Computational Culture

a journal of software studies

Review information

    Author
    Ružić

    Affiliation
    Department of Cultural Studies, University of Rijeka

    Publication Date
    28 September 2012

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Review of: Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media

Review of, Geert Lovink,
Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media
Polity Press, London, 2011.

Every couple of weeks, when I walk into a bookstore (or rather, click through www.amazon.com), I am confronted with a rather massive amount of new books with keywords in their titles ranging from “network”, “web”, “internet”, “social media”, “digital” to the simplest and most direct amongst them, with “Facebook”, “Google”, “Twitter” that act as a nomenclature for “beginners”. This situation reminds me of the ascent of popular psychology and self-help literature that dominated non-fiction for quite some time. Naturally, tracking and covering this newly found gold mine that falls under the denominator of “new media” it is not an easy task. Much of the books are not very well written, some seem like “a dummies guide to the internet”, while others engage in overly optimistic or pessimistic renditions of the “digital paradigm”, too often without necessary context or history and knowledge of the internet and media in general.

Geert Lovink’s new book Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media presents us with a different view of such topics decisively departing from the usual gesture of new media praise, clearly stating that the “Web 2.0 saga has run its course”1. Indeed, celebration (at times blindingly uncritical) of the freedom internet and Web 2.0 had given us makes way in Lovink’s book for more detailed analysis and debate over the nature of corporations such as Google and Facebook outside the all to often exemplified “freedom” they empower us with. His account of the new media problematic is not centred on what is already known and hastily repeated in almost every propedeutic narrative constructed by media “theorists”. Rather, for example, his debate over the notion of the “echo chamber” – a concept which figures internet users as close-minded, following, reading and using content which corresponds with their beliefs – is a refreshing take on the problems of informational over-encumbrance.2 Ranging from mapping the human genome and book scanning to the “cloud paradigm” that enables us to upload everything we do and are on the internet, the view on information has changed dramatically. From the classic paradigm of learning and interpreting information, our databases as well as brains have turned towards the process of information sorting. Web interface makes that an effortless task with bookmarks, feeds, tags, tweets, likes etc. The concept of echo chamber presents itself as a natural continuation of the aforementioned processes. While sorting information, we use software in the broadest of terms to rate the usefulness of the content/link. By – for example – tagging, we are undertaking a conscious effort of discriminating “useless” information in favour of useful.

Lovink’s introductory chapter, in this light, offers a kind of “sobering up” process from the so called “liberating” principles of the internet. But for all the accolades new media technologies and software received, so the critique was more vehement. Andrew Keen (Lovink briefly discusses his book The Cult of the Amateur from 2007) is publicly known as one of the most harsh commentators on the topics of new media literacy, offering an interpretation by which the nominal democratization of networked society brings, in turn, a dictatorship of anonymous amateurs. Keen’s misunderstanding of the technology behind Web mechanisms keeps Lovink from focusing too much on his critiques, although he engages in a very interesting debate with Nicholas Carr, claiming we must abandon the gesture of “mapping mental impacts and pondering the Net’s influence on our lives, or discussing over and over the fate of the news and publishing industry”3 in favour of the logic of “real-time”. Lovink argues that the paradigm of “real-time” is becoming a prevalent discourse in internet culture thanks to services such as Twitter and Facebook which, on a software level, have abandoned the concept of information altogether in favour of a continuous stream of data. This observation is significant on several levels. On one side, it explains the new schizophrenic condition television suffers from, that Lovink so accurately diagnoses, most visible in its feeble attempts to compete with the real-time of the internet. When Whitney Huston died, CNN produced remarkably uncanny coverage, with a news anchor walking through the streets asking people (in real-time) if they have heard of the death in question, filming their facial expressions as they were shocked or confused. CNN, in that instance, completely abandoned the notion of “news coverage” (as they knew they were already beaten by internet resources), and instead went for the real-time coverage of experience captured in the moment. News was not transmitted, nor interpreted; it was fabricated, provoked. Or, as Paul Virilio4 would have said, it was a prime example of the culture of reflex and not reflection, applicable to TV stations as well as Facebook and Twitter software. On the other hand, real-time flow evokes the notion of experience. Philosopher Leo Charney begins his insightful essay on the nature of time with a quote from Henri Bergson: “Practically, we perceive only the past, the pure present being the invisible progress of the past gnawing into the future”5 and advances to Walter Benjamin’s explanation of his own Arcades Project as both fragmentary and continuous. Benjamin explicitly stated that his project is in “intimate relationship with montage”, as image is always past and present at the same time, a paradigm of dialectic in process. Taking this hundred year old preoccupation with real-time in modernity into consideration, if we are really losing regard for information storage, abolishing private data and rerouting our entire life into the digital stream of bits stashed in a virtual cloud, maybe we can still find something meditative in the dialectics of the real-time flow collisions.

