The question of what difference the internet makes has been a perennial for those of us studying digital cultures of one sort or another. What I’ve attempted to do over the last few years is to look at what might have changed in communication since the rise to mass use of internet cultures and technologies. The results of this project are out this week in a book (Internet, Society, Culture: communicative practices before and after the internet, Bloomsbury, first chapter is available at the bottom of this post), which has been inspired by many sources including the research network around this blog.
To generate something comparative I decided to go for two case studies. This poses methodological problems as it is not easy to generate case studies from before the internet using the same methodology as a case study from after the internet’s rise; it’s hard to interview people or do participant observation on social practices from over 150 years ago. However, if two case studies both address a particular theory then through that theory they can be compared (or at least I argue they can), even when generated from different methods. And so this book was written based on a comparison between communicative practices found in an archival study of letters between Australia and the UK 1835-1858 and an observant participation in the mmpogs Dark Age of Camelot and World of Warcraft.
What I argue through these case studies is that prior to the internet communicative practices stabilised themselves through techniques and technologies that allowed the identification of senders and receivers of messages with specific bodies. For example, a signature authorised that a particular message was touched by the body that signed. What ‘body’ means here is itself constructed within the communicative practice rather than being something taken to exist outside such practices. The body is taken to be established by such things as signatures, wax seals, stories in letters and so on. After the rise of the internet the problem of communication has to put aside this kind of referring to a body because, as so many have pointed out, identity-markers on the internet (such as handles, email names, forum nicks and so on) are not stable and so are suspect in communicative practices that create who is writing and receiving any message. Instead internet communicative practices rely on styles of interaction to stabilise identities and effect communication.
Communication after the internet is formed by the co-existence of these two different forms of communicative practices. In one we refer the sound of a voice on a phone or the shape of a signature to the body that identifies a sender and this prioritises the ability of the sender to define the communicative context (such as the way greetings and farewells in letters establish a protocol that answers the problem where to start reading and where to stop). In contrast, internet communication prioritises the ways receivers structure the communicative context by identifying from the style of communication who is sending and how they can be read. Two sets of communicative practices each creating and maintaining in different ways different types of communicative identities.