Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Culture
Author: Geert Lovink
Publisher: New York: Routledge, 2008
Review Published: August 2009
Take all that you think you know about the internet and begin to question it. Question whether new media arts should be judged in relation to art history or judged by a set of its own criteria. Question if we would have blogs if there wasn't simple software to make it easy for users to participate. Question whether true collaboration over the internet can really work in organizations. Question whether the internet can solve the concerns about lag time between conducting academic research and publication. These questions are just a few that Geert Lovink asks readers to contemplate in his book critiquing internet culture.
In Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Culture, Lovink, the director of the Institute of Network Cultures at Hogeschool van Amsterdam and an associate professor of Media and Culture at the University of Amsterdam, sets out to challenge the way readers look at the Internet and Internet culture. In the introduction, we are told that "we need to say farewell to theories that equate the Internet with democracy, empowerment of identity and The Good" (xviii). With this statement, the challenge has been issued and we begin the journey of looking at elements in a different light. In essence, readers of Zero Comments are asked to look beyond the surface pleasantries and journey deeper into the myriad of ideas, challenges, and crises that make up this culture.
Although the title of the book tends to make one think that the primary focus of Lovink's commentary is blogging, the culture surrounding blogs, their authors, and their communities is really just a small part of what this work tries to examine. The eleven chapters cover a wide variety of aspects of internet culture from blogging to activism, from new media arts to organized networks. While the author's writing style and his initial positioning of this book as part of a series on internet culture may make this book a bit off-putting for novices, more advanced readers will find it well researched and cutting across fields of study. As with most reviews, this review can only touch upon the surface of what Lovink is trying to accomplish with his critique of internet culture. However, it will seek to show how the ideas found in Zero Comments tries to push the reader to question previously held concepts about topics such as blogging, time, and research community.
Our admission to Lovink's questioning is through the first chapter focusing on the state of blogging. To start the journey, Lovink points out several elements that are obvious to anyone who has blogged. For example, blogs tend to appear open and welcoming, but really are not as open as some would like to think. Instead, the topics, links, feeds, point-of-view, and selection of postings all help to create selective communities. Even A-list bloggers (see, for example, Joi Ito, who Lovink cites as an A-list blogger) help, either intentionally or unintentionally, to create a "culture of desired affiliation" (2). Bloggers link to those they want to be connected to either for status or shared ideas. However, Lovink also sheds a new light on this community by claiming that bloggers are also "creative nihilists" (22).
Perhaps the most interesting critique centers on the discussion of Internet time. Clock time is not really a useful tool when working across a global network. Instead, users need to shift to something new to establish time. Although admitting that the Internet is changing the way people look at time by making us think in terms of global time, Lovink also claims that we do not need a "Global Standard Time, a One Time" (121). He mentions Swatch Time, created by the watch manufacturer, as an example of an "Internet time standard" which "failed miserably" (121). So, with the failure of an internet time standard, we are left with finding a new way to relate to time. Lovink suggests that "the online session is perhaps the best time unit to express what time on the Internet could look like" (122). Time becomes more subjective and user centered. Instead of placing a judgment on this need for a "paradigmatic change toward time" (118), we are told that "there is nothing inherently good or bad about what is coming up" (129). We just know that a change is coming.
One of the highlights of Internet culture for Lovink is his repeated visits to Sarai in Delhi, India. In the trip chronicled in Zero Comments, the author, who has been involved with the institution since its founding in 1998, found that "growth is the main challenge" (160) for this organization which seeks to "create a rich cultural-political vocabulary to interpret the everyday urban life" (160). The research projects that the organization undertakes and supports provide an interesting mix, ranging from creating cybermohalla, a media lab for a settlement to visual arts projects.
When we finish reading Zero Comments, we are left with more questions than answers. This increased questioning may be Lovink's greatest achievement given that "the default user [on the internet] is the lurker. Engagement is the state of exception and, as in political philosophy, an interesting one indeed" (241). Lovink's drawing readers' attention to elements of internet culture that they may not normally contemplate is a step towards increased engagement. In the end, what we are left with is a way to think about how complex and tangled internet culture is. This is neither good nor bad but is part of the complicated nature of internet culture.
Tricia M. Farwell:
Tricia M. Farwell, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of advertising and public relations in the School of Journalism at Middle Tennessee State University. Her blog, It's Just Academic, can be found at: http://academicmonkey.wordpress.com/. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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