Combating this occupation of time is Lovink’s prime concern in his opening chapter. We need to develop a culture of restraint, training our mind not to succumb to the arbitrariness of clicking and accessing feeds. That culture, in Lovink’s mind, should take into account the pertinent need for new media technologies such as emails and SMS, but at the same time differentiate entertainment from productivity. However, this should not be done through the filters and tags of the “big data” discourse, but by grasping the “strategic importance to reclaim time”67. Lovink proposes the concept of the “availability economy” to underline our dependency on corporations such as Facebook and Google and their notion of time. His argument really comes into fruition here, where he clearly makes a stand for a new media poetics, departing from usual critiques of the internet. Our withdrawal from internet economies represents a literal departure from the neoliberal economy of corporations such as Facebook and Google; not because they are inherently evil, but because they are infringing, centralizing and privatizing our data, communications and the very sense of time (Zadie Smith in her critique of Facebook detects a curse on generation X or Y. The ability of young people to create new networks and ideas might well have gotten stuck in Mark Zuckerberg’s 18 year-old vision of how life should appear – as relationship status, religious views, friends and pokes). In turn Lovink detects the nature of Google not as a universal tool for knowledge acquisition, but as a profit driven corporation that sees its scanned books not as a poetic resource, but as an opportunity to market Android reading software.8

Chapter three presents us with an account of comment discourse through history, showing us that the notion of a comment was an integral part of writing, learning and passing on knowledge in ancient history. His brief voyage through time points at rather recent developments when texts became “comment free”. The result was a separation of classic text from “literary commentator”. Lovink’s devotion to the archaeology of the concept of the comment is commendable, for by that gesture he makes room for the analysis of modern blogging culture. Referring to his own noted essay Blogging, the Nihilist Impulse in which he notes the absence of commenting culture, Lovink shows how the promises of a “digital agora” in new media went unmet. “Individual blogs rarely receive comments”9, a condition finely described by the term “the long tail”, popularized by Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine. The situation is to a large extent known; blogs seldom achieve high internet traffic because of their sheer numbers. Just as with YouTube videos, while they can encompass highly popular works viewed hundreds of millions of times, the vast majority of uploaded material is almost never seen, linked, liked or bookmarked. We can see, as Lovink states, a concentration of users, “debating culture clustered around a few sites”10 – like The Huffington Post – employing bloggers that replace the traditional notion of fully-fledged “analogue” journalist. However, Lovink revisits blog culture stating, “bloggers are neither journalists nor geeks. More than anything else, they embody Web 2.0 culture”11. Blogs are not anonymous news sites where people exercise the right to write but are deeply personal because of their “diary-like” structure and as such blog software, “constitutes subjectivity”1213. Lovink’s descriptions of blogs remind me of Pierre Lévy’s early argumentation about the nature of internet architecture in the influential study Cyberculture. There, Lévy introduces the concept of “the universal without totality”, trying to depict the technical conditions for cyberculture. Universality encompasses the absence of a centre, but is not neutral. The universality of cyberculture (and internet) has consequences in economical, political and cultural discourse. For Lévy the internet embraces indiscrimination, in ways that recall preliterate cultures of oral communication14 – as Lovink asks, “How can comments, even if they are posted by the millions, escape the margins and become integrated into the source?”15.

