Postmodern Theory and Internet

Our understanding of the Internet, social networking, and the role of the prosumer in them is greatly enhanced by analyzing them through the lens of a number of ideas associated with postmodern theory.
There is, for example, Richard Rorty’s (1979) argument that the goal in any conversation, including those that characterize science, is not to find the “truth” but simply to keep the conversation going. The Internet is a site of the kinds of conversations envisioned by Rorty. It is a world in which there is rarely, if ever, an answer, a conclusion, a finished product, a truth. Instead, there are lots of ongoing conversations and many new ideas and insights. The Internet is a world devoted to keeping the conversation going. Prime examples of this include wikis in general and Wikipedia in particular, blogs and social networking sites. Google’s index is “constantly under development and can never result in a final, fixed directory of online content” (Bruns 2008: 175). All are sites that involve open-ended processes that admit of no final conclusion.
Postmodernists tend to decenter whatever they analyze and to focus on the periphery. One searches in vain for the center of the Internet in general or social networking sites in particular. They are all multi-faceted and always in the process of being made. As a result, even if a center could be found (and it can’t), it would immediately change. Internet sites are “networked structures [that] necessarily shift power away from the core, the tall peak, and towards the periphery” (Bruns, 2008: 274). Chris Anderson’s (2006) “long tail” reflects this kind of decentering. Instead of focusing on a few “hits”, blockbusters, or best sellers, the long tail involves an emphasis on the infinitely larger number of phenomena (e.g. books, music productions) that are part of the long tail.
The work of Jean Baudrillard offers a treasure trove of ideas that are very useful in thinking about the Internet and Web 2.0. Implosion involves the “contraction into each of other, a fantastic telescoping, a collapsing of the two traditional poles into one another” (Baudrillard, 1983: 57). The possibility of implosion is enormous in the digital world; the digitality of phenomena makes them much more amenable to imploding into one another; there are no physical barriers to limit, at least for very long, implosion in the that world. It is this, of course, that lies at the heart of the ability to remix and mashup sound, photos, text and much else on Web 2.0.
Then there is Baudrillard’s (1983: 4) most famous idea of simulations and his argument that we live in “the age of simulation”. Simulations are copies, even copies of copies. This ideas of copies is particularly relevant in the Internet age which is a world, as Shirky ( 2008: 59) argues, of “unlimited, perfect copyability”. The fact that copies are both unlimited and perfect (e.g. through file-sharing) makes the possibility of creating simulations on the Internet greater than ever before.
Simulations are not only copies, but they are also fakes. It is arguable that web-based locales bring the age of simulation to perhaps its highest point, at least until we see later developments on the Internet. This is epitomized by the Sims and Second Life, as well as other artificial life simulations and games of various sorts. There are few, if any, material realities that restrict the ability to create simulations in these worlds; indeed, there is nothing in these worlds but simulations.
That means they beautifully illustrate another of Baudrillard’s ideas, hyperreality. The hyperreal is more real than real, as well as being more beautiful than beautiful, truer than true; it is beyond reality in every way. The Internet involves sites that are more more real than comparable sites in the material world. has infinitely more books on sale than a bricks-and-mortar book stores and no parking lot based flea market can compare to the offerings on eBay. Baudrillard would have been astounded at the hyperreal sex available on many sites on the Internet. Remixes and mashups of photographs, videos, and the like are well-suited to producing pornographic images that are more real than real.
Ultimately, Baudrillard (1990/1993: 6) sees us as living in the fractal age where things proliferate endlessly and expand in a viral or cancerous way. They have no goal other than endless proliferation. This is postmodern in the sense that the modern world was supposed to have an end or goal; the postmodern world does not. The Internet is legendarily viral with all sorts of texts and images, as well as viruses and spam, proliferating endlessly. description here fits the Internet perfectly, “In the end it makes everything circulate in one space, without depth, where all objects must be able to follow one after the other without slowing down or stopping the circuit” (Baudrillard, cited in Gane, 1993: 147). Everything in such a world, especially on the Internet, is available for communication, banalization, commercialization and consumption.
An interesting idea implicit in Baudrillard’s work is the “strength of the weak” (Genosko , 1992; 1994). In this case the weak are the individual users of the Internet and social networking sites. Their strength comes from the fact that their voices, while weak individually, become powerful when they are added together. Thus, for example, sites on the Internet that users visit individually can, when taken together, rise to the top when links are analyzed by algorithms such as those used by Google. More dramatically, as in the Arab Spring, powerless individuals can come together, via Facebook and Twitter, for example, and form a powerful revolutionary group.
Baudrillard (1983/1990: 59) is also concerned with the obscene where everything is made visible, broadcast, and so forth. He describes the society of his day as involving “the rampant obscenity of uninterrupted social commentary”. He also discusses “the pornography of information and communication” (Baudrillard/1990: 69) where we are “buried alive under information” (Baudrillard, 1980-1985: 90). If Baudrillard took that position three decades ago, imagine his reaction to the Internet world of the second decade of the 21st century.
Baudrillard’s most important anticipation of the current reality lies in his notion of symbolic exchange which involves the general and reversible processes of “taking and returning, giving and receiving…[the] cycle of gifts and countergifts” (Baudrillard, 1976/1993: 136). Many observers have described Web 2.0 in similar terms including Tapscott and Williams (2006) who discuss the culture of generosity that exists in that context. Baudrillard anticipates the world of the free (Anderson, 2009) that has been created on the Internet, especially Web 2.0. In that free domain, we do see something approaching a world dominated by symbolic exchange. Those involved offer gifts- additions to a Wikipedia entry, sharing a file, adding code to Linux, etc.- and in return they receive various gifts including the knowledge Wikipedia has to offer, files from others, and the use of Linux. This symbolic exchange also has another of the characteristics Baudrillard associates with it- reciprocity on the Internet is not limited to a specific exchange of goods, but is rather continuous and unlimited.
The postmodern ideas employed here, and many others, are ideally suited to an analysis of the Internet and Web 2.0. In fact, in many cases they seem to be more applicable today than they did when they were first created decades ago. In many ways, at least some of the postmodern social theorists can be said to have anticipated today’s (and even more tomorrow’s) realities and provided us a toolkit full of concepts to analyze that world.
Of course, we should not be satisfied with extant concepts, but rather we should use them in interaction with the new realities to create a much broader set of concepts and theories that will not only help us today, but will, hopefully, put us in a better position to analyze coming changes on the Internet and in social networking.


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