The Internet Through a Postmodern Lens

This blog is derived from a plenary talk given in 2011 at the first Theorizing the Web conference at the University of Maryland. This seems an opportune time to raise the issues once again because they seem more relevant than ever. In addition they are offered here in anticipation of the third Theorizing the Web conference scheduled for early 2013 at the City University of New York.

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, the 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 such conversations. 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. Prime examples of this on the Internet include wikis in general and Wikipedia in particular, blogs and social networking sites. Google’s index is continually evolving and a complete iteration online content is impossible. All such sites 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 or of social networking sites. They are 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. The idea of the “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 a contraction, a telescoping, a collapse of opposing poles in on one another. The digitality of phenomena makes them much more amenable to implosion. The possibilities for implosion in the digital world are endless. There are no physical barriers to limit, at least for very long, implosion in 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 the Internet.

Then there is the idea of simulations and the argument that we live in “the age of simulation”. Simulations are copies, even copies of copies. This idea of copies is particularly relevant in the Internet age which is a world of perfect copies without limit. 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 thus far. 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.

The hyperreal is more real than real; more beautiful than beautiful; truer than true. It is beyond reality in every way. The Internet involves sites that are 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. Hyperreal sex is 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, we can be seen as living in a fractal age where things proliferate endlessly and expand like a virus or a cancer.  There is no goal other than endless proliferation. The Internet is legendarily viral with all sorts of texts and images, as well as viruses and spam, proliferating endlessly.

An interesting idea in this context is the strength of the weak. 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 combined. Thus, for example, sites on the Internet that users visit individually can, when taken together, rise to the top when links are analyzed by Google’s algorithms. More dramatically, as in the Arab Spring, powerless individuals can come together, for example via Facebook and Twitter, and form a powerful revolutionary group.

The postmodern world is obscene since everything is made visible, broadcast, and so forth. The Internet is obscene because it is characterized by endless information and communication as well as never-ending social commentary,

Baudrillard’s most important anticipation of the current reality lies in his notion of symbolic exchange which involves the general and reversible processes of giving and receiving. This anticipates Chris Anderson’s world of the free, especially on the Internet. Those involved in the free world of the Internet offer gifts- additions to a Wikipedia entry, sharing a file, adding code to Linux, etc. In return, they receive various gifts including the knowledge Wikipedia has to offer, files from others, and the use of Linux. This symbolic exchange 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 social networking. 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, postmodern social theory can be said to have anticipated today’s (and even more tomorrow’s) realities and to have provided us with a toolkit full of concepts to analyze that world.

Of course, we should not be satisfied with extant concepts. Rather, we should relate them to new realities in order to help us create a set of new 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.