Internet studies: What went wrong?

David Gauntlett (2000)

  • Published here for 'historical' value, and to show the origins of the Web.Studies idea, this is an article published in the Times Higher Educational Supplement to coincide with the publication of the first edition of Web.Studies.

Before the mid-1990s, academics knew everything about the internet. No wonder: they ran it. It was their best-kept secret.

Then there was another couple of years, between 1995 and 1997, when those academics could be rather smug as they saw yet another news item about this 'brand new' phenomenon. The World Wide Web, invented by Tim Berners-Lee around 1992, had suddenly made the internet so easy to use that Guardian journalists had no trouble writing three supplements a week about it.

This media fuss was fantastic for internet scholars, who had all been writing manuscripts about 'virtual communities' on the net, and how people could play with their identities within virtual chatrooms. Most of these articles and books were thin on theory. In fact, they didn't really say anything except 'Wow! Virtual communities!' and 'Holy cow! In cyberspace, no-one knows who you are!'. Nevertheless, they were records of a new phenomenon, and so were valuable in themselves.

So then what happened?

A lot of people gained access to more information than they'd ever dreamed of. Millions of ordinary people made their own websites. The music business was revolutionised. Activists were activated. And e-commerce became the future. (It became the past, for a couple of months earlier this year, but now it's the future again).

The rise of the internet in the past three or four years means that its users know far more about sex, politics, hobbies, and shopping than ever before.

You would expect that internet scholars would be lapping all this up. It's a transformation of modern society, affecting many spheres of everyday life as well as broader social processes. If busy, broad-brush sociologists like Anthony Giddens have found time to jam this into the heart of their theory, surely the dedicated internet researchers and communications experts must be having a field day.

But no. Publishers are still churning out books called Virtual Something and Cyber Something Else. They might as well be called 'Wow! Virtual communities!' and 'Holy cow! In cyberspace, no-one knows who you are!'. Even the journals are still publishing those articles which people were pulling out of the drawer in 1996. Has no-one changed the record? The internet might change politics. It might not. It's a global phenomenon. It's not really a global phenomenon. Something funny happened to a bunch of people in a chatroom. Give me a break.

Of course, academics have always liked to gently discourage interesting phenomena by writing cautious, boring books about them. But the ratio of exciting Web developments to turgid monographs in this area has beaten all previous records. It's as if these internet scholars are so upset at the rate of change and innovation - 'how could my article on Multi-User Dungeons have become prehistoric so soon?' - that they have decided to pretend that time stopped in 1997.

As I surveyed the scene last summer, whilst recruiting contributors for the book 'Web.Studies', it was evident that most people writing about the Web had never made a website in their lives, and had no idea that a new wave of communities had developed between the builders and users of millions of special-interest and personal websites around the world.

Meanwhile, the new digital media - and its interacting audiences - have given the field of media studies a much-needed shot in the arm. The teaching of the subject has actually progressed ahead of the research and publishing, for a while. I know people teaching about political, social, technological and artistic aspects of the internet, which you never see in print.

For media studies, as for the media industries themselves, there is no going back. If you want someone to analyse Battleship Potemkin (what, again?), you'll have to ask elsewhere. Now, how long before the internet scholars get out of their newsgroups and join us in the new century?