|Marc A. Smith and Peter Kollock, eds. Communities in Cyberspace. New York: Routledge, 1999. $34.99 paper, $119.00 cloth.
Polemic discourse featuring either unbridled enthusiasm about new and superior opportunities for human interaction or unlimited pessimism about the social implications of new information technologies is increasingly being criticized in the growing literature on cyberspace. Whether referred to as pro-technology versus anti-technology or dualist in character, the polemic nature of much early work on cyberspace is criticized as ahistorical and simplistic. Work that views technology as social in all its complexity, as both cultural product and constitutive of culture, is increasingly shaping the discourse(1). Communities in Cyberspace as a volume contributes to this critical discourse, as do many of the individual chapters within it.
Far from being neutral artifacts and physical practices from which one can float free, technologies are constructed in social contexts. Technologies are developed within specific historical and cultural contexts and are interpreted and experienced within the context of specific power relations.(2) Technologies are cultural practices that emerge from social, political, and economic contexts and reflect specific relations of power in and of themselves. In their generative volume Technoculture, Penley and Ross identify the multiple possibilities for social expression contained within various technologies, arguing that unintended consequences and incidences of resistance are as significant if not as powerful as the corporatist and masculinist biases built into them. The editors of Communities in Cyberspace implicitly echo Penley and Ross calls for technoliteracy the ability to engage meaningfully with and about the technology in compiling a set of readings grounded in research and critical analysis of actual social spaces within and related to cyberspace.
The rapidity of technological change and its sociocultural consequence often create the impression that it is not possible to understand the new medium of cyberspace. Its very fluidity makes it elusive. But as the authors in this volume and others like it demonstrate, critical researchers can undertake case studies of specific sites and communities interacting to various degrees with these new technologies. In the introduction the editors of this book describe the Internet as a strategic site in which to study fundamental social processes.(p. 4) Research on the social spaces fostered by computer-based communications technologies is emerging as a significant academic activity.(3) Important links between existing disciplines and this new context are being made, for example, in the fields of architecture, geography, sociology, communications, and womens studies.
All of the chapters in this book focus on text-based sites in cyberspace rather than the emerging media of virtual reality. This focus is convincingly justified on the basis of the longer history and greater diversity of text-based sites. The chapters in the book are organized into sections entitled Identity, Social Order and Control, Community Structure and Dynamics and Collective Action. The editors introduction emphasizes the complexity of issues relating to an analysis of cyberspace, setting the tone for the rest of the book. In addition to raising significant questions about anonymity and equality, tensions relating to social control, the relationships between on- and off-line communities, and unequal access to such potentially empowering new technologies, this volume helps bridge the insider/outsider gap around cyberspace by describing various social spaces fostered by new information technologies and by defining concepts. In this sense it will serve as a good introduction to cyberspace as social space.
The books introduction and some chapters in particular stand out in terms of their critical approach and engaging quality. Jodi OBriens Writing in the body: gender (re) production in online interaction, Byron Buckners Reading race online: discovering racial identity in Usenet discussions, Anna Duval Smiths Problems of conflict management in virtual communities, and Christopher Meles Cyberspace and disadvantaged communities: the Internet as a tool for collective action, to name a few, raise sociological questions that apply within and beyond cyberspace. These chapters are insightful and also in some cases remarkably provocative, helping the volume contribute meaningfully to the conversation surrounding cyberspace as a social and cultural phenomenon. In her chapter on social construction of gender online, for example, OBrien suggests that Cyberspace provides a site for studying the viability and implications of constructionist theories that emphasize doing gender as a social accomplishment. (p.79) This chapter addresses issues relating to gender that are relevant in any context.
The fact that the chapters in this volume are grounded in research in cyberspace makes this book a significant contribution to the field. Each chapter is structured around analyses of actual text-based sites in cyberspace or communities that use text-based sites to increase their social power. An example of the former is Byron Burkhalters chapter Reading Race Online. In this chapter Burkhalter presents the results of a textual analysis of a specific usenet group soc.culture.african.American as evidence in support of his conclusion that racial identification is not lacking in cyberspace in spite of the so-called anonymity of online communication. An example of the latter is Christopher Meles Cyberspace and Disadvantaged Communities. In this chapter, Mele documents the growth of the Jervay Residents Council in their resistance to imposed redevelopment. The use of internet access provided a traditionally marginalized group (Black female residents of public housing) with the resources to resist an imposed development plan. While the outcome of this social struggle is unknown at the time of Meles writing, its value in linking the residents of Jervay with a larger support community is well documented. The grounding of the volumes chapters in such systematic research is a key means by which the book goes beyond a superficial and polemical discourse of cyberspace.
A strength of the volume is its inclusion of chapters that introduce unfamiliar readers to the structure of cyberspace and social processes within it. Unfortunately this contribution is uneven, as not all of the chapters that contain such material are engaging. There are several tedious sections that remind me of my efforts to stay focused while reading a computer manual.
The greatest strength of this volume is that it contributes to a more critical discourse around information technology. It locates cyberspace within the broader social and cultural context, and in exploring questions of identity, social control, inequality and empowerment as they relate to cyberspace it deepens the conversation about these issues in social spaces more generally. The insight that categories of identity that operate in off-line contexts to privilege and marginalize are as or more powerful in cyberspace is not an original contribution of this volume. But the richness of the research from which these contributions are drawn is a valuable addition to the discourse on social power and cyberspace, and on the construction, maintenance and contestation of social power more generally. That cyberspace may be one site where social processes surrounding the construction and mediation of identity and power may be particularly visible is an exciting possibility.
(1) Ursula Franklin, The Real World of Technology. (Concord, Ontario: House of Anansi Press, 1990).
(2) Constance Penley and Andrew Ross, eds, Technoculture. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991); Judy Wajcman. Feminism Confronts Technology. (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, 1991).
(3) Lynn Cherny and Elizabeth Reba Weiss, eds. Wired Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace. (Seattle: Seal Press: 1996); Cheris Kramarae and Maureen Ebben, eds. Women, Information Technology and Scholarship. (Urbana, Illinois: Centre for Advanced Study, 1988); Heather Menzies. Whose Brave New World? The Information Highway and the New Economy. (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1996); Dale Spender. Nattering on the Net: Women, Power and Cyberspace. (Toronto: Garamond Press, 1995).
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Simon Fraser University