The Russian online group “Nepofigism” (a neologism that loosely translates to “giving a damn” or “not being ambivalent”) offers a free legal consulting service. The project’s creators designate no particular direction for the consulting. Their aim is to offer real help to people with any type of problem. The site is a space for professionals and ordinary Internet users with various legal and everyday problems (such as violations of consumer rights, labor laws, and family law).
The fact that more than 52,000 users registered on the site in a month speaks to Russian citizens’ interest in protecting their rights. Evgeny Voropai of “Greenhouses of Social Technologies” recently interviewed the creator and head of “Nepofigism,” Vladimir Belyaev, who described operating an online legal consultancy and explained why the project will never become commercial.
Evgeny Voropai (E.V.): Legal consultancy has long been seen as a means of solving legal problems in real life. How did the idea to create an online version of this process come about?
Vladimir Belyaev (V.B.): After finishing university, I was looking for a way to realize my professional ambitions. Fortuitously, an announcement about a vacancy at a court appeared at the same time. I started my career at the very bottom of the ladder and in a few months had become an assistant to the judge. While performing their duties, workers in the court are not allowed to offer legal counsel to citizens. But answering the questions that arose was unavoidable. Because of this, I had to waste a certain part of the working day on mini-consultations, before returning to my regular duties. It seemed to me that the flow of people who wanted consultations was never-ending, so the idea came to me to take this activity online.
E.V.: When you were creating “Nepofigism,” did you know exactly what kind of project you wanted to have “at the end,” or were you guided by available resources?
V.B: When I had only just come up with the idea of creating the project, there were already online-consultancies, but they were all fee-based or striving to become so. I was not comfortable with this format. In reality, many legal questions do not require much time to answer, and it is absurd to take money for doing it. I didn’t have any real requirements for defining the exact parameters of the project, but I knew exactly what I didn’t want. Even after the launch of “Nepofigism,” how the service is formatted is still an open question.
E.V.: You’re a practicing lawyer and had no experience creating an Internet project. Was it a difficult decision to launch something like this? What were your expectations of the project?
V.B: Before “Nepofigism,” I had my own blog, where I posted articles on legal issues, and I carried this experience to my new project. I didn’t know what I got myself into or how it would work. Indeed, I had a complete lack of experience starting online projects. This project gradually evolved and I had to familiarize myself with certain technical issues. Apart from that, I had to change my content-managing system several times (the project changed, its philosophy changed, and the demands on the system changed) — all in order to allow the site to function. In practice, “Nepofigism” allowed me not only to offer consultations, but also to become more of a universal specialist. First and foremost, this is because the submitted questions varied and involved different facets of the law.
E.V.: Now that “Nepofigism” has existed for three years and become well known on the RuNet, can you say if the activity of Russia’s online community differs from what goes on offline?
V.B.: These are two absolutely different forums and, accordingly, two different audiences. As far as I know, it’s primarily for this reason that many Internet projects involving legal consultation have not been very successful. You need to remember that most online consultant professionals work with a younger and more active audience, addressing questions that usually don’t require terribly active intervention. Because of this, the idea of fee-based online consultancies seems to me to lack perspective. There remains a category of problems that are impossible to solve from a distance, and the elementary technical education of citizens occupies no small part in all this, as well.
E.V.: The ‘forum’ is one of the most popular formats on the RuNet and lends itself well to the concept of legal consultations. But you decided to design “Nepofigism” as a community. Why?
V.B.: At the very start, “Nepofigism” existed as a single-user blog. Afterwards, it transformed into something more akin to a table of questions and answers. Currently, it’s more useful for us to structure it as a community of experts. Within the framework of “Nepofigism,” I try to convey to the user a single idea: in order to defend your rights, at a certain level it isn’t necessary to be a lawyer. We reach that level when there is no difference between the consultants and the people demanding legal advice. Now, anyone with experience solving various legal problems or disputes can participate in our project and help other users. Such is the relay race of legal awareness.
E.V.: Getting a person with unsolved legal questions interested in a free legal consultation is simple. It’s a lot harder to bring experts to the project who can offer this consultation. How does this work on “Nepofigism”?
V.B.: At “Nepofigism,” we try to avoid the labels “expert” and “professional.” At the very beginning of the project, I tried to work with certain firms, but they weren’t willing to waste time on free consultations. Yet, our site is frequented by people with formal legal educations (such individuals rarely draw attention to this fact). Projects like “Nepofigism” demonstrate the mechanisms for solving a particular problem, allowing the site’s users to act analogously in the future.
E.V.: Online consultations are a quick way to get an answer to a question, but how effective are they? Do you follow the resolution of problems offline?
V.B.: Actually, most users inform us themselves about how their issues were resolved. During the course of the project, we’ve noted another interesting tendency: there is a rule of silence operating, it seems to me. If a person receives a consultation and goes quiet, then most likely he got a good consultation. Of course, there are consultations that turn out to be unhelpful or downright shoddy, but this only goes to show that real (fallible) people are behind every every question and answer on the site.
E.V.: Some time ago, you tried to implement the idea of crowdsourcing for “Nepofigism.” What happened and why didn’t this come about?
V.B.: I never expected to make money from “Nepofigism.” All attempts to raise funds were undertaken in the hope of paying for hosting. But my expectations were not fulfilled. Users complained that ads with money transfer requests were distracting. For this very reason, I had to get rid of them. Moreover, they turned out to be ineffective — the money donated was insignificant.
E.V.: Right now, several online projects have appeared that allow people to discuss various bills and laws. Looking at the interest citizens have expressed in legal information and discussing government legal initiatives, can you talk about how these subjects attract the interest of your site’s users?
V.B.: The very idea of subjecting laws to a general discussion is interesting, but due to the specifics of life in our country, initiatives designed to protect the interests of the majority never become laws. For evidence of this, just look at the series of federal laws recently passed. I know for certain that such changes to the law are possible only when the public doesn’t participate — and, even if it did, the laws still wouldn’t reflect the opinion of the majority: the country’s constituents are too passive, and getting them to discuss such specific topics is complicated.
E.V.: Recently the project changed the design of the site and became more functional. What’s in store for “Nepofigism” in the future?
V.B: I can’t tell you how “Nepofigism” will develop for a single reason: I have absolutely no idea what direction we’ll take it. I’m sure that the project will never be monetized, although developing the portal and the creation of certain services requires certain investments. There’s a number of ideas on this issue and they all require the active participation of specialists. The problem is that, without teams of paid workers and the corresponding financial backing, all this is practically impossible. I’m increasingly of the opinion that, if we don’t arrive at some kind of breakthrough soon, the project may lose relevance. But we’re doing all that we can to ensure that this doesn’t happen. Our audience is growing and the community is changing. I hope that everything will be okay.
Originally posted on Global Voices. Translated by Daniel Alan Kennedy. Image courtesty nepofigizm.ru