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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

web.studies: Rewiring Media Studies for the Digital Age offers a fresh approach to a topic that has already seen a good deal of critical commentary. While a number of recent books focus on the way in which the best of textuality has informed the Web, David Gauntlett, the book's editor, has succeeded in illustrating the potential of following the opposite path. This collection of short, focused essays provides a "web-like" variety of content, complete with links, in the form of URL boxes at the end of each chapter, and an impressive level of hypertextual referentiality between the entries. In short, this book is a "killer site."

The collection comes in five sections; four sub-titled groups of essays and a glossary. Part I, entitled, "Web Studies" contains three chapters clearly intended to ground the book in history and practice. Gauntlett as editor leaves no doubt about who is Webmaster. He writes three chapters (including the first and last of the book), co-authors the glossary and provides editorial introductions to a further three chapters.

Gauntlett's greatest strength may lie in his passion for his subject matter. Unfortunately, it is also the source of the book's greatest weakness. While the tone of his opening chapter is casual enough to be described as "inviting," statements such as those showcased in the bulleted list that takes up most of the second page may detract from the book's message. In this list, Gauntlett assures us that "studies of media texts…were a waste of time," that semiotic and psychoanalytic approaches "became embarrassing," and audience studies had, "run out of steam." The entire list is an unfortunate display of the type of adversarial approach that is all too common in academe; a practice that attempts to define one study at the expense of another. Witness, for example, the penultimate bullet, "[h]istorical studies of the mass media justified themselves by saying that we could learn from history when planning the future. But nobody ever did" (3).

To be fair to Gauntlett this lapse is temporary but given its placement, it risks reaping what it sows -- literally -- leading readers to be dismissive about an otherwise valuable book. The rest of the chapter goes on to deal with the project's navigational techniques and closes with a nice touch: the author's personal email address and a request for comments.

Chapters 2 and 3 round out the section and provide background and methodological parameters for the larger new media studies context that the book seeks to address. In "Cyberculture Studies 1990-2000," David Silver (who is Gauntlett's co-author for the glossary as well as director of the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies) develops a three-stage motif of cyberculture studies while providing an overview that includes the initial glee of the high-tech geeks, the burgeoning field of study first hinted at by writers and scholars such as Howard Rheingold and Sherry Turkle, and finally arrives just moments behind our current state of awareness. Nina Wakeford's "New Media, New Methodologies: Studying the Web," brings out a large jar of social science techné and lathers us up for a day at the virtual beach. Who said structuralism was dead?

"Web Life, Arts and Culture" is the second section, comprised of seven chapters. The opening three deal with personal sites of one variety or another, with Charles Cheung writing on the personal home page, Kirsten Pullen on the development of fan sites (with a particular focus on those related to the television show Xena: Warrior Princess), and Eva Pariser looking at different types of artists' sites.

In "Web Cam Women: Life on Your Screen," Donald Snyder examines the new voyeuristic phenomenon started almost single-handedly by Jennifer Kaye Ringley in 1996 with her now famous JenniCam. Chapter 8, entitled "Queer 'n' Asian on -- and off -- the Net: the Role of Cyberspace in Queer Taiwan and Korea," is a particularly interesting chapter. Its quick movement through the questions of shifting racial and gender identities takes the reader to a space that recurs often in this book. Combining the best of academic research that operates to open more areas of research with the stickiness designed to fix eyeballs to a Web site, this article leaves the reader wanting more. This is no ordinary manipulation of desire however (don't forget Gauntlett banished Freud & Lacan et al). Since these pages close with series of links, the reader gets the feeling that something is beginning, not ending.

Chapter 9 sees Gauntlett return to his vituperative attack on all that has come before. Encapsulating two reviews for the film The Truman Show, he informs us, "[s]ince the first was banal and the second was pointless, I quickly realized that a plan B was needed" (84). The chapter, which broadens its focus to examine the general intersection of film and the Internet, is useful once it gets past the polemics.

The section closes with a debate between opposing sides of the Teacher Review Web site. Ryan Lathouwers and Amy Happ, who represent the site, use a defense that relies on the idea of the freedom of information. Daniel Curzon-Brown, the site's chief opponent (presumably as the result of being one of its subjects) gives a response. In a move of editorial dexterity, Gauntlett is careful to mention that though Curzon-Brown's writing comes last, it is by no means the final word in the debate.

The book's third section, "Web Business," contains six chapters that range in topic from pornography to that most austere of media enterprises, the British Broadcasting Corporation. The section starts quickly with an enjoyable an informative chapter, "Bad Web Design: The Internet's Real Addiction Problem." In the article, author David Rieder develops Marshal McLuhan's critique of the "Narcissus Effect," whereby users of a given technology become fixated on that technology to the detriment of all else and in particular to content.

Chapter 12, Gerard Goggin's "Pay Per Browse? The Web's Commercial Futures," moves away from the aesthetic and on to the political with an examination of the clash of "public information space" and what is becoming in effect a "private network" (110). Goggin's argument is timely, and goes a long way toward lobbying for a functional mix of the inevitable commercial sites and the public's right to some space for the free exchange of information.

