Netnographic Encounters

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Behind the King’s Bath: A Visual Tour of an Indonesian Cyber Village

Taking a look at a fascinating “internet community” wedged in the historical and cultural hub that is the Sultan’s complex in Yogyakarta.

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RT stands for Rukun Tatangga, an administrative unit of about 20-40 houses. Taman translates to “garden” and corresponds to the several hundred homes in the area around Kampoeng Cyber, my main research site.


Kampoeng Cyber, which translates roughly from Indonesian to “Cyber Village,” is a small, densely packed neighbourhood of about 150 people located next to the famous Sultan’s palace, or Kraton, in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. The community has gained local notoriety for being one of the first in Indonesia to connect most of its residents to high-speed cable internet through their own initiative.
Since 2008 these denizens have consciously been building their identity around a pool of symbols that draw from their Javanese roots, batik-making skills, and now, their integration into the “high-tech” and “globalised” world. Now, a number of families make use of the internet to sell batik, advertise their fried chicken, or manage their fishing hobby groups. Social interactions are also increasingly mediated through social media.

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A typical, narrow street in Kampoeng Cyber.

One of the strongest motivating factors for starting Kampoeng Cyber, claims its elected leader, was to give locals a chance to compete economically with the larger, more successful batik and curio shops that line the main streets. The neighbourhood is literally built into part of the Sultan’s palace complex, and directly adjacent to the famous Taman Sari Watercastle, which was completed in the mid-18th century to serve, allegedly, as the Sultan’s personal bathing and resting area.

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Inside the Sultan’s former bathing complex, now a tourist attraction.

While the Watercastle and Kraton once attracted a large volume of tourists, the 1998 Asian financial crisis saw the collapse of the tourist and batik industries, forcing local residents to find new ways to make a living. The narrow alleyways leading to the rear entrance of the Watercastle no longer yielded sufficient tourist traffic to produce sustainable livelihoods.

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Houses crammed in between heritage sites like Pulo Cemeti, part of the ruined Taman Sari complex. Photo credit to andieyoesoef http://www.panoramio.com/user/3805641

Kampoeng Cyber now actively makes use of both urban space and cyber space to navigate its cultural, political, and economic identity in a post-reform context that has seen an increasing tendency for individual neighborhoods to develop independently of direct government support.

It’s fascinating to see how the geography and history of Taman Sari has influenced the manner in which the internet is perceived and used in Kampoeng Cyber.

The Kraton was designed as the symbolic center of the city of Yogyakarta, and originally conceived of as the cosmological center of the universe. The complex was built along a north-south axis that drew its power from Mount Merapi, Indonesia’s most active volcano, in the north, to the South Sea.

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Map of the Kraton (Sultan’s Palace) complex. From http://www.tembi.org/keraton_yogja/

The city’s grid system, then, drew its orientation by aligning the main boulevards along this imaginary axis. Thus, the famed Malioboro street which was once the sultan’s main ceremonial thoroughfare and now constitutes the heart of the commercial and tourist district in Yogyakarta, runs south to north directly into the main entrance of the Kraton, and other main streets run east and west from the side gates of the palace.

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A map of Taman Sari as it used to look, before the lakes were drained in the 1867 earthquake. Kampoeng Cyber cropped up in and around the Taman Sari buildings. Image credit to lowobiru http://www.panoramio.com/photo/48932370

The hundreds of densely populated neighbourhoods in the city, known as kampung, find themselves squeezed into the narrow alleyways encased within this original grid.

Above is a 3D animation of what Taman Sari looked like when originally constructed. The lakes have since been drained and houses built in their place.

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Gedhong Gapura Hageng, part of the Taman Sari complex before Kampoeng Cyber existed. Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taman_Sari_%28Yogyakarta%29

 

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The same building, restored, during present day. Note the batik shop that has sprung up next door.

Kampoeng Cyber was originally part of one of the kampung located inside the outer walls of the Kraton, and initially reserved for the homes of the Sultan’s staff known as abdi dalem. While the descendants of these workers inherited land, the droves of regular people who moved into the space once exclusively reserved for the Sultan have no land rights. They only borrow their lots in a system known as magersari.

Precariousness has defined the lives of those who live within the walls of the Kraton complex. While they identify strongly with the values of royal culture, which they often define as “sopan santun” or refinement, the uncertainty of when and if the government will re-appropriate their homes is a heavy burden.

