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8: From Virtual to Everyday Life

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8: From Virtual to Everyday Life
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  8: From Virtual to Everyday Life PAUL VERSCHUEREN Of all the promises and prognoses made about old and new media, perhaps the most compelling has been the possibility of regenerating community through mediated forms of communication . (Jankowski, 2002: 34) Introduction  About a decade ago, Howard Rheingold (1993) used the term ‘virtual community’to bring the social aspects of computer-mediated communication under attention.He argued: ‘  whenever CMC technology becomes available to people anywhere, they inevitably build virtual communities with it, just as micro-organisms inevitably create colonies ’ (1993: 6). Rheingold defined virtual communities as ‘  social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace ’ (1993: 5). His book told the history of a particularonline community, the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), and showed how computers were not simply used to transmit information but to ritually connectpeople. He stressed that online social interactions were not simply based on self-interest but motivated by a desire for commonality.The online community literature since Rheingold’s book can be divided intothree major types: the  utopian and dystopian discourses from the early 1990sonwards, the  electronic field studies from the mid-1990s onwards, and the  contextualized approaches from the late 1990s onwards. These three types will bediscussed here, roughly covering 10 years of research into online associations. Thefocus is on the virtual community as an analytical concept. It should be noted thatmany researchers have avoided the concept from the beginning. On the whole,however, the notion has had a powerful influence in academic as well as populardiscourse. Before Rheingold, research had focused on the differences between face-to-face communication and computer-mediated communication, and it had generally stressed the limitations of the latter. Rheingold’s The Virtual Communit  ymovedresearchers away from that perception, and also beyond the political and economicanalyses of the ‘Information Society’ that were made in the 1990s (Robins & Webster, 1999). However, the concept also emphasized the distinction betweennewer online realities on the one hand and older offline realities on the other,associating the former with the global and the latter with the local. As I will latershow, this had a narrowing effect on online community research.Proulx and Latzko-Toth (2000: 7) see the concept of the virtual community as  C h  a  p t   e r E i   g h  t   1   6   9     a synthesis between, on the one hand, the growing fascination with the very word vir-tuality – as much on the popular imagination of engineers as on the imaginations of ‘gurus’ like Timothy Leary – and on the other hand, the term online community .  According to Proulx and Latzko-Toth, the latter was introduced at the end of the1960s by Licklider and Taylor (1968). It was only in the 1990s, however, that onlineassociations became an important research topic in various disciplines, frompsychology to philosophy.  An early and influential collection that focused on the new online associations was Cybersociety (Jones, 1995), later followed by Cybersociety 2.0 (1998). The firstedition of Cybersociety discussed such topics as social conduct, censorship andmoderation on Usenet, and anonymity and identity construction through textualinteraction. Baym’s contribution, The Emergence of Community in Computer- Mediated Communication (1995), and Reid’s Virtual Worlds: Culture and  Imagination (1995)  , remain relevant introductions to the subject of onlinecommunity formation. Polemical Beginnings  Around the time of Cybersociety , the concept of the virtual community was turnedinto a buzzword. Many businesses began to use it as a model to generate profits.They gradually started to build ‘community functions’ into their websites. Inpopular discourse, almost every electronic system that provided one-to-onecommunication became a community. Virtual communities were said to exist within online conferences, list server groups, MUDs, MOOs, 1 and otherinteractive computer systems. These systems were heralded as liberating forms of communal experience, free from the constraints of physical reality and the physicalbody. Critical voices reacted against this view, suggesting that computer-mediatedcommunication merely offered a simulation of community or stimulated thedevelopment of narrow specialized interest groups. The critics claimed that virtualcommunities would contribute to isolation, to a decrease of humaninterdependence, to the decline of local communities in the physical world, and tothe commodification of social behaviour (Boal, 1995; Kroker & Weinstein, 1994;Slouka, 1995; Stoll, 1995; Sardar, 2000). These reactions are not surprising. Western discourses traditionally attachgreat significance to technological changes, either negatively or positively (e.g. Achterhuis, 1998). Technologies are received in a dystopian way, as a threat tocontemporary ways of being, or praised in a utopian way as a liberating force. Theseextreme views surfaced frequently in discussions of virtual