Book review:’Tracking back communities’ by Annalisa Pelizza

On: September 15, 2009
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About Radmila Radojevic
I am a communications professional from Montreal, Canada. Much of my experience is in the cultural sector and community-driven initiatives. I worked and volunteered for various community and art groups in Montreal (CKUT, university and community radio station, Studio XX, a feminist digital arts organization, Maid in Cyberspace, an annual arts festival organized by Studio XX, Eyesteelfilm, a social documentary film company etc.) Currently doing my MA at UvA. My main interests are in data visualization and locative media.


In her  Phd thesis “Tracking back communities”, Annalisa Pelizza reconsiders the notion of online communities. It is impossible to give a comprehensive outline of this extensive thesis in such a brief review and I will try to tackle some of the key points in it.

There seem to be a general confusion with the term:

“If one conducts a Google search for online community’, it is very difficult to figure out what this is supposed to be. Among the Top Ten list, two items are related to governmental or university institutions, two items refer to the definitions of the expression posted on UGC platforms, four items link to toolkit pages oriented to professionals who aim to start an online community as their own business and one item refers to a closed, commercial chat platform. Only one item links to the support community of a free software project.”

There is presently no working model / concept which permits understanding of what makes ‘communal ties’ on the Net today. We are bound to the old concept of libertarian paradigm which has ceased to be applicable. It is misleading us or makes impossible our efforts to fully grasp this phenomenon. “The other domains are taking over…other than sociology and media studies” – the author recognizes the need (a crisis) for a new point of view, new approach –one that is more capable of dealing with what online communities mean today.  But in order to learn we first have to unlearn. All throughout her thesis, the author opens many of what she calls “black boxes (or biases) that have been piled up around the concept of online communities over the years” and that we have inherited from the legacy of libertarian digital culture.

To find out what virtual communities are today, the author reaches back in history to analyze social conditions of their formation and transformation at various points in time. By tracing back the history of the Internet culture, she thoroughly outlines the most influential New Media theories behind the “multi-faceted Net experience” since its conception until today (and this is quite a ride – very resourceful chapter, a digest of New Media theories).  This helps her to establish her epistemology upon which she builds her further investigation and methodology of her research.

The very term ‘communities’ doesn’t seem to be appropriate anymore. Its connotations recall libertarian paradigm –one we need to abandon if we are to ‘clear the horizon’. It echoes theories of Howard Rheingold, cybernetic utopia and early ‘pioneer virtual communities’ of WELL and CMC, as well as ‘on-line communities’ of the 90’s. It brings us back to all together different ‘zeitgeist’. In the spirit of CounterCulture movement of the 60’s and cybernetics (main influence on libertarian paradigm to which he belonged), Rheingold imagined the Net as an idealistic and harmonious space, community-oriented fostering values of localism, free exchange and grassroot commitment (values of “gemeinschaft’). It was a potential site of citizenry emancipation where people could self-inform and self-organize. And finally, was conveniently separated from ‘a physical space’ where government and bureaucracy rule. He believed in liberating potential of the Internet technology and its decentralizing architecture (his enthusiasm however was not that naïve:  he warned about the possibility that: “political and economic power seize, censor, meter and finally sell back the Net to the real creators, the grassroot communities” as well as pointed out an importance of including citizens in decision making in distribution of public wealth in development of the Net).

These and similar attitudes had marked the formative years of the Net, still uninhabited, “anarchic prairies “(where apparently most of CounterCulture of the 60’s moved to along with Rheingold), the times of WELL and EEF.

This enthusiasm extended into the 90’s Net art and activism, new media social practices based on mailing list systems (Rhizome, Nettime, Xchange) and emergence of what Geert Lovink (can ask him about this in the class) calls ‘critical Internet culture’. Net art activism practices recall influences of the artists in the second half of the 20th century that “have turned communications media into their own art media… It is in the criticism of communications institutions that artistic and activist practices merged together”(Neumark).

But, the times have drastically changed in the 2000. Libertarian myth about separation of cyber and physical space was violently broken. After the war on terror and Dotcom burst, the recent alliances between government and the Internet corporations, development of G-Id applications directly used as global surveillance applications, TIA Pentagon project, Great Electronic Wall, technologies of social sorting – made our ‘transnational’ web space into more fragile and tangible. The laws of the physical space extended to virtual as well.  It is a paradox that as ICT are more ubiquitous the Internet seems more and more commercial and bureaucratic.

Our sociability models have changed too. Our social relationship have become more centered around individual and less around community: “Traditional notion of online Community as a bounded group – now is replaced by networks of individuals, interacting online on one-to-one patterns of communications…online community is now characterized by a more fluid interaction where the individual moves from the place to the subject and vice versa.” This is a model of “networked individualism”, and according to its founder Castells, reflects relationships between labor and networked enterprise in Information Age capitalism. The communal connection seems to be lost and replaced with a common interest that is subject to change.

Furthermore, ‘community’ is an idealistic (libertarian) construction and suggests bonding and harmony – which are often not there. Networks thrive on diversity and conflict not on unity…” (Lovink and Rossiter, 2005). It seems that instability, heterogeneity, passivity have become the norms for online communities.

Following this line of thought, the author sees the social “as a momentary associations between heterogenous elements” (rather than homogenous), and society as a “kind of substance in itself”. “It is no more than an occasional spark generated by the shift, the shock, the slight displacement of other non-social phenomena (Latour, 2009, 36).

Adopting these and similar concepts affirms her position of viewing ‘digital techno-assemblages’ as transient and “caught in the moment in which they struggle to crystallize into the form of digital community”. She doesn’t want to fall into danger of recognizing the same patterns of sociability in those on the Net – therefore leaving the space for innovation.  The (very) basic premise of this thesis is to really find a good angle (concept and method) to approach digital communities of today without constraints of previous concepts. The value of her thesis is also in pointing out the obstacles, limitations, biases which makes achieving this task very difficult.

Now, the practical part of her thesis: As a data set of her search she chose one of the oldest international competitions for Digital Arts and also one of the most innovative – leading example of networked institution in the digital culture domain — Prix Ars Electronica Digital communities competitions entries between 2004 – 2007.

What interested the author was which patterns would emerge out of the collected data, which concepts and narratives, would they change over the time (within the chosen years), and what the competitors (social actors) themselves thought of the notion of communal ties on the Net.  Within her established epistemology, she approached these entries as transient, freezed in moment but otherwise fleeting social assemblages.

Since her data was large (around 1000 entries) she used sophisticated software tools to analyze it – Leximancer and InfoRapid Search and Replace. She mapped the elements associated with ‘online communities’ in the entry forms. Then she ran a “co-occurrence analyses for online communities, bounded groups and loose networks. In this way she was able to identify “emergent key issues and some contrasting narrative and to trace the variations in the projects’ conceptual map by year of participation”.
(I will have to skip this part -you definitely have to read this chapter of the thesis to understand what it is all about; interesting from the point of view of data visualization)

Finally, she encountered the problem with the software – it was not an open software tool but a “proprietary” one. Beside, Leximancer showed the limits when It came to processing of vast data sets (seemed to be more able to deal with short texts of data). The author finally purposes a development of a new textual analysis software with new visualizing tools to “jointly represent multiple textual variables”. Whatever that means, she pointed to an interesting project in this regard:
TextArc (
In conclusion, the author indicates lack of a good visualization software as one of the major obstacles of further advancement of social sciences and humanities research.

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