01st Nov2012

Book Review: Online Territories

by justinsprague

Online Territories: Globalization, Mediated Practice and Social Space

            To say that the Internet has been a ground for intense debate would be an understatement.  Since its truly widespread explosion in the 1990’s, a significant amount of scholarship has been dedicated to romanticizing the empowering effects and to make stark juxtapositions against between online and offline spaces.  Online Territory: Globalization, Mediated Practice and Social Space, edited by Miyase Christensen, André Jansson, and Christian Christensen, seeks to trouble these notions, presenting an intersectional approach to exploring the ways that online technologies are experienced as well as the ways that social space is conceptualized.

This edited collection takes up the position that rhetoric rendering the online as placeless is not entirely accurate (similar to the ongoing debates concerning the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’), instead framing media use as inherently involved in issues of territory, which is as much a material concept as it is symbolic or imaginary.  It is critical to understand online space as “extensions of the symbolic struggles of social space, rather than as an exclusive realm of placeless interaction” (6).  Emblematic of online space as being territorialized is the dynamic tension between the affordances of reimagined spatial and temporal borders, but also the materialities of offline space like access to resource, corporeality and power relations.

The first section of this collection, Everyday Intersections, explores various nodes that are apparent online, like public versus private, and intimate versus formal, altering the way we experience our everyday lives, but not inherently making us more global.  The links between nationalist material and social culture with online territory, and the ways that socio-cultural values are reinforced online are evident.  Chapter 1 focuses on the ways in which discourse concerning spectacle of warfare has largely ignored the “everyday” of the military and the ways in which social media is largely being utilized to simply document the mundane.  Another running thread throughout this section are concepts of the “home/private” sphere, arguing that the “panics” associated with online pornography (chapter 2) or the ills of masculinized public spaces like gambling (chapter 4) and its invasion of the private/feminized domestic sphere are shaped by larger social structures concerning sexuality and social discipline.  Fandom is also taken up (chapter 3) and the reimagining of the notion that fan communities are expansive and global in nature, when they are actually closed communities of like minded individuals most often structured in the national form.  This closes with a look at Internet spam and the ways in which it acts as a limiter to online communication, acting as “functional trash” (103).

The next section, Citizenship, Public Space and Communication Online, explores the ways that various media ‘tools,’ like blogs and social networks, are invested in and affect the ways that social space is produced/reproduced.  This section aims to complicate the concepts of self, identity, citizenship and community by highlighting the affordances/limitations online communication.  Chapters 6 and 7 are invested in the ways that online communication is utilized for social change as well as the ways Utopian ideas of the Internet shaped concepts concerning gender inequality.  Likewise, they both work to dispel the romanticism that accompanies social media and the assumption that these technologies are in some way naturally predisposed for progressive/transgressive use (chapter 6), as well as the early Utopian perceptions that the Internet would be a freeing space of anonymity and that gender (chapter 7) – which ended up being largely inaccurate, and heteropatriarchal performances are still the norm (135).  Chapter 8 investigates social movements and analyzes their web use, and the last two chapters take up issues of surveillance (chapter 9) and colonization (chapter 10).  ‘Actuarial surveillance’ and the development of “cloud” technology are themes being used to explore the “interrelations among public space, surveillance practice and identity play” (172), while the post-Napster era is examined in the ways that consumer behavior is regulated (colonized) by the music industry juxtaposed with the hacker and culture-jammer acting in opposition to decolonize.

The last section, Transnational/Translocal Nexuses, troubles the global and local binary by expressing the multiplicity of possibilities inherent in new media and communication technologies that enable a move beyond “placeless space and territorial fixity” (202).  This is taken up in chapter 11, in order to examine the ways in which culture is central to our understandings of identity and mediation.  Chapter 12 explores transnational immigrants and their social practices in relation to online technologies, urban spaces and power relations.  “Cosmopolitanization” and “capsularization” are discussed in chapter 13, noting the ways that social media acts to stratify these two ideas, positing one at a space of either deterritorialization or at the opposite involved in various social forms of surveillance and control.  Lastly, chapter 14 critically engages with identity, in particular, the ways in which various ethnic groups “represent” themselves and potentially refigure the online space.

This collection provides a very current and expansive explanation of the ways in which online and offline spaces are constructed.  The running metaphor of “territory” is quite apt, and its use regarding issues of corporeal, temporal, symbolic, and material constructs is defined in many ways.  The editors offer very precise sections that examine particular aspects of online technology and social media, in order to show the ways in which nationhood and socio-political climate is reconstructed in the online territory.  The contributors come from a range of perspectives using various methodologies (transnational, feminist, textual analysis, etc.), and the ways in which they speak to each other in this text is cogent to the larger argument.

While the text troubles many long-held Utopian concepts/scholarship about the Internet, it might have benefitted from an entire section devoted specifically to the ways in which social justice, feminism and LGBT issues (to name very few) are taken up in these spaces and the implications of such.  Each of these issues are addressed in some way or another, but are grouped according to the larger three narratives in this text.  If the text is predicated on an intersectional approach to understand the way territory is mapped in online spaces, larger notions of nation and citizenship should be addressed (which they are in expansive and effective detail); however, a move to the interior intersections that drive people to select the communities they interact with or reject seems just as telling of the way online space is constructed.  It would add a rich element while supporting the central purpose/argument of this book that is supported so excellently in every other way.

This collection is not only approachable, but also very practical and up-to-date.  It has a distinct ability to be very useful in Undergraduate classrooms, because of its no-nonsense approach and linear trajectory; however, it is also put together in a way that Graduate seminars in Digital Humanities would find it quite useful to interrogate larger historical arguments/assertions being made concerning online spaces.  Online Territories is a fitting intervention in an area that has been debated, analyzed and perhaps misunderstood since it first emerged decades ago.  Issues of citizenship, identity and space are complex and diverse, yet this collection makes sense of the ways in which these interact with each other to map territories online and offline.

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