Being a researcher of the Internet and digital culture, I study a moving target. My object of study is under a steadily ongoing transformation, and more than once I have had to re-think projects because the landscape had changed before I had the time to finish the work I intended to do.
This is exiting, of course. But researching phenomena that are perceived as being novel and maybe even providing us with a sneak preview of the future to come, also makes me an ”expert” at a wide variety of issues. Last week, I was interviewed about what makes people ”say anything” online. This was in the aftermath of the death threat on Twitter of Tobias Billström (Swedish Minister for Migration and Asylum Policy). This week, I was asked by a journalist what makes people want to share things like Harlem Shake and Gangnam Style to the extent that they go viral.
The more research I do, however, the more my response to this type of questions tends to become the same: Forget about the Internet! This is because, it is only when we put the medium within brackets that we can actually see what it is doing, or what people are doing with it. We need to see the medium in context, and as context, rather than as an autonomous force or cause.
When it comes to Internet hatred, remember to consider first of all the hatred and not the Internet. Where does the hatred come from? (Well, it certainly does not come from the Internet. It flows through it.) Who is hating? (Well, it surely isn’t the Internet). Who threatened Billström to his life? (Yes, it was not the Internet). What makes people want to share funny video clips? (… yes, you get it by now.)
Whether we are dealing with graffiti, spoken words, pen and paper, or digital media, we must study the medium for what it is — a medium. Surely, the Internet can contribute — as an enabling or limiting structure — to changes in how hatred flows throughout a society, just like VCRs contributed to how violent content was consumed in the 1980’s. But this does not make us label a hateful newspaper article ”newspaper hatred”, or a misogynist movie ”BluRay sexism”.
Let us forget about media for a second. That strategy will help us get closer to an adequate understanding of the social and cultural causes and effects of (cyber)bullying, (video)violence, sex(ting) and (Internet) drugs. Putting technology at the center will not benefit any cultural or sociological understanding of these things. Instead it will foster techno-determinism. Let’s give all school children an iPad each, and voilà: We are in the future! (This last thing was meant to be ironic) 😉