Dialogue: reflecting on Chapter 1 of Tim Jordan’s Internet, Society, and Culture: Communicative practices before and after the internet

A few weeks ago, Tim Jordan shared the opening chapter of his new book, Internet, Society, and Culture: Communicative Practices before and after the Internet, published by Bloomsbury.  (You can still read it here.) The comments that followed raised some interesting observations, both about it and inspired by it, so we’re re-posting those comments here as a mini-dilaogue about Tim’s ideas.


Tarleton Gillespie

I’m thrilled by this glimpse of Tim Jordan’s new book, thanks for sharing it. Here’s what I like most about it so far. In order to get a sophisticated handle on how the internet may be changing communication and culture, Tim turns his attention to, literally, the mundane mechanics of communication practices. This means not just the practices of communicating, but the mechanics that have to be in place for those practices to occur and be taken as reliable — seemingly simple things like trusting that you know who is talking to you, which turns out to be not so simple at all.

In pre-Internet contexts, Tim argues, the traditional way we handled this kind of certainty was to attach the communication to the body. Simple when communication is face-to-face, this is a substantially harder task, and at the same time a more vital one, when communication is conducted “at-a-distance.” So we use substitutes — the handwritten signature, the timbre of the voice on the telephone, the seal pressed into wax — so we can continue to lean on the body, or its proxy, to trust communication. But on the internet, even these body-identity associations fail us. Not that these embodied signals aren’t available, they’re in fact nearly everywhere, but even the basic markers of identity themselves (email address, signature, IP address) themslves must be constructed and validated. This strikes me as a really compelling left turn for the question of how the internet changes communication, which so often focuses on who speaks, what is said, and with what effect. By looking at the mundane dynamics of what we might call “communicative assurance,” we may notice a very different kind of change afoot.

There’s another little detail, that Tim makes such a little deal about, perhaps he wasn’t even cognizant of it, but I think is fascinating. To justify looking so closely at these mechanics of communication, Tim starts by noting that, while we often understand internet communication with the help of metaphors (hacking as burglary, online protest as civil disobedience) we find that this semantic shorthand almost inevitably fail us. His point is that, if these metaphors so regularly fail us, it must mean that something is different, something ill-fitted by conventional understanding. But what I find interesting, and he notes it in passing but makes very little of it, is that both of his examples here are about illicit communication. Not surprising, coming from the author of the book Hacking. But I wonder what it might accomplish, to approach an analysis of communicative practices by starting with only illicit ones. (Not that he continues to do this: the case studies are of letter-based correspondences in the early nineteenth century and immersive social gaming today. But perhaps he will continue to have an eye for the illicit?) What might a deliberate and thorough-going focus on the illict push him to see? Certainly, illicit communicative activities are even more fraught when it comes to questions of ascertaining who is speaking and forging trust around those practices. or maybe illicit communication like hacking and online protest refuse those questions, simply have no use for them. Maybe looking atillicit  communciation could offer a broader lesson for everday communication, in which we still experience glimmers of that same wariness about who and why, even though on the surface we can take a decent chance to someone is who they claim to be.


Zizi Papacharissi

Thanks Tim, for sharing this with us. I actually had the pleasure of reading it a little earlier and offering a blurb for it, and so I feel compelled to share one of my main reactions to this text — also the main reason why I find this text so meaningful.

I am really drawn to the premise Tim establishes for the studies: The idea that pre-internet communicative practices possessed an identity stamp connected to the body, whereas post-internet communicative practices carry an identity stamp rooted in styles of interaction. This begs the question: does presentation of the self then become inherently more stylized and performative, as physical identity markers become more elusive?

Yes and no. Physical identity markers become more elusive and as a result people “rely on styles of interaction to stabilise identities and effect communication.” But the meaning of physicality itself is reimagined and redefined, as these practices become habitual. And so, while there are obvious differences between identity markers employed in the letter writing practices of Australia early colonizers and the contemporary performative practices of gamers colonizing virtual spaces, there are also important similarities in how people play with matter to tell stories about their own physicality. What limits the interaction, thus, is not necessarily the technology itself, but the metaphors we employ to understand how to use it.


Kevin Driscoll

Thanks for sharing this glimpse into your new project, Tim. I appreciated the way that this opening chapter outlined the challenges that accompany larger-scoped research questions and carefully laid out your plans for managing them.

One of the themes that really stood out in my reading is the notion of legitimacy. It’s an especially generative idea for your project because it takes on somewhat different, yet complementary meanings throughout the literatures of communication and cultural studies. In theories of deliberation and democracy, legitimacy refers to the recognition that the outcomes of a particular communicative situation are just. While in other contexts, legitimacy means something closer to to what sysadmins call “authentication” –passwords, SSH keys, and other credentials that affirm a particular identity.

