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Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Culture

Author: Geert Lovink
Publisher: New York: Routledge, 2008
Review Published: August 2009

 REVIEW 1: Liz Ellcessor
 REVIEW 2: Tricia M. Farwell
 REVIEW 3: Madeline Yonker

Given an increasingly global and active networked society, in which social media and digital tools define our days, studies of the Internet would seem to take on a new urgency. As the boundaries between online and offline life shift, and new media becomes integrated in lives around the globe, new frameworks for understanding online community, behavior, and political effects must be explored. Geert Lovink takes up this challenge in Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Culture. The most pressing concern, and the most intriguing possibilities, of the book examine how Internet networks and tools might enable the production of alternative forms of progressive media and democracy through "organized networks."

Each chapter explores a particular media, cultural, and theoretical context, making them seem somewhat isolated. However, the book is loosely held together by the notions of distributed aesthetics, free cooperation, and organized networks (x). Where they blend into one another, we come to the heart of Zero Comments: online networks must be organized and sustained, incorporating and rewarding their users, in order to contribute to the globally imperative projects of dismantling existing authorities and allowing new social and political forms to take shape.

As elaborated in Chapter 10, "Theses on Distributed Aesthetics," distributed aesthetics is a term proposed by Lovink (with Anna Munster) to enable thought about new media aesthetics beyond attempts to define art professionally, and beyond a focus on the visual. Chapter 2, "The Cool Obscure," interrogates the failure of "new media art" to fit into art world structures or to take advantage of online networks and digital tools. Similarly, in Chapter 4, "Blogging and Building," Lovink argues that while architectural professionals used the Internet to produce virtual spaces, the masses used online tools to rethink the potential configuration of real world spaces. Distributed aesthetics attempt to describe what one actually witnesses online, apart from visual and psychological metaphors drawn from other media (226-7). Instead, they entail attention to dispersed networks, flows, asynchronous production, and shifting understandings of "users" and "communities."

Other chapters attempt to describe online experiences and the possibilities of free cooperation. In Chapter 3, "Whereabouts of German Media Theory," and Chapter 5, "Indifference of the Networked Presence," Lovink describes some of the difficulties of online collaborations. While theory could be transformed by online collaboration, there has been reluctance to do so, and while online time is constant and allows for collaboration across time zones, the meandering nature of time of online intervals makes cooperation more challenging. These chapters hint at the possibilities of free cooperation, but Chapter 9, "Axioms of Free Cooperation," lays out a comprehensive research agenda. Developed at a 2004 conference organized with Trebor Scholz, the notion of "free cooperation" reflects on the integral nature of collaboration in new media technologies such as wikis, multiplayer online games, and cell phones. This leads Lovink to raise questions of resource sharing, internal power dynamics, and the connection to economic practices in collaborative work. He proposes starting with Christoph Spehr and the right to dissolve collaborations, before reflecting on how research might uncover the dynamics of cooperation and enable online networks to function more effectively. Lovink persuasively argues that online collaboration is both necessary and difficult, making the dynamics of collaboration a fruitful area of study for those interested in Internet media.

Collaboration is difficult in all forms, and Lovink particularly finds failures in the efforts of traditional government and non-profit institutions to form international partnerships. Lovink examines new media in the international context in Chapter 6, "Revisiting Sarai," and Chapter 7, "ICT after Development." He is impressed with how Sarai, in India, uses new media to explore urban culture, and empower individuals beyond media literacy, but their international projects remain fraught with power differences and misunderstandings. In Chapter 7, Lovink reflects on the 2003 and 2005 World Summits on the Information Society. He claims that the problems of information and communication technology for development have been in the temporary, pilot projects that lack autonomous activism as well as in the failure to connect ICTs to other activist projects. Lovink suggests that instead of governmental, industrial, or non-profit approaches, decentralized collaboration in the form of "organized networks" could prove useful for the international spread of technology.

