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Ars Colloquy

Tracing back Communities. A bottom-up approach in analysing Digital Communities Archive

05.09. | 16:00 - 17:00


Annalisa Pelizza

Since long before the popularization on the Web in mid 1990s, online communities have been a significant driving force for the development of the Internet. From early Computer Hobbyist BBS of the 1970s to FLOSS developing communities, from Fidonet to Indymedia, from Free-Net to civic networks, from The Well to Nettime, over the last 30 years artists, hackers, activists and simple citizens have pursued the utopia of a bottom-up digital infrastructure where technical applications, forms of organization, political and cultural issues could seamlessly integrate as elements constituting coherent meanings and modes of action.
However, due to the increasingly strict law on intellectual property, the proliferation of ‘dataveillance’ technologies related to the War on Terror, the crisis of the alliance between Internet creatives and entrepreneurs and the explosion of a Web 2.0 industry fostering a ‘cult of the amateur’, in late 2000s the libertarian cyberculture paradigm underpinning the (now) mainstream idea of online community has come to a crossroads. Some of the utopias based on the cybernetic vision of information technology as the source of a second industrial revolution bearing the promise of emancipation for the citizenry had to face the counter-evidence of both a more and more controlled and territorialized Internet and of a newly new economy based on the exploitation of informal cognitive labour. As a consequence, the same notion of online community is at stake, as the paradoxical weakness of this concept demonstrates: while communitarian ties enabled by digital media are more and more invocated, the Internet is revealing itself as a much more bureaucratic and profit-oriented domain than ever. What are, therefore, the conditions under which today it is still possible to talk about virtual communities?
If the cyberculture paradigm is showing its constraints, other paradigms are taking over the notion of ‘digital community’. If we follow the newspapers’ cues as well as blog postings on Internet culture, it seems that social actors cannot avoid being involved in multiple Web communities that provide them with new empowering capabilities. Still, it is by no means certain that what is meant by the term ‘online community’ in all these much diverse domains relates to the same thing. Cultural, political and social considerations converge in enlightening an ‘opacity’ of online communities, a sort of resistance to being ‘grasped’. Differently from earlier studies carried on in mid '90s, today the researcher interested in digital social assemblages encounters more and more problems in setting the boundaries of her object of study. Do digital communities reside in the domain of politics, business, media or these all? Where is the threshold between the social and the technological set when it is the software that rearranges the regimes of access and visibility? Does studying digital communities even make sense, if the possibility to set any boundary is explicitly ruled-out by the networked-individuals hypothesis?
From a social sciences perspective, efforts have often concentrated on the extent to which online collaboration can be seen as a community-making activity, rather than a simple transaction, and on the indicators that allow to distinguish ‘successful’ communities from other types of looser aggregations. Conversely, this lecture discusses the early results of a research aiming at adopting a different epistemological approach towards social assemblages on the Net. By following some crucial insights provided by the Actor-Network Theory, this research has preferred to investigate social actors’ own interpretations of the relationship between ICT and social ties. By analysing the Ars Electronica’s Digital Communities Archive, the research has thus tried to perform a way of studying online forms of collaboration that takes as the main puzzle to be solved what is usually taken for granted. ‘Digital Community’ is what has to be eventually found at the end of the research, also by questioning leading sociological positions.

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