October 28 Responses

I'm going to briefly discuss the readings in chronological order because I think it's interesting to think about the development of discourse related to Internet communities over time. Although, they are all over ten years old, so in many ways, they reflect similar tensions or preoccupations that may have become less relevant or central over the past decade.

Watson- 1997

Watson sets out to explain why the there was (perhaps there still is) debate about whether one ought to refer to an online social network as a "community" (he uses Phish.net as a case study). His purpose is not necessarily to recommend that we should or shouldn't refer to such networks or spaces as "communities," but to expose the depth and complex meaning that comes with the term. Watson suggests that there is an interest in preserving the purity of the term "community," and that those who feel strongly that the term should not apply to online groups may have an interest in denying those collectives the identity that comes with the designation of "community."

He ties this power dynamic to the politics of representation, arguing that being part of a community is necessary if one wants to gain representation. He asserts, "a group must be recognized from above as carrying enough importance to have its demands assessed and sated"(126). Is this true? Or is he putting the cart before the horse? Is it not necessary for people to find community in order to conclude that there is a need that must be met "from above?" And the notion that there is a "great recognizer" somewhere "above" to grant representation to communities is somewhat simplistic. Even in the context of national politics, community organizing is not solely about making one's community seem substantial enough to merit attention (though, that it part of it), it is also about finding those individuals who share your need or desire and confirming that there truly is a need that must be met. The community exists to affirm the needs or desires of its members, to express this fact, and to appeal to the powers that be. Thus, communities are necessary for representation, but that is not their only political function.

So, Watson uses this logic to show why there is so much contention over the use of the term "community" to refer to online social groups. For the rest of this post, I'm going to use the term "online community," recognizing of course that this comes with certain implications. Since 1997, I would argue that the online world has developed in such a way to encourage online community-building. Online communities serve both communal and corporate interests, and the social, communal mode of online existence has become omnipresent in much of Western (particularly, I would argue, American) society. Online communities have become based more on the reconstruction and representation of the ideal self in an online space. They are less about obscuring and protecting identity, and more about presenting oneself visually and verbally. They are, at the very least, online communities of our constructed selves.

Another point Watson addresses is the perceived sincerity or insincerity of virtual communities. He engages with Howard Rheingold, who has proposed that in CMC, it is not people but "personae," who interact with each other, "identities that may have little correlation to the identity of the person utilizing them online" (107). This is certainly true in some cases. Though, I wonder if some current social theorists might suggest that the opposite may also be true. While one can craft a false identity online, one can also present an identity that isn't bound by physical characteristics that may not be part of one's desired identity. Watson also points out that individuals perform and present versions of themselves in all settings, "real" and "virtual."

The distinction between the "real" and the "virtual" is the last point I want to mention about Watson's article. He mentions that, if we accept the distinction between "real" and "virtual" in reference to online communities, we limit the scope of the discourse and fail to recognize the "realness" of the ritual communication that can occur in cyberspace. He suggests that we instead accept the distinction between "online" and "offline."

Carroli- 1997

I found that Carroli's article seemed more outdated than Watson's in that her language and concerns seemed strangely apocalyptic or dystopian. But that might just be me.

Right away, I noticed that her list of defining characteristics of the online experience reflected the concerns and experience of early internet communities. One of these characteristics is anonymity. She writes: “In cyberspace, anonymity renders everyone who enters a stranger and also strangers to each other… the borders of one’s self are both threatened and drawn blurring one’s identity, making currency of the decentered self” (362). What does she mean by “making currency of the decentered self”? (I'm really asking, I'm not sure what she is getting at here) The "decentered self" is perhaps our price of admission for entrance and participation in an online community. Again, I find that many of today's online communities aren't places where the self is obscured or hidden, but performed or recreated. Carroli does discuss the performance of the self in online communities. And it is true that the performance of the recreated self may be a more concealed way of preserving anonymity.

