Geographies of Internet Cultures

I study internet video firms and so participant observation means being stationed for a good amount of time at a firm’s office. Upon a recent request to do just that, a founder of a firm wrote, “the key problem is that we do NOT have a ‘site’… you can come to NYC but half the days there is almost no one here. Potentially a better approach is to have you do a ‘virtual’ site.” A company not having a site, as well as the supposed duality of the actual and the virtual, are common ideas within the digital technology world. And yet, opposed to what many internet gurus and entrepreneurs prophesize, place remains an essential component of the personal and business lives of internet workers.

Where the firm is located and under what territorial government the businesses operate are essential problems for internet firms. Yahoo and Google resist then capitulate to China’s censorship.  Governments threaten ISPs, search engines, and credit card companies; they indict foreign file sharing companies. International internet standards impact internet traffic across the globe. The new buzz phrase in the business, “cloud computing,” requires warehouses full of harddrives to be located near sources of cheap electricity and in tax havens. “Choose a country” links, language differences, bandwidth distribution, and geographical identification technology remind user of their nation-state while online.

The importance of place is no surprise to an anthropologist searching for a fieldsite at which to observe how the internet works. Anthropologists of internet production cultures model the cosmopolitan lives of their subjects. We are in place, traveling between and working within major metropolises where the highest density of venture capital and creative workers exist. While, at the same time, we are “anywhere”–using mobile phones and social networks to remain “in the loop.”

I am writing a piece on place in anthropological internet studies for Anthropology News, what am I missing?

Adam Fish

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

7 thoughts on “Geographies of Internet Cultures

  1. There is an implication here that while place matters for the cloud, distance doesn’t. I don’t think that is true. Maybe not for a small website, but for a data intensive site, especially those serving video, it is essential to have data near the users. Until Google opened a YouTube data server in Taiwan it used to take forever to load YouTube videos here that loaded very quickly in the US.

    In response to my paperless post, @Millicentsomer sent me the following link on Twitter which might be of interest to you:

  2. I’m sort of thinking that distance is the thing that does matter here. Like you video firm interlocutor says – most of the time there won’t be anyone there. But, I would guess that if you could see all the voice communication, instant messaging, email, tweets, social network contact, etc. you might find the same kinds of communication you might find at a more conventional site – in fact you’ll probably see ever more. Unfortunately the participant observation model isn’t very good for observing this kind of interaction – neither practically or ethically.

    Purely virtual places seem to be pathologies unto themselves. The virtualizing of certain aspects of traditional social contexts e.g. an office, doesn’t change the fundamentals, but it sure goes a long way towards making traditional anthropological approaches to field work difficult.

    Tough nut to crack – interested to see what kind of approach you take and how it works.

  3. You’ve read Stephenson’s _Cryptonomicon_, yes? And his article, “Mother Earth, Mother Board”?

    Somewhat outdated, in that a lot of data is now moving wirelessly … but still a reminder that governments with backhoes hold a lot more power than geeks would like to think.

  4. I am writing a piece on place in anthropological internet studies for Anthropology News, what am I missing?

    The distinction between place, space, and location. In your post you seem mostly to be talking about location. See Thomas Gieryn’s 2000 Annual Review for a good outline of the concepts.

  5. But isn’t there also lots of “material” being produced in logs, chat rooms, emails, etc.? Even the programming and “movement” of data seem like they are also traces and opportunities to study the community.
    Though very different, my fieldwork depended a lot on listserv conversations, emails, etc. I then also looked at the non-virtual phenomena that were reflected in, commented on, engaged with in response to or in reaction to many of the conversations and debates online. It seems to me that this movement back and forth between the virtual and the “real” can provide you a fieldsite.
    Further, I think you’re neglecting the representation of the site, its design, its usability, as key details that might inform your fieldwork. There’s a lot being said in the virtual space that can be read and interpreted, even in the absence of “people” to observe.

  6. Yes, questions of geography and place are rather tricky on the interwebs since they’re not territorially grounded which is why I’ve found network and assemblage approaches to be so helpful. This allows me to focus specifically on ensembles of social relationships and the forms through they take place. With my research on software in Vietnam, this means that I compare how people talk online and how people talk offline and then think about why the various material conditions of each medium enable or disable certain kinds of chatter. The network/assemblage framework also encourages me to look at what different types of people/communities are talking to each other. In a place like Vietnam, the place of software is situated
    somewhere between youthful entrepreneurial upstarts, old guard Communist Party ideologues, opportunist government ministers, Western-educated businessmen, and diasporic do-gooders.

    I find it hard to talk about The Place of the Internet in any kind of singular fashion, in the same way that it’s sometimes really difficult to talk about one singular Nation. All nations have regional variations and parochialisms. I think the internet exists in the same multifaceted fashion, with similar types of cross-overs and interconnections. My guess is that the social space of digital video might constitute its own place, distinct from say social music, or FOSS.

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