An Alternative Internet
Author: Chris Atton
Publisher: Edinburgh, Scotland, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2005
Review Published: September 2007
In his 2004 book, An Alternative Internet, Chris Atton undertakes two different, but related, theoretical discussions. The first describes how different alternative media outlets use the Internet to separate themselves from "the dominant, expected (and broadly accepted) ways of doing things" (ix). Through the exploration of five case studies, Atton deftly illustrates practical applications of academic theory about the Internet. Each chapter is relatively self-contained in this respect, as the alternative media outlets are themselves generally unrelated. The second discussion in which Atton engages is less overt but runs throughout the book: the critical novelty of the Internet as a medium of communication. In this, he wants not only to understand the historical basis in the use of the Internet, but also to understand how these historical antecedents factor in contemporary usage. As Atton judiciously states, we must be careful that "the separation of the Internet from its complex, proximate features" is not forgotten, and that we should not "essentialise the Internet, whether as political or technological fix (for democracy, for economic downturn), social revolution or social development, or creative or cultural utopia" (x). For Atton, the Internet opens up revolutionary new ways of communicating, but also demonstrates the evolution of important historical trends. In short, Atton's book gives a good background to types of alternative media while relying on a solid knowledge of contemporary Internet theory.
Atton, a reader of journalism at the School of Communication Arts at Napier University in Scotland, has published a number of books about alternative culture and music. In the first chapter of An Alternative Internet, "The Internet, Power and Transgression," he centers the book around the use of the Internet by media outlets that purposely situate themselves outside the mainstream. This may seem like an ambitious goal: indeed, the scope of the book is its greatest fault, albeit an acknowledged one. Atton knows that "we cannot hope for completeness" in describing Internet usage by any one type of group, let alone the scores of alternative groups that exist online (xiii). Atton defines "alternative media" in economic terms as "those media produced outside the forces of market economics and the state" (3) and as practices that challenge hegemony (5). These alternative media affect our interpretation of major issues in Internet studies: history, everyday life, power relationships, globalization, legal issues, and electronic civil disobedience. Atton concludes the chapter with another definition of alternative media: media characterized by a decentralization of "production and practices" (24).
Chapter two, "Radical Online Journalism," concentrates on a case study of Indymedia, a non-professional journalistic network. Atton describes how Indymedia network's "dialogical and popular methods" of online journalism are practiced through an "egalitarian mode of address" facilitated by the Internet (25). Indymedia "offers news and narratives from the point of view of activists themselves: where activists become journalists" (27). In this, the news of Indymedia can immediately resonate with the capabilities of the Internet. The abilities to upload data quickly, to participate in real-time dialogue with other activist/journalists, to participate in journalistic practices while creating them are all inherent qualities of Internet as well.
At the same time, Atton is critical of these journalistic practices, as he describes how they rest not on novel approaches to journalism, but on the practices already inherent in mainstream journalism. To present an oppositional practice, he explains through citations of Foucault, one must necessarily inhabit the practices of the Other. The possibilities that the Internet opens up for a reader-centric approach to the news, however, will "call into question the accepted and taken-for-granted forms of doing journalism" we experience in the mainstream media today (60).
The third chapter, "Far-right Media on the Internet: Culture, Discourse and Power," delves into similar territory as the second chapter, but analyzes the right wing British National Party (BNP) instead of the left-wing Indymedia. For the BNP, the Internet is a tool for constructing cultural history, as it "seeks to isolate the defining characteristics of British culture" (73). Atton describes how the BNP uses the hyperlinking, downloading, and emailing to further their radical agenda, but articulates how it is in complete opposition to how Indymedia uses the Internet. Whereas Indymedia decentralizes the Internet and opens it up for anyone's use, the "activism promoted by the BNP is centralized and party-based" (83). The BNP sites severely restrict access and limit communication. In doing so, they clearly delineate who is in charge and what the group believes. The controlling officers of the BNP do not encourage participants or users to engage in a dialogue with them, and instead establish a hierarchical system where they are at the top of the pyramid.
With this first half of the book, Atton ties together one of the inherent paradoxes of the Internet: namely, that it speaks to both a global and individual audience at the same time. It can create communities, but it can also foster extreme reclusively. The juxtaposition of the case studies of Indymedia and the BNP excellently articulate this contradiction.
