Traditional knowledge--New experts
The internet and other digital and mobile technologies are often perceived as democratizing due to their availability, interactivity, low cost, and ease of use. The web indeed encourages participation and enables more people to collectively engage in the opening of public debate in the political, social, and cultural spheres (Papacharissi 2004; Benkler 2006). It has also become easier for internet users to create their own tools, apps, websites, etc. In this context, the number of digital resources to strengthen the Sami languages has grown considerably in recent years (Cocq 2016a; Cocq 2013; Cocq 2015; Cocq 2016b).
Previous research has discussed the impact that this alleged democratization entails. Rainie and Wellman write, for example, that the democratization of media participation "enables a new breed of media creators to step onto the cultural stage. This reshuffles the relationship between experts and amateurs and reconfigures the ways that people can exert influence in the world" (2012, 220). The so-called web 2.0 that has opened up opportunities to participate and influence can be seen from this perspective as a means to question and challenge structures and power relations and to assign the role of experts to new actors.
This positive attitude towards the internet and web 2.0 that Rainie and Wellman (2012) illustrate has been problematized and questioned by other researchers, and the potential of social media to enable marginalized voices to reach arenas that they otherwise would not have access to has been debated. As previous research (e.g. Sassen 2004) underscores, social media are not isolated from the social logic. Discourses of democratization nuance the effects of new media on the larger political debate (Hindman, 2008; O'Neil, 2014), and critical voices suggest that social media contributes to maintaining or even strengthening existing structures and power relations (Dean 2003; Fuchs 2010; Lovink 2005).
The dualism of the internet, with an ideology of individual freedom and hopes for empowerment on the one hand and logics that contribute to a consolidation of power on the other, is reiterated in contemporary digital practices and discourses. On the internet, power structures--both institutional and non-institutional--meet and intertwine with one another.
Here, I will discuss how expertise and authority are shaped and (re)defined online based on recent examples of Sami initiatives. In order to provide a balanced picture of the potential that digital tools can have for Indigenous groups, this article examines a few examples of initiatives designed and implemented in order to strengthen the Sami languages. The first one deals with a web resource and mobile application for beginners in Ume Sami, one of the smallest Sami languages that, until very recently, did not have an official orthography. The second example is an application that, through GPS-technology and augmented reality, recomposes a Sami linguistic landscape. This is an illustration of how mobile technologies provide alternative modes of mapping and naming. The third example focuses on a language activism project that problematizes and questions relationships to Indigenous languages and language learning. These examples are the results of initiatives that took place outside traditional institutional frameworks, and they illustrate how digital and mobile technologies are used and applied with the intention of challenging, questioning, and/or revisiting attitudes towards Indigenous languages.
Digital practices are here approached in terms of intersection and interplay between online practices and what takes place offline--which is also true for the way I conduct my research, including collecting data. The examples in focus in this article were studied through digital ethnography supplemented with qualitative interviews with the project leaders behind the initiatives.
Contemporary challenges for the transmission of Indigenous knowledge
The Sami are Indigenous people (1) of Europe. Sapmi, the traditional area of settlement, is a broad area that comprises the northernmost parts of Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia. National borders, however, have political implications because language areas, modes of land use, etc., span across these borders. Despite the varieties of languages, the heterogeneity of livelihoods, and diverse conditions and prerequisites for cultural and linguistic vitality, the Sami are one nation with a common flag, a common national song, and a common national day. The Sami are thus one nation stretching over the nation states of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia. In terms of politics, there are Sami parliaments in Sweden, Norway and Finland, which are representative bodies subordinated the national parliaments of their country.
The Sami languages are endangered, but efforts at revitalization can be witnessed in many areas in Sapmi. All Sami speak the majority language in each country (i.e. Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, or Russian); however, not all Sami speak or understand a Sami language. In the colonial context of Fenno-Scandinavia, Sami culture and languages have been marginalized. Efforts to counteract and question this invisibility and marginalization have multiplied in recent years--as will be illustrated here.
The population of Sapmi has been generally quick to adopt new technologies, from the first generation of cell phones in the 1980s to the modern use of social media in domains as diverse as e-commerce, language acquisition, and activism. There is a high level of digital literacy in Sapmi--and a relatively good standard of internet accessibility as is the case in large parts of Sweden.
Formal education has proved to be deficient when it comes to the needs for Sami language learning, including access to teachers and learning materials in Sami, and this has been pointed out and criticized by the Council of Europe on several occasions since the ratification of the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages in 2000--a criticism that applies to Sweden, Norway, and Finland.
Impediments to implementing effective revitalization efforts within the Swedish education system are also brought out (Vinka 2015). Therefore, knowledge transmission has to be problematized: for Sami speakers who wish to pass on their language to the younger generations, and for those who want to learn a Sami language, modes of learning and teaching need to be supplemented outside educational institutions.
The fact that the institutional education system does not meet the criteria to enable effective knowledge transmission (Keskitalo, Maatta, and Uusiautti 2014) does not apply only to the revitalization of the Sami languages. Several researchers problematize education and learning in Sami contexts and highlight the need to develop a culturally based education model with more focus on cultural knowledge, including, for instance, elders as a resource and a source of knowledge, and based on Sami ontology and epistemology (Nutti 2012; Owens et al. 2012; Hirvonen 2004; Pettersen 2006; Svonni 2015).
The availability of resources and the need for culturally based teaching courses vary between areas, schools, and students. In this context--where resources are uncertain regarding Sami language training and education--community-based initiatives take place using online digital media and digital tools in order to counteract the mismatch between the needs of the community and what the schools can offer.
Conceptualizing authority in digital settings
How power and authority are shaped and negotiated online is often described in terms of complexity and messiness. The breadth and range of internet-based communication and information channels is one of the reasons why it is difficult to identify and explain how power is distributed online. Theoretical approaches to authority provide us with a framework that allows us to grasp the dynamics, effects, and implications of digital initiatives.
For instance, the concept of vernacular authority--in contrast to institutional authority--has been discussed comprehensively by Robert G. Howard (2005, 2008, 2011) who underscores the role of the articulation of tradition in discourses and the empowerment and disempowerment it implies (Howard 2013). Vernacular authority is a concept that allows us "to critically assess the role that elevated authority plays in the ideologies [...] media users are constructing for themselves" (2013,76). This concept is relevant to the study of digital tools for Sami languages because it highlights the importance, intentions, and effects that individual initiatives can have in a broader context in which other experts, authorities, and power conditions exist.
Folklorist Diane Goldstein underscores how there has been "a vernacular turn", i.e. an "explosion of interest in the vernacular" (2015), and she gives examples of movements and situations that began in the 1990s and 2000s
to change the relationships of ordinary people to experts and expert knowledge. Grassroots organizations, particularly in development, environmentalism, and health, began to combine ideas of lay expertise with activism in a new form of political participation and a new form of science. (2015, 128) Different forms of vernacular and institutional authority interact rather than stand in opposition to each other--for example, when official sources refer to folk traditions in order to gain...