Cybersociology Magazine: Issue Five

Book Review by Matthew Allen

"Communities in Cyberspace" by Marc A. Smith and Peter Kollock (eds). London: Routledge,1999 ISBN: 0-415-19139-4 (hbk) 0-415-19140-8 (pbk)


 

Smith and Kollock have put together a fine collection of material on the processes and functions of computer-mediated communities, that 'hot' topic of the later 1990s. That some of their contributions are available elsewhere in similar or initial form does not render the current collection any less valuable: part of the quality of Smith and Kollock's work lies in pulling together, into closer proximity, some of the better work on this issue. Moreover, the introductory chapter is a fine example of a peculiar and difficult genre: it gives good intimations of what is to come, but also provides something of a conceptual framework for readers new to the subject. The chapters that follow are uniformly high in standard. Although they vary in perspective, purpose and assumption, there is something valuable both in themselves and in the possibility of reading across this juxtaposition of difference.

A major difficulty in talking about communities and the Internet, of which the editors are aware, is that the pace of technological change renders difficult the effort to produce generalisable conclusions from empirical research. A necessary weakness of the book is that it remains, like much socio-cultural research into the Internet, more relevant to earlier times, focused principally on Usenet, MUDs, and email lists. The impact, for example, of instant messaging programs such as ICQ, or of the use of the World Wide Web to communicate via 'publishing' (rather than in electronic conversations) is not really clear from this volume (a point noted by the editors, p.8). Moreover, while the more traditional modes of computer communication remain vital, how we conceptualize them and the possibilities they engender is changing because of the other options now available, the other online opportunities demanding peoples' attention.

Yet, as I reflect on the collection as a whole and its explicit intention to analyze the nature of 'community' in cyberspace, I'm left vaguely unsatisfied and reminded insistently of the very substantial work that remains to be done in this field of inquiry. There are, I think, two major intellectual difficulties which, although discernible from the current volume, are not satisfactorily resolved and are not, perhaps, given sufficient attention either by the contributors or the editors. First, there is a continuing failure to historicism the interest in 'community' in cyberspace. As implied (but not articulated) by the inclusion of Uncapher's description of pre-Internet community networking in Montana (264ff), any analysis of 'community' must also attend to the way that current academic interest in this issue is an extension of the socio-technical efforts to create electronic networks within and supportive of existing, geographic communities. The 'freenets' (ie Cleveland Freenet) of the 1980s are an example of such networks. There is now, however, an uneasy ambiguity about the term 'community' precisely because the term ­ even in the age of networked computing ­ has implied a more 'traditional' assumption about geographic proximity. While not something which each individual author necessarily ought to address, the absence of such an analysis in Communities in Cyberspace suggests that we are still far from understanding the difference between a network community and a community network.

Communities in Cyberspace takes as a 'given' in its title, the very object about which there still needs to be intense debate. Now I should be clear that I do not mean debate about the 'value' of communities in cyberspace. As the editors clearly realize (p.4), there is no real point in a debate about whether or not communities that exist in cyberspace are 'good' or 'bad' or, somehow, 'better or worse', 'more real or false' than communities that do not rely on computer mediation. Indeed such debates smack of the worst excesses of the traditional Marxian criticisms of developments in the social world of the Internet. Critics who begin with the presumption that most of what happens in the contemporary capitalist world is an ideological illusion can now comfortably (but incorrectly) see insubstantial cyberspace as a kind of 'real unreality', reifying in the world of the wires the immaterial (and thus politically oppressive) ideology. Rather, in the attempt to avoid such value debates, the collection tends never to engage with exactly what we mean by community.

Certainly, Wellmann and Gulia (167ff) assist us in understanding community by revealing that sociologists have already redefined 'traditional' notions of communities (based on physical proximity and kinship systems) to now equate, in a manner more appropriate to modernity, community with "social networks" (p.169). Yet, elsewhere in the collection, authors use such a variety of terms for the objects of their studies ­ social spaces, virtual environments or world, online interactions, collective actions, online communities ­ that we may question just what exactly is being 'collected' in a volume on Communities in Cyberspace. My point is not one of criticism of the book itself: the editors have provided an excellent example of the dynamic, uncertain processes of mapping the terrain of 'communities in cyberspace'. Rather, I am suggesting that considerably more conceptual work ­ perhaps along lines of Donath (who analyses online communities as 'communication systems' (29ff) ­ is required before we can have any consensus about the terms of such investigations into cyberspace.

Moreover, as is the case with the outstanding chapters by O'Brien on gender identities (76ff) and Reid on social control in MUDs (107ff), we might learn more by setting aside our efforts to discover and map 'community' and limit ourselves to the analysis of social interaction. Why? Because, in large measure, the attempt to 'discover' communities in cyberspace reflects a conceptualization of the Internet that predates the soon-to-occur generalized, widespread dispersion of Internet technologies into the existing organization and processes of society. As this dispersion becomes more extensive, and the cyberspace begins to occupy the same space as the physical world, then some of the motivations and conceptual architectures within which much research on communities is being conducted will see, less relevant. Instead, we might wish to reshape our interests in the social world of the Internet to examine how individuals operate across the 'divide' between the physical and cyber spaces they occupy, invent and manage, seeing community as something that serves less to describe a particular grouping of people, and more as a process for the negotiation of relations between self and others, a kind of never-quite-existing, but always-in-prospect set of community relations through which an individual's sense of self in society as a whole is performed and made sensible (see O'Brien, 78).

But, in the meantime, one could hardly go past a collection such as Communities in Cyberspace, with its careful introduction and breadth of contributions. Once cyberspace was small enough and so loosely populated as to constitute a single community in its own right. And, perhaps, in the end, that is the most important message of this book. Technologie s of information and communication are themselves far less important than the relationship between those technologies and social structure, mediated by the individual. Kollock and Smith, and their contributors, have produced a definitive collection that will serve ­ as in this review ­ as the reference point for the necessary debates we must continue to have about these relationships.

 


 

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Matthew Allen (allenm@spectrum.curtin.edu.au) is a Senior Lecturer and the Coordinator of the Internet Studies Programme at Curtin University of Technology, Australia. See http://www.curtin.edu.au/learn/unit/networld for more information.

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