This chapter left me wondering about how these various meanings of legitimacy might refer to some common underlying concept. “Recognition” came to mind in terms of recognizing the sender of a message, recognizing the idioms in use, or recognizing the authority of an institution. It’s a short hop from here to Kelly A. Gates’ book “Our Biometric Future” which takes up facial recognition technology as its central object (–an interesting parallel read, perhaps?) In the preliminary discussion of letter-writing, we are reminded of wax seals and signatures, material traces of a physical act that refer to a particular body situated somewhere else on the globe. Do the present-day biometric systems in Gates’ book represent a return or persistence of the body as the ultimate legitimizing technology? Can we imagine shipping bits of hair or nail clippings along with packages to be read by DNA scanners on the receiving end? (Recall the film Gattaca or the cyberpunk trope of holding a stolen eyeball up to a retina scanner to open a locked door…)

Such instrumental uses of the body for assessing legitimacy invite a second train of thought (leading away, admittedly, from Tim’s central research questions.) Is it important to separate mediated communication between individual humans from messages sent between institutions or non-humans? The senders of robocalls, spam emails, stock tickers, system errors, and automated traffic tickets cannot be legitimized with physiological signals. Tim points out an intriguing shift from meta-data outside of a messages (such as a wax stamp) to an authentication grounded in shared semiotics–slang, emoticons, jokes, and other lexographic habits. When we, collectively, began to engage in “internet-dependent” communication, perhaps we were drawing on a repertoire of legitimization techniques developed while interacting with non-humans through other media? Maybe the lingering threat/promise of biometric authentication is driven less by a fear of mistaking one human for another, than by a fear of mistaking bots for humans?

Thanks again, Tim. Somehow your intriguing historical perspective propelled me sidelong into science fiction. I’m looking forward to the rest of the book!


Tim Jordan

Thanks very much for the responses, it’s always a bit of a wonder having a book launched and not really knowing who reads it (or whether it’s read). It’s particularly good to know (and nerve-wracking) that colleagues whose work I use and like are reading it. A few responses.

Physicality and the body is something that came up a lot and took me a while to think through. Later in the book I try to work through the different physicalities that are used in different forms of communication. Pre-internet is dependant on types of the physical that last and remain stable, internet-dependant on far more liquid and repetitive; it was striking to compare the way letters from nearly 200 years ago when I had them in my hands felt alive and with entirely unique formations of individual letters inscribed with ink and steel nib, whereas in my chat.logs from gaming the individual letters were inscribed exactly the same and carried none of the liveliness of people I knew (in contrast to the liveliness of letters from people I never knew). The wood and sail of the ships that carried letters versus the electricity and cables of the internet.

Even in pre-internet the body and the physical I found were formed within the communicative practice. If we think of a phone call we stabilise it through the timbre and intonation of the voice rather than a sense of the ‘whole’ body, similarly letters re-present a body through handwriting style signature and so on. Internet-dependant as Zizi points out embed the body within the kinds of performances that authors or ‘senders’ must be able to repeat so that their style can be recognised and their communications accepted. It’s not that bodies disappear but that they have different parts to play in each type of communication. This left me with a couple of open questions. One is, as pre-internet practices increasingly inter-mingle with internet-dependant—voice comms being normal now in online gaming, video conference much easier, etc.–what will happen to the division I’ve drawn out? And, what do we mean by the physical these days? All the work of Karen Barad and others I looked abut but it leaves questions I’ve been pursuing.

The issue of authentication is important, though I don’t know the Gates book (nice pointer, I’ll have to have a look!) though I reflect on encryption late in the work. I did get to a point where I suddenly thought ‘Hang on! Encryption removes the problem of loss of identity markers in online communication’. But when you look into it encryption suffers from the same problem. How do you know a key is someone’s key? If we look back to Pretty Good Privacy’s ‘web of trust’ it involves final authentication by moving off the internet and back to face-to-face grounding of communication in the body. Once you have one person who you can authenticate through their body you can then connect that to styles of communication to authenticate others. I’m not sure if others remember that period when people used to go to conferences with floppy disks and would swap their keys, thereby kickstarting authentication for online life through the body.

Authority and legitimacy is something that kept coming up for me as an issue in communication: how do we know who sent this communication? How does the sender know it will reach who they intend it for? Where do we start reading and stop? Etc. This led me back to communication as the all the cultures and rituals (following Carey) that make transmission of messages possible. The forms of authority then shift between different types, particularly around the different role of the body.

As Tarleton picked up, my examples of illicit communication are drawn from my earlier research. This book was for me a return to trying to think about the nature of changes the internet may or may not have brought that was the first enthusiasm for many of us in the 1990s when the internet became a subject of cultural studies and sociological analysis, whereas those examples from the illicit were taking off from work since then. I hope this starting point is balanced out in this book by the ‘normal’ communication that forms the case studies, given that normal internet-dependant communication includes trolls, kobolds, elves (all too often) and places like Midgard and Albion. The interesting idea would be to pick the ideas I’ve put here in relation to these legitimate forms and apply them more specifically to illicit. I think a research direction toward Anonymous might just be opening up 😉