Internet Spaces

“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.”

-Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

Starting off a reflection about social media with a quote from Byron about the solitude of nature seems counter intuitive. A “society, where none intrudes” clashes with the usual rhetoric surrounding the networked culture of social media and the digital, and the “lonely shore” and “pathless woods” probably lacks WiFi–or broadband.

But bringing in Byron highlights the paradox of place that the Internet and digital technology brings. We are networked selves, accessing the Internet in multiple ways from multiple places or portals, as our physical self continues to take up space and air “irl.” And much like the narrative locales of Romantic poetry, many digital spaces are constructed and emergent. They may have a url pinning them down, just as Byron’s saga traces the physical geography of Southern Europe, but Byron’s textual place–his “pathless woods” and roaring sea–arrive at us in ephemeral language. They are authored locales.

While I want to get into more concrete considerations of method, I want to pause initially and consider what “space” or “community” constitutes the subject of Internet inquiry.  More specifically, I think that the quality of born-digital space forces us to look at space as an ephemeral, emergent gathering, and this should affect our methods. As Richard Rogers argues in Digital Methods, our methods should “follow the medium.” For now, I want to reflect on what that medium is.

In his later work, Martin Heidegger discusses the notions of  “location” (or “locale”) and “space.” As he writes in “Building, Dwelling, Thinking”:

“The location is not already there before the bridge is. Before the bridge stands, there are of course many spots along the stream that can be occupied by something. One of them proves to be a location, and does so because of the bridge. Thus the bridge does not first come to a location to stand in it; rather, a location comes into existence only by virtue of the bridge.”

The bridge in this example, by being constructed, is opening up a “location,” a significant site where different elements can gather and be. One can look at the bridge as a concrete space of possibility, a site that can direct meaning at some level in ways that an unmarked, undeveloped area cannot. Before the bridge exists, the area is just a “spot.” Things are happening in it, but nothing is built there. And with no building–or inscribed significance, like a park or childhood memory–the place feels anonymous.

On the one hand, this is obvious, and Heidegger’s potentially over-wrought thinking may seem to over-complicate the matter. But I think it gets at something important: how construction creates a fundamentally new reality at a site. Before the bridge, the space was simply “nature” or a river bend. Now, the bridge may have a name. It serves a human purpose for commerce. Lovers add locks to it. It may be in a film. It may represent a certain style or culture. It interacts with the nonhuman environment, deflecting rain and providing shelter for animals.

In Heidegger’s thought, a “thing,” like a bridge, is not an inert site of stone and steel. Drawing from the older use of thing in Icelandic and Germanic language, “Ting” and “Ding” respectively, thing is a site for an assembly, a gathering of people to reach decisions. With thinkers like Bruno Latour and Thomas Rickert picking up on this use more recently, I think we can look at Internet architecture with a similar dynamism.

A site is often even more of a “thing,” in this sense, than Heidegger’s bridge. It is a place for gathering. And in that gathering, a fundamentally location-attuned way of being arises through the interplay of different forces.

As Nancy Baym argues in “The Emergence of On-Line Community,” online communities are emergent rather than dictated. As she writes, “Social organization emerges in a dynamic process of appropriation in which participants invoke structures to create meanings in ways that researchers or system engineers may not foresee.” Participants inherent certain structures or systems, which Baym categorizes and organizes, and use these initial elements–like a purpose or subject matter–to construct social practices and communal spaces. The community of individual authors writes and is written by the location. But overall, location emerges.

And this dynamic authoring of location–of “space” to use Heidegger’s other term–complicates our role as researchers. A building is dynamic. People use it, weather etches its exterior, and a team of people produce it. But its time-table and territorialization is more permanent and stable. It changes more slowly than a digital space, and its authorship is often more centralized.

But Internet spaces, as Dave Karpf argues, operate according to “Internet time.” And as Jessica Reyman argues in “Authorship and Ownership,” such spaces are often “co-authored” by algorithms and multiple people. The concrete design of the space, the content, and often, its values and ecology of practice can all change. And all of this takes place in rapid time scales through diffused sources of agency.

It’s enough to make a researcher’s head spin. But, as many thinkers, like Clay Shirky, point out: such spaces and research problems present vivifying challenges and exciting opportunities.

[Image: “Crybaby Bridge” by Matthew O’Thomponski]

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