Spotlight On – UTOPIA

May 21, 2011 § 3 Comments

(Originally published December 19 2010)

no U

Harmony. Openness. Friendship. Respect. In one centralized place, just a mouse-click away.

In other words! Utopia, online! The subject of this post! How touching, etc.

Yeah or not, since my understanding of the word “Utopia,” at least in relation to the Internet, is hardly…you know…all that utopian.

But I promise to keep the cynicism to a minimum — as my last post may have suggested, I am quite the fan of the ol’ Online, and by extension (definition?) am also a fan of the humans who populate her wild and woolly shores. In spite of this fondness –or perhaps because of it, I haven’t decided– I’m simply not that interested in discussing the Internet as some utopian –or possibly utopian, or ideally utopian– space. I like people too much, and say what you will about people, but utopia isn’t exactly our strong suit. That’s not to say that we don’t have the capacity for creating and sustaining meaningful, respectful, safe spaces for like-minded individuals.

Yes we can!

That said, there is no us –functional and loving or otherwise– without a them. The very concept of “human,” for example, implies that there are “not-humans” against which we can compare ourselves. We are not animals; we are not trees; we are not aliens from space. We are what we are, and everything else, whatever it might be, however neutrally we frame this difference, is not that, not us.

The linguistic (and therefore?) ontological division between “us” and “them” has a long and storied path, and is tied up into all kinds of nasty human proclivities like slavery and colonization and warfare and whatnot — I am not making some sweeping essentialist claim, here, i.e. “it’s in our DNA to differentiate, Darwin sez!” Because whatever, what does that even mean. What I am saying is, we do differentiate. Our very language (restricting our focus to English here, let’s not get carried away) forces us to differentiate. And so, of course, that’s what we do online. Which would make perfect sense, given what I wrote last time — the Internet does what we are. So, the fact that the Internet is basically predicated upon the creation of an “us” –starting with the very first usenet groups, all the way to my beloved trolls– should not be surprising. Again, I say this using the most value-neutral language and framing possible. We can talk about whether or not the “us” is a force for good or evil (or both, if we’re being smart about it), but either way, this is something that does indeed happen. As far as I’m concerned, that’s enough to make it interesting.

And yes, I have a stake in this argument; my work centers on figurations of the “we” online, specifically in relation to trolling communities on Facebook and 4chan. What’s interesting to me about these spaces is that, what counts as “utopia” to the trolls –an ideal space with all the cuteness and penises and macros and targets a sprightly young troll could ever dream of– ends up being profoundly alienating and oftentimes destructive to those who find themselves the unfortunate “them” to the trolls’ aggressively jocular “us.”

The question can be summarized thusly: are online communities “utopian” only insofar as they are able to maintain harmonious (read: homogenous) membership? Not (necessarily) in terms of the real life identities of community members, but harmony based on a shared set of beliefs, behaviors and, most importantly, expectations for how an ideal (read: “utopian”) community might function? Which would of course necessitate a set of community standards, to which all good members would adhere? And by which the unsavories –outsiders, “bad” members– would be judged and rejected? In other words, to what extent is the “them” necessary for creating and maintaining some idealized “us” online?

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§ 3 Responses to Spotlight On – UTOPIA

  • Anonymous says:

    This is in no way a full answer to any of your questions from the last paragraph, but they made me think of two articles focused on a particular incident of “community standard” transgression – the discovery that a popular user on an Anandtech forum was another user’s sockpuppet. (Joinson and Dietz-Uhler, 2002, “Explanations for the Perpetration of and Reactions to Deception in a Virtual Community”, and the follow-up by Birchmeier et al in 2005 “Storming and Forming a Normative Response to a Deception Revealed Online”, if you want ’em. Apologies for my lack of HTML, am not great on WordPress!).
    I took away the impression that in this case the users involved did perceive there to be a set of community standards or unwritten rules (“norms” in the authors’ terms), but that different individuals had different concepts of what the standards were, and what the utopian/ideal manifestation of their particular community would be like. The judging and rejecting of the “unsavories” – what the authors call the “black sheep” effect – was a necessary part of conceptualising the utopia or the norms involved. (Admittedly these are a bit ancient at this point and based on one specific case, but still might be interesting if you hadn’t already come by them!)

    By the way, hello! Am also a PhD student looking at online community and would love to hear more about your work on figurations of the online “we”! Enjoying the blog🙂

    • Hi Karen! Thanks for your comment…I’m just getting in after a 7,000 hour drive from Spokane to Eugene — my brain is broke, will respond in full tomorrow. Thanks again for taking the time to read/respond!

      • Karen says:

        No worries – sounds like a horrific drive! (Just responding in order to enable follow-up comment notifications – apparently I’m even worse at WordPress than I had thought!)

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