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Virtual Culture: Identity and Communication in Cybersociety

Editor: Steven G. Jones
Publisher: Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1997
Review Published: March 1998

 REVIEW 1: David Silver

In the budding field of cyberculture, a canon is beginning to emerge. As one can witness while attending conferences, browsing through the growing list of online courses in cyberculture, and reading about the topic in books, journals, magazines, and newspapers, it is evident that a nascent canon is in the works. Indeed, it is difficult to find an academic paper on cyberculture that does cite Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community, Sherry Turkle's Life on the Screen, Sandy Stone's The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age, and the theoretical essays from the Michael Benedikt-edited Cyberspace: First Steps. It is among such company that Virtual Culture, edited by Steven Jones, should and will reside.

What separates Virtual Culture from so many mediocre cyberculture anthologies (see, for example, February's review of Cyberfutures: Culture and Politics on the Information Superhighway) is the depth of engagement. While other books speak about cyberculture, Virtual Culture directly engages in and with the interactions, relationships, identities, and communities that grow, flourish, wither, and evolve online. Not content with learning about online culture via Wired magazine, the contributors of Virtual Culture log in and explore first hand their respective sites of study.

Following a brief introduction, Jones gets things started with "The Internet and its Social Landscape." Similar to his introductory essay in Cybersociety this chapter seeks not to reconfigure the scope of cyberculture studies but rather to introduce and problematize the field's key terms and definitions. Informed by the work of Benedict Anderson and James Carey, Jones, Chair and Professor of Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago, editor of CyberSociety, and the co-editor of the soon-to-be-released international journal New Media & Society, historically locates popular rhetoric regarding the Net's potential to transcend time and space. Next, he problematizes the notion of virtual communities, questioning whether they should be referred to as "discontinuous narrative spaces" rather than communities and introducing salient points regarding the important distinctions between social recognition, occupancy, and interaction. After a brief discussion of the Communications Decency Act, the author challenges the idea of an online public sphere by questioning whether public unity and rational discourse can occur in a space populated by multiple identities, random juxtapositions, and online agents and bots.

Chapter two, "The Individual within the Collective: Virtual Ideology and the Realization of Collective Principles," explores the ways in which collectivity on the Net is juxtaposed against individuality. After a brief discussion regarding the possibility of the Net containing a multiplicity of public spheres, Jan Fernback, a doctoral candidate at the Center for Mass Media Research, School of Journalism, and Mass Communication at the University of Colorado, defines Net collectivity in terms of Net use as opposed to the content of postings. Defined accordingly, collectivity becomes synonymous with the democracy and egalitarianism and rallies against the twin threats of censorship and regulations. Next, the author turns to Net individualism, reducing a broad and diverse phenomenon to hackers. Arguing that hackers resist regulation and censorship and fight for the democratization of cyberspace,Fernback is able to bring together collectivist and individualist principles in what she calls a virtual ideology. While thought provoking, the chapter over-generalizes Net collectivity and unfairly (not to mention narrowly) locates individualism solely in hackers.

The next chapter, "Virtual Commonality: Looking for India on the Internet," explores a particular Usenet newsgroup, soc.culture.indian or sci, to analyze the ways in which marginalized people form virtual communities. Following a brief and predictable discussion of Benedict Anderson, Howard Rheingold, and Internet terminology, Ananda Mitra turns his attention to sci. Without a clear methodology -- "the newsgroups were observed on a random basis to explore emergent issues that appear in the virtual space" (61) -- the author, an assistant professor of communication at Wake Forest University, discovers that many of the postings relate to -- surprise! -- Indian nationalism, a trait that allows Mitra to celebrate the "centralizing tendencies" of sci. At the same time, while seemingly oblivious to the bad netiquetteness of crossposting, Mitra examines the hostile reaction to postings to soc.culture.pakistan and argues that they represent a "strong segmenting force." While interesting, the analysis lacks both the qualitative richness found in Nancy Baym's treatment of rec.arts.tv.soaps and the methodological framework used by McLaughlin et al. in their exploration of conduct on Usenet newsgroups (1). Moreover, Mitra fails to explain why the dual tendencies of centralization and segmentation are especially germane or applicable to marginalized Net users in general, participants of soc.culture.indian in particular.

