Identify the most consequential features of ‘new media’ and assess how and why sociological theory and concepts deal with these.
Abstract This essay establishes the background of new media technologies within the context of their historical development. The argument is then addressed towards the
largest consequen tial outcomes of new technologies as the augmentation and facilitation of social communities and online interest groups. This argument is then placed into a framework of related theoretical endeavour and elucidates salient arguments in order to establish the premise within contemporary academia. The essay closes with a summation of the discussion along with concluding comments.
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Current developments in new media technologies can be traced back to the inception of internet technologies and the consequential developments which ensued. When John Licklider joined ARPA, Leonard Klienrock was already developing ideas for ‘packet sending’. This was a method of sending information in broken up pieces, or ‘packets’. The information would be reassembled at the other end. Because the files were broken up before sending, they would be more difficult to eavesdrop, therefore of great appeal to ARPA . In 1965 an experiment saw computers in Berkley and MIT linked over a low-speed dial-up telephone line, forming the fir st ever Wide Area Network ( Sadar, 2000 ).
ARPA scientists continued the development of networking protocols and in 1972 TCP/IP was born. This would allow different networks to communicate with each other. Now it was simply a matter of time and growth, as at this stage computers consisted of large mainframes that were not available to the majority of people. In 1982, whilst ARPANET was still the backbone of the system, they adopted TCP/IP. This is considered as the birth of the internet; an international network of computers all using the standard . Expansion of the system was also occurring due to advances in computer technology and in 1984 the number of online hosts was over 1000. Governments started using and promoting the system for educational purposes and by 1987 there were 10.000 hosts (over the following two years this number had swelled to 100,000) ( Baym, 1998 ).
The year 1991 saw the launch of the World Wide Web (WWW) which consisted of a network of searchable and retrievable sites that employ the use of Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP). This protocol automatically searched for the site and retrieved it for automatic viewing. Tim Berners-Lee and other scientists had been developing ideas for making data easily retrievable since 1989 and several browser/editor programs were made shortly after. This formed the basis of what would become new media technology as it is now known ( Baym, 1998 ).
It is uncontroversial to argue that the most important and far-reaching consequence of new media is the increased ability for social and community forming ; the world has witnessed a massive rise in online groups and communities. For many people it is now possible to be part of multipl e online groups simultaneously.
Much of the
general debate around the value of the virtual communities and subcultures which have developed from new media technologies has become polarised in academ ia. On the one hand is the group which argues that the internet has created a new platform for which to resurrect traditional notions of community (perceived as fading in ‘real life’) and is a positive step towards achieving a new global solidarity. The opposition to this school of thought maintain that cyberspace detracts attention from the issues faced in ‘real life’ communit y and i s therefore erod es it . This point of view is eloquently allegorised in the opening page of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations (1983) . Baudrillard paraphrases the Jorge Luis Borges tale of cartographers who create a map of the empire to such detail that it perfectly covers the land it represents. Whilst the map is celebrated the land underneath it declines into wasteland. This is only brought to the attention of the people when the map itself erodes, revealing an uninhabitable “desert of the real” (Baudrillard, 1983).
Theorists Wellman and Gulia argue that the current debate on virtual communit ies is problematic for several reasons. They state that the polarisation of opinion makes the debate Manichean, and also that a sense of the history of community is absent. In addition to this, they contend that the debate on virtual communities is largely unscholarly and is parochial in the sense that it forces a divide between ‘real life’ communities and those online. They go on to say that the notion of a traditional community is nostalgic and saturated with myth (Wellman & Gulia, 1999). Whilst Wellman & Gulia make some fair points, certainly the polarisation of the online debate (and also the separation of online life and real-life in theory) the two extremes of opinion have produced a substantial amo unt of research on the matter.
When defining community it is useful to look at the work of German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies, who developed the terms Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. Gemeinschaft (translated roughly as ‘community’) is described by Tonnies as traditional community, characterised by bonding through kinship, friendship, shared religious beliefs and community loyalty. Tonnies termed modern, capitalist societies as Gesellschaft (community, or association), where social interactions and relationships are much less personal, more calculated and contractual, where the society experiences increased isolation of individuals living within it (Tonnies, 1988) .
