Internet Studies‽

As a lover of the interwebs and someone who’s followed the research from the likes of AOIR and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society (see Tim Hwang’s great piece on the Berkman school of thought),  a recent discussion about the merits of “internet studies” is quite provoking:

Maybe we should stop talking about “information and communication technologies” or “the Internet” or “new and social media” as a single constellation of technologies that have key characteristics in common (distinctively participatory, or distinctively intrusive, for example), and that are sufficiently different from other parts of the world that they need to be talked about separately.

The Internet is still pretty new, so we tend to look at it as a definable thing, but digital technologies have now become so multifaceted and so enmeshed in other facets of our lives that such a broad brush obscures more than it reveals.

— Tom Slee, Blogs and Bullets: Breaking Down Social Media

And Henry Farrell’s reply:

Instead of wanting to study ‘the Internet’ or ‘Facebook’ or whatever, we should investigate the possible existence or relative strength of various posited mechanisms which causally connect certain situations with certain kinds of interesting outcomes. Most technologies will potentially bundle a number of these mechanisms together – hence, the need to try to disentangle these mechanisms as much as is possible in specific instances.

Instead of asking ‘does Facebook help protests in authoritarian regimes?,’ one would ask questions such as ‘does social influence from peers make individuals more likely to participate in demonstrations?,’ ‘does widely spread information about protester deaths make individuals more or less likely to participate?,’ ‘does government-provided information make citizens less likely to participate in anti-regime protests?’ and so on.

This is a helpful lens through which we can better focus on what we mean by “the web” and why it matters.  We tried to tackle some of these definitional challenges in An Open Web, outlining key “battlefields” which describe what’s at stake in terms of mechanisms (i.e. specific user freedoms and actions, rather than just threats to “the web” as such).

The above posts are timely reminders about the tendency to speak broadly about the internet as an umbrella term for the particular mechanisms, some of which are internet-dependent while others are only augmented or manifested online. This specificity is a hard discipline to enforce—I’m often too flippant or lazy to make clear distinctions, and moreover I assume that the audience picks up on my shorthand when I talked generally about the web.

But let’s strive be more specific about the mechanisms that are truly in play. This will not only make it easier for more people to understand why the web matters, in its many facets, but also inform a more nuanced discussion about how to accelerate meaningful initiatives and demarcate the real battlefields, which are immediate and important.

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  1. gurdonark · April 24, 2011

    Good post. Although the common ground of a “virtual connection” is shared by most of these services, it’s too easy to use global terms when close study of discrete phenomena might be more effective.