Chapters four, five, and six form a cohesive argument that moves "from politics and the representation of social movements to the study of popular cultural activity on the Internet" (xv). In Chapter four, "Radical Creativity and Distribution: Sampling, Copyright and P2P," Atton talks about peer-to-peer networking and how the strategies of sampling (with its own history in hip-hop and avant-garde music) bring to mind similar issues about copyright and anti-copyright as does the Internet. In his elaboration, he describes the concept of "copyleft," the LINUX-based term that "implies intellectual practices that encourage" the "sampling" of software (102). Throughout this chapter, Atton articulates a need for a new form of copyright law, one that would take into account creative practices that extend beyond originality and that presents social practice as a new art form. However, he does mention how "unlikely" the legal model we currently have is "to be replaced by a new model based on social authorship" (110).
Chapter five, "Alternative Radio and the Internet," veers away from the theoretical musings of previous chapters and concentrates on how different forms of radio broadcasting -- public service, commercial, state, community, and pirate -- use the Internet is different ways. Atton examines one community radio station, Resonance FM, which "displays a resolutely postmodern attitude to both its form and its content -- and it is this that encourages us to see the station as a form of resistance to Othering" (125). Resonance FM broadcasts an eclectic mix of world music and avant-garde programming to a dispersed audience. By broadcasting online, it not only reaches more people, but also courts active listeners. The "globalised reach of such programming in its formats, modes of presentation and its content offers [a] new way of communicating about radical artistic practices to existing and potential audiences" (137). Atton does indicate, however, that the majority of Internet radio is nothing more than a stream of traditional radio broadcasting over a different medium. In this, it does not yet take advantage of many of the interactive capabilities inherent in the medium.
Chapter six, "Fan Culture and the Internet," wraps up the book by describing fanzines and e-zines. For Atton, fanzines play a number of roles in audience's lives: as celebration of media, as encyclopedia of information, as critic of text, and as production of fan-based material. However, Atton does "not find in the use of the Internet by fans an entirely novel form of cultural production" (154). Although the Internet allows self-publishing and larger readership (as well as fewer printing costs than off-line production), the actual content and the reception of fanzines online differ very little, according to Atton, from an analog equivalent.
In his conclusion, Atton concedes that a study of alternative media is not complete in an of itself. He decides that "we cannot judge our place in the world according to an ideal of a set of media practices" and that even if alternative media place themselves outside of the mainstream, they too risk "analytical and historical clarity" (159). In short, alternative media are different from but not better than mainstream media in many respects. The Internet, as a tool for rapid dissemination of information and practices, cannot be separated from its use. Atton does not essentialize, nor glamorize, Internet technology.
One issue throughout the book is the lack of some necessary theory. For instance, when the first chapter discusses centrifugal and centripetal forces, where is a discussion of Bakhtin's (1981) utterance and dialogism? In the discussion of ideological reactions to cultural hegemony (chapter three), where is a consideration of Stuart Hall's (1980) work? Atton touches on Henry Jenkin's (1992) work with fan fiction online in chapter six, but a more complete articulation of Jenkin's work in chapter four would have contributed much to the development of the argument about social authorship (especially cf. Jenkins' discussion of Filking and community (pp 250-270)). In short, there is a great deal of citation from a few well-established academics, namely Downing (2001), but relatively little branching off into different critical territory. An interdisciplinary approach may have added some additional insights to an already insightful book.
Atton also tends to shy away from discussions of the multimedia capabilities of the Internet, including video and audio, and how that would affect, most specifically, the radical (both left- and right-wing) journalistic movements and the music sites. Further, published in 2004, Atton's book was released before the massive proliferation of social networking sites online. With these interactive and multimedia sites, much may have changed. Atton cannot have forseen this, but one does wonder how this would have changed his discussion. Perhaps a new edition of the book with an expanded chapter would provide meaningful insights into some of the changes broadband multimedia might bring.
Still, to criticize a book for what it does not have as opposed to what it does is perhaps unfair. What An Alternative Internet does have is a detailed and articulate reading of Internet usage. Refreshingly, Atton is not universally positive about these alternative media outlets. His criticism extends from their practices to their philosophies, and he speaks from the position of knowledge outside of, but informed by, radical media. His book neither condones nor condemns, but instead articulates a well-reasoned critical eye. In his view, the Internet is one link on a chain of tools, developed with historical antecedents, which can be used positively or negatively by a number of groups, alternative or mainstream.
Bakhtin, M.M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson & Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.
Downing, John. Radical Media: Rebellious Communication and Social Movements. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2001.
Hall, Stuart. "Encoding/decoding." In Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (Ed.), Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972-79. London: Hutchinson,  1980, pp. 128-38.
Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Paul Booth is a PhD Candidate at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. He is currently researching New Media and concepts of narrative and interactivity. He is interested in popular culture, especially television, film, and video games. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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