studies: What went wrong?
- 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
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
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?