"Search Engines, Portals and Global Capitalism" by Vincent Miller follows from Goggin's work. Miller exposes what he sees as an emerging digital oligarchy offering a particularly adept presentation of the shift to "web portals" which offer companies the ability to pursue new strategies in "branding." Miller argues that the inherent stability created by portals leads to a predictability in terms of audience that in turn provides a better stock price for participatory Web companies and investors. The result is a centralization that robs the Net of its much glamorized freedom and diversity of exchange.

Chapters 14 and 15 turn our focus to pornography and fetishistic fascination. JoAnn di Filippo's "Pornography on the Web" is an even-handed backgrounder to what is one of media studies' hottest topics. By providing a new balanced frame of reference, this short article avoids prescription and leaves room for dialogue in an area that will surely consume a good deal of ink and digital display over the coming years. Christopher R. Smit's follows, prefaced by an editorial warning about its complexity that plays nicely against the chapter's theme of manipulated fascination. The article is interesting, though the online examples it uses might improve. For example, one site's (www.nurple.com) decision to call itself a freak show does not necessarily mean that it can seamlessly coalesce with the tradition of freak shows in the west. In addition, Smit's description of Marilyn Manson as a "gender-bending rock star fearedby Middle America" is overdone. "Middle America" grew up with Alice Cooper; David Bowie and T-Rex; if they have any generalized feeling towards Manson, it is probably frustration at his lack of originality.

Chapter 16 offers everything you ever wanted to know about the shift of the BBC from a radio and television service to a radio, television, and Internet service. It is well researched, well informed and smells a lot like a book proposal or a doctoral dissertation in the making.

The book's final section, "Global Web Communities, Politics and Protest," contains eight chapters. Wendy Harcourt's essay on women on the Web leads off the group with an intelligent blend of factual background and theoretical postulates. Of note is her assertion that in order to assume a fuller agency in the digital world; women must participate not only in the content of the Web, but also in its design (156).

Stephen Lax's "The Internet and Democracy" is an engaging article though it seems to be rooted in a rather specific context. For example, the inclusion of the statistic that 87% of the population is not interested in cable, seems to place it firmly outside of relevance for a North American readership. Coupled with this, his assertion that there has been a low take-up of home computers, are quite simply untrue on the "other" side of the pond. Chapter 19 is a reprint of a talk given by Howard Rheingold, cybersocial guru and author of the now famous The Virtual Community (recently reprinted by MIT Press). Rheingold maintains his guric stature here, and is as always very entertaining to read.

After a quick editorial explanation from David Gauntlett about the difference between Indian diaspora and the Cherokee Indians in the United States, the book moves on to two interesting chapters on different attempts to define aspects of culture on the Net. Madhavi Mallapragada's essay offers a glimpse into the high tech world of transplanted Indian workers and their efforts to maintain some connection to a changing field of tradition. Ellen L. Arnold and Darcy C. Plymire find a very different, though equally fascinating situation when they highlight the Cherokee Nation's eastern and western components and independent Web presences.

Following this is a brief article by Philip M. Taylor that looks at the Internet and the war in Kosovo. This is currently a topic of much debate and the article would benefit from some mention of writers such as Paul Virilio, Michael Ignatief, and Bruce Robinson who have published important work on the subject. Douglas Thomas' look at cyber crime and the changing of hacker demography in "Cybercrime and the Politics of Hacking" does an excellent job of mentioning the unmentionables and providing a historical view of something that many thought was too young to have a history.

David Gauntlett returns to finish the book with "The Future: Faster, Smaller, More, More, More." In this piece, Gauntlett's verve is at its best. As any of you who have read books, articles, and journalistic pieces on new media over the past few years will know, one of the stock and trade aspects of the genre is prediction. Prediction in these contexts inevitably does two things -- first, it sounds overblown to everyone other than the most starry-eyed enthusiasts and, secondly, it goes on to prove itself overblown in practice. The problem is it can potentially make the author who is willing to go retail with their integrity very wealthy. Fortunately for this book, Gauntlett does not fall into the trap. His series of point/counterpoint prognostications seem to parody the form and leave the book on a very positive note. Capped off with a 10-page glossary to help the terminologically ill, web.studies enables its readers to pursue the questions raised by the book.

Overall, this book does a number of things very well and it does them at a time when there is a dearth of quality writing in this area. web.studies brings the best of the Web's tendency toward the succinct and informative and binds it in an affordable and useable format. It would make an excellent textbook for undergraduate media studies and could serve as an entry point for the digitally dubious members of the real world.

Patrick Finn:
Patrick Finn is a doctoral candidate at the University of Victoria. His dissertation, From Pre-Codex to Post Code: Textual Transmission in the Second Incunabulum, examines technical changes in media and their effects on the pursuit of meaning. He has published and presented papers on topics ranging from pop culture to editorial theory.  <pjfinn@uvic.ca>

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