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“Once we are online, we seem to enter and become submerged in a different world,” suggests James Slevin in the preface to this book. Slevin, a professor at the Amsterdam School of Communications Research, sets out to offer “a critical appraisal of contributions to the study of the Internet”, and examine the Internet’s role in our society.
Slevin spends a lot of time examining concepts - the concepts of community, of culture, of solidarity. His analysis is more anchored in the loaded definitions he gives to these and other terms than a pragmatic examination of reality. He does not consider the Internet as an entity on its own, but rightly places it in its position as a medium, which is influenced by the cultural baggage that its users bring to it. As he says, “we can only understand the impact of the Internet on modern culture if we see that symbolic content and online interaction are embedded in social and historical contexts of various kinds.”
But as Slevin goes on in this book, it is apparent that the analysis of the Internet, subsumed to the many background issues and contextual frameworks he has to present and discuss, becomes secondary, and, what truly comes through in this book, is a discussion of such questions as culture and community, and an attempt to make the Internet fit in with the ideas of critical thinkers whose work predates the Internet.
Slevin at times seems insecure in his choice of references. Several times he seems to justify why he has chosen to cite certain authors. He says such things as, “their writings are often cited, giving them a considerable prominence in this area,” and “I shall draw on the work of some of today’s most eminent social theorists.” This sort of hedging makes the author seem as though he is choosing to cite these other writers and theorists only because of their “prominence” or “eminence”, and not for the value of what they have to say.
As Internet years are similar to dog years, the early work on virtual communities and online identity have aged somewhat. Works by Howard Rheingold, for example, are seminal in examining how people learned to adapt to new forms of communication and develop virtual communities, but the context of the time has been supplanted by so many technical evolutions. Instant messaging, mailing lists, the tens of thousands of newsgroups available; all these have change the model of community that Rheingold examined. Yet Slevin cites this work, as well as other analyses of IRC, in discussing community and identity. While these analyses have their place in a diachronic examination of the Internet and the changes in communication, they seem a bit out-dated in a more general discussion of the Internet and society.
The weakness of this book is that it rehashes what have become the standard scholarly concepts that underlie analysis of the Internet and its impact on society. But, since the Internet is so young, there has not been enough such research, and one constantly sees the same few authors cited in books like this. Given the time it takes to develop such research, and get it published, there are few recent (relative to this book’s publication date of 2000) works cited. Slevin breaks no new ground; he provides an overview that might be useful in ten or twenty years, but which, in the heat of the moment, seems outdated and incomplete.
Kirk McElhearn (email@example.com) is a freelance writer and translator living in a village in the French Alps. You can find out all about him at his web site, http://www.mcelhearn.com.