Carroli doesn’t shy away from using the term “community,” but she does refer to the internet as a “community of strangers.” Which is true… but, to get really “meta,” isn’t every human community to some extent a community of strangers? The visual and aural cues we rely on to identify and classify each other are not indicators of the “whole” self. Watson makes a similar point, which I referenced earlier. The "strangeness" of the internet and its social spaces in 1997 were more noticeable than they are today. Does anyone remember the episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where there was a demon posing as a guy in a chatroom? Just me? Okay.

Kibby- 2000

Kibby offers John Prine’s Oh Boy Records and fan web forum as an early example of online community formation. Unlike in the mod communities discussed by Lysloff (we'll get to him in a minute), the center was a particular artist, and the community members were fans. Fandom was the unifier. Which, based on Kibby’s tone, emerges from the illusion that fans develop a relationship with an artist by listening to his or her music.

What distinguishes Kibby from Carroli and Watson is, in my opinion, that she continually references the illusions of fandom that are served by online community spaces. In the case of John Prine and his fan forum, the online space was not truly for consumers and the artist, it was only for the consumer. As Kibby observes, the connection between fan and artist was implied.

It is interesting that this was written just three years before the explosion of Myspace, which completely changed artist-fan interaction. Independent artists used social networking to build their fanbase without ever signing a record label.

Lysloff- 2003

I was surprised that the most recent piece we read for this week opened with such an dystopian description of the Internet landscape. Lysloff proposes that the internet is the new urban center of our world, populated by echoes and ghosts of people, but not bodies.

In some ways, this 12 year-old article seems prophetic when you consider that the internet has become the new urban center. Think about the University of Iowa. What is the "center" of the university? The library? The Old Capitol? The IMU? Arguably, it's Eduroam. It's not just the center it's a network that unifies the whole university.

Lysloff writes, "The internet is all about place” and “when we connect our computers to the World Wide Web, we suspend disbelief and embark on a metaphorical voyage" (40). When I read this, I am struck by how little I ever think about "suspending disbelief" to participate in a conversation with someone over the internet. In some ways, Lysloff's language and critical perspective exemplifies the "outsider" perspective taken on by ethnomusicologists (as he writes earlier in the piece, he is one) in order to study communities and musical practices of "the other."

Regarding the "mod scene," Lysloff observes that "mod music is as much about the mod scene as it is about the abstract pleasure of listening to patterns of sounds." He calls this a "utopian scenario" in which "consumers are involved in the creative process itself" (58). Compared with Kibby's description of the John Prine fan forum, I'm inclined to agree. Even though Prine was an anti-establishment type and sought to escape the constraints of the music industry, his fan forum was still very much a capitalist small-business model. That's not to say that such things shouldn't exist, only that compared to mod music communities, it true purpose is exposed.

One final thought: Lysloff talks about the culture of resistance and subversion inherent in many mod communities. He points out that the participants are not necessarily anti-pop culture, but rather that they reject the capitalist systems built to protect and profit from the products they sell. This same attitude was apparent in the documentary on Girl Talk that we watched last week. Instead of rejecting pop culture outright, Girl Talk sought to appropriate it and use it for continued musical creation.

A few questions to consider (if you want):

1. What is ritual communication, and what can it look like in online communities? Or can it occur online in the first place?

2. Does community require a common obligation, as Neil Postman has suggested? Can this obligation exist for online communities? Do you agree with Postman in his attempt to preserve a conservative, obligation-based concept of community?

3. I often refer to online communities and social networks as "virtual." What is real about online communities, and what is not? Do you agree with Watson, is the distinction between "virtual" or online and "real" communities outmoded?

4. What is the role of anonymity in the current online experience? Do we join online communities to project or conceal our identities? Or is it both?

5. There seems to be a tension between online communities for creation and for fandom. Kibby describes a network that existed to create a fan community for John Prine, and Lysloff described mod communities in which creation seemed to be the center. Are fan communities just perpetuators of illusions?


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