communities in theearly 1990s. Utopists described earlier forms of community as too restrictive and welcomed the annihilation of time and space barriers. For them, the Internetoffered more freedom, more equality and more prosperity (Benedikt, 1991; Gore,1991; Negroponte, 1995; Stone, 1995; Turkle, 1995). Another utopian assumption was that civil society in virtual space would reclaim powers held by the state ingeographical space (Barlow, 1996). Some utopists presented the Internet as aunifying force that would produce a single global ‘cyberspace culture’. Although        1       7       0    T  o  w  a  r   d  s  a   S  u  s   t  a   i  n  a   b   l  e   I  n   f  o  r  m  a   t   i  o  n   S  o  c   i  e   t  y  Rheingold did not believe in ‘  a single, monolithic, online subculture ’ (1993: 3), healso wrote that:  [t]he small virtual communities still exist, like yeast in a rapidly rising loaf, but increasingly they are part of an overarching culture, similar to the way the United  States became an overarching culture after the telegraph and telephone linked the states. (1993: 10) In popular discourse, ‘netiquette’ and emoticons were cited as examples of such an‘overarching culture’ although different netiquettes and emoticon systems exist.Euro-American and Japanese emoticons differ typographically as well as in the ways in which they are written, read and interpreted (Aoki, 1994). Japaneseemoticons can be linked to double-byte character encoding, the Japanesetypographic tradition, the Japanese  manga (comic strips), Japanese body language,and other aspects of Japanese culture (Hiroe, 1999–2001; Aoki, 1994). The Japanese generally attach great value to politeness and appropriateness, and this isreflected in the Japanese emoticon system. It contains at least three differentexpressions of apology  2 for inappropriate behaviour, while the Euro-Americansystem has not a single equivalent. The early utopian rhetoric of cyberspacesuppressed these cultural differences by postulating a global culture withproperties of its own. It separated the user from his or her locale, and presentedthis separation as liberation.Dystopian critics rejected the idea of techno-liberation. They feared a declineof community and attached more value to local Gemeinschaft -like (Tönnies,1979/1887) communities than to the newer online associations. They argued thatpeople in geographical neighbourhoods are forced to live together, while membersof global virtual communities can log on and log off whenever they want. Accordingto the critics, the latter is problematic since it does not promote the responsibility,commitment and concern that geographical communities require. Their accounts were often inspired by science-fiction work such as  Neuromancer  (Gibson, 1984), which introduced the term ‘cyberspace’, and  Snow Crash (Stephenson, 1992) withits own version of ‘cyberspace’ called ‘Metaverse’. Following the publication of theanthology  Mirrorshades (Sterling, 1988), these works became known ascyberpunk. 3 Cyberpunk fiction presents a world in which networked computersdominate everyday life. The focus is usually on underground cultures and strugglesof alienated individuals against corporate powers. These popular representationsstressed the alienating and dehumanising effects of computing technology, a themeinherited from earlier Western fiction (Huxley’s  Brave New World  , Burgess’  AClockwork Orange , Orwell’s 1984 , and so on). Community and Identity Dystopian critics claim that Internet technologies erode existing geographicalcommunities. Utopian voices agree that communities are in decline but suggestthat technologies can help to restore a sense of community (see, for instance,Rheingold, 1993). The idea of a community in decline, however, is a culturally specific and ideological construction. Social histories show that communities of the past were probably never as close-knit and cohesive as people sometimes like  C h  a  p t   e r E i   g h  t   1   7  1    to think (Laslett, 1999). Studies of nationalism (Anderson, 1983) and trans-nationalism (Hannerz, 1996) further indicate that face-to-face communication isless central to the development of communities than proponents of Gemeinschaft -like communities often claim. Indeed, many offline communities could be labelled‘virtual’ since they are based on mediation and imagination. For instance, Stone(1995) calls the international academic community and the televisual community  virtual too. According to Thomas Bender (1982) the idea of a lost community recurs indifferent studies from the seventeenth century onwards. For Nancy, the idea hasdominated Western thinking from Plato’s  Republic to Tönnies Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft and beyond. Nancy calls it ‘ the most ancient myth in the Western world  ’(1991: 10). In The Inoperative Community , he argues that the desire for an‘srcinal’ community is characteristic of Western discourses. These use thedisappearance of community to explain the problems of contemporary life. According to Nancy (1991: 9): the lost, or broken, community can be exemplified in all kinds of ways, by all kinds of  paradigms: the national family, the Athenian city, the Roman republic, the firstChristian community, corporations, communes, or brotherhoods – always it is a mat-ter of a lost age in which community was woven of tight, harmonious, and infrangiblebonds.  