Forget about the Internet!

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) 😉

3 Kommentarer
  1. Finn Arne Jørgensen says:

    Hi Simon, great post – I’ll ask the students in my history of media technologies course to read it! I’m wondering about one thing, though – can you really forget about the media when thinking about new mediating technologies such as the internet? I completely get your point about moving beyond technological determinism, but shouldn’t we rather aim to make visible the interaction between media technologies and its users (or perhaps instead the consumers, producers, prosumers, and all the other categories we have for understanding the content). And to do this (watch me put on my historian hat here…) we need to also make the old media technologies ”unfamiliar” – to make us see that the modes of communication that we take for granted with ”old media” also shape (but not determine) communication in particular ways in the same ways that we think new media does today?

    • Simon Lindgren says:

      Thanks Finn Arne, and great that your students will read it! No, we can not really forget about the media. I think the key argument is that we should ”see the medium in context, and as context, rather than as an autonomous force or cause”. This is no easy task, but bracketing or ’forgetting’ about the medium is a thought experiment that will move us in the right direction.

  2. Filip Zwozdziak says:

    Hej Simon,

    I must say I’ve stumbled upon your blog sort of by accident, going through Umeå Uni website in search of some doctoral studies.
    Anyway, you’ve got yourself an avid follower, almost instantaneously, since all the topics you touch on seem to be of great significance and are undoubtedly insightful. I almost don’t know where to begin.

    The notion of augmented reality has long fascinated me, in various domains, from daily life, things going viral via the net (sadly, usually some somewhat silly or superficial things), and also the role of technology in education (that being especially close to my professional interest).

    I’m morbidly curious of how society at large will change due to technological advancement, all the relatively small screens one stares into (especially screenagers, though my 5-year nephew has already an iPad too), and interacts in a tactile manner affecting societal, psychological, as well as purely moto behaviour in ways that one cannot fully comprehend or foresee.

    Where am I going with this, well I suppose that my point could be rather ambiguous, since I am a strong proponent of the use of technology, bringing together people from multitudinous cultures in a split second, the growing popularity of free online courses, the emergence of University of the People, and of course the unprecedented access to somewhat infinite source of information.
    However, the notion of privacy; all those cyber-crimes such as stalking, bullying; dehumanization due to lack of actual human warmth in the form of touch (one of my greatest academic interests) and full attention; all these elements provide me with a fair amount of anxiety, I must say.

    Oh my goodness, I believe I could go on and on ’forever’ on this complex topic, or rather a highly interdisciplinary phenomenon, but that’s not the right ’medium’ here now, I suppose.
    Please, let me know what you make of all that, I do intend to read all your entries and will do my level best not to inundate you with commentaries lacking brevity.


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