November 1 Readings

The articles for this week center on the ideas of community and collaboration, both online and offline. The authors focus on what constitutes a community in the traditional understanding of the word, and how technological innovations such as the Internet are possibly changing the ways in which we view and use the term. The authors are not in agreement, however, on how to view these groups of people that come together around common interests online. While some advocate for the use of the term community, others prefer the use of collaboration.

Linda Carroli argues that in the diverse, fractured Postmodern world, using the term “community” to describe online groups of people is not entirely appropriate. She argues that the traditional definition of community “is founded on assumptions about consensus, rationality, and collectivity that do no translate well to virtual spaces like the Internet” (359). Based in the theory of rhizomatics by Deleuze and Guattari, she argues for the concept of online collaboration as a better way to view this phenomenon. The concept of collaboration includes an element essential to Carroli’s understanding of online interaction: identity. Collaboration “implies identities that are viral, liminal, hybrid, syncretic, and potentially destabilizing” (361). The Internet is thus an opportunity for people to create new identities, to “lose oneself,” in the process of collaboration rather than consensual community building.

The value judgments that Carroli places on the terms "collaboration" and "community" are interesting to note in terms of her argument. It struck me that while Carroli considers "community" to be a positive thing, "collaboration" is not (see Nazi collaborators). The implication of this semantic idea for her argument is profound: it reinforces the idea of "collaboration" as a cause for losing identity. One can also wonder how that is precisely different from "real-life" spaces. Do the gathering of people in physical communities necessarily imply the foundation of community?

An important dimension this discussion is the fact that in questioning the nature of the community, we necessarily throw into question the nature of the individual. Cannoli points out that at the same time as internet interactions utterly defy the distinction between public and private spheres, the classic binaries of subject/object and self/other are disrupted. And so we get the intriguing idea of the internet encounter or association as a performance of a fluid identity. In the disembodied realm of internet interaction, there are none of the recognizable physical cues that generally surround encounters between selves and others, so the only information which one person can receive about another is the information that said other chooses to construct and disclose. One becomes, through the internet encounter, an Other to an Other. In this process, a person’s notion of Self is asserted, challenged, revised, and re-asserted. As Lysloff points out, difference between individuals is not recognized according to those characteristics such as race, class, and gender which, in the material world, have become to many people, for all practical purposes, self-explanatory. Difference is instead constructed by texts which are deliberately composed and then displayed. In the absence of physical cues, internet users devise alternative means of asserting and understanding difference, individuality, similarity, belonging, competence, authority, and worthiness of respect, whether that be through the display of certain kinds of knowledge or the ability to create an art object worthy of admiration.

On "loss" and Carroli: Although Carroli presents a new (circa 1997) way of conceptualizing identity as the result of hybrid and syncretic processes of collaborative interaction in cyberspace, her description of identity as “lost” smacks a bit of ignorant hyperbole. Today it might be more useful to consider the cyber-social realm as the space in which we hyper-identify (and are potentially hyper-identified). In the online environment, the process of filtering and selecting particular images and ideas that constitute who one is/how one thinks is amplified, accelerated. The Self has virtually limitless access to viral images of Other on the Internet; in this model, a Self is not lost, but is constantly shifting (as Carroli herself pointed out) and is unstable as it is exposed to infinite material-for-identifying. In this context, the Self autonomously engages in the negotiation and renegotiation of its identity in collaboration with Others online. However, Carroli does astutely mention that the construction of identity is also a viral process. Not only do Selves autonomously choose the contours of their own identity, but they are also shaped outside of Self-conscious awareness of it’s being-shaped sub-liminally. Facebook is now a somewhat mundane example of these competing processes of identification: within that network, people collect and broadcast their identities in a number of ways via a multitude of resources (audio/video clips, posts about daily activities, quotes, what they like/dislike, etc) however because of data mining, info-tracking, and other practices by interested institutions, our Internet experience is flooded with programmed images, ads for products, and other tailor-made images that also shape our identity (what we buy, what we listen to, where we go on vacation, etc). In this sense, the self is not lost, but constantly being renegotiated (ie. is liminal - to use Carroli’s term), both by a self-conscious awareness as well as through subliminal channels, below the threshold of our awareness about these processes.

Marjorie Kibby and Nessim Watson both disagree with Carroli’s assertions about community and collaboration. These two authors focus on musical communities found online that focus on one particular artist or group. Kibby’s article centers on a chat page for artist John Prine, a folk singer who started releasing albums in the 1970s and continued through the 1990s. She argues that, in a sociological sense, the chat room did in fact constitute an online community. Members of this website shared “social interaction and some common ties between themselves and other members of the group, and (shared) a defined place or area for at least some of the time” (96). While most often communities have traditionally been associated with physical/geographical locations, here the Oh Boy Records chat page is viewed as the place for gathering. The anonymity of this page allowed for the belief that John Prine may have also been a member of the community, strengthening the connection between the fans and the artist. However, it was this anonymity which led to the eventual demise of the website through inappropriate posting (something asserted by theorist Howard Rheingold, who stated that “anonymity dissolves community” (100)).

