Academic nostalgia of a utopian society that is more free and open thanks to the Web

Academic nostalgia of a utopian society that is more free and open thanks to the Web

Geert Lovink, Networks Without a Cause. A Critique of Social Media, Polity Press, Cambridge,2011.

Lovink is the director of The Institute of Network Cultures at The University of Amsterdam and in 2008 he became famous for his book Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Culture, a study on Blogospheres. The book came out at the time of the blog explosion and since then has brought about much debate.

In spite of the title, his new book is not just about social networks, it approaches several other subjects connected to the Web 2.0 as well. It aims to describe from an academic point of view how the Internet has developed from its outset and what lies in the future for it. In addition to this, Lovink indicates a new direction in media studies and ironically, he does it after heavily criticising the failure of mass media studies in general: “Media studies had little coherence as a field or a discourse from the beginning and has always been accused of faddishness and hot air before taking off” (p.83). He also argues that there should be a “Web critic” who orientates users and decides what is valid and worthwhile material just like there are critics for films, art and literature.

Insights and forewarnings to navigators

The book is heterogeneous, with chapters taken from previously published articles but with updated and revised versions. Rather than offering a synthesis of the book, I thought it would be useful to make some observations and give some insights to help the general reader who (still) tends to believe in the social advantages of a “neutral” technology like the Internet in today’s democratic world.

1.“Once the Internet has changed the world, now it is the world which is changing the Internet”: The common opinion, somewhat naive and idealistic, that digital technology automatically favours a democratic participation as if it were “a container open to all”, i.e. something without barriers and something which provides a kind of liberty for everyone without social and institutional limits is a widespread idea in the collective imagination of web users. However, the situation is not quite so, and will be even less so in the future. Blogs are, in actual fact, echo chambers or recesses where users with the same opinions talk to each other. They do not encourage public debates and promote social causes. Recent research which analysed political blogs in three countries (The US, The UK and Germany) has confirmed these findings: those who identified or who had similar political orientation are very much like “birds of a feather who stay together” (Ki Denk Hyun. Americanisation of web-based Political Communication. Comparative Analysis of Political Blogospheres in the United States; the United Kingdom and Germany, in “ Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly”, 89 (3), 397-413). It goes without mentioning what happens when values (such as moral and religious) are put into question. In the third chapter, he discusses the development of the blogs from 2003 (date of his first published study entitled Zero Comments) where he argues that blog comments are not “the voice of the people” with no mediation but purely instruments to help increase traffic on line. Lovink uses an intelligent word game to illustrate this: (e)s(t)imulate/simulate. I would say that in general, they are simply reactions to what other people say rather than comments. They do not foster discussion or debate. If a blogger has a following he should dedicate all his time to replying to the people’s comments (obviously that never happens!). As it stands it would be too much to ask if he made a selection of them. But as we all know, there are programmes to generate comments automatically in order to masquerade a debate and increase the online traffic in doing so: “Persona Management Software” or “You Tube Comment Poster Post” to cite just two widely known software.

2.Social networks and Facebook in particular, generate a kind of general social do-goodery and conformity. Facebook is in itself a “self-promotion machine”. There is no button to say “I don’t like it” . “I like it” is only allowed. Also, anonymity is not permitted so you cannot give a false identity. Lovink states that “social networking is not about affirming something as truth but more about making truth through endless clicking” (p. 43). For Lovink, the only way to get out of this blind alley is to allow people to be anonymous: “I am not who I am”. Social networking began without a reason- from here we see where the title of the book comes from- and they are literally time-eaters for web users. No surprise for the experts who have maintained (for a quite a while now) that the social networks are big business. Such are based on the demand of free services in exchange for the collection of precious information of the users. This information is then sold to other companies. In fact, the author points out this when he discusses the “Googleisation” in our lives. Google is not only the most powerful search engine on the Internet, it is also a generous supplier of services to users (gmail, Google news, YouTube, Cloud, etc.) but above all it is the only advertising company which is efficient on the Web. Its famous but all concealed secret- the algorithm of research- is the myth of El dorado which we see come true in advertising: knowing at long last who actually visualises or reads (and not just potentially) a web page. From this, we can deduce that in the future- if it has not already happened – that it is not the advertising which follows what is important (and matters), but the reverse, it will be the advertising which will dictate what is important, by using able combinations of commercial interests and “neutral” mathematical algorithms. In other words, it’s like walking towards “an algorithm of knowledge”.

3.To consider the Web as an entire representation of knowledge (or globalisation as everyone puts it)- is pure utopia. In August 2008, Chinese Internet users exceeded the number of American Internet users. Today, only 25% of users use English. Finally, technology does not help to overcome linguistic and cultural barriers in an automatic way. The idea too, that the Web has created a safe place to exercise liberty of free expression without limits is a dream that unfortunately we all woke up from on September 11th: “the Police and security agents use sophisticated technology to identify IPs of users- which as Lovink quite rightly says has destroyed “the anonymous identity”. To add to this, governments have taken the task to assign and control the IPs in every country in order to protect each and every country’s cultural industry (film production, copyright,..)

According to Lovink, one of the best social uses of the Internet other than being a fruitful business is Wikipedia. Here we have a real social network because it is based on the sharing of knowledge. Even if “what glitters is not always gold” in Wikipedia and further studies should be made on this to give a better analysis. Unfortunately, the author did not go into this in his book.

Evaluation of the book

Lovink’s book is suitable for experts of this field, and ideal for freekies and academics alike. It is not however, suitable for the general reader. It questions many issues but offers few answers; its use of slogans and deep insights help to reflect on issues in a critical way. One of the many issues he discusses is the techno-liberty utopia which the author is nostalgic of (if you read between the lines) is purely utopia. The surmise of the academic failure of mass media studies is correct; the causes are not however. Furthermore, it is the focalisation and the support technology rather than the contents which have given rise to a disorientation amongst academics. Lovink’s proposal to create a “Web critic” does not seem something which can be put into practice easily: how would the presumed critic judge (what is valid) and what would be the basis on which he would do this? There is infinite information on the Internet. If the critic considers only the social applications, we will only return to the problem of the prevalent attention to the media technology and their uses again.

I agree on the criticism which the author makes of Nicholas Carr and other doomsday preachers as they are often called. Quite simply, we are in an age of transition, of assimilation of technology just like what happened in the 1950s when household appliances came into mass use and production. When everyone had them, everybody stopped talking about them. Organisations and people are slowly opening up to the fact that using means– selecting- what to take or not, and what to change or not. There is much to be learnt above all on a personal level: “One does not become the owner of an instrument when one knows how to use them but when one knows when is the right moment to stop using them”.

The Internet is rapidly changing. The publication of the book (2011) came out prior to the draft by the European Commission published on January 25th 2012 to propose a general regulation for the protection of data in the European Union, whose legislation procedure should be completed in 2014. The United States is following a parallel path with other guiding principles, such as “Consumer Data Privacy in a Networked World” by the White House in February 2012. But the legislative debate on this subject has long been discussed and Lovink does not seem to have much interest in this. This new juridical picture, once approved, will change many things. To paraphrase the author, “The Internet once changed laws, today the Court sentences are changing them and soon the law will change the Internet”.

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