CMC Magazine: December 1998

You Can't Judge a Book by its Cover...

but you can judge a book by its bibliography (at least I often do).   Although the majority of contributors to CyberSociety 2.0 hail from academic Departments of Communication, the references in each essay point to roots which grow both deep and wide.  This combination makes for sturdy trees, and sturdy scholarship.  CMC is a growing discipline, and it is refreshing to see the zeal with which individual scholars are subverting traditional disciplinary boundaries. The work of anthropologists, sociologists, folklorists, philosophers, linguists, economists, political scientists, artists and art critics, writers and literary critics, computer scientists, and many more went into forming the ideas contained in this book.  If Sage printed a 20 page pamphlet of just the works cited in CyberSociety 2.0, it would be worth buying alone.

Walls and Bridges

The dominant theme in CyberSociety 2.0 is articulated by Jones in his Introduction, where he writes, "Whereas it is true that the internet overcomes distance, in some ways it also overcomes proximity" (xiii).  This duality runs deeply through all of the essays to follow.  In some cases the concept is applied on a macrolevel, assessing CMC's ability to alleviate RL societal disintegration.  It is an important question, one which I present to my students by showing them AT&T's "no barriers" ads in conjunction with articles on America's growing trend of "walled" communities both on and offline. On this level, the authors address questions of access and the uneven distribution of internet use based on sex, ethnicity, geography, and economy.  On a microlevel, the writers examine the mechanisms by which individuals attempt to create "community" on line.  One chief concern seems to be the reconciliation of technology and intimacy, with valuable insights drawn from psychology, philosophy, and ethnography.  Another focus, on this microlevel, is on the idea of egalitarian community.  Although I never saw the word used, it seemed to me that many authors were trying to pin down Victor Turner's notion of "communitas,"  and those of you familiar with Turner's work will find fruitful dialogue here.

I have no intention of summarizing the various authors' approaches to this dichotomy of "walls and bridges" - rather I want to highlight this very important theme.  Overall, the book contains a wonderful balance of cyberhype busting, sober scholarship, and humanitarian futurism, doing justice to a complex and important topic.

Gender, Sex, and Sexuality

The most significant improvement in 2.0 is the careful scrutiny given to questions of gender.  I have a very high opinion of Wired Women : Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace, edited by Lynn Cherny and Elizabeth Reba Weise, and felt that the original CyberSociety underdeveloped questions of gender and sexuality. Those interested in high level theory will gain the most by reading Kramarae's "Feminist Fictions of Future Technology." For more quantitative data and a few solid observations on gender construction in MOO's, Danet does a nice job in "Text as Mask: Gender, Play and Performance on the Internet."  Finally, Clark offers a very well researched piece on gender differences in teenage courtship groups in "Dating on the Net: Teens and the Rise of "Pure" Relationships."  As a group, the three authors provide a reader with an excellent sampling of the complexity and richness of online gender studies.

The (Re)Creation of Identity

If the dominant theme in 2.0 is the elusive notion of  "community," running a close second is individual identity. Jones articulates the question well, when he says, "How does an individual, much less a community, maintain existence [online]?" (xvi).  To a greater or lesser extent, every author in the collection approaches the question, "who are we when we are online?" One of the most intriguing perspectives on the topic, for me, was Poster's "Virtual Ethnicity: Tribal Identity in an Age of Global Communications."

The question of online identity must, in many ways, go before the notion of "walls and bridges." After all, if we can't take ourselves seriously, how can we take the emergent society online seriously?  Once again 2.0 presents solid scholarship, clear writing, and  good editorial decisions.

