Friday, March 30, 2007

Chapter 1 (Fourth Installment)

I welcome your Peer Review!

First Installment: Introduction

Second Installment: That Which We Call a Blog?

Third Installment: From Blogs to Blog Carnivals and Beyond

The Myth of Internet Democracy

“The great news is media has gone from an old boy’s club to an echo chamber. If you want people’s attention, you don’t need to be right, you just need to shout.” –Stephen Colbert (40)

The internet, and the blogosphere in particular, has been hailed by many as democratic space where forms of prejudice that exist in the offline world cease to exist. Citing the benefits of disembodiment, the lack of systematized corporatization (at least in the early internet years), the possibilities of free speech, and the spread of information originating form non-hegemonic sources, the internet has been described by some as a mythic utopian space and by others as the launching site for the next socially progressive revolution. The fact that web pioneer Tim Berners-Lee (41) “envisioned a system that was equal parts readable and writable” leads individuals to conceptualize the internet as an interactive space that supports democratic principles through its intended polyvocality (42). When viewed uncritically as a space where all voices, especially of those who are marginalized in the offline world, can be heard, the egalitarian potential of the internet appears to be quite promising. Unfortunately, the inequalities that exist in the “real” world translate into cyberspace and the blogosphere is not immune to the systems of oppression that operate offline.

The rhetoric used to describe the expansion of the blogosphere often references the democratic mythos applied to the world wide web. In The Weblog Handbook, Blood provides an example of this assessment of the blogosphere:
The weblog phenomenon is democratic. Weblogs are generally published by a single person or a group of people who lack access to traditional means of broadcast. For this new type of publication, all that is required is reliable access to a computer with an Internet connection; free, easy-to-use services make it possible to produce a weblog without knowing HTML or spending a penny. In the weblog universe, everyone can say his piece. Produced without gatekeepers, weblogs focus on whatever topic is of interest to its maintainer: Web design, math-rock, world events, or day-to-day events. Webloggers who link to one another recognize their ability to leverage virtual social connections into ad hoc networks, enabling each of them to amplify his individual voice (43).
According to Blood, blogs are an equal access arena for spreading one’s message, notably without hindrance no matter what that message might be, and building coalitions. Stone’s similar version of blog evolution also incorporates this mythology; Stone describes how,
All of a sudden…someone had removed the barriers to entry [with the availability of blogging software] and all we had to do was pour our thoughts into an empty text box and click a button to be a part of the action. It wasn’t going to be just a few people. This was something for the masses, and things were going to get interesting (44).
According to Stone, the “publishing side of the internet has been democratized” through such software (45). The language Stone employs in invoking “the masses” is noteworthy because of its historical connotations with revolutionary movements (46). Further, this choice of words reveals an idea of equal access as inherent to blogging; like Blood, Stone asserts that in the blogosphere “everyone can say his piece” (47). Tobias echoes Blood and Stone and extends their premises in her direct invocation of blogging as democracy enacted; Tobias writes,
However mundane, absurd, controversial, or pedantic their themes may be, blogs have in common an unregulated and libertarian essence. Blogs are a modern manifestation of our First Amendment rights, providing both voice and audience for anyone with an opinion, including self-identified feminists and those engaged in women’s issues (48).
Again, the idea of all individuals having equal ability to share information regardless of whether it is “mundane, absurd, controversial, or pedantic” (49) is avowed. The fact that Tobias’s assessment is United States centric illustrates the mythic qualities of this conception of the blogosphere, as democratic ideals like freedom of speech and equal representation are an important part of the institutionalized national consciousness of Americans. Like the originary tales of the United States that gloss over the institution of slavery, the displacement of Native Americans, and the non-citizenship of women, these foundational myths of the blogosphere obscure the ways in which inequality does exist in cyberspace. Accounts like those provided by Blood, Stone, and Tobias elide the fact that a digital divide exists and that “isms” and stereotypes are present online.

While discussing the physical conditions that are necessary for blogging, Stone does indicate an awareness of the digital divide:
Dude. It’s so easy to start a blog. You don’t even have to own a computer; you just need regular access to the web to start a blog. Of course you’ll need regular access to the web if you want to keep blogging. Let me also state for the record that I am being very casual here with the term access to the web because you can blog via e-mail, phone, Palm, or an actual computer. I primarily use my laptop to blog, but occasionally I also use my cell phone or an e-mail account. It’s not necessary to own a computer – yet another reason why blogging is democratizing the Internet (50).
Despite Stone’s implicit acknowledgment that not all individuals have access to the internet via computer connection, he does not include the lack access to other digital devices or the lack of technological familiarity that some individuals face because of unequal access to and distribution of resources. Further, his statement emphasizes that the internet is not, in fact, wholly democratic. Even if “blogging is democraticizing the internet" (51) the digital divide prevents the full participation that is required for democracy. To bridge the digital divide Stone introduces, it would not be enough for all individuals to have access to web-accessible computers; up-to-date computer technology, internet connection speed and reliability, technological literacy, and other issues of equality of access would effect whether or not the internet could reach its hypothesized democratic potential fully.

