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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

In his book Web.studies: Rewiring Media Studies for the Digital Age, editor David Gauntlett, a lecturer in social communications at the University of Leeds, sets out an interesting review of media studies and the Web, from both a sociological and cultural studies perspective. The original aspect of this book is, as Gauntlett points out, that he himself has never spoken or written (by conventional snail mail) to most of the contributors. In fact, this book came together entirely on the Internet. This book is primarily aimed at investigating the relatively new area of media studies that are found within the Web, although it does cover in some detail other aspects such as Cybercrime and Global Capitalism. Gauntlett writes, that "[b]y the end of the twentieth century, media studies research within developed western societies had entered a middle-aged, stodgy period and wasn't really sure what it could say about things any more. Thank goodness the web came along" (3).

This statement is essential to what the book is about; it looks at the various aspects that can be found on the Web, and what these aspects mean to us now and in the future. The book is divided into four sections/parts: Part 1 contains a general introduction to the Web and Web studies; part 2 examines Web life and culture; part 3 looks at the business of the Web such as Web site designs and pornography; and finally, part 4 discusses the politics of the Net as well as global Web communities, which have come about in the last ten years. A very good feature of this book is that at the end of each of the twenty-four topics discussed are a number of useful Web sites, which can be looked up for further information.

Part 1: Web Studies

Section 1 gives the reader a general introduction to the historical background to the Web and a general overview of some of topics that are discussed in greater depth later on in the book, such as making money from the Web and building online communities. This section also introduces the reader to the history of cyberculture studies over the last ten years and gives the reader an insight into the kinds of methodologies used in studying the Web.

In "Looking Backwards, Looking Forwards: Cyberculture Studies 1990-2000" by David Silver, the topic of cyberculture is introduced and explained clearly to the reader. It is presented by the concepts of past (popular cyberculture), current (cyberculture studies), and future (critical cyberculture studies) areas of research and investigation. It brings to light some very interesting topics, such as the journalistic origins of popular cyberculture, with William Gibsons' 1984 novel Neuromancer, online identities, and examples of the ways in which we engage with cyberculture in everyday life thorough movies like the Matrix and The Net.

In the next chapter, "New Media, New Methodologies: Studying the Web," Nina Wakeford notes: "One of the most confusing aspects of doing research about the Web . . . is that it can be understood at many levels. Web pages are . . . cultural representations, material objects for consumption and the outcome of skilled labour. Although it is possible to do a fine-grained reading of an individual Web page as 'cultural text', it is equally feasible to take a broad view of the way in which the Web is becoming part of global culture and commerce" (31).

As complex as the topic may be, the issue of methodologies is dealt with in a very understandable and reader-friendly way. Moreover, a unique insight is how Web pages can be viewed as cultural representations and visualized as social networks, and how scholars can go about studying and researching such sites.

Part 2, "Web Life, Arts and Culture," looks at the range of creative uses that everyday people have found for the Web. It focuses on personal homepages, Web sites created by fans, such as the pages created by fans of the popular television show Xena: Warrior Princess. (For one such example, see The Ultimate Xena Fan Fiction Directory.) We are also shown how artists create Web sites as a medium for them to display or present their work. Chapter 7, "Webcam Women: Life on Your Screen" by Donald Snyder, looks into the appeal and publicity that webcams have had on society. It also explores the extent to which personal webcams present real life. The use of Jennicam as a way to illustrate this issue work wells and is interesting to read. Other implications of webcams are also discussed, such as pornography, but only briefly, as it is covered largely in Part 3. This section also deals with the way in which the Internet is used by gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. In particular, Chris Berry and Fran Martin's chapter, "Queer 'n' Asian on -- and off -- the Net: The Role of Cyberspace in Queer Taiwan and Korea," investigates the ways in which the Internet offers a new platform for people to speak freely about any topic safe in the knowledge that, as one Taiwanese interviewee put it, "everyone chatting was queer" (78). This topic also highlights some of the political and global issues centered around gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. The last two chapters of Part 2, Gauntlett's "The Web Goes to the Pictures" and Ryan Lathouwers, Amy Happ, and Daniel Curzon-Brown's "The Teacher Review Debate," are centered around the ways in which movie-goers and students use the Web in populist ways, either to write reviews of films or of academic courses they have taken.

