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Mapping Cyberspace: Social Research on the Electronic Frontier

Editor: Joseph E. Behar
Publisher: Binghamton, NY: Dowling College Press, 1997
Review Published: November 2001

 REVIEW 1: Leslie M. Tkach

As a collection of papers regarding the essence of cyberspace, Mapping Cyberspace: Social Research on the Electronic Frontier, edited by Joseph E. Behar, discusses approaches to the Net from a number of different perspectives. In the preface, Langdon Winner describes it as a volume in which researchers "explore what actually happens in and around the Net" (iii). However, this compilation can also be viewed from a number of alternative viewpoints.

The first is how cyberspace actually reflects what happens in the real world, similar to Lacan's theory of "The Other." That we become fully aware of our own individual and social characteristics only when we are confronted with these same characteristics in other selves or other societies is one perspective of viewing our relationship with cyberspace. Within this volume, the four chapters in Part I -- titled "Telecommunications and Social Relations: Case Studies" -- by Patricia J. Peterson, Morton G. Ender, Janet Moursund, and Martha E. Gimenez discuss how individuals approach the Internet, with positive, negative, and supportive results, as reflections of themselves.

Peterson's chapter, "'They've Got the Whole World in Their Hands:' A Case Study of Social Control on the Internet," describes a "talker" known as "The World," which grew out of a Multiple User Dungeon (MUD) as an example of social controls on individuals. Talkers combine elements of both chat lines and bulletin boards, having public and private "rooms" where one can participate in group or one-to-one discussions. Using a case study approach, Peterson describes the MUD as "a world that is more controllable, and perhaps more satisfactory for its participants, than the 'real world'" (20). That individuals are using cyberspace to express and recreate aspects of their worlds illustrates not only the possibilities of cyberspace but also tells us something about ourselves and how we are viewing the "real world." What particular aspects we choose -- and the reasons why we choose them -- to transfer from our offline lives to our online ones, by the virtue that these choices are freely made, provides clues to our individual interpretations of our real world and also the manner in which we approach the Internet. By recreating portions of ourselves and our society, we are experimenting with individual and social identification, as well as new forms of social structures. In this manner, cyberspace serves as a looking glass or mirror of these reflections.

Peterson's chapter concerning the construction of new environments and social systems is only one aspect of individual expression in a cyberspatial social environment. Of course, an individual's social relations also occur on a one-to-one basis, and this is the theme of two other chapters in Part I by Ender ("E-Mail to Somalia: New Communication Media Between Home and War-Fronts") and Moursund ("SANCTUARY: Social Support on the Internet"). Of the two, Ender's chapter is particularly provocative. Describing a case study of the use of computer-mediated communications (CMC) in the military from early 1992 to mid-1993, this chapter, at first glance, appears to be perhaps slightly out of date, especially when considered from the viewpoint of the Internet in its current 21st century form. However, this paper and Moursund's contribution are the most individually oriented articles in this volume. "E-mail to Somalia" discusses e-mail as it is utilized by individuals; not only is it a means of communicating simple news and basic information about oneself, but also as a medium to convey pain, love, joy, longing, and other intrinsic facets of the human condition. Although we may already suspect that "e-mail successfully meets the real-time communication needs of soldiers and family" (44), this particular paper genuinely captures the CMC equivalent of these intrinsic emotions again the backdrop of war-time communications.

Moursund's chapter, also describing a MUD environment, underscores this aspect of individual communication. By using the Internet to talk about problems, share experiences, exchange information, and receive and offer positive feedback and motivational support, a sense of place and belongingness is created that individuals do not feel exists in their "real-world" lives. As survivors of traumatic experiences, the individuals who participate in "SANCTUARY" use cyberspace to improve and heal, rather than reflect, the pain of the "real world." This paper as well highlights the use of cyberspace as a means of expression of the very human nature of its participants.

The Gimenez chapter rounds out the individually focused papers. Gimenez uses the Progressive Sociologists Network (PSN) as an example of professional electronic discussion groups, suggesting that participation patterns in such communities resemble those of real-life communities. Of course, communities exist as singular entities in and of themselves, made up of individual participants; however, they also constitute small groups of individuals. The patterns of interaction within these subsets are varied: They may exist only within the cyberspatial realm of the communities, reflect real-life relationships based on non-virtual interaction, be "public" sub-communities open to all participants, or consist of "private" interaction based on emerging relationships. Each individual and each subset in turn shares and contributes to constructing the entire virtual network, an imaginary mass community in itself. However, Gimenez also proposes that the unit of trade, being the "private ownership of knowledge and information" (102), is the most important aspect of virtual communities. That knowledge and information are publicly traded in virtual communities such as these demands a rethinking of the ways in which collective ownership is viewed. In her closing argument, she suggests that through this reconsideration process, the structuring of virtual communities may well turn around and affect "real-world" groupings.

