile instant communication at that, with people posting their information via cellphones on the move as much or more than from home computers — is only bound to change language. It moves the argot of casual, youthful, communication from an oral basis into a textural one where it may have at first mirrored its oral origins but evolves into its own creature with textural traits that would not have developed in oral usage alone.

How do language professionals learn from this? How does it impact our work? For one, it means we are dealing with a much more savvy lay population than ever before. Just as graphic designers in the 1990s noticed that suddenly everyone from bankers to teenagers were talking about fonts and kerning — once the jargon of design professionals alone — now, those in localization and translation work see an evolution of multilingual, textural, communication taking place that has little professional-sector impetus or even input. Yes, the basic services of VK or Facebook are designed by professionals, but the way these services come into their own is guided not only by user demand but direct user actions. When I worked on a project in Minsk in 1998 on the use of Belarusian in medical care and the transition at the time from Russian back to Belarusian, the overwhelming situation was that written orders, records, and other hardcopy material influenced the scant online/computer-based materials at hand. That is, because online materials were seen as an extension of what is text-based, they reflected standards set for text. Also, in the later 1990s, online information still was more a business/scientific/industrial domain overall and in the realm of health care, expectedly, this was only even more acute. Now, this is no longer the case. Oral communication influences what is online as much or more than textural precedents. Of course, it’s not the same ballgame: over a decade has elapsed, we’re speaking of young people and not medical professionals, and there are other distinct differences. Nonetheless, there is clearly three language-centric cultural geographies nowadays regardless of the register: the oral, the textural, and the online.

Derek Offord in his book Using Russian identifies three primary registers of Russian, plus a distinct and isolated belles-lettres style that is not the same as the R3 (formal written) style (Offord, 1996). R1 and R2 (the least-formal and the semi-formal/news media registers), are expectedly closest to what we see most of the time online, with R3 only apparent in the publication of items such as scientific articles or business letters — the exact same applications where it has always been applied. The least-formal R1 register is most commonplace on the internet, especially in social media. Interestingly, as Offord’s book was written in 1996, his example for the R1 is a transcribed television news interview between a reporter and a rather odd teenage boy who walks the streets of his town dressed in various strange costumes. What is interesting about this example to me isn’t the interview’s subject, but the venue: at a time when the internet was still mainly an academic and thus more formal medium, Offord, in his search for an example of the least-formal register in applied use in a published/broadcast context, he chose a televised interview where the reporter, by Offord’s own admission, attempts to mimic teen slang herself to apparently make her teenage subject more at ease. The teen being interviewed, rather interestingly, actually starts off speaking very good, nearly semi-formal (we can say R2) Russian but then lowers his approach to the argot the interviewer is using since she seems to favor that register. Clearly, were Dr. Offord writing the book today, he could easily go on VK and find numerous examples for the R1 that would cover his points.

What must be learned therefore by the professional is that use of Russian and English alike in the young circles of the contemporary web will be commonly very informal, sometimes profane even, yet always fluent or at least clear to the reader: thus, mistranslations or awkward syntax as displayed in White Rabbit’s website will, despite the otherwise professional web-design and other features involved, seem lacking compared to even everyday chatter on VK or Facebook. Young people, as consumers, will notice and laugh at any awkwardness in translation or mishandling of language as only young people can do. Problems in this regard will seem more acute than in decades before because the expansion of use of English and the savvy of Russian youth in general has grown in a very cosmopolitan way in recent years. English is no longer confined to a bracket of pop songs and foreign movies, nor professional translations commissioned by wealthy companies or the government. Now, nearly every Russian young person probably has at least one native speaker of English in their Facebook or VK circle of “friends”, so they are exposed to native use of the language.

However, instead of seeing this condition as one where language professionals must be especially careful of their use of both English and Russian in service to a young Russian consumership, it can be viewed instead as an open opportunity to create a dialog with consumers who are articulate, have a high rapport with technology, and are interested in other languages and cultures. Consumers to whom today you can sell a shirt but tomorrow a trip to Istanbul. Consumers who see the businesses they “like” on Facebook as not just corporations from which they purchase a product or service but an extended part of their social network. To make the best of this situation of evolving young Russian consumer though, several steps must be taken:

