An Alternative Internet
Author: Chris Atton
Publisher: Edinburgh, Scotland, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2005
Review Published: September 2007
I am grateful to Paul Booth for his review of my book, An Alternative Internet. He raises a number of very pertinent issues that are of value not only to my own work but also to internet research as a whole. He is correct in identifying the scope of my book as perhaps over-ambitious; this is one reason why I chose to organise the work as a series of case studies, rather than attempt to offer a synoptic and completist essay. In every case, though, I am interested in how alternative and mainstream "fields of relation" negotiate with one another. Reading the work back in light of Booth's critique I am struck by the problems raised by my attempts (and those of others) to develop an anti-binarist and anti-essentialised perspective from which to make sense of alternative media in a globalised electronic network. Perhaps better, I am struck by the implications that the rise of social networking sites (MySpace, Facebook, Bebo) have for my approach, to which we might add consumer-generated content embedded on commercial sites such as Amazon as well as participatory knowledge production on sites such as Wikinews and Wikipedia. Booth asks how a consideration of online social networking sites would have changed my approach. Here I want to sketch one possible outcome of that consideration.
The practices examined in my case studies are all deliberate media practices. The agents of these practices demonstrate awareness that what they are doing is creating. Whether they see themselves as journalists, political activists, or sub-cultural or counter-cultural commentators, they are producing media content within some historical context (such as a history of radical media, of protest, of popular music). Though I do not draw attention to this in the book, alternative media practitioners of all stripes tend to place themselves as part of some historical trajectory or other; they position themselves explicitly in a field of relation. The critical histories of alternative media studies tend to present their subjects "as extraordinary, whether as engines for radical or revolutionary social change, as the vehicles for remarkable rebels to proclaim their philosophies, or as vanguards of a new politics" (Atton, 2001; see also Hamilton and Atton, 2001).
A social networking site such as MySpace or the consumer-generated content of Amazon presents a different notion of participatory cultural production, one where opinions, experiences, and tastes are instances and extensions of everyday sociality. To what extent are these also examples of alternative media? Weigert's notion of the everyday is helpful here. He has conceptualised the everyday as "a taken-for-granted reality which provides the unquestioned background of meaning for each person's life" (Weigert, 1981: 36). Perhaps it is media production as "background" to which we need to turn, rather than to persist in our attempts at classifying and reducing our objects of study into alternative media, however we might reposition "alternative" in relation to -- and in negotiation with -- the mainstream technologies, philosophies, and ideologies with which it is increasingly implicated?
Last year my colleague James Hamilton and I were commissioned to write a textbook on alternative journalism. As we try to make sense of contemporary practices we find ourselves asking: what counts as online alternative journalism? However particular, unique, or negotiated the practices of alternative media may be, in the context of our present work they are journalism practices. Projects such as Indymedia and Slashdot have developed a multiperspectival journalism that brings together hard news, eyewitness reporting, and commentary. They share many of the features of social networking sites. Wikinews, on the other hand, actively discourages discussion and commentary; its ethic of the neutral point of view places it closer to traditional forms of journalism (Bruns, 2006).
In other cases, definitional certainties appear to be dissolving. Lowrey (2006) has argued that, as professional journalists begin to consider bloggers as occupational rivals, there follows a reassessment of professional processes: "The journalism community may try to redefine blogging as journalistic tool, and bloggers as amateur journalists or journalism wannabes (rather than as a unique occupation)" (Lowrey, 2006: 493). In Lowrey's parenthesis lies an important point. To suggest that they might constitute a "unique occupation" suggests that they might not be journalists at all. What, then, might they be? Rodriguez's (2001) formulation of citizens' media seems to have little connection with journalism. For Rodriguez, to become a producer of citizens' media seems to be more important than what is being produced. Self-empowerment and self-education are all; even audiences seem irrelevant.
But what if these media practices do not constitute an occupation at all? What if we consider them more as "people's methods for doing everyday life" (Weigert, 1981: 38)? This represents an ambition of a different kind. The "critical novelty of the Internet as a medium of communication" that Booth identifies as a major theme in my book would then need to take into account the "background" of the practices of everyday life, and how that they are being played out across social networking sites. Are these practices "alternative" at all, or are they evidence of the relocation and articulation of the mundane in a different space of communication?
Atton, Chris (2001). "The Mundane and its Reproduction in Alternative Media," Journal of Mundane Behavior 2(1).
Bruns, Axel (2006). "Wikinews: The Next Generation of Alternative Online News?," Scan 3(1).
Hamilton, James and Atton, Chris (2001). "Theorizing Anglo-American Alternative Media: Toward a Contextual History and Analysis of US and UK Scholarship," Media History 7(2): 119-135.
Lowrey, Wilson (2006). "Mapping the journalism-blogging relationship." Journalism: Theory, Practice, Criticism 7(4): 477-500.
Rodriguez, Clemencia (2001). Fissures in the Mediascape: An International Study of Citizens' Media. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
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