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Internet Culture

Editor: David Porter
Publisher: New York: Routledge, 1996
Review Published: June 1998

 REVIEW 1: David Silver

Like the contributors to Virtual Culture: Identity and Communication in Cybersociety and Cyberspace: First Steps, the scholars assembled for Internet Culture are well aware of the breadth and diversity of their topic [1]. This awareness both shows and works -- Internet Culture is perhaps the most diverse anthology on cyberculture to date. Although the collection's overall cohesion suffers from such breadth, the anthology proves successful in generating a healthy plate of ideas.

The anthology begins with a brief introduction by the editor, David Porter, an assistant professor of English at the University of Michigan. The rest of the collection is divided into four sections: Virtual Communities; Virtual Bodies; Language, Writing, Rhetoric; and Politics and the Public Sphere. The first section, Virtual Communities, relies more on writings about cyberculture than explorations into the digital realm. For example, Shawn P. Wilbur's "An Archaeology of Cyberspaces: Virtuality, Community, and Identity" is concerned primarily with wrestling with the writings of Howard Rheingold, while Derek Foster's "Community and Identity in the Electronic Village" spends more time with Toennies' (too) often invoked notion of Gemeinschaft vs. Gesellschaft. Unfortunately, when Foster does discuss electronic villages, he selects Santa Monica's Public Electronic Network (PEN), a now-retired online network, instead of such vibrant community networks as the Blacksburg Electronic Village in Blacksburg, Virginia or the Boulder Community Network in Boulder, Colorado.

Along the same lines, Dave Healy's contribution, "Cyberspace and Place: The Internet as Middle Landscape on the Electronic Frontier," is more concerned with contextualizing cyberspace than exploring it. The result, however, is quite effective. Healy argues that the Internet embodies a version of the "middle landscape" (a space between civilization and wilderness) that allows individuals to exercise their desires for both separation and connectedness. Drawing heavily from the classics of American literature (Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman), American studies (Tocqueville, Turner), and modern sociology (Bellah et al.), Healy argues that the Internet, like the railroad before it, presents users with a conflicting set of choices: a pathway towards self-reliant alienation or a forum for interdependence and cultural coherence. Although the author relies too heavily on the works of Rheingold at the expense of "going native," he is successful in contextualizing the Internet within a set of particularly American obsessions.

The scholars in the second section, Virtual Bodies, get their hands dirty. In "Flesh Made Word: Sex, Text and the Virtual Body," for example, Shannon McRae theorizes ways in which MUD users can tweak their genders and sexualities within online environment to explore how and why they do it. McRae begins with a brief overview of virtual reality, along with a short description of MUDs. Next, drawing from a number of interviews with MUDders, the author argues that within online environments "gender becomes a verb, not a noun, a position to occupy rather than a fixed role" (80).Interestingly, while the contributors of the first section refer too often to published work, McRae practically ignores key scholarship in the field of virtual identities. The work of Amy Bruckman, Allucquere Rosanne Stone, and Sherry Turkle is mysteriously missing and much needed. Complementing McRae's essay is Mizuko Ito's "Virtually Embodied: The Reality of Fantasy in a Multi-User Dungeon," an excellent blend of theory, ethnography, and online experience and expertise.

While interesting, the third section, Language, Writing, Rhetoric, is concerned largely with the rhetorical and communicative practices of online culture. Jargonistic and at times overly theoretical, the section includes Charles J. Stivale's "Spam: Heteroglossia and Harassment in Cyberspace," William B. Millard's "I Flamed Freud: A Case Study in Teletextual Incendiarism," Brian A. Connery's "IMHO: Authority and Egalitarian Rhetoric in the Virtual Coffeehouse," and James A. Knapp's "Essayistic Messages: Internet Newsgroups as an Electronic Public Sphere."

The anthology's final section, Politics and the Public Sphere, takes on a more critical tone. Following Mark Poster's "Cyberdemocracy: Internet and the Public Sphere" -- a chapter previously published in the journal Lusitania and circulating online for a few years now -- is Joseph Lockard's "Progressive Politics, Electronic Individualism and the Myth of the Virtual Community." More rant than research, this chapter's message is clear: "Because the obvious so clearly needs restatement: cyberspace is expensive space" (220). Lockard begins by critiquing the Net-as-free market-frontier rhetoric that can be heard from all sides, from Newt Gingrich to Al Gore. Next, he enumerates the costly elements needed to access cyberspace, noting that the Net not only resembles a mall, it requires one. The author continues by blasting the notion of virtual communities, noting that "cyberspace is to community as Rubber Rita is to human companionship" (225). Lockard concludes by questioning the overly-idealized concept of the global community, arguing that the Net is composed largely of white, middle to upper class Americans. Although the chapter could certainly use more research to back up its assertions, the questions put forth are both relevant and pressing.

While a bit incohesive, Internet Culture is an important and well-written anthology on cyberculture. With an interesting mix of graduate student and faculty contributors, the collection tackles important issues regarding online communities and identities, as well as theoretical perspectives of online virtuality.

1. Steven G. Jones, editor, Virtual Culture: Identity and Communication in Cybersociety (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1997) and Michael Benedikt, editor, Cyberspace: First Steps (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991).

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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