  1. English as a language does not, nor do England nor America as nations, represent to young Russia some great, hip, unknown intangible. Not anymore. These youth have in many cases — especially those with buying power — visited the UK or US. As mentioned above, they probably have friends who are natives from these nations. While aspects of these nations may be favored, they are not seen as utopias and it will seem ironic if not simply childish to portray them now as such.
  2. When material needs to be understood and should not face any doubt or confusion and needs to reach as many people as possible, the language of choice in Russia is obviously Russian. English can be retained for slogans, catchphrases, and other such material but should be used with care.
  3. Russian youth, like their counterparts all over the world and especially those in Western Europe and the United States are diverse in social and political views. Some are very liberal and distrusting of the government while others think President Putin is the best thing to happen to their nation. Expectedly, their own use of social media displays such divides just as Americans who are passionate Democrats or Republicans make their views knowns via the pages on Facebook they “like” and and so forth. Happily, in terms of localization, such issues can often be sidestepped with greater ease in Russia than the US. In general, young Russians — even religious ones — are not very offended by sexual content and aside from homosexual content anything that is not obscene and portrays a male-female relationship will probably garner interest and be accepted while homosexuality is still much more taboo than in Western Europe and although many young Russians are more liberal on the issue than their parents’ generation, plenty of others are not.
  4. Gender roles in Russia are somewhat more traditional than in Western Europe — a situation young Russians both embrace and counter, so the logical positioning of such roles should be devoid of stereotypes yet for most instances, a more traditional approach will not be a problem and may in fact be a benefit. In example, a teenage couple entering a building and the boy holding the door for the girl is not going to conjure views of sexism but is instead the expected experience for Russia. Many advertisers — especially those selling alcohol — take advantage of images of “sexy” young women but moving away from this and towards images that are not sexist but predicated on a sense of fun and excitement — such as young people at a dance club — is going to probably be the better direction and most-ethical, too.
  5. Contact information, such as national and international offices and also stockists for goods carried at retail outlets in-country is essential. Even on social media, these items should be easy to locate. A corporate website should be listed, too, but if it is for whatever reason only available in English or another language than Russian, its most crucial information should be repeated in Russian translation on the social media site or elsewhere. Ideally, a Russian-language-specific website should exist. While it should go without saying, if there is a Russian-language site, it should be the one hyperlinked: I have seen more than once (and with some pretty big companies) links off a Facebook page that is in Russian or another language to a corporate site that is the main, English-language site, despite there being a localized site in Russian also available. You cannot simply use the English social media and websites as templates without checking every link, ensuring that every measure is taken to localize. Again, this should be obvious but I’ve seen people who ought to know far better make mistakes in this regard and seem to be perfectly unaware of their errors.

6) Good web-design is good design, period. The website of the fashion retailer Daynight in Saint-Petersburg is a perfect example of design done right, and it is such probably mostly because design is the very same currency that the entire business brokers: a high-fashion retailer catering to a youth market that lacks good web-design would be in an awful fix. Thankfully, Daynight comes through. They certainly could serve as a good example for others. http://www.daynight.ru/

In all, Russia and the Russian language should be a welcome attraction to all manner of businesses that wish to expand their reach because Russia is a growing market and its youth are growing in their buying power and interest in imported goods and services. Tellingly, in an article on Russia Behind the Headlines website, the devotion to imported soccer boots and other soccer gear on the part of young Russian boys is explored and it is noted that for manufacturers like adidas, Russia is the third-largest single market for these goods (Künzel, 2012). This type of consumer goods/services growth is expected to only grow and the consumer base will be one that is adept, confident, and able to shop around: gone are the days of the post-Soviet millionaire who is yearning to spend his money just to spend it and in his stead we find consumers with less means but greater wisdom. The good news is, these folks number far greater than the 1990s Moscow millionaires and their buying power is what is shaping a retail/service-industry-based economy in Russia now. The next generation will be even more tech-savvy, internationally-aware, and able to articulate — not just understand — but articulate in both oral and textural terms in a variety of languages. The formulation of a relationship between this population and those businesses that wish to serve it starts now.

Works cited:

Künzel, Tino. “Devoted to Soccer Head to Toe”. Russia Behind the Headlines. 30 May 2012. Online at:

http://rbth.ru/articles/2012/05/30/devoted_to_soccer_from_head_to_toe_15752.html

Ito, Mizuko. “Introduction.” In Networked Publics, edited by Kazys Varnelis, 1–14. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008.

Offord, Derek. Using Russian. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1996.

Suleymanova, Dilyara. “Tatar Groups in Vkontakte: The Interplay between Ethnic and Virtual Identities on Social Networking Sites”. http://digitalcons.org 2009.

Walker, Michael. “Use of ‘Virtual’ Texts and HTML in Transliteration” Translation Journal, 3: 1. 1999.

Walker, Michael. “The Restoration of a Language: Belorusian in Medical Discourse”. The ATA Chronicle, 28:58 Nov./Dec, 1999.

Mike Walker is a journalist and translator who has contributed to a variety of publications including InSerbia, Croatia Week, The Moscow Times, Slate, SEE: A Fortnight in Review, and The ATA Chronicle in English as well as foreign publications in Russian and Serbo-Croatian. He has also translated key contemporary political, aviation, scientific, and literary texts from Russian to English.

He also draws a lot.