Margaret Beetham drives this point home in her article “Periodicals and the New Media: Women and Imagined Communities;” Beetham writes,
[T]here are the material and ideological constraints which still operate to exclude some groups, as they did working-class women in the 1890s [in the growth of the periodical press]. To be ‘information poor’ is in contemporary terms to be one of the excluded. Access to the imagined communities of the internet chat room or the resources of the world wide web are dependent on material and ideological structures which impinge on real users. Access to computers is unevenly distributed across the world and across societies in the rich North. Even if you can get to a computer you may not have the knowledge or confidence to know what to do. In fact there is evidence that the gap between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ here, too, is increasing (52).
Many individuals across the globe do not have access to computer-related technologies. Of those individuals who are capable of accessing electronic devices, there are still some who have not been provided with the skill sets to utilize this equipment. To gain the benefits of internet technology, one must be able to first use the tools needed to make this technology work; having a computer with internet access will not bring an individual closer to sharing their ideas in the blogosphere if they do not have a degree of even basic internet literacy. The internet provides a powerful tool for expression for those who are able to take advantage of it and a powerful tool of silencing for those who are not. As Beetham points out, “If it is not online it is literally invisible” (53). Globally, many individuals are not able to create spaces of visibility for themselves in cyberspace.

In Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet, Lisa Nakamura also emphasizes the fact that “lack of access to the Internet – often found along raced, classed, and still, to a narrowing extent, gendered lines – continues to cut particular bodies out of various histories in the making” (54). Nakamura, however, goes on to examine the ways in which race class, gender, and other categories of identity affect the experience of cyberspace for individuals who do have access to the creation of new histories through the internet. Focusing on ethnically-determined experiences of the world wide web, Nakamura makes it clear that the “Internet is a place where race happens” (55) and has coined the term “cybertype” to describe “images of racial identity engendered by this new medium [the internet]” (56). Cybertypes operate online in much the same way that stereotypes operate in the offline world; Nakamura explains that “cybertyping is the process by which computer/human interfaces, the dynamics and economics of access, and the means by which users are able to express themselves online interacts with the ‘cultural layer’ or ideologies regarding race that they bring with them into cyberspace" (57). Cybertypes describe the “distinctive ways that the Internet propagates, disseminates, and commodifies images of race and racism” (58). The importance of Nakamura’s concept of cybertypes, which can be extended to other identity categories such as gender or class, becomes clear when considering how they operate in cyberspace, especially those internet areas imagined to be democratic like the blogosphere.

In light of Nakamura’s point that “[b]ecause the Internet is interactive and collectively authored, cybertypes are created in a peculiarly collaborative way” (59), blogs, as sites of interactivity, become spaces for both replicating and troubling cybertypes. Stone’s description of the development of the blogosphere highlights the importance of the role of blogs in the evolution of cybertypes:
[A]n accidental social network had already begun to grow strong on the web. This network was blind to height, weight, and eye color – a virtual world in which thoughts, opinions, and ideas represent the people who had them. This world was born, not built. Within it, people are drawn together by intellectual attraction; news and knowledge is prized over crushes and turnoffs. The blogging world started with the big bang of Blogger in 1999 and has been expanding ever since (60).
Notably, Stone only considers “height, weight, and eye color” (61) in his assessment, which ignores other important embodied features of identity like ability or sex. His romanticized description of the blogosphere hides the dystopian elements of cyberspace while also highlighting the power of the networks, expanding rhizomatically, created by weblog communities. Not only do blogs become a site of viral (in the technological sense) transmission of cybertypes; they are also spaces where remedies against cybertypes and other online “isms” can be distributed.

Notes
40.“Great News,” The Colbert Report, http://www.comedycentral.com/shows/the_colbert_report/index.jhtml.
41. Berners-Lee is attributed with the creation of the world wide web.
42. Stone, Wbo Let the Blogs Out?, 12.
43. Blood, The Weblog Handbook, 10.
44. Stone, Who Let the Blogs Out?, 4.
45. Ibid.
46. Ibid.
47. Blood, The Weblog Handbook, 10.
48. Tobias, “Blog this!,” http://www.library.wisc.edu/libraries/WomensStudies/fc/fcblogs1.htm.
49. Ibid.
50. Stone, Who Let the Blogs Out?, 122.
51. Ibid.
52. Beetham, “Periodicals and the new media.”
53. Beetham, “Periodicals and the new media.”
54. Nakamura, Cybertypes, xii.
55. Ibid., xi.
56. Ibid., xiii.
57. Ibid., 3.
58. Ibid., 3.
59. Ibid., 5.
60. Stone, Who Let the Blogs Out?, 100.
61. Ibid.



Please read the Informed Consent Form in full before posting to this blog.

1 comment:

Please note that ABWAB reserves the right to not publish any comments that do not meet community standards.