The chapters in the first half of the book mainly deal with how cyberspace replicates the real world on the individual and community levels. In contrast, the last four contributed chapters view the Internet from a different perspective. The metaconcepts covered in these final papers -- the tension between geography and cyberspace, telecommunications policies, non-traditional political actors on the Internet, and the relationship between cyberspace and democracy -- describe Internet utilization in terms of social and political policies. At first glance, Robert M. Kitchin's "Social Transformation Through Spatial Transformation: From Geospaces to Cyberspaces" and James Willson-Quayle's "Cyberspace Democracy and Social Behavior: Reflections and Refutations" seem to be papers that approach social spaces on the Internet from dissimilar viewpoints. The "Social Transformation" paper discusses how cyberspace plays with conventional notions of time and space to produce a new social space that challenges how we relate communications to geography. Kitchin argues that shifts are occurring on a number of levels: Through evolving economic and political systems, the meanings behind identity and body, including a reconceptualization of how we view reality and virtuality, and our search for the "real" within cyberspace. This last point is especially pertinent in terms of the geography theme of the paper. We tend to take the actual geographic space that enclose communicative processes occur for granted through familiarity and pattern. Kitchin argues that cyberspace is our reality but in a different form with different patterns from which we have become accustomed. The relationship between the two is constantly nourished and propagated by our decisions as to what "real-life" communication patterns are transferred to cyberspace and how our communicative actions in cyberspace in turn re-define geospatial relationships.

James Willson-Quayle's "Cyberspace Democracy and Social Behavior: Reflections and Refutations" can be viewed as an extension of this theme. Since the early 1990s, the use of the Internet as a modern Habersmasian social sphere has been hotly debated. Early utopians heralded its instantaneous, inexpensive, and empowering communications capability as a means to greatly alter, if not save, democracy from apathy and lack of participation. However, by the end of the 1990s, critics had argued that issues of education, access, and interest would prevent any great alteration in democratic social behavior through cyberspace. Willson-Quayle quite rightly points out that "empirical evidence that computer technology can alter personal and social attitudes and behavior is sketchy" (235). He suggests a third course, being that the "effect of computer technology on democratic politics will be more a matter of degree rather than kind" (241). In other words, entrenched political actors will adjust to computer-medicated technologies and transfer their "real-world" actions to cyberspace. In turn, interest group activity and the sense of social status based on technological capabilities will become further enhanced. This viewpoint is similar to that discussed in Robert M. Kitchin's chapter, namely, that certain patterns will be reflected in cyberspace. Willson-Quayle's commentary is that these patterns will not be altered through any great major shift, but rather, will occur incrementally as CMC utilization continues to increase and become part of our everyday lives.

The first generation of Internet and cyberspace studies focused on the use and means of CMC mainly centered in academic and corporate environments. As cyberspace became inhabited by more people through public access to the Internet, a second generation emerged that on the one hand suggested great promise for new individual, community, and socio-political relationships, yet on the other hand, warned that "politics as usual" will reign in the virtual world. Research within this second stage as well tended to compare cyberspace with other media and communications forms in its search for ways and means to approach this new medium. Today, we appear to be on the threshold of a third generation of Internet and cyberspace studies. Cyberspatial and Internet studies have arrived as academic disciplines in their own right, reflecting a number of different conversations, contexts, and approaches as we continue to study the expanding uses of the Internet in our daily lives. With this enhanced utilization, we are increasingly using the Internet to enhance and reflect ourselves, our community, and our social, professional, and political lives. The conversation that it in turn has about us is extremely telling about our society today. The chapters in Mapping Cyberspace certainly add to this dialogue.

Leslie M. Tkach:
Leslie M. Tkach is a postgraduate student at the Graduate School of International Political Economy, University of Tsukuba, Japan. Leslie is currently researching how a blend of infrastructure, cross-cultural, and political economy issues contribute to the political use of the Internet in Japan and other South-east Asian countries.  <tkach@japan.email.ne.jp>

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