An "organized network," as developed with Ned Rossiter and proposed by Lovink in Chapter 11, "Introducing Organized Networks," is defined by largely disengaged social relationships, by its location in digital media, and its invisibility to old media and powerful institutions. It replaces "virtual community," which exaggerated the ties between most people online (242). Networks grow and shrink, and are largely remarkable for their potential, as participation is usually limited and lurking dominates. Organized networks, Lovink argues, should find ways to move toward financial and temporal stability, while continuing to allow for fluidity of membership, concerns, and activity. Organized networks offer a chance for radical media to mature and provide for their members, moving beyond the reactive and temporary techniques of tactical media. In Chapter 8, "Updating Tactical Media," Lovink uses the anti-globalizations movement(s) to demonstrate how radical movements emerge from the street and are facilitated by new media. They exist without a guiding ideology or platform, taking fragmentation of membership and identities for granted. This leads him to the question of democracy in a post-representational world in which institutions can no longer function on behalf of members. Instead, organized networks represent themselves, which requires transparency about the internal power dynamics of networks, the sharing of resources, and the establishment of a new financial model.

He examines the possible political and social ramifications of one collaborative, networked technology in Chapter 1, "Blogging the Nihilist Impulse." In his "general theory of blogging," Lovink claims that blogs are "a creative nihilism that openly questions the hegemony of mass media" (1). He considers blogs combinations of diaries and journalism, but excludes other possible "genres" of blogs and their use. The long tail of blogs, each with small, self-contained audiences, regurgitates and questions the content of the mass media, breaking down substantive claims to authority and emptying out existing meaning structures.

Still, Lovink refuses to consider blogs "organized networks." Blogs are affiliated through links and largely unresponsive to reader input through comments, particularly when that input is in disagreement with the blogger. It is always an uneven exchange, in which interaction can be single-handedly put to a stop. Furthermore, Lovink claims that most blogs either eliminate the possibility of comments or receive very few. For these reasons, Lovink is reluctant to include them in his conceptions of "organized networks," preferring to think of blogs as a form of identity management. While the imbalance of blogger/commenter power is certainly real, Lovink may overstate the isolation of blogs. Studies have found that 87% of American blog users leave comments on, and even casual, identity bloggers add social networking features.

Furthermore, Lovink argues that the imbalance of power in blog comments and the blogger's control over linking prevent blogs from scaling up to organized networks. This centralization of control keeps blogs from engaging in antagonistic dialogue, while in an organized network, this is always possible. Yet, the blogging that surrounded the 2008 US election cycle crossed the political spectrum, involving many links and discussions between equal dialogic partners in the form of cross-blog debates. Lovink's claim that in 2006 "there was no socially coherent group that had an interest in blogging each other" (38) seems hard to sustain just a few years later. While not all blogs participate, it is certainly possible that some blogospheres are scaling up to become organized networks.

Published in 2008, Zero Comments narrowly misses the global rise of blogger-journalists and the online momentum of Barack Obama's campaign. Nonetheless, Zero Comments' concerns with blogging, progressive media, the normalization of Internet use, and the pitfalls of online organization offer fascinating tools for examining these developments. With "organized networks," Lovink has offered a complex, nuanced approach to the politics and structures of online culture in the early twenty-first century. Amidst the rapid growth of technology and shifting behavior of individuals around the world, "now really is the time for the organized network to establish the ground upon which new politics, new economies, and new cultures may emerge within the dynamics of the social-technical system" (250).

Lenhart, Amanda and Susannah Fox. "Bloggers: A portrait of the internet's new storytellers." Pew Internet & American Life Project. 19 July 2006. Accessed 5 December 2007.

Liz Ellcessor:
Liz Ellcessor is a doctoral student in media and cultural studies at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. Her research interests include blogs and social networking, fan studies, web content accessibility, and issues of identity and social justice in internet media.  <ellcessor@wisc.edu>

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