Chapter four, "Structural Relations, Electronic Media, and Social Change: The Public Electronic Network and the Homeless," shifts from virtual communities to community networks. Although this essay attempts to tackle many issues, its central focus is on PEN -- the Public Electronic Network established in 1989 in Santa Monica, California -- along with the kinds of conversations it made possible and the reasons for its ultimate decline. Joseph Schmitz, a professor of Communications at the University of Tulsa and an original participant in PEN, begins with a brief discussion of communities and social change, drawing heavily from the Chicago School of Sociology. Next, he provides a history of PEN, paying special attention to the project's inclusive nature and deliberate outreach towards the homeless community. The heart of the chapter argues that PEN made possible unheard of dialogues -- namely, those between the homeless and those in charge of policies and actions towards the homeless. Ultimately, however, the conversations devolved into flames and hostile exchanges, a phenomenon Schmitz attributes to PEN's technology, the psychological disinhibition fostered by online interaction, declining economic prosperity, and divisive local politics.

In the wordy yet deep "Why We Argue About Virtual Community: A Case Study of the Phish.Net Fan Community," Nessim Watson sets out with two purposes: to examine the interactions which take place on a particular online community, Phish.net, and to question the very term virtual community. The author, an adjunct professor in the Communications Department at Westfield State College, begins with a brief review of academic works devoted to online communities. In particular, Watson takes issue with Richard MacKinnon and McLaughlin et al. (see note below), who define online communities in part by the frequency and regularity of its posters. Instead, Watson examines Phish.net in terms of sincerity, intimacy, and behavioral norms. Arguing that the list's FAQ and generally agreed upon terms constitute social structuration, the author applies qualitative descriptions to the online community. Further, he notes the ways the members' online actions translate to "real" ones, in form of concert booths, alternative networks to obtain concert tickets, and direct requests to the band's management and label. Although the chapter concludes with a rather wordy and idealized discussion of virtual communities as, simply, communities, the chapter is extremely useful in layout out qualitative elements to measure and examine online communities.

The most interesting aspect of chapter six, "Gay Men and Computer Communication: A Discourse of Sex and Identity in Cyberspace," is the proposed topic -- how do gay men use Internet Relay Chat, or IRC, to communicate with one another? Unfortunately, the chapter offers few answers. Following a somewhat wordy discussion of Net terms -- a discussion that is marginally useful and entirely questionable for an essay published in 1997 -- Shaw, a doctoral candidate at the Center for Mass Media Research, School of Journalism, and Mass Communication at the University of Colorado, compares the process of finding gay IRCs to the word-of-mouth process of finding gay bars. Working with data gleaned from interviews with twelve IRC users, Shaw argues that IRC constitutes a social space seldom transcended into physical realms. Noting the high level of distrust and insincerity found in computer-mediated communication, few of the interviewees met fellow IRCers face-to-face. Instead, the posted, traded, and downloaded images of themselves and others, and often collected them to create Web-based galleries. Resembling more a proposal than a chapter, Shaw teases rather than informs.

A lack of analyzable data is hardly the case with the next chapter, "Virtual Community in a Telepresence Environment." Like "Standards of Conduct on Usenet" (see note below), this chapter explores the organization of social relationships in an online community. What is unique, however, is the fact that the online community does not take place on a listserv, or in a MUD, or with IRC, but rather through a Web site. Using the highly interactive Tele-Garden as their site of study, the authors, a professor and two doctoral students at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, focus on the emergence of interpersonal relationships, the development of norms, standards, and sanctions, and the creation of mechanisms for control of the community space. Using both quantitative and qualitative analysis, McLaughlin et al. discuss a number of rites and rituals, individual and group commitment to the online community, and the notion of social status as a product of experience or accruing "hits." Well documented and presented, the study is one of the first to explore Web-based social interactions and relationships.

