New media and politics of online communities

Author:   Aris Mousoutzanis and Daniel Riha
Publisher:   Inter-Disciplinary Press, Oxford
Reviewer:   Abhay Chawla
Designation:   New media and politics of online communities
Genre:   Book Review

New media and politics of online communities  edited by Aris Mousoutzanis and Daniel Riha, Inter-Disciplinary Press, Oxford, United Kingdom, 2010, ISBN: 978-1-84888-032-0

An essence of our being is our memories. However today the hyper networked world ensures we are bombarded with texts and images augmenting our lived experiences which create an individual’s memory. Then with digitalization and technology enhancements we have reached a stage where we no longer need to hold on to memories in our minds and these memories can be digitized and stored. But we still need to figure out how memories are to be captured and accessed both by the originator of the memory and subsequent others. The pace has been so breathtaking that we are now talking about digital memories being incorporated within traditional handmade objects with digital technologies moving away from the screen and entering the age of ubiquitous computing and the ‘internet of things’. Think of your perambulator accumulating your growing up memories for you and your children being able to access them later.

This book from the Inter Disciplinary press, Oxford, U.K, comprises of the papers reflecting on debates that progressed during the 5th Global conference on Cybercultures, with Digital Memories: Exploring Critical Issues, held as a part of Cyber Hub activity in Salzburg, Austria in March 2010. Even though in the age of Internet 4 years are like a lifetime, the book still holds relevance.

The book is divided into ten parts. The ten parts being, Concepts of Cyberspace and Cyberculture,  Cyberculture, National Identity and Diaspora, Fan Cultures Online, Cultures of Online Learning,  Changing Identities in Cyberspace, The Future Platforms, Controversial Issues in Cyberlife, Externalisation and Mediation of Memories, New Media and Representations of the Past and Theories and Concepts in Digitising Individual and Community Memory.

Wikipedia defines Cyberculture as the culture that has emerged, or is emerging, from the use of computer networks for communication, entertainment, and business. It is also the study of various social phenomena associated with the Internet and other new forms of the network communication, such as online communities, online multi-player gaming, wearable computing, social gaming, social media, mobile apps, augmented reality, and texting, and includes issues related to identity, privacy, and network formation.

Does this cyberculture affect national identity?  Identity is normally understood as a multi-faceted cultural construct constantly in a state of fluidity and change, further subject to its interaction with ‘other’ individuals, communities, discourses and wider ‘culture’. Aris Mousoutzanis writes “The very concept of a national identity has been increasingly questioned, challenged or even reaffirmed in a world that becomes increasingly globalised, networked and interconnected. And whereas there has been a lot of theoretical debate over the arguable ‘death of the nation-state’ at the rise of a new global order of things, recent historical conflicts and political realities have at least underscored the persistence of this particular political formation in individual and collective consciousness”. Papers like Stresses upon an Emergent Imagined Community: Results and Insights from the Emirates Internet Project by Harris Breslow and Ilhem Allaghui reflect this dialectic. The new media and the Internet creates an online community whose affiliations spans national borders while on the other may also serve as sites for the reaffirmation and reinforcement of national identity, as in the case of discussion forums, chat rooms and websites dedicated to members of a particular nationality.

Renata Seredynska-Abou Eid in her paper The Role of Online Communities in Social Networking among Polish Migrants in the United Kingdom focuses on contemporary Polish immigration to the UK and explores the role of computer mediated communication in establishing migrant communities in the target country. The function of a national space created in the virtual world while staying away from home is examined in terms of validity, usefulness, and importance for establishing relations with compatriots.

