Blindfoldedly Feeling an E-lephant: Why studying the internet has got me all confused

Good afternoon, Internet.

And in that greeting lies my current problems.  What exactly goes on in the internet?  What are all those people doing with it? Who are you, internet user? How did you get here? Why are you looking at my stuff?  And what are you going to do with it afterwards, you sick freak?

Basically, as part of my research into online science-themed social networks, I’ve been making tentative steps into sociology of the internet.  Which, you may be surprised to hear, is a RATHER LARGE TOPIC.  There’s also rather a lot of people writing about it.1 Some of this lot suggest that, when you consider the history of mass communication, everything about the internet is just old news.  Sometimes they have a point, particularly when countering naysaying claims that the internet heralds the corruption of youth and the end of humanity.1   My favourite example of this is that, allegedly, Socrates claimed the newfangled alphabet would ruin students’ abilities to retain information and would replace true understanding with superficial learning. He also probably said it would stop them having truly fulfilling relationships, but that’s not recorded.

But from a commonsense point of view, these arguments don’t sit comfortably.  Of course the internet is different from the printing press and the telegram and the pigeon.  Just look at it.  It’s everywhere and it’s made of invisible stuff.  But as an initiate to ‘digital sociology’ (as the kids are calling it), I mainly see the internet as new because it’s making me think in new ways.  Not in the brain-rotting way of the naysayers, but rather in how I approach my studies.  Where I once thought about people and events and other concrete things, I now think in terms of connections.  Which is discombobulating, for reasons I’ll explain.

The internet is known as a mass communication medium.  This is largely because there’s a rather large mass of people who use the internet to communicate.2   But I’d suggest it’s even more massive than that.  Not only is the internet making possible masses of online communication, it’s also provoking masses of offline communication too.  Think of how many real-life conversations you’ve had, or flesh-and-blood people you’ve met, thanks to something you did on the internet.  We can see this clearly in ‘lurkers’, the derogatively-named 90% of the internet who read posts without commenting on them.  But as made clear by the (surprisingly voluminous) research on lurkers, they’re actually pretty active at spreading information.3  Firstly, to other websites; research suggests that lurkers on one site are often commenters on another (it’s more helpful to talk about ‘lurking’ as a behaviour rather than ‘lurker’ as a type of person).  But also offline.  Because when people read something on the internet they might, y’know, actually talk about it to other people.

There’s a reason that last sentence is so flippant.  Although I’m flying the flag for ‘the internet is a new thing’ camp, it’s easy to get overexcited.  Reading a couple of articles which seemed to conclude ‘when people read things on the internet it seems to change what they think or do’ made me want to carve NO SH*T SHERLOCK on my computer screen.  The people we call ‘lurkers’ are basically the people we called ‘readers’ or ‘viewers’ in the days before Web 2.0, so calm down.  Rather, what I found exciting is that these (seemingly) invisible people can be studied.  Back in my history undergraduate days, I fancied finding out what 19th-century working-class audiences thought of popular science lectures.  But un-silencing them proved tricky, as retaining the thoughts of the working class wasn’t high on the Victorian documenting agenda.  Whereas when I delivered a conference talk on lurkers, I was accosted with the question ‘you keep referring to lurkers as ‘they’.  But I’m a lurker.  As are lots of people in this room.’ Faced with real (and, crucially, alive) people, I might be able to actually follow scientific knowledge as it travels via the internet, not just within websites but across websites and outside of websites.  That should be exciting.  But it’s actually rather scary.

You can ‘look at’ the internet at multiple levels.5   You can see the internet as a World Wide Web which globally connects huge numbers of people and produces sweeping social changes. This is the approach taken by communication scholars and contemporary political theorists, who talk about how the internet has affected the nameless ‘we’ or ‘they’ (just as I talked about lurkers above).  But you can also see the internet on a much smaller scale, as an everyday part of a given person’s life.  This is the approach taken by the fascinating field of digital anthropology, 4 which (to put it rather simply) says that people use the internet in a staggering variety of ways: extending offline lives, creating new online lives, or a bit of both.  The effect is to make me want some actual names and faces within that nameless and faceless communication literature.  But of course, when you’re dealing with huge communication networks there’s only so many names and faces you can fit within the word count.