Chapter 8, "(Re)-Fashioning the Techno-Erotic Woman: Gender and Textuality in the Cybercultural Matrix," promises more than it offers, which is still quite filling. Dawn Dietrich, an assistant professor of English at Western Washington University, begins by analyzing the ways in which technozines such as Wired, Mondo 2000, and bOing bOing represent and incorporate women, which, to no one's suprise, is quite similar to the conditions found in old media. Covering much of the same ground Vivian Sobchack treads (2), Dietrich then turns to cyborg theory as put forth by Donna Haraway and Sandy Stone. Dietrich concludes by arguing that women must occupy cyberspace and "cultivate the margins of electronic culture, where greater experimentation is taking place.

Juxtaposed next to a radical call for online feminism is an analysis of online activity by the radical right. In "Approaching the Radical Other: The Discursive Culture of Cyberhate," Susan Zickmund explores the ways in which far-right groups (and their detractors) collect and relate with one another online. Following a brief historical overview of U.S. right radicalism, Zickmund, an assistant professor of Speech Communications at Augustana College, discusses a few radical right virtual spaces, including Web sites, listservs, and Usenet newsgroups. Next, the author introduces contemporary cultural theory to show how a process of "othering" takes place, a process that reduces all non-White, non-straight, non-Americans (or, in some cases, non-Canadians) as the other, always conspiring, always a threat. Zickmund concludes with a wonderful twist. Instead of the usual story so often reported in old media -- namely, the subversive right is using the Net as an effective tool for organizing and recruiting new members -- the author reveals the large number of outsiders or antagonists that populate and disrupt the site. Noting that a significant number of contributors to Usenet newsgroups such as alt.skinhead, alt.politics.nationalism.white, and alt.politics.whitepower come from outside the culture, Zickmund notes that an "ideological dialectic" is established. Hardly naive, the author concludes that while such a dialectic promotes dialogue, it also allows group members a clear target to attach, thereby strengthening the internal cohesion of the community.

"Punishing the Persona: Correctional Strategies for the Virtual Offender" delivers exactly what one would expect from a former police officer and current doctoral student at the ACTLAB at the University of Texas. Fusing the theoretical frameworks of the body developed by Foucault and Sandy Stone with theories of punishment put forth in Hobbes' Leviathan, Richard MacKinnon seeks to answer the questions "what is virtual crime?" and "how is one virtually punished?" MacKinnon explores the questions through three now-famous "cyber criminals" -- Kevin Mitnick, Mr. Bungle, and Jake Baker. Well documented (3), the essay offers a hierarchy of virtual punishments, including symbolic hexes, temporary banishment from a virtual space, and loss of quotas and/or online objects.

The only chapter that does not fit is the last. In "Civil Society, Political Economy, and the Internet," Harris Breslow escorts us through a literature review of academic approaches towards civil society. Breslow, a professor in the Mass Communications Programme at York University, ignores the Net in favor of Habermas and John Dewey. The essay, while worthy, is ill-fited for such an anthology.

With the exception of the last chapter, the essays of Virtual Culture engage directly in and with cyberculture. This engagement is not only interesting, it is productive. It reveals how scholars are (and must continue to) rethinking traditional methodologies to fit into this new site of cultural study. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the essays shed light upon the richness and diversity of online culture -- from virtual communities and community networks to cybercrime and virtual sexuality.

1. See, for example, Nancy K. Baym, "Interpreting Soap Operas and Creating Community: Inside a Computer-Mediated Fan Club," Journal of Folklore Research 30:2/3 (May-December, 1993); Baym, "The Emergence of Community in Computer-Mediated Communication," in CyberSociety: Computer-Mediated Communication and Community, ed. Steven G. Jones (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1995); and Margaret L. McLaughlin, Kerry K. Osborne, and Christine B. Smith, "Standards of Conduct on Usenet," in CyberSociety: Computer-Mediated Communication and Community, ed. Steven G. Jones (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1995).

2. See Vivian Sobchack, "Democratic Franchise and the Electronic Frontier," in Ziauddin Sardar and Jerome R. Ravetz, eds., Cyberfutures: Culture and Politics on the Information Superhighway (New York: New York University Press, 1996).

3. It should be noted, however, that this documentation leads too often back to the author -- it is difficult to read a few pages without seeing yet another reference or citation to the author's own work.

David Silver:
At the time of this review, David Silver was a Ph.D. student in American studies at the University of Maryland. He is now an assistant professor in Communication at the University of Washington.  <dsilver@u.washington.edu>

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