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Society Online: The Internet in Context

Editor: Philip N. Howard, Steve Jones
Publisher: Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2004
Review Published: August 2004

 REVIEW 1: Mei Zhang
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Philip Howard and Steve Jones

Society Online: The Internet in Context, edited by Philip N. Howard and Steve Jones, is a comprehensive volume that examines many uses of the new media and the impact of new technologies on daily life. As Howard's introduction states, the book takes an embedded media perspective as its analytical framework, focusing on "how new communication tools are embedded in our lives and how our lives are embedded in new media" as the internet mediates our interaction with the people and the world around us (2). Written by leading social scientists, most chapters of the book utilize data from the Pew Internet and American Life Project as well as other surveys and telephone interviews. Research methods such as ethnography, participant observation, and content analysis also prove useful in several studies.

Following James Witte's "Prologue: The Case for Multimethod Research," which discusses the strength, limitation, and potential of Web-based surveys, the book consists of four sections. Part I is about "Social Capital, Community, and Content." The first two articles study online communities and online religious activities respectively. As Pippa Norris discovers, Americans feel that the internet can "widen" their experience of community by connecting people with "different beliefs and backgrounds" and "deepen" their experience by "strengthening existing social networks" (40). Norris' research suggests that the internet may have the potential power to overcome certain social divisions. Elena Larsen finds that "religion surfers are present in all segments of society" and variables such as age, gender, ethnicity, level of online experience, and economic and educational background are not significant predictors (46). Religion surfers seek information, advice, and support and engage in social activities as well as provide information, links, support, and service (47-50). The internet offers "a devotional aid" to supplement people's religious lives, enabling surfers to discuss faith with others all over the world (51-53).

The remaining two articles critically interrogate the internet and the prevailing discourse of the new media. Leslie Regan Shade examines how American women use the internet and how corporations try to attract women surfers. In addition to gender differences among racial groups, women and men engage in different Web activities (61-62). Hence, "women are using the internet to reinforce their private lives and men are using the internet more for engaging in the public sphere" (63). There is a lack of real equity as "the internet has been increasingly feminized" featuring such topics as health, beauty, cooking, and shopping (64). Women of lower socioeconomic and education levels do not have equal access to the internet and men still dominate the technology field and hold more leadership positions (65-67). Lisa Nakamura challenges the digital divide discourse and points out a new type of digital divide in terms of specific types of access. For example, more African Americans than Whites listen to music online (74). Nakamura's research indicates that "users of color are quite selective in their use of the internet and tend to favor activities related to expressive culture, such as music, movies, chatting, and using multimedia sources" (75). In addition, the internet serves as a site of resistance to racial hegemonies in society and offers minority members space for empowerment and online activism as in the case of Asian Americans' success in organizing a protest against Abercrombie & Fitch's racist T-shirts in 2002 (77-78).

Part II of the book is about "Wired News and Politics Online." Jennifer Stromer-Galley's study shows that overall people still prefer voting at a polling place. She finds that "people identified both the candidates themselves and their knowledge of the candidates to be greater obstacles than registration or getting to the polling place" (93). She continues: "People who find it difficult to go to the polls are more likely to prefer internet voting or voting by mail" (94). Being an internet user, being younger, and having higher levels of education and income all positively correlate with preference for internet voting. "The Internet and Political Involvement in 1996 and 2000" by Ronald E. Rice and James E. Katz shows that many internet users participated in some kind of online political activity and some reported effect on their voting decisions. "Thus, rather than the internet diminishing traditional forms of political activity, it is associated with somewhat greater traditional as well as new political activities" (118). The internet appears to "expand political involvement without sacrificing current mode of political activity" (118).

Carin Dessauer's article is entitled "New Media, Internet News, and the News Habit." Internet news, with such features as frequent updates, search engines, hyperlinks, multimedia offerings, and interactivity, has fundamentally changed the definition of news (124-125). The internet has also redefined journalistic practice to include "more styles, lengths, and formats to be showcased" (131). Internet news reaches the whole world and offers more choices for information, which challenges news media to retain their respective audiences (133). The last article by Steven M. Schneider and Kirsten A. Foot is about "Crisis Communication and New Media: The Web after September 11." They argue that the Web could serve "as a significant component of the public sphere, enabling coordination, information sharing, assistance, expression, and advocacy in a crisis situation" (151). The study indicates the importance of understanding the "evolving interpretations of intellectual property law" when it comes to creating archives and securing access for scholarly analyses (151).

Part III of the book is about "Economic Life Online." David Silver and Philip Garland's "'sHoP onLiNE!': Advertising Female Teen Cyberculture" examines rhetorical strategies advertisers use in Seventeen, Teen, and Teen People to attract teens to Web sites. The article uncovers a new discourse of the cyberspace, "community as commerce" (166). "Here, the internet is rhetorically constructed as a virtual space for users to come together, share ideas, and shop" (166). While shopping was the most common key word in the magazines, "shopping online represented a relatively small portion of reported internet activity among American teens" (167). Therefore, American female teens tend to use the internet more for communication of information rather than for consumption or shopping, resisting the magazines' construction of their identity as consumers (167-168).

