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AGBU Magazine_#Identity_1_June2023_PhotoCredit: PeteRyan
Photo Credit: Pete Ryan

#Identity

The impact of digital content on Armenian identity formationand expression


In this tech-driven age, the quantity and quality of time spent online raises serious questions about how the Internet and social media helps or hurts society in general and identity formation in particular. On the plus side, these online platforms expand horizons and reveal insights into the hearts and minds of Armenians both in the homeland and across the Diaspora. In addition, those living at a great distance from a local Armenian community are now able to connect with their roots in the virtual space. One no longer needs access to a physical church or community center to participate in Armenian life as it can be accessed through websites and YouTube videos about Armenian arts, history, politics and other cultural dimensions right in their social media feed.

However, it is also no secret that social media can be limiting and divisive—a barrier to the in-person interaction so critical to sustaining a sense of humanity and learning how to cope with three-dimensional reality and the physical world with all its dynamic energies and vibrations.

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Comedian Mary Basmadjian (left) and her alter ego Vartoush Tota (right) has over 64,000 Instagram followers.

Comedian Mary Basmadjian (left) and her alter ego Vartoush Tota (right) has over 64,000 Instagram followers.
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Comedian Mary Basmadjian (left) and her alter ego Vartoush Tota (right) has over 64,000 Instagram followers. Photo Credit: Arthur Hamilton

 

Conversation Starters

While Diasporan communities struggle with questions about how this digital power can be harnessed to enhance the Armenian experience, navigating the pitfalls that technology has also wrought, a new generation of content creators has ventured into the digital world to build robust global Armenian communities online—sometimes even spilling over offline.

Mary Basmadjian, a Los Angeles-based comedian and actor brings a first-hand perspective on the issue: “This double-edged sword brings us together—but also divides us,” she declares, using an example of her own social media platform in which she performs the character of Vartoush Tota, an embodiment of an “Armenian auntie.” Her 64,000-plus Instagram followers relate to Vartoush with her underlying progressive message about breaking boundaries and making the Armenian community a better place.

As the queen of Armenian social media, Basmadjian uses humor to celebrate the joy of being Armenian while confronting its negative aspects. “We judge too hard; we compare too much. We are suffocating each other by defining what makes you Armenian or not,” she explains.

The online Armenian identity can be especially complicated in a place like Los Angeles, where Armenians of many backgrounds and countries of origin share space. Meanwhile, social media can have its own segregating effect, wherein some may

flock to Twitter while others might use Instagram, each with its own online cultures. However, Basmadjian tries to thread this needle: “I seek to emphasize the positive parts of Armenian culture, while maintaining an inclusive environment for all to enjoy. Instead of shaming each other for not speaking Armenian, let’s use this platform to teach one another.” Just this past Christmas Eve, her character Vartoush held an Instagram Live reading of an English translation of Hovhannes Tumanyan’s stories while simultaneously interpreting them into Armenian. According to Basmadjian, it was a fun way to convey language and culture to her audience. But during the 2020 Artsakh War, she also held Instagram Live sessions as a way for her audience to support each other during that difficult and tragic time. In the wake of the Armenian defeat, she channeled her feelings of powerlessness and despair into a series called “Vartoush Vocabulary,” in which her character taught off-color Armenian words directed at the Azerbaijani president.

While some didn’t approve of the foul language, others identified with Vartoush, taking their anger, fear, and pain and creating humor out of it. One user shared, “Even though we don’t have control of what happens in Armenia, Artsakh, and the world, we have control over what happens in this home.” Basmadjian has heard from fans who haven’t spoken Armenian in decades and even avoided it because of the shame they felt of losing it—until her videos drew them back in and restored their sense of connection. “It fills my soul to hear from people who are laughing along and learning from my videos to the point they are more comfortable to speak their mother tongue again or even learn it for the first time. Using comedy is far more effective than the prevailing method of being shamed,” said Basmadjian. “My approach is like mixing medicine with the food. Sure, cussing may be considered lowbrow, but if it’s a gateway to fostering a greater appreciation of something more elevated, then it’s worth it.”

More than a Meme

Another well-known Armenian content creator on English-language social media is Lavash Life, run by DC-based Aris Mardirossian. The meme page began in 2018 as a blog to share his experience as a Birthright Armenia volunteer. The name drew inspiration from his sister’s descriptor of his time in Armenia: a “lavish life full of lavash.” Mardirossian was no stranger to Armenians, having attended AGBU Camp Nubar for many years as a camper and counselor, but his extended trip to the homeland through Birthright Armenia added to his perspective on what being Armenian truly meant. Greatly missing Armenia after his return home, he sought a way to maintain that link with it, and so continued the blog as a celebration of all things Armenian, utilizing the meme format which has been a primary format for social media interaction.

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AGBU Magazine_#Identity_3_June2023_

AGBU Magazine_#Identity_3_June2023_

 

“While I had seen a few Armenian meme accounts, they were limited in scope, only speaking to specific niche aspects within the identity. I wanted Lavash Life to incorporate the entire Armenian experience, the big picture of what being Armenian means in a way that’s inclusive to the whole community instead of just through my limited perspective,” Mardirossian explained.

