A while ago I wrote about how there’s been a breakdown in the public/private dichotomy. This time I want to discuss another dichotomy, the online/offline dichotomy. If anything, this dichotomy is more pervasive than the public/private divide, and potentially more damaging for digital sociology, as it affects the ontological approaches we take to the digital medium.
Today, I give my take the online/offline divide. It’s a much discussed topic; a topic that has, and is, changing, and a topic that it seems there’s much disagreement on. Should we view them as separate realms? Should we contextualize the internet? How much do the two realms influence each other? Are the even two realms, or are there less? Or more?
There has long been a discussion of where the internet sits in relation to our ‘offline’ reality. Earliest research on the internet took a very decided stance on the matter; the internet was a blank slate, a chance to start again. Here we were presented with a new medium for us to express ourselves in, a medium that offered us the chance to start again, free of our social expectations, categories, ideals, Discourses, dogmas, and standards. The new realm of the internet provided a chance for us, the user, to shape society. In a new medium, unbound by offline social rules, categories, and constructions we could do and be whatever we wanted to be. These were new tools, new modes of communicating and interacting, and we could set the rules about how to use them.
Online we were presented with a new medium for our own creation of social categories, our own revaluation of identity, ours to make of what we wished without intervention from any Discourse shaping agencies and institutions. This feeling was perfectly summed up by the much quoted newspaper comic from the time, shown below:
The internet was viewed as a free space where you could be anything you wanted, anything you chose to be, even a dog. This did not mean that there was an agreement on how this blank page was being and should be used. Some saw the internet as a social utopia, others as a social dystopia. The discussion revolved around whether the freedoms afford to us by the internet were a force for good or for bad.
Of course, it is questionable to assume that even though the internet may or may not offer a blank slate with new modes of communication, the people entering the internet are similarly blank. We inevitably bring with us all our baggage, our ways of understanding the world, our categories, our stereotypes, our shared experiences. All of these have manifested themselves online. As Foucault suggested, there’s no escaping Discourses, they are strong, they are pervasive, and they affect the ways we act and interact, even online. In fact, some theorist suggest that social categories and offline ideals may be MORE prevalent online, as we are presented with a Foucauldian panopticon; a system by which we are aware that we are being watched, and adjust our behaviors to meet social norms.
We contextualize what we read and what we see, we try and understand and make sense of the material we are viewing, and we do so by relating it to our experiences and ideas. This is a subject that is heavily discussed in Comic Book Studies, an area of study that I feel has great potential to answer some of the questions laid down by Digital Sociology. Comic Book Studies point out that in Comic Books we are presented with a series of juxtaposed images, one after the other. It is up to the reader to join these images together to create a cohesive narrative, this is in part guided by the writer and artist, but also relies on the reader’s ability to understand what happens between two separate images. As such, each narrative constructed from the images presented by the artist/writer is different, as we each fill in the gaps with potentially slightly different details. Take for example, a wallet, as shown below.
As a researcher and lecturer, I may visualize the inside of this wallet containing a beaten up Starbucks card, multiple coffee stains, and an overused credit card. A person with an actual job might see money inside it. We all construct and understand the whole image in slightly different ways (for more on this area, I suggest you read Scott McCloud’s amazing work).
The question becomes what do we fill in these gaps with? McCloud and others suggest that we fill this space with our understanding and experiences of the world around us, and of other media texts; our inter-textual (our understanding of this text in relation to other texts) and extra-textual (drawn from our understand of the world writ large) experiences.
The same can be said of the internet. Though it may seem a blank state, we fill this blank space with our baggage. We make sense of this space by referencing our understanding and experiences draw from offline spaces. As Verschueren, succinctly sums up, “Users inevitably carry with them a particular history, education, gender, class, ethnic background, and so on” (2005: 173).
To view the two realms of the online and offline separately is to do a disservice to both. They exist together and should not be considered separately, as you can’t ever hope to fully understand one without the other. Even if the focus of our research is online, we should attempt to contextualize what is happening, to understand and place the focus of our research within the larger picture. The internet is its own beast, but it is NOT in a vacuum.
(Of course, I’d argue that it’s also questionable to assume that the internet even is a blank slate in the first place. Designers create these landscapes for a number of reasons, informed by a number of aims etc but that’s a discussion for another day)
Much research has focused upon how online spaces are still subject to the issues, Discourses, and power structures that pervade offline society, such as racism, sexism, and other socio-cultural divides (see Christensen 2003 or McGerty 2004). Similarly, recent research, particularly in the field of Actor Network Theory, has begun to pay attention to how technology is socially embedded and constructed (Law & Hassard 1999, Latour 1999). We can begin to see that both the users of the Social internet and the technology they use to access it are imbedded in a socio-cultural context, which carry on online.
So the internet is not a wholly separate realm, it is colored by our offline realities, and pervaded by our offline Social Discourses, sensibilities, worries, categories, biases, and standards. The question then becomes to what extent are these realms separate?
Much has been made of the contextualization of the internet, but this still paints the internet as an either/or category. I’d argue that now it isn’t that simple, both realms bleed into each other continuously. It is not at all beyond belief that a student could meet some friends, show them a music video on YouTube, talk about it, act it out, film themselves lip-syncing to it, and then upload a clip to vine. You wouldn’t say that this group and their socialization was online, yet you couldn’t adequately describe it as offline either.
People flow seamlessly between the two realms and as researchers, so should we.
We are in a post dichotomy age; the two realms have merged and become one, they’re no longer separate entities. This doesn’t mean we can’t acknowledge that of course, there are differences, but to consider the online without the offline is short-sited and doing a disservice to the field of digital research.
As researchers, we should also be careful to reassess this status, as it is likely to change. The rise in wearable tech (weather consumers want it or not, but that again is a different discussion) and the growth of social mobile applications means that the relationship between the online and the offline is likely to keep changing. It is our duty as researchers to be aware of this, and to consider this during our work.
SO Digital sociology shouldn’t feel threatened by this, we still study the realm of the internet, we just need to understand that it doesn’t stand in a vacuum.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear what you have to say on the matter, so please sound off below. Thanks!