I have no problem testifying once again that I have been in love with the Internet for more than 10 years. It dates back to the pre-Web era where text-based PC Communication, i.e. domestic online service provided by companies like Chollian, Hitel and Nownuri, charmed Korean society. Comparable to France’s Minitel. I still clearly remember how my modem hissed when it was building a connection through the landline.
My research interests have naturally been revolving around it. For example, my MA dissertation, which I can’t read now without blushing. It suggests ‘personalised information’ as a future form of Internet advertising, and has citations like “hyperlinks subvert hierarchy”, “the network is egalitarian” (both from Levine et al., 2000), and “the beauty and strength of the Internet is that nobody and everybody owns it” (Killgarriff, 10 April 2000, Guardian), discussing ‘hegemony shifts’ to the individual user’s benefit. I admit it had a Marxist flavour to it. The mark wasn’t too brilliant. I was told I should have been more critical. I simply couldn’t have. The particular piece of writing was peppered with such techno-utopian viewpoints because those were what I believed in. It reflected the tone of the literature addressed at that time, and above all, I was totally convinced of the democratising potential of the Internet myself. My attention was redirected to Internet-based political communication when I moved on to a DEA course, but my attitude remained the same.
Having said that, when I go to conferences these days, I find myself nodding more vigorously when I hear sceptical accounts. For example:
- At “Soapboxes in cyberspace: how can the media facilitate debate online?“, Dr Andrew Calcutt from Univ of East London said, “We are told we should participate more, as if participation might be a sufficient end in itself, but participate in what? What we are invited to participate in is, after all, nothing more than when our recyclable waste should be picked, either on Wednesdays or on Thursdays”.
- At the same event, Lee Bryant from Headshift argued that despite the good intention to open up a space like Guardian Comment is Free or BBC Have Your Say, what we find is ‘drive-by commenting’ as opposed to serious political debate. His suggestion was that constraints, barriers and intimacy are essential for quality political debate. Basically, a walled garden.
- When I heard later that the conclusion of the grand debate in the Oxford Union, which I had to miss, was that “the Internet is NOT the greatest force for democratisation in the world”, I was perhaps a bit disappointed, but was certainly not surprised. [Added on 30 May: webcast of the event is now available here and a brilliant recap here.]
- At a RSA conference “The Social Impact of the Web”, Andy from Royal Holloway [my supervisor] pointed out 3 things we should celebrate about Web 2.0 politics and 3 things we shouldn’t. Again, I agreed more strongly with the latter. Particularly social network narcissism: i.e. people claim to be socially oriented on social networking sites but the discourse is indeed intensely individualist.
- At the same event, former director from Microsoft Bronwyn Kundardt underlined that we are indeed using the same language as that of the Information Superhighway project of the 1990s. Dotcom mentality?
- At the end of the RSA event, Will Davies from Goldsmiths suggested that BBC Action Network turned out to be ‘a failure’ possibly because people go online to avoid their civic obligations, not to fulfil them.
So what has happened to the old optimist? All in all, my faith doesn’t seem to have completely faded away. Stories about the creative appropriation of technology by grassroots organisations still always make my heart warm. Like one that someone from Amnesty International offered at the RSA: Egyptian activists using Twitter to make sure everybody arrives at the office in the morning … without disappearing. True love dies hard.
One clarification about your mention of my comments at the soapboxes in cyberspace event: I was not advocating walled gardens – I think we need much more subtle and gentle ways of improving online debate in open fora.
Interesting post nonetheless!
Oh, I should have put it clearer. That was my blunt summary. I understand you were not advocating walled gardens. That said, I was most interested in your example of Samizdat producing really good discussion because their needs, their constraints are very very real, as opposed to one-off commentators.
At another event I recently attended, Bronwyn Kundardt (cited in the post) said that within a community of like-minded people, the audience that members are writing for is themselves, which is why they ‘behave’ and maintain a better conversation. Would I be right to understand your example and hers support the same argument?
Thanks – yes, I think the two positions are very similar. I will check out Bronwyn’s idea.