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Online Connections: Internet Interpersonal Relationships

Author: Susan B. Barnes
Publisher: Cresskill, New Jersey: Hampton Press, Inc, 2001
Review Published: April 2004

 REVIEW 1: Andrew Dalton

In Online Connections: Internet Interpersonal Relationships, Susan B. Barnes has crafted a well-researched, interesting, and informative piece of work based around the Internet and the relationships that accompany its evolution. The book has a fluidic framework and is useful to an advanced theorist in cybercultural and feminist studies and the novice alike. The aim of the text is to introduce us to the inter-personal relationships that formulate through online chatting and group dynamics and the negativity and positivity of the support networks that accompany it.

On a personal level and through my work as a youth worker, I found a specific relevance as I often receive web-chats and emails from young people with all issues ranging from sexuality to suicide attempts and so this text managed to motivate me on a professional and emotional level.

Barnes explores the notions of lurking, flaming, gender identity, cyber-sex, online community, relationships, and friendships online. Obviously, the content of this publication is too vast for a singular review of all the literature and so a general picture of case study examples shall be discussed. It is with note, however, that Barnes explores these topics in a well-researched and obviously passionate tone, and throughout the text one is left with a distinct impression that she has a firm, grounded, and elaborate idea of cyber-culture, its past, present, and future. As previously mentioned, the topics I shall analyze will be split into the following four categories for discussion:
  • Gender Identity Online;
  • Lurking and Flaming;
  • Communities Online and Support Mechanisms;
  • and Love and Relationships Online.
Indeed, highlights of the Internet as noted by Barnes can be through an anonymity of "self" and to exaggerate one's own characteristics in order to explore personality traits such as outward sexuality and confidence in order to achieve a satisfaction of exploring another facet of the Internet's "freedom." Further benefits include reducing self-consciousness and paving the way for more intimate exchanges about personal problems. Ultimately and socially this has created vast and complex support systems where exchanges can become inter-personal and groups can become "cliquey" and drawbacks are often at the expense of newer members to a forum, listserv, or chat room.

The chapters exploring gendered identity are perhaps one of the more insightful segments of the text as they explore gender relationships and the effects of male and female Internet usage. Indeed, "It has been argued that 'women are underrepresented on the Internet and World Wide Web because the presence of pornography creates a hostile environment" (Riley Cited in Barnes, 61) and indeed, Barnes makes note that men tend to dominate conversations in chat rooms and act with aggressive styles of discourse. This is backed up by the fact that 68% of men (61), in one particular example, criticized and ridiculed other group chatters. As a heavy Internet user myself, especially for research and leisure purposes, I have found this statement to hold a great deal of truth, and indeed as Barnes points out, private conversations or "whispers" tend to single out women, by men, in a chat room environment for sexually explicit talk/chat. Indeed, as Barnes notes, "when a woman enters a chat room, a man will ask her to leave the public room and join him in a private one. If the woman agrees, she usually finds herself being confronted with sex talk" (62).

As a consequence, female dominated groups try to discourage aggressive and flaming behaviors. Flaming as discussed later is a form of online aggression such as disrupting a chat room with obscene or offensive words/texts/language or when someone deliberately disrupts a discussion forum with inflammatory remarks. These online groups have created a friendly community which has established and encourages female participation and so the consequences of creating an apparent "softer" style have led to a feminine discourse that promotes nurturing, problem solving, and empathy. As noted by Barnes, this discourse, while having obvious advantages, has led many groups to be part of various online harassments. Indeed, these harassments to women online can occur in many forms ranging from public and private chat rooms to private e-mail. Interestingly, Barnes notes cases where men "gender-switch" to become women online and thus become the subject of online harassment. Indeed, the notions of gender ambiguity are argued extremely well by Barnes in that a person's gender, performed ambiguously, may cause significant discomfort among users. However, in one example it is said that some people use this ambiguity to their advantage, and as such "older women can participate in online discussions without age discrimination" (70). Indeed, one may argue from Barnes book that face-to-face discrimination is minimized and that new social norms and modes of communication are being formed, an idea that is as attractive as it is seductive.

