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Getting It On Online: Cyberspace, Gay Male Sexuality and Embodied Identity

Author: John Edward Campbell
Publisher: Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press, 2004
Review Published: August 2005

 REVIEW 1: Adi Kuntsman
 REVIEW 2: Nina Wakeford
 REVIEW 3: Monica Whitty
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: John Edward Campbell

Getting It On Online examines in detail online exchanges of gay men. Through a presentation of his own experiences as well as others, John Campbell elucidates how gay men negotiate their identities in cyberspace. This is an important and still relatively under-researched topic. Campbell presents a good overview of the area and hopefully some of the ideas he raises will be explored in more detail by future researchers.

Campbell begins the book, quite rightly in my opinion (see Whitty, 2003, 2004), by arguing that bodies are involved in many online experiences. He argues that "more than a mere physical shell containing and confining some ethereal essence, the body is a principal component of our identity" (12). He illustrates this nicely by providing stories of his own and other gay people's experiences in cyberspace. In particular, he focuses on textual exchanges in IRC channels. Through these examples he demonstrates, as others have in previous empirical work (Turkle, 1995; Whitty, 2003), how individuals might play with identity and their construction of the body online.

In collecting empirical data for this book, Campbell employed a participant ethnographic technique. He interviewed others online and also talks about his own experiences. He does take a critical stance here, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of such a method. He makes the point that he anticipates "that some will read me as if speaking from the position of 'insider' or 'native,' as opposed to ethnographic researcher. As a result, my work may be interpreted as a form of advocacy rather than an instance of critical analysis" (184). This is a criticism often made about participant ethnographic research. However, Campbell's subjective insights are one of the strength's of this piece of research. He also considers thoughtfully the ethics involved in conducting such research. Others could learn from Campbell's insights into how researchers might treat their online participants.

Similar to other theorists, Campbell also contends that individuals integrate their online and offline experiences (see for example, Wellman, 2004). As he states:
    Where does the offline person end and the online persona begin? Is the keyboard a true demarcation between two selves? I would suggest that the very impetus to distinguish between the two originates from a fundamental dualism between the mind (site of the true self) and the body (the site of base physical experience) intrinsic to Cartesian thought. (45)
Like many other theorists, Campbell does not perceive online interactions as less real than face-to-face interactions. In addition, he tries not to see these two worlds as necessarily distinct and separate from one another.

An interesting point is made by Campbell in this book. He writes that:
    Though anonymity has been identified by many computer-mediated communication researchers as the central feature making interactants feel safe in engaging in sexual experimentation online . . . I contend that such anonymity alone is not sufficient to foster feelings of safety in the case of queer erotic exploration. (55)
Campbell provides an experience of his own online exchanges to illustrate this point. He tells us how someone named him a "fag" in an apparent straight body building chat room. He explains how he was identified as gay even though he was anonymous and did not reveal his sexuality to others in the online space.

The participants Campbell interviews claim that not everything that is said in IRC is "correct." Campbell interprets this to mean that individuals are not necessarily misleading others in this space but that rather "the very imprecision of the written language underlying computer-mediated interplay can lead one to formulate an impression of another person significantly differently from the impression that would be constructed through face-to-face contact" (61). While I would concur with Campbell’s statement here, I felt that this work could benefit from an understanding from the work carried about by Walther and others on the construction of self online -- in particular, Walther's "hyperpersonal communication framework," which posits that "CMC users sometimes experience intimacy, affection, and interpersonal assessments of their partners that exceed those occurring in parallel FTF activities or alternative CMC contexts" (Walther, Slovacek & Tidwell, 2001, p. 109). Walther and his colleagues have carried out extensive empirical research to demonstrate how individuals can be quite strategic in their presentation of self online.

Campbell furthers his viewpoint of idealized images online by considering desirable images, or what he calls "types" in gay online chat rooms. Two types, in particular, he identifies are the "musclebear" and the "chub." The muscle bear he describes as "engaging in certain activities (such as outdoor activities) that bodybuilders were stereotypically seen as avoiding and were described as generally being more 'natural' (e.g., less refined, 'leaving the body hair intact') than bodybuilders" (132). In contrast, the chub is defined as "primarily identified by the presence of a pronounced distended abdomen, commonly referred to as a belly or gut" (133). Drawing from work by Foucault and Naomi Wolf, Campbell considers images online by looking at the gay male "beauty myth." Here he makes the interesting observation that "although idealized images of the body are not abandoned in cyberspace, they must contend with conflicting understandings of the desirable and the attractive in the virtual, effectively undermining the supremacy of any one hierarchy of beauty" (174).

John Campbell has a delightful and engaging writing style. The extracts he provides from conversations in IRC channels give a real flavor for the topic he is exploring. Getting It On Online would appeal to both laypeople and to researchers. In particular, this book would appeal to undergraduate students undergoing studies in communication, cultural studies, and sociology.

Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the Internet. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Walther, J. B., Slovacek, C., & Tidwell, L. (2001). Is a picture worth a thousand words? Photographic images in long-term and short-term computer-mediated communication. Communication Research, 28, 105-134.

Wellman, B. (2004). Connecting communities: On and off line. Contexts, 3 (4), 22-28.

Whitty, M. T. (2003). Cyber-flirting: Playing at love on the Internet. Theory & Psychology, 13 (3), 339-357.

Whitty, M. T. (2004). Cyber-flirting: An examination of men's and women's flirting behaviour both offline and on the Internet. Behaviour Change, 21 (2), 115-126.

Monica Whitty:
Dr. Monica Whitty is a lecturer in Psychology at Queen's University Belfast. Her research interests include: Internet relationships and sexuality, Internet flirting, Internet infidelity, Cyber-stalking, Internet and email surveillance in the workplace, and presentation of self online. She is well published in the area and is first author of Human Relationships in Cyberspace which is due to be published with Palgrave early 2006.  <m.whitty@Queens-Belfast.AC.UK>

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