Benedict Anderson’s seminal work on national identity as an ‘imagined community has lent itself to theoretical appropriations and translations in order to be applied to other types of communities such as online groups, discussion forums and online fan communities. Some of the papers like Virtual Friends: Experiences of an Online Fan Community by Helen Barber and Jane Callaghan engage with question of online fan identities and communities dedicated either to mainstream popular culture icons, such as Steven Gately or marginalized forms of cultural expression, such as dark slash fiction in Brita Hansen’s research The Darker Side of Slash Fanfiction on the Internet. The papers investigate recent theorizations on fandom and its relation to new media and online platforms. Traditionally fans were deemed mostly negative and pathological often termed obsessive and addictive unlike the current depiction as a more positive, dynamic, active form of consumers whose engagements being more productive in relation to texts and commodities they are appropriating and ‘rewriting’, in order to fulfill their own needs and desires.

The next theme this book covers is the relations between identity, media, and power. The extent to which individuals, in their engagement with new media technologies are in control of the construction of their identity over being passive consumers and uncritical adopters of  images, meanings and identities to which they are constantly being exposed to by the media. The pertinent question being, do discussion forums, chat rooms, blogs and the Internet in general, constitute examples of a virtual public sphere where people can freely express themselves, engage in productive debates and possibly contribute to change? Or are these online platforms simply giving the illusion of freedom and authenticity for the purpose of further manipulation and control by media institutions, political authorities and the culture industries? Papers like Election 2.0: How to Use Cyber Platforms to Win the US Presidential Elections - An Investigation into the Changing Communication Strategies of Election Candidates by Sabine Baumann and Click Here to Protest: Electronic Civil Disobedience and the Future of Social Mobilisation by Fidele Vlavo explore ways in which the Internet has been used either by politicians in order to promote their political campaigns or by activists who seek to stage their strategies of resistance on or through cyberspace.

Then there is the theme on memories, human memory and its relation to individual identity and collective history. How memory can be converted into digital form and how with new media technology,  storage of unlimited amounts of these digital memories in the form of data can be easily retrieved, has generated a growing tendency to constantly archive and accumulate information rather than process, edit, and delete.  Diverging Strategies of Remembrance in Traditional and Web 2.0 Online Projects by Heiko Zimmerman, Algorithmic Memory? Machinic Vision and Database Culture by Katrina Sluis and Fluid Memory on the Web 2.0 by Raffaele Mascella and Paolo Lattanzio debates on current work in the area of memory studies, on the ways in which online media may serve as sites of memory and remembrance. At the same time, the increasing reliance on computer memory for the accumulation and retrieval of information has generated discussions regarding the nature of human memory and the ways in which information is conceptualized.  Are new models emerging out of interaction between humans and new media and online platforms?

The editor instead of ten parts could have combined various papers into two main parts i.e. Cyberspace, Cyberculture and Identity and Memories and its remediation. The first part  containing papers on Concepts of Cyberspace and Cyberculture, Cyberculture, National Identity and Diaspora, Changing Identities in Cyberspace, Controversial Issues in Cyberlife, Fan Cultures Online, Cultures of Online Learning and The Future Platforms. The second part  containing papers on Externalisation and Mediation of Memories, New Media and Representations of the Past and Theories and Concepts in Digitising Individual and Community Memory. This would have made the reading a little more organized and easy. Also components of cyberculture like online multi-player gaming, wearable computing, social gaming, mobile apps, augmented reality and texting have not been covered with the books larger emphasis on identity formation.

This book is useful for understanding cyberculture and how it is usfull in Diaspora studies. Has Web 2.0 also unleashed the concept of Diaspora 2.0 where like Identity, Diaspora has become  multi-faceted constantly in a state of fluidity and change subject to interactions with ‘other’ individuals, communities, discourses and wider ‘culture’? As the French philosopher and sociologist Maurice Halbwachs has shown very clearly and what cyberculture is augmenting that ‘In reality, we are never alone’.

Reviewed by Abhay Chawla


Abhay Chawla is a journalist and a visiting faculty in CIC, Delhi University. He teaches online journalism and his Ph.D topic is ―"Marginalizations and consumption of new media". Email: [email protected]

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