Review of Nancy Baym’s Personal Connections in the Digital Age

It is often the narcissistic tendencies of academics which alienates a much wider potential readership of their work. A use of language and content that predicates a certain level of cultural capital renders many articles inaccessible to a number of those who may of found their work illuminating. A second tendency that can turn people off academic work is a continual blind belief in the ‘truth’ of what they are writing. Unable to see beyond their findings, they take much joy in deriding the opinions of others, and hammering home their views.

While these qualities are often required in academic work, it is in continually avoiding both of these pitfalls that makes Nancy Baym’s study of human connections in the modern digital sphere such a joy to read. Baym diverts from both painting an apocalyptic image of the end of ‘real’ communication and conversely avoids presenting digital communications as a new democratising, world changing force, as many academics have done. Instead, this book is thoughtful, moderate and draws sensible conclusions about the state of personal communication in the modern day. She stays in the ‘everyday’ in her book, not addressing questions of politics and business but instead roots her study in ‘personal relationships’ and the changes digital media has offered to ‘relational life’ (2010:2).

‘Digital media aren’t saving us or ruining us. They aren’t reinventing us. But they are changing the ways we relate to others and ourselves in countless, pervasive ways’ (2010:153)

This quote neatly sums up Baym’s attitude to digital media and the content of this study. From chapter to chapter Baym myth busts many claims made by academics and digital commentators since the advent of the Internet while offering developed conclusions as to how she feels interaction has developed in the ‘digital age’.

In the opening chapter she argues strongly not to see digital communications as a single homogenous mass and feels to accurately study media one must place it strongly in context of what device one is using to communicate and to look at who is using it.  This section proved particularly useful for those studying the concept of the ‘digital divide’. She goes beyond addressing this much-discussed concept in terms of political participation and career advancement and instead looks at it in terms of ‘interpersonal connections’ (2010:18). She pushes the study of the digital divide beyond those that do or do not have access to the Internet and instead looks at how use of the Internet varies immensely within each given region and social group. She also shows that digital technology is appropriated and facilitated in varying ways, especially within nations who are traditionally seen to be on the right side of the ‘digital divide’.

She continues to address many anxieties humans have over the way ‘machines changes us’ (2010:24). Baym investigates a range of claims made by technological determinism theorists that digital communication is damaging humans by (amongst other affects) making us dumber, making conversation shallow, ruining home life and corrupting and endangering our children. She attacks these claims by ‘demystifying’ new media and placing the debate in the context of developing technologies over the years, showing how anxieties about ‘new media’ on society is nothing ‘new’ at all. She makes a strong case for the perspective of ‘social shaping’ in this debate and fixes many of her arguments in this school of thought. She argues that both technology and society shape the use of communication tools as they shift from being ‘fringe’ to ‘everyday objects’, a process which Baym calls ‘domestication’ (2010:45). In this context she believes that while a section of society adapts to the use of a given technology it is most visible and abrasive for some and hence widely debated. This section could prove a useful framework for anyone wishing to study a more social aspect of digital communication over the coming year.

Chapter 3 affords an insight into the claims that quality of communication online is a much lower than face-to-face communication. Instead of blindly comparing the two, Baym studies online mediated communication as fixed in society and richly steeped in ‘cultural forces’ (2010:71). She shows how gender, nationality, culture and the actual technology in use mix together as the user finds creative ways to interact online. She believes that there is richness and complexity in the way communication is performed in the digital sphere. While her views were entirely sensible, she derides the fact that ‘cultural identity’ has not been discussed in depth by academics in relation to new media. I found the short following section frustrating as I felt she missed the opportunity to improve upon this supposed paucity in academia.

The second half of this book looks at identity formation and the ability of the Internet to work as a base to forge meaningful relationships, both one-to-one and in groups. The most appealing feature of this section and also the study in general was the personal nature of it. At times verging on autobiographical, she talks about her own experiences and encounters to introduce the way relationships develop using digital media. She often uses her pupils and their experiences as examples through the book and the description of how her pupil, Tom, managed to forge a marriage from online communication formed a useful starting block for this section. Furthermore, one cannot avoid being enchanted by Baym’s relationship with a Swedish musician she met online. By using these encounters as an anchor to discuss the ability of digital communication to forge meaningful and long lasting relationships, Baym made the section relevant and absorbing. While many academics deride the Internet’s ability to build relationships, Baym uses new studies to show the positive potential of the Internet in that 70-75% of online relationships still exist after two years in the ‘real world’ (2010:133). Despite this unusual approach, Baym always manages to remain relevant and academic.

This book may not be suitable for a researcher looking to delve into the details of a particular nuance of digital communication but it does offer a wonderful overview of the subject, especially in the focus on the ‘everyday’. It is indeed a valuable starting point for someone seeking to learn about the range of arguments concerning the subject and the major academics who have lead these debates over the last forty years. It definitely is an asset that her conclusions generally fall somewhere in the middle of an academic debate on a given issue. Any media student, especially those looking to ignite an interest in the subject, could make a much worse decision than beginning here.

8/10

Reference: Baym, Nancy (2010) Personal Connections in a Digital Age. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press

‘Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.’ (Barlow, 1996)

David Cameron’s reaction to the popular uprising that took place across the United Kingdom through August 2011 has further damaged his nations claim to moral authority on the international circus.

Through calling for tougher than usual sentences for rioters, the British Prime Minister instigated a policy which not only interferes with the British judicial system but has also resulted in unusually long jail sentences for petty crimes committed during the riots. Much discussed cases include a university student being jailed for six months for stealing a pack of bottled water and a pair of youths facing four years in jail for setting up a fake ‘riot’ as an event on Facebook. Sentences such as these are unprecedented in recent British history.