Lavash Life quickly took off and gained a large following, encouraging him to build on it and reach even more people, now standing at over 69,200 followers on Instagram alone. Mardirossian raises the issue of diversity versus inclusivity. “There’s such diversity among Armenians, but some have felt ostracized or that they didn’t fit in. We are a small ethnic group; everyone should feel welcomed. I believe humor is the best way of doing that, making people laugh about the unique cultural elements which we share, rather than aspects that can divide us.”

Mardirossian has noticed prominent themes that resonate with his audience, like food, family, homeland, and history—the universally shared experiences of being Armenian. He’s noticed a shift on social media with his Diasporan followers in the past few years which indicates they have become more informed about what is going on in Armenia and the big stories of the day, no doubt thanks to social media and Armenian news channels bringing the latest updates right into their feeds. That said, society at large has seen an uptick in disinformation, which is just as easily spread on social media, including in Armenian circles. Simply put, the number of followers does not necessarily align with a source’s veracity and reliability.

There’s such diversity among Armenians, but some have felt ostracized or that they didn’t fit in. We are a small ethnic group; everyone should feel welcomed.

Twitter in particular is notorious for its “trolls”—including Armenian ones, which seem to exist in order to spread toxicity and discord. Lavash Life has come under attack from time to time, but like Basmadjian, Mardirossian sees humor as the best way to handle divisive elements. Meanwhile, he has received a great deal of positive feedback from followers who say his memes have rekindled a connection to their Armenian heritage, and non-Armenians that use it as a way to connect with the Armenians in their life. The latter are often asking questions to learn more about the culture, and Mardirossian even taught one follower how to say “I love you” to her boyfriend in Armenian. Social media can be a less intimidating and far more accessible way to learn about the culture, as it meets people wherever they are. Lavash Life is evolving to keep up with the latest trends, for example Mardirossian has begun experimenting with the juggernaut platform TikTok, which continues to expand its reach, and not just to Armenians.

Better Together

Another platform introducing Armenian-centric content to audiences both Armenian and not is MIASEEN, the brainchild of Armenian-American film producer Anthony Abaci. His experience developing documentaries and commercials as lead content producer for the renowned electronic music artist DJ Marshmello made him realize the importance of building digital communities. Abaci felt the stories of his culture were not being told in mainstream media beyond the occasional reference to the Genocide or the stereotypical portrayals of Armenians as gangsters on TV. “This void had me thinking, what if I created a platform to tell our stories for us and the world to enjoy,” he shared. He launched MIASEEN, which means “together” in Armenian, a reference to how Armenians can cooperate to be the ones telling their own stories. “Particularly important to me is that MIASEEN productions have a high production value in order to prove we are a serious force and worth the attention,” said Abaci. The platform is growing, with 10,900 followers and counting on Instagram.

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A still from the popular Armenian Dating Show by MIASEEN.

A still from the popular Armenian Dating Show by MIASEEN.
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A still from the popular Armenian Dating Show by MIASEEN.

In addition to original documentaries covering the 2020 Artsakh War, Armenian language lessons by Armenian comedians, and short video content, MIASEEN’s most famous production is the Armenian Dating Show. It follows the popular reality show format but with an Armenian flair, sans the tawdry aspects for which those shows can be notorious. The YouTube series became an obsession for its many fans, with just the first episode garnering over 110,000 views. “MIASEEN demonstrated that if we created a show that we could be proud of, the rest of the world would see it and build community around it. Armenians loved this show because they saw people just like them, the representation of everyday people rather than just celebrities,” Abaci said. MIASEEN hosted real time live chats when episodes aired and created a community through its Instagram presence. Yet despite his love of all things online, Abaci points out that the digital realm can’t compare to the energy of connecting face to face.

Thus, MIASEEN goes a step further by bridging the divide between physical community and the online space, hosting in-person events which allow followers who have gotten to know each other through social media to meet “in real life.” These events attract over 300 attendees mostly in their 20s and 30s. It can be difficult to connect at standard networking events, but, in this case, MIASEEN content serves as a common bond. “Followers have gone on to meet their partners, best friends, and business partners through MIASEEN,” Abaci noted. “Forming digital connections which lead to in-person meetings is the recipe for building a strong and vibrant community. Plus, we happen to have no political or religious affiliations and are open to everyone.”

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AGBU Magazine_#Identity_5_June2023_MIASEEN_Anothony Dikran

AGBU Magazine_#Identity_5_June2023_MIASEEN_Anothony Dikran
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Armenian-American film producer Anthony Abaci is the creator of MIASEEN. Photo Credit: Anthony Dikran

Abaci often hears from those who don’t live near Armenian communities and appreciate the opportunity to connect with their culture from anywhere. “When we meet followers who realize we’re from the MIASEEN team, their faces light up with enthusiasm. Some have told me how they share our content like the Armenian Dating Show with their non-Armenian friends to help them gain insight into our unique culture,” Abaci points out. He also references other digital content creators like Basmadjian and Mardirossian as significant, because of a common mission of connecting through humor. “If you can make people laugh, they will care more about your issues. This is critical to our growth and taking part in the mainstream cultural conversation.”

Originally published in the June 2023 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. end character

About the AGBU Magazine

AGBU Magazine is one of the most widely circulated English language Armenian magazines in the world, available in print and digital format. Each issue delivers insights and perspective on subjects and themes relating to the Armenian world, accompanied by original photography, exclusive high-profile interviews, fun facts and more.