Monday, May 26, 2008

seeing the whole of web studies

six years later, in an essay for the book web.studies edited by david gauntlett, i again thought i'd seen the whole of the web - or, to be more precise, the whole of web studies. in "looking backwards, looking forward: cyberculture studies 1990-2000," i attempted to map three major stages of the then-emerging academic field of digital media and culture, or what i liked to call cyberculture studies, or what many of the contributors to this book call internet studies. the three stages were popular cyberculture, cyberculture studies, and critical cyberculture studies.

the origins story begins with popular cyberculture. starting in the early-1990s, a handful of wired writers and journalists began filing stories in major newspapers about what some called cyberspace and others called the information superhighway. newspaper stories soon blossomed into magazine features which soon grew into how-to books like the internet for dummies and the whole internet.

with roots in journalism, popular cyberculture was regularly characterized by a limited utopian vs. dystopian dualism (see rob kling's "hopes and horrors" and roy rosenzweig's "live free or die?"). on one side were the technofuturists, a collection of writers, editors, and especially entrepreneurs who believed that the internet would smash traditional institutions and hierarchies and usher in new means of commerce and communication. they gathered loosely within the pages of wired magazine, the most enthusiastic cheerleader of the internet revolution. (for an early take on wired, see paulina borsook's "the memoirs of a token: an aging berkeley feminist examines wired"; for a longer history, see fred turner's from counterculture to cyberculture, especially chapter seven.)

on the other side were the neo-luddites, cultural critics who blamed the then-still nascent internet for many of society's ills. for example, in the gutenberg elegies: the fate of reading in an electronic age, sven birkerts warned that the internet, hypertext, and a host of electronic technologies would produce declining literacy and a less-than-grounded sense of reality. kirkpatrick sale drove home the points he made in his book rebels against the future: the luddites and their war on the industrial revolution: lessons for the computer age by smashing computers on his promotional tour, while clifford stoll, in silicon snake oil: second thoughts on the information highway, begged cybernauts to log off, reminding us that "life in the real world is far more interesting, far more important, far richer, than anything you'll ever find on a computer screen" (13).

our second stage, cyberculture studies, came about in the mid-1990s as a result of many developments including the arrival of two books: howard rheingold's the virtual community and sherry turkle's life on the screen. drawing heavily from his extensive experience on the WELL, one of the earliest and most influential online communities (for more see katie hafner's the well), rheingold transcended the earlier question of internet: good or bad? and instead approached networked communications and interactions as online communities. likewise, turkle abandoned simple black and white depictions of internet users and instead put forth a more nuanced understanding of online identities. together, virtual communities and online identities served as the twin pillars of early internet studies.

also arriving during this time was mosaic, the first popular browser for the world wide web. developed at the national center for supercomputing applications (NCSA) at the university of illinois at urbana-champaign, mosaic was not only a technological innovation but also a user innovation, and helped to introduced a new generation of users to the internet via the easy-to-navigate world wide web. this increase in users was especially felt within academia, where early adopters of unix, Usenet, gopher, and lambdaMOO found themselves surfing the same web as many of their non-technical colleagues in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

in addition to the aforementioned, there was another factor: steve jones. with a string of anthologies, including cybersociety and virtual culture, jones assembled a collection of (mostly) communication scholars to push to new levels our understanding of online communities and identities. in 1999, he helped establish the association of internet researchers, or aoir, which, ten years later, has grown into an international and interdisciplinary academic conference (next aoir conference happens october 15-18 in copenhagen, denmark). other important and influential anthologies and books from scholars from anthropology (including arturo escobar and turkle), communication (nancy baym and mia consalvo), gender studies (lynn cherney and elizabeth reba weise, donna haraway), linguistics (susan herring), and sociology (marc smith and peter kollock, and barry wellman) helped shore up the field's social science roots.

the third stage, critical cyberculture studies, appeared in the twenty-first century.

to be continued ...

works cited:

nancy baym, "from practice to culture on usenet." in susan leigh star, editor, the cultures of computing, pp. 29-52. oxford: blackwell publishers, 1995.