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One of the last expert batik makers remaining in Kampoeng Cyber.

One way for residents to improve their leverage in relation to the Kraton has been to take good care of their neighbourhoods, and to maintain the heritage sites and ruins that make up the Taman Sari Watercastle complex. For instance, the two neighbourhoods closest to Kampoeng Cyber have labeled themselves Kampung Hijau (Green Village) and Kampung Batik (Batik Village). Respectively, they maintain gardens and an environmentally friendly atmosphere, and hone their batik making skills and businesses to attract tourists. Their logic is that if they maintain their environment and attract tourism, the government will less likely see fit to appropriate their land for tourism projects.

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Sign showing the boundary between Kampoeng Cyber and Kampung Hijau

The excess of signs associated with the early period of the Sultanate of Yogyakarta, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, continues to saturate the streets of Yogyakarta with a nostalgic denial of the potential space for manoeuvrability within the specific symbolism associated with the founding of the city. As the government and tourist industry continue to market Yogyakarta as a traditional city with a valuable heritage worth preserving, attitudes about what it means to be Javanese in a constantly shifting urban social environment, must find spaces for negotiation outside of official narratives that attempt to stamp “Java” as timeless. Yet these spaces must sometimes open up in the tension-filled gaps immediately adjacent to some of the most powerful symbols of “Java” and of social inequality.

 

 

Introducing an Urban “Cyber Village”

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In September 2013 I began systematically collecting data on a small urban neighbourhood in one of Indonesia’s “cultural hubs” – the royal city of Yogyakarta in central Java. This is part of a year and a half of anthropological fieldwork meant to unveil the ways in which ordinary Javanese folk make use of the Internet to overcome their economic and cultural marginalization. It is also a project that aims to contribute to the fledgling field of anthropological research on the place of the Internet and new social media in localized (Postill 2008) forms of sociality.

Inconspicuously wedged between the narrow alleyways, known as mouse paths (jalan tikus, I.) of a densely populated upper-lower class neighbourhood in Yogyakarta, Kampoeng Cyber (Cyber Village, I.) is an unusually appropriate place to explore the role of technology in the lives of Javanese Indonesians. This neighbourhood of about 125 individuals claims the title as one of Indonesia’s first Internet-saturated communities. Unlike most Indonesians, the majority of Kampoeng Cyber households benefit from inexpensive, high-speed cable Internet made possible by a community-based network sharing system. By sharing the infrastructure required to connect homes, community members have managed to reduce the cost of access to an affordable 4USD per month, a significant reduction for people who mostly make a living from modest home industries.

In an effort to market the neighbourhood as unique and different from adjacent communities that attract tourist traffic with their own gimmicks, Kampoeng Cyber has evolved into a brand. As part of this effort, the elected community leader frequently hosts free public PowerPoint presentations about the community’s successful use of the Internet to improve their livelihoods. Murals have been painted around the neighbourhood to showcase the harmony of traditional Javanese values and modern capabilities of social networking and search engines. Journalists and academics regularly visit the site to inquire about the secrets of a humble community that has risen to local fame for its unusual appreciation of the potentials of modern technology.

By living full time in this neighbourhood for an extended period of time, I hope to investigate in some depth the stakes involved in Kampoeng Cyber members portraying themselves as harbingers of technological salvation in an otherwise “primitive” place, as one of my informants put it today.  This blog will document some of my experiences, struggles, and lessons in applying a blended methodology of ethnography, the long-term immersion of the anthropologist in an alternate setting, along with what Robert Kozinets (2010) has called netnography, which involves a similar process of observation and participation in “online” interactions.

These experiences will reflect preliminary findings, which may later be subject to adjustment or change based on new information. They will also foreground personal experiences, questions, and ideas that I expect will be of some help to producing a dissertation and publications in the future, and which in the meantime I hope will fuel discussions and debate about the emerging and established fields of digital anthropology, urban anthropology, and anthropology of media.

by: Jessika Tremblay

References:

Kozinets, Robert V.

2010 Netnography: Doing Ethnographic  Research Online. London: Sage

Publications.

Postill, John

  2008 Localizing the internet beyond communities and networks. New

    Media & Society    10(3):413-431.