Although the idea of a lost community frequently recurs, most researchers now accept that community is an ongoing process and that the disappearance of oldercommunity forms is accompanied by the emergence of newer kinds. Barry  Wellman (e.g. 2001), for instance, suggests that community life has becomeprivatized. Community is no longer established by going to public spaces butthrough person-to-person connectivity. Technologies, such as the telephone and e-mail, are used to establish and sustain these personalized networks. The conceptof the ‘personalized network’ may avoid many problems associated with thetraditional concept of community. Communities are often seen as isolated andbounded entities, but anthropologists dismiss such a view because it ‘  usually masks significant interactions between the individuals of that community and others, as well as the heterogeneity of the community itself  ’ (Wilson & Peterson, 2002: 455,referring to Appadurai, 1991). Online community studies often tend to focus on theideational aspects of community only. The interpretive tradition 4 and the work of Benedict Anderson (1991/1983) in particular have stressed these aspects. However,as Amit (2002) notes, the ideational aspects should not be dissociated from actualsocial relations and everyday performances, something that was often the case inearly discussions.Since face-to-face communication differs across cultures, we may expect to findcultural differences in e-mailing, MUDding, chatting, and other forms of electronic association. These differences, however, were usually not discussed inthe utopian and dystopian discourses of the early 1990s. Both tended to treat theInternet as a single, totalising force and paid little attention to the differencesbetween the various Internet technologies. For instance, the Internet was said topromote ‘identity play’ in virtual communities. This was heralded as liberation by         1       7       2    T  o  w  a  r   d  s  a   S  u  s   t  a   i  n  a   b   l  e   I  n   f  o  r  m  a   t   i  o  n   S  o  c   i  e   t  y  many utopists, and dismissed as a simulation of the self by dystopists. However,Goffman’s work (1987/1959) suggests that identity play is not characteristic of online behaviour, but a general feature of social life. The differences betweenoffline and online behaviour therefore appear to be of degree rather than of kind.Furthermore, identity performance in e-mail exchange is quite different fromidentity performance in MUDs or MOOs. In regular e-mail, identities tend to bemore or less fixed. The WELL allows multiple representations of self, but thesehave to be related to a single, fixed user-ID (Rheingold, 1993). MUDs and MOOsare usually oriented towards fantasy and play, and allow for experimentation. Theseelectronic environments have a liminal quality (Turner, 1970), allowing participantsto explore roles and activities that are normally impossible or socially unacceptable. As in other liminal circumstances, such as traditional carnivals, identity play and‘gender swapping’ are to be expected here. The Real/Virtual Dichotomy Utopian and dystopian discourses assume that social effects flow naturally from thetechnology employed. This deterministic vision presupposes that technologies canshape social and cultural worlds from scratch. But something has always gone onbefore. Users inevitably carry with them a particular history, education, gender,class, ethnic background, and so on. Even liminal, role-playing experiences relateto a previous socio-cultural state (Turner, 1970). Thus, social behaviour, normsand values cannot be abstracted from their local, historical and socio-culturalcontext, as quite a few of the earlier studies seemed to suggest. Agre (1999: 4)argues that  so long as we focus on the limited areas of the Internet where people engage in fanta- sy play, we miss how social and professional identities are continuous across several media, and how people use those several media to develop their identities in ways that carry over to other settings. Utopian and dystopian discourses presuppose a too sharp distinction betweenelectronic and face-to-face realities. Proulx and Latzko-Toth (2000) call the lattera ‘  discourse of denigration ’ because it subordinates the ‘virtual’ to the ‘real’. Theformer is its reversal since it ‘  sees virtuality as the ‘resolution’ of a world  overwrought by imperfection as the consequence of its presence, which is but a subset of the universe of possibilities – and therefore an unavoidable impoverishment ’(Proulx and Latzko-Toth, 2000: 5). Both discourses fail to see how pre-existingsocio-cultural contexts are inextricably intertwined with Internet technologies. Wilson and Peterson (2002: 456) observe that  [a]n online/offline conceptual dichotomy [for example Castells’ (1996) ‘network soci- ety’] is also counter to the direction taken within recent anthropology, which acknowl- edges the multiple identities and negotiated roles individuals have within different socio-political and cultural contexts. Social shaping of technology studies (e.g. Bijker, Hughes & Pinch, 1987; Latour,1996; 1999; Law & Hassard, 1999; MacKenzie & Wacjman, 1985) indicate that the  C h  a  p t   e r E i   g h  t   1   7   3  
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