This well-balanced approach to the text gives readers a rounded picture of sexual and verbal harassment on the Internet, and points out the many joys of being anonymous in cyberspace. Yet it also highlights the negative effects of online discourse and the emotional and often distressing consequences of forming one's own community. This fascinating culmination of various pieces of research to support her hypothesis and theories on gendered usage of the Internet make for an enjoyable read and a fascinating insight into areas of cyberculture that are relevant today to any user of the Net.

The chapters based on lurking and flaming shed light on a much under-researched area within cyberculture. Barnes claims that "it could be argued that 'lurkers' are a product of media consumption or the experience of only receiving messages. Mass media -- newspapers, magazines, radio and television -- have conditioned people to be consumers rather than producers of media" (43). It is relevant that people who do move from traditional media take their habits to the internet and so it does bring into question the notions of interactive relationships over the Net. There are, however, circumstances that Barnes notes that do bring into account why a person would lurk (or become passive, reading and not responding, staying quiet in a chat room, etc) such as work demands, relationships, topics being discussed, and how interested or how much a person knows about a subject. It is interesting that Barnes should mention this, as it is relevant for work/life balance and the effects on heavy Internet users, especially as work/life becomes a much-heated debate in public policy and in academia. The counter argument is that we are not passive and instead take in and absorb the information like a lecture environment, and utilize this information in everyday life. As with all arguments through the text, Barnes extends the debate with a wonderful sense of balance and as such adds to the feel of a well-researched text.

The notion of flaming is a fascinating enigma, as research has still yet to prove really why people flame. Flaming as a concept is hard to describe, as there are so many forms of it, such as sending offensive emails, acting aggressively in a chat-room, and sending psychologically damaging posts on message boards. As Barnes states, "all of a sudden, people you don't know start using rhetorical tactics to criticize you" and "challenging comments can quickly turn professional working adults into 'textual mud slingers'" (46). At some level, most people have encountered a flamer at some point, and through personal and professional work I support Barnes when she claims that we can slowly degenerate in behavior through the simple actions of one person online. There is a power structure in flaming, as one person (the flamer) can disrupt chat rooms and enrage, hurt, and destroy the credibility of others. Through this, the flamer gains a sense of power and has control over the evolution and the continuation of discussions and the chat room/listserv itself. It brings us to question the idea of how accessible the Internet community is and the Internet itself when one can move into a chat room and be insulted.

Another form of flaming mentioned is spamming which is described as a message which is repeated over numerous email systems, newsgroups, and pop-up advertisements. Spam is yet another under-researched area of study which is a shame considering that its connotations are vast, from pornographic emails in an inbox to financial schemes online, and the effects of these systems prove to be interesting as they slow down the Internet itself with high volumes of traffic. Spam is closely linked to flaming in that it often proves to be a direct result of flaming, especially in a chat-room environment where a word can be repeated by a dominant flamer to achieve his/her own way and a position of power. Perhaps an area Barnes proved weaker was the study of spamming. However, on many levels this can be understood, as there is little research on the topic and research that could be initiated is vast and seemingly borderless.

The text itself deals with so many complex issues and many are too numerous to mention, from the touching and poignant glances into the relationships of email and lists to the fickle nature of offline meetings and the consequences on cyber-chat. I have only taken a handful of the rich research and topics involved. However, it is hoped that this will provide a taste of what is in the book. I would encourage academics, activists, and people with a passing interest to read this book. It fills a much needed and complex niche in the study of cyberculture and the relationships that prove symbiotic and aggressive on the Internet.

Andrew Dalton:
Andrew gained his BSc (Honors) in Sociology and Social Research at the University of Northumbria, UK and his subsequent Master of Science in Social Research. He works as a youth worker and specializes in sexuality, fetishism, gender studies, and feminist theory. He reviewed Virtual Gender: Technology, Consumption and Identity for RCCS.  <therevadabuddha@hotmail.com>

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