Such a severe backlash has cut Cameron into the mould of the very world leaders he denounced and helped topple during the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa over the preceding months. While Gaddafi passed off the revolutionaries in Libya as “rats and mercenaries“, Cameron similarly described those who took to the streets in anger at the state of government, available opportunities and social exclusion (amongst a complex web of other reasons) as merely thieves and vandals. These are surely the words and actions of a leader under pressure choosing to assert authority over his people.

While the British PM crushed those who dared to ‘loot’ against him in the British courts, his scramble to assert power also crossed into the digital sphere, adding himself to a long queue of world leaders in announcing an ambition to censor internet use.

“When people are using social media for violence we need to stop them. So we are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.” (David Cameron, 11/08/2011)

As a British citizen with a blind belief in the notion of ‘freedom of speech’ I immediately reacted with horror at any attempt to censor online debate. It is not so much the idea that one can use censorship to stop ‘violence…and criminality’, which may have sympathies amongst many in the UK, but more specifically ‘disorder’. How does one define ‘plotting’ disorder? This raises questions about how far this could be abused by the government. Will people be able to use the Internet for anti-government debate or to organise peaceful protest without worrying about the loss of social media privileges? There has already been a plethora of argument surrounding power abuse of the terror laws since 9/11. Much discourse has appeared online which has echoes these concerns. Indeed, Axel Bruns refered to Cameron’s statement as a moment of ‘headdesking’ which he defines as:

‘what you do when somebody says or does something so stupid that your instant reaction is to smack your head on the surface of your desk, repeatedly.’ (Bruns, 13/08/2011)

While Bruns articulately describes the contradictory and thoughtless nature of Cameron’s statement through his article, on further analysis one cannot restrict a call to restrict Internet usage to an act of thoughtless ‘headdesking’. Instead one has to read the speech as deeply rooted in political history and being a part of a current trend in global governance. The reaction of the ruling elite to technologies which they cannot control has always been severe. Indeed, Deibert and Rohozinski’s statement highlights a reason for this:

‘Throughout much of modern history, governments have wrestled with the tensions of the relentless drive to build new technologies and the unpredictable and often counterproductive consequences that flow from them for their power and authority’. (2010:3)

Indeed, new communication technologies have often resulted in leaders attempting to try and reassert control over the given sphere. While Stalin dismissed the instillation of the telephone system, describing it as the greatest “instrument of counterrevolution in our time” (Dizard, 1986:157), China have long adopted a policy of restricting and monitoring access to the internet and was indeed a policy used by many Middle-Eastern and North African governments to attempt to control the uprisings over the last year. Indeed, Libya and Egypt blocked Facebook and Twitter and since 2007 Syria has attempted to restrict online activism by banning access to Facebook. A policy they lifted but then reinforced to attempt to tackle protests that still rumble on in Syria’s cities.

While the countries mentioned above are not considered ‘western democracies’, the similarities between these examples and Cameron’s intentions when he called for a social media crackdown cannot be ignored. A recent event that took place in in San Francisco offers a useful snapshot of what could happen when communication censorship does takes place in a ‘western democracy’. In a similar scenario to the one which sparked the riots in north London, protesters took to the transport system in July 2011 to protest the shooting of a commuter by transport police in 2009. The decision was taken by the authorities to shut down wireless signals at stations where protests were taking place. This resulted in angry reprisals by some of those at the riots, both through the organisation of a second protest and a damaging hacking of the transport system’s website. This underlines that any attempt by the British Government to censor the online public sphere could realistically result in further uprisings both on the streets of Britain and through citizens aggressively reclaiming powers online.

After seeking advice and witnessing the angry backlash that Cameron’s comments created, it has been decided by the British home office that they will not seek extra powers to clampdown on social media for the time being. While the debate is far from over, this saga has displayed how digital freedom is becoming a basic ‘right’ in the opinion of global citizens. It is becoming as deeply rooted in the minds of the people that they should enjoy freedom of communication online as much as it is also in the minds of governments that these new technologies are posing a threat to their control.

Instead of trying to censor discourse within the digital public sphere and aligning himself with leaders in the world that he should not, Cameron should think positively and creatively towards modern communication and facilitate it to connect with those who took to the streets. The protesters used Twitter in a utopian democratic model to organise demonstrations and mobilise their political message. It is a shame that Cameron was unable to do the same in return. Maybe if Cameron adopted a revised ideological stand towards modern communication technology, he may go some way in avoiding alienating the very youth that will one day vote him out of number 10.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Barlow, John Perry. 1996. A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. http://homes.eff.org/~barlow/Declaration-Final.html

Bruns, Axel. 13 August 2011. Don’t Shoot the Instant Messenger http://theconversation.edu.au/dont-shoot-the-instant-messenger-david-camerons-social-media-shutdown-plan-wont-stop-uk-riots-2854

Ronald Deibert and Rafal Rohozinski. 2010. Beyong Denial: Introducing Next-Generation Information Access Controls in Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power Rights and Rule in Cyberspace. MIT Press

Dizard, Wilson. 1986. Mikhail Gorbachev’s Computer Challenge in The Washington Quaterly (Volume 9, Issue 2)

Hello world!

Welcome to WordPress.com. After you read this, you should delete and write your own post, with a new title above. Or hit Add New on the left (of the admin dashboard) to start a fresh post.

Here are some suggestions for your first post.

  1. You can find new ideas for what to blog about by reading the Daily Post.
  2. Add PressThis to your browser. It creates a new blog post for you about any interesting  page you read on the web.
  3. Make some changes to this page, and then hit preview on the right. You can always preview any post or edit it before you share it to the world.