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.


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


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