The Moroccan Diaspora in Istanbul: Experiencing Togetherness through Participatory Media.

Author:Ritter, Christian S.

Digital Devices and Life-worlds

Hicham sits at a small round table outside his restaurant in the Kadikoy district of Istanbul. Most of his lunchtime customers have returned to their offices nearby. He smokes a cigarette and has a cup of coffee now that the first busy phase of the day is over. Hicham, who is in his late 30s, moved from Marrakesh to Istanbul in 2014. He is about to make the final arrangements for the evening. To plan for the evening business, he produces his tablet and opens the Facebook page he created for his restaurant. He has three new messages which were sent to place personal orders for the evening. Communicating with potential customers and friends is a daily routine of Hicham's professional and private life. His quotidian experience has been largely transformed by digital devices.

This ethnographic investigation examines how participatory media reshaped the life-worlds of members of a Moroccan diaspora community in Istanbul. The World Wide Web (WWW) has become a social force that rapidly changed the everyday lives of its users (Boellstorff 2008, 42). The common use of email and instant chat applications prompted considerable change in corporate cultures, while social networking sites and blogs altered the parameters of social relationships and civil society. Paradoxically, the web is considered both a tool for freedom and a means of surveillance. Although the web is often described as a vehicle for free expression reinforcing civil society, it is also associated with a dramatic loss of modern-day privacy. The growing influence of digital communication becomes most tangible in people's life-worlds which can be seen as the social reality in which individuals gain experiences, communicate, think, and feel (Schutz and Luckmann, 1989).

Evolving within personal networks, a life-world is a domain of immediate social existence (Jackson 1996, 7; Coleman 2010, 50). Life-worlds are furthermore divided into several fields of being, where individuals interact with one another and make sense of their social existence. Each field of being can establish its own rules and norms (Wiencke 2008, 14). A person's life-world is the context of their lived experience (Porter 1996, 31). For example, a teenager who decides to join a music club opens up a new field of being and gains new experiences by communicating with fellow club members during practice sessions and club outings. To integrate into this field of being, the teenager needs to learn how to play an instrument and develop other skills.

Documenting the perspectives of members of a Moroccan diaspora community on their use of participatory media, the main purpose of this paper is to more comprehensively understand digital communication processes within contemporary diasporas. Participatory media can be understood as networked computing devices enabling a two-way communication among their users. In the context of this investigation, the use of participatory media is conceived as a set of cultural practices involving the adding and changing of pictorial, textual, or audio-visual content in digital environments. Web users attach cultural meanings to these digital practices while using digital devices for different reasons or in varied situations. Overthrowing traditional dichotomies of media content producers and consumers, participatory media facilitated the emergence of the vernacular web (Howard 2008, 500).

Drawing on the idea of the vernacular, this investigation provides much-needed insights into the fusion of the vernacular web and digital diasporas. This article fills this lacuna by examining digital practices of members of a Moroccan diaspora community in depth. Based on long-term fieldwork in urban areas of Istanbul as well as in digital environments, I argue that the widespread use of participatory media among members of a Moroccan diaspora community in Istanbul facilitated the emergence of a new realm of lived experience in their life-worlds. Following a brief presentation of the methods used during the investigation, the first main section of this article addresses the evolution of the Moroccan diaspora in a digital age. The second part describes the circulation of vernacular discourses among members of a Moroccan diaspora community in Istanbul. In the final section light is shed on how digital devices enabled virtual mobility among members of the community under investigation.


Two complementary methods were employed in the course of this ethnographic investigation. Data was collected through in-depth interviewing and participant observation during 17 months of fieldwork in Istanbul. 30 semi-structured interviews were conducted with Moroccan residents of Istanbul to understand how they make sense of the use of digital devices in their daily lives. Thanks to its open-ended questioning style, the interview technique elicited the cultural meanings research participants assign to their uses of digital devices. Although the vast majority of interviews were held face-to-face in Istanbul, a small number of interviews were carried out online. Snowball sampling proved to be an effective data collection strategy. I was often introduced to further interviewees by their friends, which directly increased their trust in me. The language spoken during interviews was mainly French, which is an important educational language in Morocco to this day. However, some research participants preferred to be interviewed in English. Residents of Istanbul who identified themselves as 'Moroccan nationals' were selected to participate in the investigation. Participant observation at local events in Istanbul eased the recruitment of interviewees. For example, I attended a feast during the Kurban Bayrami (Eid al-Adha) in Hicham's restaurant in Kadrkoy, and often socialized with people whom I later interviewed. My status as a newcomer to Istanbul helped me build rapport with research participants. We often shared our experiences of arrival, accommodation search, and encounters with the Turkish bureaucracy.

During the fieldwork, I was mainly referred to as a friend of male Moroccan nationals, who were often near the same age as myself. By accompanying them in their daily lives, I identified Hicham's restaurant and other field sites. The interview materials contained plenty of narratives of digital engagement, naming digital environments, in which participant observation was also conducted. Going digital has often become an essential feature of ethnographic methodologies since an increasing amount of everyday interactions take place online (e. g. Miller and Slater 2000; Murthy 2008; Underberg and Zorn 2014). The data set consisted of interview transcripts, observation records describing encounters in physical localities, and untold conversations taken from digital environments. I mainly assessed Facebook groups and forums of expat blogs which were mentioned by research participants during the interviews. The analysis of the data was committed to the techniques and procedures of the grounded theory (Corbin and Strauss, 2008).

The digital practices discussed in this article are thus based on systematic coding and grounded in saturated categories. The investigation into digital communication within a Moroccan diaspora community in Istanbul also raised some ethical questions. A major concern was the negotiation of informed consent in digital environments. The conversations I explored on platforms often involved numerous persons and it was barely possible to inform each and every participant about the scope and aims of the investigation. To avoid exposing private information of vulnerable people and personal details, names of semi-public network locations were removed. Furthermore, continued research into digital environments can easily blur the boundaries between fieldwork and the researcher's private life since field sites cannot be left by simply taking a plane. Ethnographic researchers who get involved in digital interactions need to find the right balance between their investigative desire and the protection of their privacy.

The Moroccan Diaspora in a Digital Age

Long before the concept of nationhood emerged, populations were scattered over large territories and people who shared the same identity lived in dispersed constellations. The term diaspora can be broadly defined as a social configuration of transnational connections of individuals who identify with the same roots, practices, or languages. Etymologically speaking, the word diaspora derives from the Greek word [phrase omitted] which means scattering of seeds. Recent definitions of the term still retain the original meaning of scattering and dispersion. The capitalized form of the word refers to the settling of scattered colonies of Jews outside Palestine after the Babylonian exile (Gove et al. 1993). In the 20th century, the term mainly referenced the paradigmatic case of the Jewish Diaspora. Within the social sciences and humanities, the term diaspora proliferated in the early 2000s. Although the meaning of the term was broadened, a strong emphasis on the homeland of dispersed peoples was initially maintained and diaspora scholars increasingly focused on further traditional diasporas, for example the Armenian, Greek, and Irish cases. Subsequently, trade diasporas and religious communities whose members were connected across national borders were also conceptualized as diasporas. A new wave of conceptual innovations in diaspora research was inspired by the digital revolution.

In 1991, the first HTML browser enabled its users to send files, such as texts and graphics, through computer networks. In the mid-2000s, the WWW underwent a major transformation. Tim O'Reilly popularized the term web 2.0 referencing a new generation of dynamic websites that simplified creation and amendment of web content. These revolutionary developments inspired many leading members of diasporas to implement digital...

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