There is also important work regarding broader communities, in particular Benedict Anderson’s theories concerning nations, or as he terms “imagined communities” (Anderson, 1983). Since the members of a nation cannot possibly interact with (or have knowledge of) everyone within that nation, certain symbolic resources and rituals (or as Anderson refers “invented traditions”) are utilised to coalesce people and create a sense of shared identity (flags, national anthems, etc.). Anderson maintains that these types of communities depend on their members believing in them, and are maintained through the shared practice of cultural customs and devices (Anderson, 1983).
These definitions of community, whilst useful, suffer the same drawbacks as most in that they can be taken to extremes within their own boundaries, and do little to draw the line as to how far to go. A useful analogy is presented by David Bell (2001), who asks “I drive a car. To what extent could I argue that I belong to a ‘community of car drivers’?”. Bell goes on to explain that his car driving community satisfies all aspects of popular community definitions. Identity as a ‘car driver’ is institutionalised by a driving licence, which not only provides certain privileges but also acts as a proof of identity in a broader sense, and this is a commonality with other car drivers. Bell continues to describe a ‘set of knowledges’ which all car drivers possess (of driving, of the road, etc.), some of them formalised and some tacit. Whilst the Highway Code formalises one strand of such knowledge there also exists a tacit understanding in the form of driving etiquette and the like. The final point Bell makes is that of facilitation. The car also facilitates his membership of off-road communities (Bell, 2001).
Whether or not Bell’s example does satisfy a definition of community is still debatable, but it does raise some important points when trying to define community, especially when comparing or contrasting to those which exist online. The same terms of Bell’s analogy could just as simply be applied to MySpace or EBay,
but would that mean that these ‘created communities’ satisfy a Gemeinschaft definition of community, and even if they did , would that make them a community in the nostalgic sense? Bell explores this matter by offering a distinction between the terms (sometimes used synonymously by critical theorists) ‘community’ and ‘sub-culture’:
Clearly there’s a slippage between the two words, both taken to mean the same thing – Baym’s own work has used both to describe the same group of online soap fans, for example. But I think that the two words have very different connotations, so I started to wonder where the boundary between terms like these lies. (Bell, 2001:101)
In this statement Bell makes a valid point. In the labelling of factions and groups as ‘communities’ more often than not the term either becomes encapsulate, including a whole host of assemblies which are perhaps better described in another category, or becomes exclusive to the point of rejection of all those groups which fail to satisfy the nostalgic and seemingly outdated notion of traditional community.
With these comments in mind it seems important to establish a boundary by which to sector those groups which, although they may satisfy certain aspects of community , are not engaged in sufficient humanistic interaction to be defined as such. This does not present an immediate problem as there are many online groups which fit this description and do not label themselves as communities. However, the emphasis on human interaction seems to be the key to which distinctions can be drawn between online organisations and actual communities. One notorious commentator on the subject, Howard Rheingold, states just that:
Virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the net when enough people carry on…public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace. (Rheingold, 1993:12)
Since traditional community is no longer possible in its pure form, due predominantly to capitalism and globalisation, people have searched out the areas of their community which they now lack. Humans , being social animals (and at best, survivalists) have utilised the internet in tandem with the development of technology to maintain and keep control of the things which they inherently hold dear. In this case, the elements of community which contemporary society have eroded are now to be found online in forums, groups and interactive spaces. The internet does not house communities, but symbiotically supports those areas of community which no longer exist outside of the web. Online platforms such as MySpace or Facebook provide many services, but do not create a social network for its users. Rather they allow users to supplement their existing social networks with online support. Fur thermore online Interactions can take place which will allow families who are miles apart to keep in touch in ways that have previously been impossible, thus they are solving previous difficulties pertaining to traditional community, predominantly that of distance and (the resulting factor of) time, and strengthening these communities in ways that previously could not be achieved. It is now possible for community to become reinforced by new media technologies in ways that were previously impossible, thus strengthening the weak elements that existed in the Gemeinschaft-style structure. Utilising technology, traditional communities are able to function over distance in real-time, in cybernetic unison.
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