Social Networking by Tribe

A new website in Kazakhstan is seeking to organize today's social web by ancient clan identities.
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                                                                                                                               Rulas.kz/screenshot

ALMATY—When Kazakhs meet for the first time, two key questions are all it takes to figure each other out: What part of the country are they from? And what horde and tribe are they? 

The answers immediately establish a person's roots, history, and allegiances—a holdover of ancient tribal divisions that remain relevant in modern-day Kazakhstan.

Now, a new social-networking site is hoping to tap into Kazakhs' tribal identity by grouping users according to their hordes and tribes.

The site, Rulas.kz—based on the Kazakh word for “tribemate”—looks much like any other networking site, with photographs of stylish, mainly young, members decorating a brightly colored homepage.

But in addition to standard registration information like name, e-mail address, and password, Rulas asks applicants to categorize themselves according to “zhuz,” or horde, and any one of the dozens of “ru,” or tribes, belonging to each horde.

Magzhan Turysov, a young Kazakh actor, was one of the first members to register on the site, using an app on his cellphone. Smiling, Turysov said it's “interesting” to belong to a site that immediately divides and distributes its users according to hordes and tribes—but admits he has some reservations.

“We have a saying, ‘Let the face of those who divide people by hordes burn,’” Turysov said. “So I sometimes have doubts. Maybe it will work for some people.”

He said he had just registered and so far had not seen any results. He said he got onto the site hoping to see some of his acquaintances, but so far they hadn't turned up.

Kazakhstan's clan system has existed since the days of the Mongol Empire, with legend holding that Genghis Khan himself laid the groundwork by dividing territory into thirds and granting each to one of his sons. He thereby created the Great, Middle, and Junior hordes that still define modern-day Kazakh society.

Despite their names, the three hordes have no particular hierarchy in either size or power. But they do imply certain characteristics among their members.

Junior zhuz Kazakhs are known as warriors; Middle zhuz members, by contrast, make up the bulk of the country's literary and intellectual class. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev is perhaps the best-known representative of the Great zhuz, which is credited with superior management skills and a historic ability to unite the region's disparate nomadic tribes into a single country.

Kremlin strategists often sought to create a balance among the hordes when doling out government posts in Soviet-era Kazakhstan. But since the collapse of the USSR, Nazarbaev has largely surrounded himself with fellow Great zhuz members.

That partiality, critics say, can easily stir clan resentment, especially once dozens of tribal designations—and the fact that some Kazakhs ally themselves with no hordes at all—are folded into the mix. Journalist Toktarali Tanzharyk said a site like Rulas may only make things worse:

“Anyone from children to elderly people in their seventies can be a social-network user. And someone could express a thought with particular overtones meant to cause discord between different tribes,” he said. “Sometimes you can see signs of such contention on the Internet already. These various expressions that tribes use to characterize one another can sometimes be very hurtful and set people against each other.”

Rulas says more than 5,000 people have already downloaded its special Android app. But the site still faces an uphill climb in a country where many of its 17 million residents already belong to one or more social-networking sites, including Facebook and Russian sites like Moi Mir, VKontakte, and Odnoklassniki.

But a web-savvy Kazakh like Erbol Serykbai, who has launched his own information site, Surak-zhauap.kz, said it's too early to tell if Rulas will be able to work out the kinks in its classification system, like the fact that many of the subdivisions of individual tribes are still missing.

“It seems to me that they were in a bit of a hurry with regards to this,” he said. “It's only possible to search for users on the site by name, which isn't very useful. I also tried to do a search for girls between 18 and 22 from various tribes—and the site couldn't give me the information I asked for.”

Serykbai's comments suggest that if Rulas does find its footing, it will be primarily as a dating site.

Although Kazakhs frequently marry outside their horde and tribe, tradition dictates that there must be no overlap in bloodlines stretching back seven generations. A site like Rulas may eventually help Kazakhs trace back their ancestral line—and post attention-getting photographs while they're at it.

Some critics of the site say it will ultimately prove useless if its members use the forum to mount fresh arguments about historical figures' tribal allegiances—the source of endless debate for clan-oriented Kazakhs.

But defenders note the site is designed to prevent users from writing posts that can be seen by the entire Rulas membership. Instead, they can send targeted messages to friends, or signal simple “likes,” as with Facebook.

Rustem Kadyrzhanov, an expert on Kazakh tribal relations, said Rulas may in fact be the ideal medium for carrying clan identity into the 21st century.

“There's no danger here,” Kadyrzhanov said. “What does the emergence of Rulas.kz mean? It means that this social system that dates back to ancient times has found its place in our new information society. It has assimilated.”


This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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Makpal Mukankyzy writes for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. 

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