The problems related to anonymity on the internet were something that we addressed in class last week, and Kibby's article touches on some more of them. I have seen multiple ways that websites and forums have tried to encourage a more civil, or at least more accountable, form of online communication. The old Warren Ellis Forums (created by comic book writer Warren Ellis) required people to use their real names and would fit the description of community as Kibby described it. The forum rules stated: "RULES: Were strict and enforced with ruthlessness and a stark lack of fairness. They worked very well. 'All freedom of speech ends here/Warren Ellis makes all rules to preserve order/use your real name/order is enforced ruthlessly/do not question the moderators/be pure/be vigilant/behave.'" Ellis decided to close the forums in 2002. Other websites require people to pay some (usually minimal) fee to become a member and if they misbehave and are banned, they would have to pay again to start a new account. This also helps make people behave. A community thrives when there is order. Anonymity makes one unaccountable for their actions online, which creates chaos.

Anonymity certainly does let people be as rude, uncensored, and unaccountable as they wish, but there are many online communities where some sort of log-in is required. Even this is incentive enough to be on their best behavior much of the time, for while they are not using their real name, an online avatar can develop reputations, friends, and enemies just like someone in real life. Anonymity does not automatically guarantee chaos, though. It certainly can, but it can also inspire people to speak truthfully without fear of retribution from friends, acquaintances, or loved ones.

Where online civility is concerned, it seems that even without a real name required, the sites that have the least trouble are those where their users contribute the most in a creative fashion. For example, fan art/fiction communities. While a certain amount of discussion takes place in the form of posted conversations, the artistic ideals of such communities (and the desire to be identified positively by one's handle) make it seemingly less likely for users to "flame" each other. One could also see this as a measure of the strength of the community—a stronger online community (and perhaps physical community) is built the more individuals work together.

Nessim Watson’s article on Phish.Net provides similar insights to Kibby’s argument, however the important element of power becomes vital to the discussion. Watson argues that scholars should not continue to focus on the community metaphor as available only for those within shared spaces, but focus instead on shared relationships that may take place over long distances. Communication is thus the key component to community, something available only through communion (whether this is in face-to-face contacts or online). Within these relationships, the element of power becomes essential in understanding how the use of the term community may be important. Being recognized as a community comes with it the power to ask for representation (in the political world), and respect (in the sociocultural world). As stated on page 125: “in Marxian terms, recognition of themselves as a “community” is the first step to creating the common consciousness which enables attempts at improvement in the conditions of the participants’ daily lives.” This can be seen in offline instances as well, such as within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. By identifying (and being viewed) as a community, even if there is little holding this group together, it allows for representation within the public sphere. Finally, Watson argues against the use of the term “virtual community,” viewing “virtual” as meaning “unreal” within this debate. To him there is a danger in using this term, as it may imply that it is in opposition to real (offline) communities that deserve rights and representation within a democratic society.

Whether a space is considered “virtual” or “physical” should not determine whether it is a community or merely a space of collaboration. What should determine it is a sense of belonging that comes from living in that space, sharing that space, and being an active and accepted member within that space. Just because a person does not physically live inside cyberworld doesn’t mean that they can’t mentally live there. Similarly, a person could be physically living within a particular community and not be a part of it or other words mentally invested in the environment around them. They could, in a way, “log off” to the shared space around them particularly if their interests and time are elsewhere. Other determining factors include shared interests and goals as well as, what Watson particularly emphasizes, communication and communion. In order for a community for thrive, its members should be invested in its existence whether online or off or it will become nothing more than an empty space.

Lysloff’s discussion of the Mod scene online places him within the same camp as Watson and Kibby. He too believes that some online communities are as real as offline communities. For him community is based less on proximity of members and material goods, and more on common interests, goals, and ideals, and a sense of belonging and commitment to the group. Again relationships become a key component of the discussion, as they were with Watson’s discussion of Phish.Net. Relating to the Burkart reading on cyberliberties, Lysloff discusses an economy based on prestige rather than money within the Mod scene. Here money is not important to the group members, but rather the prestige of producing new and innovative musical techniques. Lysloff’s view of performativity within a virtual community, where one can take on new identities and perform them within various online communities, shows how Carroli’s argument on identity and collaboration can be used in a similar way to argue for the use of community. Lysloff concludes by asking the readers to stop arguing about the use of the term community altogether, and rather focus on what websites do and mean for the participants themselves.

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