nomads online

Nomads in Cyberia

My colleague Birgit Bräuchler, author of Cyberidentities at War, courteously invited me to send in a proposal for a workshop called Understanding media practices, which she will organize together with John Postill at the 9th EASA Biennial Conference which will take place from September 18th through September 21st 2006 in Bristol, UK. As the deadline is tomorrow, I today got the seats of my pants dirty and went to the writing desk. In case of the EASA rejecting my proposal, feel free to contact me and to talk me into my writing the paper for your conference or publication ;-) Here is what I submitted:

The online nomads of cyberia
by Alexander Knorr

Max Weber may well have been the first to state that everything social already starts with the interaction of at least two human individuals. If the density of interaction and communication between the members of a definable group exceeds critical mass, social structure and even culture begin to shine up. And anthropology again has found a field of inquiry. For the better part of the discipline’s history the scrutinized groups could be identified topographically, and it was tacitly assumed that the essential interaction between their members was of a direct face-to-face nature. This gradually changed with the advent of transnational communities, research on diasporas, and multisited ethnography. A dramatic change occurred with the unleashing of mediating technologies, hitting the streets almost globally in an accelerating pace. In particular services based on the Internet-infrastructure gave rise to a new phenomenon of interest: online communities.

The majority of communities and groups traditionally belaboured by sociocultural anthropology are located within the outside world usually described as physical space, and their members are higly accustomed to the qualities and modes of interaction therein possible, as well as with the aspects and possibilities of their habitat. This again seems to be a tacit prerequisite for anthropologists and their kin for trying to apply established concepts and methods. Because a plethora of inevitable prerequistes are simply not given when dealing with online communities, a lot of transposition work becomes necessary.

To begin with, the spaces of interaction and ‘the habitat’ of an online group are constituted by mediating technologies: computers, software, the Internet, and information and communication technologies (ICTs) at large. At first glance this media seem to be restrictive, seem to rob manifoldness from human communication and interaction. On the other hand some authors claim that online media capture within their domain the whole diversity of cultural practices and expressions. Both is true and false at the same time. In terms of diversity of cultural expressions and richness of social interactions it is the most promising if an online group does not consist of more or less passive technology-consumers, subdued to and depending on what possibilites they are offered by those who are creating the technologies, but of individuals who are not only highly accustomed to computer mediated communication (CMC) and ICTs, but deal with them virtuously and creatively.

This is the case when the members’ shared core interest, around which the community condensates, lies well within the broader field of the mediating technologies enabling the community’s existence. Their expertise allows the members not only to utilize the available channels of interaction in an optimal way, but to mutually complement the advantages and drawbacks of different services, and to actively construct, shape, and change their online-habitat independently from and unrestricted by the range of commercially offered CMC-products and -services.

This paper is empirically based upon fieldwork which started in early 2002 and is still going on, particularly in the shape of thick participation within a transnational technoludic online community of practice. Said community formed itself around the shared interest in, and practice of modifying commercial computergame software. The degree of modification reaches from gameplay-tweaks to so-called total conversions. The latter constitute entirely new games; the original game is not recognizable anymore, as it just provides the game-engine, the most basic technological core of the new game. Especially the creation of total conversions is a complex task requiring diverse skills, resources and lots of working hours, utterly impossible to be handled by one individual alone. Cooperation, and in its wake community building is inevitable. The necessary online infrastructure is created and maintained by the community itself. Astoundingly enough the loss of parts, even of seemingly vital ones, of this infrastructure does not effect or endanger the community’s perpetuation and reproduction.

Nevertheless there is a longing for reliability and stability of certain community spaces, which usually is furnished by corporate power, parts of the responsible corporations themselves being at least affiliated members of the community itself. This makes computergames appear to be co-creative media, its surrounding practices and notions participatory culture, and gamemodding itself post-industrial unwaged labour. But the nexus between corporations and online community is far from being exclusively fuelled by a craving for mutual benefit. In fact a kind of symbiosis or even fusion between industry and fanhood has taken place, supported by shared cultural values and concepts, manifesting itself in cultural and social practices, and no more describable within the confines of the dichotomy industry versus consumers.

The single individuals are online for long spans of time on a daily basis and during that time are in contact with the other group-members via multiple channels. Because of intense and sustained cooperation, sometimes sailing close to the wind and beyond, and the thereof resulting mutual trust between the members of the group, plus the casual and effortless usage and management of the aforementioned multitude of channels, the threshold of exchanging all kind of information is very low within the community. Besides information concerning the core-interest, a plethora of off-topic issues, seemingly meaningless talk, ‘gossip’, and deeply private issues are exchanged and discussed. ‘True’ social interaction becomes apparent. Even phenomena like social stratification of the group are reflected and discussed by the members themselves. In short, dynamic and quite complex sociocultural processes shine up.

The paper strives to communicate two points. Firstly the issue of the complementary utilization of a wealth of channels of interaction, both asynchronous, synchronous, and even parallel, sometimes dubbed multitasking. The essential questions within this argument are asking for the particular qualities of these channels as perceived by the practitioners, and for the latters’ management and use of them. Secondly the fact that the community’s terrain is not restricted to an infrastructure at a given time, and its social cohesion does not ultimately depend upon the maintenance and existence of particular loci of interaction. The community can only be grasped in terms of a social body, as it can neither be localized in topograpical space, nor pinpointed to particular conceptual spaces induced by ICTs. ‘My tribe’ is nomadizing within cyberspace.