Section 3, "Web Business," looks at some of the ways in which commercial interest have affected, and continue to effect, the development of the Web. Chapter 11, David Rieder's "Bad Web Design: The Internet's Real Addiction Problem," starts by looking at some of the aspects, including large movies files and animated GIFs that take several minutes to load, that lead to badly designed Web pages. The next chapter, Gerard Goggin's "Pay Per Browse? The Web's Commercial Futures," discusses some of the commercial interest of the Web where the Internet moves from the public domain to the private. The book then moves on to the history and marketing potential of both search engines and portals as told in Vincent Miller's "Search Engines, Portals and Global Capitalism." JoAnn di Filippo's "Pornography on the Web," deals, as its title suggests, with pornography on the Web, traces how pornography first emerged on the Web, and looks at some of the problems that were first faced by developers of pornographic sites. Some of these problems include preventing unwanted and unauthorized viewers visiting the sites and processing membership and renewal fees. The chapter also investigates some of the social and cultural implications of pornography on the Internet. Christopher R. Smit's "Fascination: The modern Allure of the Internet" gets a bit more theoretical and is introduced by Gauntlett, who notes that the chapter "may be more complex than some of the others . . . Here Christopher Smit begins to develop a theory regarding the 'draw' of the internet, based in the idea of 'fascination'. The approach can, I hope, say something about Web surfing in general, and not just about those interested in pornographic, voyeuristic or 'freak show' sites" (130). From an academic point of view, this chapter is very interesting and well written.

Section 4, "Global Web Communities, Politics and Protest," explores the ways in which people come together through the Internet for various political and/or social reasons. It looks at how communities are built around political interests, women activist groups, and ethic identities. Wendy Harcourt's "World Wide Women and the Web" deals with women and the Web, and discusses how women use the Net to help organize conferences such as the 1995 Beijing conference. It also looks at how women are using the Internet to break down some traditional boundaries; Harcourt notes: "Women are empowering themselves through the net by breaking down traditional boundaries on many levels . . . Although it is true that fewer women use the internet . . . the gap is lessening daily" (154). Ellen L. Arnold and Darcy C. Plymire's chapter, "The Cherokee Indians and the Internet," the case study involves Cherokee Indians's use of the Net.

The chapters contained within the section also investigate issues such as democracy, political studies, and contemporary warfare, such as the Kosovo war. The development of communities in terms of future cybersociety and the social activities of hackers are also reviewed in some depth. Douglas Thomas' chapter, "New Ways to Break the Law: Cybercrime and the Politics of Hacking," discusses who hackers are and what their motivations may be. It also looks at the politics of such hacker groups as the Cult of the Dead Cow and the Legion of Doom. The book's last chapter, Gauntlett's "The Future: Faster, Smaller, More, More, More," takes a brief look at some of the possible futures of both the Internet and wired society.

Web studies is excellent for both humanities students who are interested in aspects of the Web but are unsure where to start and for those who wish to discover what the Web has to offer. David Gauntlett has given us a comprehensive look at several areas of the Web. He also offers us a unique insight of the experiences that he and the other contributors have had with online communities, Web site design, and other aspects of the Internet. Moreover, it is refreshing to find such a style of writing in a book of this nature. Indeed, some books on cyberculture and the Internet are written in a very dry and academic style that normally requires a certain level of techo-knowledge in order for a greater understanding of the text to be achieved. However, this book requires no such specialist knowledge or prior-reading in the subject area to be able to understand what is being said. Web studies is, overall, a most enjoyable read.

Cesar Basanta:
Cesar Basanta is a part time lecturer in Social Sciences and Research Methodology at Bath Spa University College.  <cesarbasanta@yahoo.com>

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