Again, this isn’t completely new to me.  When I was studying Carl Sagan, say, I had to look at small meetings of the Cosmos production team, and then more broadly at the public reception of Cosmos.  But I felt I could understand these two bits somewhat separately.  As far as they were concerned, Sagan & co. were dealing with a faceless and nameless public; and the public were never privy to the everyday detail of Sagan’s life as much as the digital anthropologists are with their internet users.  Whereas in the internet, links between the two scales are very strong (and, unlike with history, almost certainly findable if you put in the necessary legwork).  For example, when I’m thinking about online enthusiast communities – which I do, a lot – I want to know how the informal rules and structures of the community arose.  But to understand how the communities exist at all, I want to know how and why people want to make that community a part of their lives.  But for that I need to understand how these communities spread knowledge about themselves.  And so on, cycling rapidly between the large and small scales.  Basically, help.

The E-lephant of my title refers to an old story about blindfolded people examining an elephant.  This story would take about 1000 words to tell, which fortunately means I can use this picture instead:

It’s originally an allegory for God, but I recently saw it used as a metaphor for interdisciplinarity.6  Interdisciplinarity is the idea that academic disciplines should pay more attention to how their ideas and terminology could be made to better overlap, rather than dashing off in all their own separate directions.  When I was doing my Sagan history I did a bit of interdisciplinarity.  I firmly had a ‘social historian’ hat on, but occasionally borrowed from literature on biography or media studies.  Like studying the elephant’s tusk in detail, but occasionally asking the person doing the ears where the random gusts were coming from.  But with the internet, I feel like I’m studying the elephant’s entire circulatory system at once.  It’s a world of connections where no bit makes sense without the other bits, not a world of firm boundaries like a tusk or a historical institution.  It’s a squishy and bloody mess, and I’m squeamish.  In the face of The Internet, I end up as the person in the reverse story, where six blindfolded elephants study a human.  The first elephant says ‘humans are flat’.  The other elephants agree.

If only the internet were this simple:

1 = The good news is, it’s not just academics – see The Social Media Reader (free and online) for an example collaboration between scholars, bloggers, and other social-media-interested folks.  The bad news is, there’s a massive plethora of new ideas – indeed, many people proposing the same ‘new’ idea under many different labels.  It’s my dream to get all internet scholars, take them away to a (massive) cottage somewhere, take away their writing devices, and force them to just read each other’s work.  Until that happens, my literature review is going to be fun (read: not fun at all).

1 = Martin Robbins has written a blisteringly excellent article on claims like these as put about by Susan Greenfield.

2 = Though, to be serious for a moment, in our OEDC excitement about the internet it is easy to forget about the worldwide divisions in access (A.K.A. the digital divide).

3 = If you want more thoughts / literature recommendations on this subject, I have a script, recording, and bibliography from a talk I did for a really excellent ‘Silences of Science’ conference.  Apologies for the flagrant self-publicity.

4 = One of the best-recognised authors in this field is Sherry Turkle, and I’d particularly recommend her excellent book Alone Together.   Although I’m not entirely convinced by all her arguments, it is an exemplary piece of crossover academic/popular writing and one of the few things I’ve read for research purposes that’s bought a lump to my throat.  And you can currently get it for surprisingly cheap.

5= Again, I’ve got a talk script, recording, and bibliography on this subject from a British Sociological Association on Multi- and Inter-disciplinarity.  Apologies again for more flagrant self-publicity, but I gave this talk in the post-lunch session on 4hrs’ sleep and after a massively hungover 2.5hr train journey so I’d quite like it to get another, more pleasant outing.

6 = In some really interesting work on collaboration in the workplace by Nick Verouden.

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