The other two articles study organizational structure and construction of computer skills in the job market. Gina Neff and David Stark focus on how the internet has changed organizations. They use the term "permanently beta" to define internet companies due to their "fluid" forms (175). The software design is in a continuous cycle of testing, innovation, and revision based on responses from users (178). The article points to the participatory potential of such an organizational state with user feedback being an essential part of product design and development. "Art Versus Code: The Gendered Evolution of Web Design Skills" by Nalini P. Kotamraju studies the evolution of Web design skills in the computer industry and points out the highly contested nature of what seems to be purely technical skills. The three stages went from "Art and Code Fusion" to "Art and Code Bifurcation" to "Domination of Code over Art" between 1993 and 2001. Kotamraju argues that the evolution of skills in the computer industry was not a natural or neutral process; rather it was socially constructed along gender lines as dictated by revenue and profitability (199-200).

Part IV of the book "Culture and Socialization Online" studies the relationship between internet use and people's reading, musical taste, and level of tolerance, which demonstrates positive impact of the new media. "Wired and Well Read" by Wendy Griswold and Nathan Wright finds that the internet is positively correlated with reading as internet users are more likely to read books offline (212). In addition, most of the college freshmen in a focus group said that their reading was not affected by being online. They did less reading in college not because of the internet, but because of other factors such as the workload (214). Hence, overall internet use does not replace reading; rather they mutually support each other. Richard A. Peterson and John Ryan find that internet use increases the range of musical tastes and that women have a wider variety of musical tastes than men. Age, ethnicity, and education are not significant factors (233-234). "Technology and Tolerance: Public Opinion Differences Among Internet Users and Nonusers" by John P. Robinson, Alan Neustadtl, and Meyer Kestnbaum states that internet users are more open and tolerant than nonusers. However, frequency of internet use do not always increase tolerance. Internet users also tend to be more trusting of others and more optimistic about life (252).

The last part of the book is "Personal and Global Contexts of Life Online." The first article, "Informed Web Surfing: The Social Context of User Sophistication" by Eszter Hargittai, studies people's skills in locating content on the Web and their social relationships. The article indicates that age and education are significantly associated with online skills and that social relations play an important role. "People rely on their social support networks for suggestion of site recommendations and for answers to particular questions" (271). "American Internet Users and Privacy: A Safe Harbor of Their Own?" by Doreen Starke-Meyerring, Dan L. Burk, and Laura J. Gurak compares the European Union model of comprehensive government regulation and the U.S. model of corporate self-regulation. Their study suggests that Americans seem to prefer citizens' self-management as an alternative, as they feel strongly about enforcement of privacy rights without total government regulation (283). The article calls for more research on specific privacy questions such as "medical privacy" and "privacy when shopping online" (291).

The third chapter, "Sited Materialities with Global Span" by Saskia Sassen, argues against a purely technological reading of the cyberspace and against reliance on analytic categories preceding the digital age. The article points out that the digital and the material are mutually implicated; even digital activities need material and human talent. "Thus, electronic space is inflected by the values, cultures, power systems, and institutional orders within which it is embedded" (302-303). Old hierarchies take on new forms and the internet results in new international cooperation and conflict. The next article "The Future of the Internet: Cultural and Individual Conceptions" by William Sims Bainbridge summarizes what the future of the internet might look like. The responses collected via an experimental Web site suggest the belief that the internet will continue to develop with commerce, publishing, libraries, art, and music all going online. While digital government may become a reality, problems such as loss of privacy, personal isolation, and information overload may also arise (318-322). The concluding chapter by Steve Jones reiterates the importance of contexts and history when studying network technologies and online communication.

With its interdisciplinary scope of research, Society Online is a timely addition to the existing literature on cyberspace and media studies. The book offers valuable insight into how the daily activities of individuals and organizations are embedded in the new media ranging from politics, religion, economics, and entertainment. The internet has profoundly changed contemporary American society and brought about new possibilities and challenges to citizens in the U.S. and around the world. The book indicates that the digital era, despite its new hierarchies and privacy concerns, can empower people as they have more choices for information and service, new opportunities for interactivity and message production, and additional space for resistance and activism. With their fast-changing pace, the new technologies call for constant research updates and re-conceptualization of traditional mass communication models.

Mei Zhang:
Mei Zhang (Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh) is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Missouri Western State College. Her research interests include the relationship between rhetoric and culture, public address, media studies, and intercultural/international communication. Among her scholarly publications is an article that she contributed to Civic Discourse, Civil Society, and Chinese Communities, winner of the Outstanding Book Award from the International and Intercultural Communication Division of the National Communication Association in 2000. Before coming to the U.S., Zhang was on the faculty of the School of Journalism at Fudan University in China, where she taught courses in English and International Journalism.  <meizhang@mwsc.edu>

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