sven birkerts, the gutenberg elegies: the fate of reading in an electronic age. winchester, MA: faber and faber, 1994.

paulina borsook, "the memoirs of a token: an aging berkeley feminist examines wired." in lynn cherney and elizabeth reba weise, editors, wired women: gender and new realities in cyberspace, pp. 24-41. seattle: seal press, 1996.

lynn cherney and elizabeth reba weise, editors, wired women: gender and new realities in cyberspace. seattle: seal press, 1996.

kiersten conner-sax and ed krol, the whole internet: the next generation. sebastopol, CA: o'reilly, 1992.

mia consalvo, "cash cows hit the web: gender and communications technology," journal of communication inquiry (21:1, 1997), pp. 98-115.

shelley correll, "the ethnography of an electronic bar: the lesbian cafe," journal of contemporary ethnography (24:3, 1995), pp. 270-298.

arturo escobar, "welcome to cyberia: notes on the anthropology of cyberculture." in ziauddin sardar and jerome ravetz, editors, cyberfutures: culture and politics on the information superhighway, pp. 111-137. new york: new york university press, 1996.

david gauntlett, editor, web.studies: rewiring media studies for the digital age. london, UK: arnold, 2000.

katie hafner, the well: a story of love, death & real life in the seminal online community. new york: carroll & graf, 2001.

donna haraway, "a cyborg manifesto: science, technology, and socialist-feminism in the late twentieth century," in simians, cyborgs and women: the reinvention of nature, pp. 149-181. new york; routledge, 1991.

susan herring, editor, computer-mediated communication: linguistic, social and cross-cultural perspectives. amsterdam: john benjamins publishing, 1996.

steve jones, editor, cybersociety: computer-mediated communication and community. thousand oaks, CA: sage, 1995.

_____, editor, virtual culture: identity & communication in cybersociety. london: sage, 1997.

rob kling, "hopes and horrors: technological utopianism and anti-utopianism in narratives of computerization." in rob kling, editor, computerization and controversy: value conflicts and social choices, pp. 40-58. san diego, CA: academic press, 1996.

howard rheingold, the virtual community: homesteading on the electronic frontier. reading, MA: addison-wesley publishing, 1993.

roy rosenzweig, "live free or die? death, life, survival, and sobriety on the information superhighway," american quarterly (51.1, 1999), pp.160-174.

kirkpatrick sale, rebels against the future: the luddites and their war on the industrial revolution: lessons for the computer age. reading, MA: addison-wesley publishing, 1995

marc a. smith and peter kollock, editors, communities in cyberspace. london: routledge, 1999.

clifford stoll, silicon snake oil: second thoughts on the information highway. new york: doubleday, 1995.

fred turner, from counterculture to cyberculture: stewart brand, the whole earth network, and the rise of digital utopianism, chicago, IL: university of chicago press, 2006.

barry wellman, "an electronic group is virtually a social network." in sara kiesler, editor, culture of the internet, pp. 179-205. mahwah, NJ: lawrence erlbaum associates, 1997.


Anonymous said...

This is very helpful, and interesting. Please do keep continuing...

....J.Michael Robertson said...

I race to the bottom so that I can say ... what ProPo has already said. Note to self: Commit to memory; dazzle at cocktail parties.

Yes. MOre.

John Postill said...

Thank you for this review, it's very useful. I've recently written about Internet Studies and what I call the community/network paradigm and I always welcome comments, see

david silver said...

hello john and thanks for the comment!

with luck, my copy of new media & society will be on my desk when i return to my office and i'll look forward to reading your article. by the abstract alone ("The article seeks to broaden the conceptual space of internet localization studies through a ground-up conceptualization exercise that draws inspiration from the field theories of both Pierre Bourdieu and the Manchester School of Anthropology, and is based on recent fieldwork in suburban Malaysia. This exploration demonstrates that a more nuanced understanding of the plural forms that residential sociality can take is needed in order to move beyond existing binaries such as 'network sociality' versus 'community sociality.'") i'm certainly interested.