A Personal Highlight

For me, one highlight (not in the sense of "crowing achievement" but rather "memorable moment") in CyberSociety 2.0 was  "Designing Genres for New Media: Social, Economic and Political Contexts" by Philip E. Agre.  It took me several pages to realize Agre was not presenting a lecture, nor even moderating a seminar; on the contrary, this essay is a workshop. Agre declares "I want to formalize our understandings of the production and consumption of media materials under five headings: communities, activities, relationships, media, and genres" (81).  The analysis which follows has nothing to do with the passive observations of academia, but is rather is a outcome oriented train of thought for the producers of new media, a group to which more and more of us belong everyday.  If,  by some odd chance, you are in my shoes (teaching CMC to visual artists), run out and make your students read this essay. I did.


CyberSociety CyberSociety 2.0 Result...
Understanding Community in the Information Age 
(Steven G. Jones)
Information, Internet, and Community: Notes Toward an Understanding of Community in the Information Age 
(Steven G. Jones)
As writer, and editor, Jones continues to pull together the intellectual history of CMC and make useful, conservative predictions of the "important" questions to come.
The Emergence of Community in Computer-Mediated Culture 
(Nancy K. Baym)
The Emergence of On-Line Community (Nancy K. Baym) Continues to develop Baym's ethnographic observations of 
A Backstage Critique of Virtual Reality 
(Cheris Kramarae)
Feminist Fictions of Future Technology 
(Cheris Kramarae)
More astute observations on the negotiation of the future between mainstream and subaltern groups. 
Nintendo® and New World Travel Writing: A Dialogue 
(Mary Fuller and Henry Jenkins) and  
Making Sense of Software: Computer Games and Interactive Textuality 
(Ted Friedman)
Designing Genres for New Media: Social, Economic and Political Contexts 
(Philip E. Agre)
Friedman's analysis of the impact of new media and Fuller and Jenkins' ideas about genre make way for this delightful and important essay.
The E-Mail Murders: Reflections on "Dead Letters" 
(Alan Aycock and Norman Buchignani)
No Analogous Articles. An editorial decision to look at new case studies; no real impact.
Standards of Conduct on Usenet 
(Margaret L. McLaughlin, Kerry K. Osborne, and Christine B. Smith) and 
Searching for the Leviathan in Usenet 
(Richard C. MacKinnon)
No Analogous Articles. A switch in emphasis from the environment of Usenet to the questions of identity and gender (see Kramarae (above), and below).
Virtual Worlds: Culture and Imagination 
(Elizabeth Reid)
Dissolution and Fragmentation: Problems in On-Line Communities 
(Beth Kolko and Elizabeth Reid) 
Revisits the MUD's which Reid approached in  CyberSociety, offering some valuable hindsight, and some new observations.
Undeveloped Territory.... Text as Mask: Gender, Play and Performance on the Internet 
(Brenda Danet) and 
Dating on the Net: Teens and the Rise of "Pure" Relationships 
(Lynn Schofield Clark) and 
Virtual Ethnicity: Tribal Identity in an Age of Global Communications 
(Mark Poster)
Well researched and well written essays of gender, sexuality, and identity.  A welcome addition.

The Quick and Dirty Review

Hmmm..... To Buy or Not To Buy?

If you are interested, professionally or personally, in CMC, you should definitely read it. Whether or not you buy it depends on whether or not you can afford it.  The paperback is about $25, the cloth about $50, which may be prohibitive to many (questions of accessibility raise their heads again).  Then again, like all academic publications, it is targeted at the captive audience of the classroom and the bibliophiles of academia.

As an upgrade, 2.0 does what it should do.  It builds on the solid foundation of the first book, and adds some new design features which are well thought out responses to popular demand.  Most importantly, it is an excellent collection of work.  Jones' editorial pen is "transparent to the user," which means that the major themes of the book, community and identity, are not delivered in a heavy handed fashion, but rather emerge naturally from essay to essay.

As for implementation, 2.0 requires no hardware other than curiosity and intellectual rigor, and some of the observations and theories just may change the way we do business in CMC studies.  Which is, of course, the highest praise one can give to such a work.

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CyberSociety 2.0: Revisiting Computer-Mediated Communication and Community , Edited by Steven G. Jones

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