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Web.studies: Rewiring Media Studies for the Digital Age

Editor: David Gauntlett
Publisher: London & New York: Arnold Publishers & Oxford University Press, 2000
Review Published: March 2001

 REVIEW 1: Ryan Burns
 REVIEW 2: Cesar Basanta
 REVIEW 3: Patrick Finn
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: David Gauntlett

The goals in David Gauntlett's Web.studies: Rewiring Media Studies for the Digital Age are to offer a "shift toward scholarly discussion about the internet so that it fully considers the multi-faceted and popular Web" (7), and to critically explore the social, economic, and political interactions that take place on the Web. To meet this end, Gauntlett divides the book into four succinct and logical divisions. The introduction includes an overview of the development of cyberculture studies during the last ten years and an outline of the methodologies for studying the Web. The first themed section, "Web Life, Arts and Culture," looks at the creative uses of the Web by everyday people, creating new cultures and interacting with existing ones. The next themed section, "Web Business," looks at the ways in which commercial interests have affected the development of the Web. The final themed section, "Global Web Communities, Politics and Protest," is about people coming together on the net for political or social reasons, and the ways in which the Web might change those political relationships and processes (12). Gauntlett has managed to bring together writers from many different disciplines and perspectives to deliver a coherent message about the importance of and unique avenues within cyberculture studies.

In the introduction, Gauntlett offers his brutally honest opinion on the lamentable state of media studies ("middle-aged, stodgy period . . . not really sure what it could say about things any more") (3). He claims that media studies was nearly dead (3), but the Web as a new medium is "vibrant, exploding and developing," and maintains that that this is an exciting time to participate in the new media explosion (4). Gauntlett's unapologetic love of the Web is refreshing in a time when most writers offer numerous cynical caveats and qualifications to any prediction. Gauntlett's introduction is one of excitement about the possibilities of "cyberculture" studies. The chapter authors share his enthusiasm by celebrating (without hyperbole) the Web as an avenue of self-expression, its potential to bring people together, the Web's impact of politics and international relations, and even objectively comment on the tenuous relationship between big business and the Web. In the introductory section, David Silver's overview of the development of cyberculture studies is a creative blend of popular and critical cyberculture studies. Silver includes a discussion of Usenet, MOO's and MUD's, consumer technology magazines, Al Gore, and William Gibson's Neuromancer to represent the popular vision of cyberculture. To represent the critical end, Silver briefly summarizes the efforts of popular and oft-cited works, such as Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community, Sherry Turkle's Life on the Screen, and Barry Wellman's work on "social networks." In the introductory section, Nina Wakeford's chapter, "New Media,New Methodologies," starts with the admission that there are no standard techniques in the social science disciplines for studying the Web (31), and then offers insight into the numerous levels on which the Web can be studied and understood. A book that could accompany this chapter and offer a quantitative perspective is Steven Jones's Doing Internet Research, and for the qualitative perspective, Chris Mann and Fiona Stewart's Internet Communication and Qualitative Research could provide humanistic insight into methods of studying the Web.

The first themed section, "Web Life, Arts and Culture," examines personal homepages and Web sites by fans, artists and webcam owners, as well as use of the Internet by gay, lesbian and bisexual people, by students writing "reviews" of their teachers and by movie-goers (12). Charles Cheung's chapter extends Erving Goffman's ideas from The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and writes about self-presentation on personal homepage and their "emancipatory possibilities" (47). Kirsten Pullen's chapter on online fan communities notes the importance the Web plays in allowing viewers of marginalized TV shows to generate and analyze subtexts, and is a fertile medium for polysemic (open to interpretation and requires viewers to make their own meanings) readings and discussions of shows (54). The chapters in this themed section focus on how individuals and groups use Web pages to express themselves to a world-wide audience. Since this section is mostly an examination of the applied and practical aspects of the Web, Charles Ess's Philosophical Perspectives on Computer-Mediated Communication and Patricia M. Wallace's The Psychology of the Internet could provide readers with an advanced understanding of the theoretical underpinnings of cybercultures.

The second themed section, "Web Business," focuses on economic components of the Web, search engines and portal sites, Web pornography, and how the BBC adapted to the challenge of the Web (12). This section starts with David Rieder's discussion of bad Web page design, which he accounts for its prevalence with an intriguing connection to the Greek myth of Narcissus. The remaining chapters acknowledge the important role big business played (and will continue to play) in the development of the Web. JoAnn Di Filippo's chapter on Web pornography resists the temptation to succumb to a hyperbolic diatribe about the prevalence of Web pornography and how it ruins the Web. Instead she efficiently describes the current Web pornography market, its financial impact on the Web, and includes a short history of Web pornography. She also includes short summaries of what early pornography industry leaders had to face, the recent legal battles over the Communications Decency Act, and some of the social and cultural implications of Internet pornography. A unique chapter in this section is Christopher R. Smit's "Fascination: The Modern Allure of the Internet." Gauntlett prefaces the chapter by noting that it may be more complex than some of the other chapters, but included it as an effort to introduce new areas of Web theory. The chapter's inclusion is most appropriate and appreciated given that some of the chapters focus on the applied aspects, design components, and economic and political situations of the Web. It definitely is a more philosophical inquiry into the "draw" of the Internet, but Smit sensibly explains that Web fascination entices audiences with its voyeuristic components and represents a moment of enchantment, allure, and irresistible appeal (130).

The final themed section, "Global Web Communities, Politics and Protest," looks at communities built around political interests, women's activist groups, ethnic identities, how the Internet is used in contemporary warfare, and the political, criminal, and social activities of hackers (12). This section elaborates on the simple concept that before the Internet, communities were made of similar individuals who lived close to each other. But with the advent of Internet communication technologies, the concept of "community" was extended to include all like-minded people regardless of where they were located in the physical world. Wendy Harcourt's chapter on women activist Web groups, Madhavi Mallapragada's chapter on Indian diaspora, Stephen Lax's chapter on the Internet and democracy, and Ellen L. Arnold and Darcy C. Plymire's chapter on Cherokee Indians examine how communities develop amongst similarly themed Web sites. These chapters provide evidence of the sense of communal interconnection and interdependence fostered through these sites, how the Internet can help to achieve greater democracy, and how the Web provides a unique tool to empower communities.

In Web.studies, Gauntlett and the chapter authors have successfully provided a resource of scholarly discussions about Web cultures that take into consideration the broad range of social, economic, and political interactions that take place on the Web. Each of the three major divisions of Web.studies offers a unique and inclusive approach to the study of cyberculture. Taken as a whole, Web.studies could serve as a rich survey piece for an undergraduate cyberculture course because it tackles many Web issues in short, understandable, and succinct chapters. On another level, some of the chapters offer theoretical and philosophical perspectives and citations more appropriate for advanced cyberculture studies which could be used to spur critical investigations into the unique avenues within Web cultures.

Ess, Charles. Philosophical Perspectives on Computer-Mediated Communication. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996.

Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Penguin, 1959.

Jones, Steven G, editor. Doing Internet Research: Critical Issues and Methods for Examining the Net. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1999.

Mann, Chris & Fiona Steward. Internet Communication and Qualitative Research: A Handbook for Researching Online. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2000.

Rheingold, Howard. The Virtual Community. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1993.

Turkle, Sherry (1995). Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Wallace, Patricia M. The Psychology of the Internet. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Ryan Burns:
Ryan Burns is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of Oklahoma. His research interests include Internet sexuality (pornography, "cybersex," and online dating and relationships) and Internet research methodologies. 

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