Chapter four develops this argument as it deals with the notion of “internet criticism”. The author reveals its roots may lie in the process of “democratization of taste” that took place during the 1970’s, inspired by the rise of pop culture and withdrawal of criticism in academia. But nevertheless, we must construct our own rhetoric “that follows the footsteps of literary and theatre criticism, yet is tailored to the technological specificities of the internet”16, as Lovink delineates it. Much is said about the proliferation of critique in a democratized medium such as the internet17, especially in the realm of convergence between “professional” and “user” critique. Redundancy in new media discourse here is obvious, with the constant debates about “low” and “high” culture, evoking some of the decades old discussions in cultural studies.. Lovink finds refuge in the concept of “network cultures”18, the goal of the critique of which is not to state the positive truth about the internet. but must be realized through the very act of questioning the concepts we use to describe our digital imagination. Lovink’s disappointment with contemporary media studies reaches its peak in chapter five where he criticizes a gesture of recycling well known and relevant theories ranging from Brecht and McLuhan to Baudrillard and Virilio (to name a few), asserting that “not only are these “cultural studies” outcomes predictably inadequate, but the approach itself is flawed”19. For him, applying well-known theories to new objects such as Twitter or Facebook is flawed not because the theory is wrong in itself, but because it misses an opportunity for finding new ways of dealing with an emergent culture20. By the end of chapter five Lovink becomes rather straightforward about the problems and clearly states: digital is here to stay and we better start gaining courage in exploring digital narrative without the “umbrella gesture” the academia is giving us21. In finding a new voice and tools for research, Lovink believes we’ll not only begin purposeful research about digital phenomena, but will create our own space for concepts, problems and solutions. Lovink is right in many aspects. Too long was the “digital realm” an object of concern for people that don’t have the sufficient knowledge in the technology, software, programming or network protocols that lie behind new media practices. Although we should not hastily depart from the whole culture of media critique already developed, the philosophy of media seldom produces anything but (at times) academic recognition.

When Lovink states that “Web 2.0 has three distinguishing features: it’s easy to use, it facilitates sociality and it provides users with free publishing and production platforms”22 – he prepares the ground for the introduction of the Streamtime project inaugurated by Dutch investigative journalist Cecile Landman. The purpose of this online campaign was to “assist local media to get connected”23, and Lovink details its use by Iraqi bloggers who were pretty much engaged not only in a full-fledged “real-life” war, were a major force in the development of blogging, butalso confronted with government censorship. Streamtime played a crucial role in giving support and visibility to the Iraqi war bloggers such as “Riverbend” and “Salam Pax” making a great example of “internet usability”. Greatly simplified, I believe that the reason why the internet sometimes seems like a semi-abandoned place, full of inactive blogs, disengaged Facebook profiles, dead hyperlinks and broken URL’s lies in the fact that visibility is not guaranteed on the Web per se. For our presence to be noticed, one peer needs to be connected to other peers. Iraqi bloggers wouldn’t have been noticed if not for their audience, collaborators and, at last, the news media that saw the opportunity to get on board the “new media” hype (and benefit from some free news). Lovink’s example is a great case in which local activism, when met with international networked support and software knowledge, can leap beyond the automatism most Google and Facebook users demonstrate in their daily cyberspace routines24.

Chapter eight deals with online video aesthetics. By his account, we “no longer watch films or TV; we watch databases”25. Databases are, he claims, common denominators of a paradigmatic change that occurred with the emergence and popularization of sites such as YouTube and handheld devices such as smartphones and tablets. In other words, content becomes secondary when we are confronted with the search algorithms, myriad of random video clips and keyword over-saturation that push the limits of the nonlinearity of our brains. Although the repercussions of database watching are so far uncertain, Lovink warns that we must take such a change seriously, not just dismiss it as “watching video clips”. It has not just modified our concentration, towards hyperactivity, as per Nicholas Carr: searching through databases made us crave not exclusively for content or, diegesis, but for tags, links, related videos, feeds, tweets, responds, commentaries. While I agree that YouTube and similar platforms can be a discernible waste of time, my background in cultural studies makes me unable to dismiss the “semiotic potential” of popular media. Although the cultural shift towards massive viewing and creating of homemade and amateur video clips is something that must be analyzed, Lovink’s conclusion that, because the most popular videos are practically ridiculous in content, YouTube cannot be a “hotbed of innovative aesthetics”26 may not follow. Highly innovative content has rarely been, in any time of history, the most popular. The web amplifies that tendency due to the number of users online at any given time. Lev Manovich, in The Practice of Everyday (Media) Life states that, according to 2007 statistics, 0.5 – 1.5 percent of the users of most popular social media sites contribute their own content. However, we must take into account that one percent of hundreds of millions of online users is not in any way a small figure.

Although at the very end of the book, chapter nine discusses maybe the most important topic for software culture as well as digital media practices: the Google search engine. Lovink doesn’t beat around the bush, proclaiming that, because of the dramatic increase of information on the Web, “soon we will search and only get lost”27. He is not far from the truth. The last few years were witnesses to the gargantuan rise of corporations such as Google, together with its tools (Ad Sense, PageRank etc.) Lovink builds upon Joseph Weizenbaum’s theories of information overload, claiming that the internet confronts the same problem, consisting of “up to 95 percent nonsense”28. As Lovink states, we should not complain about information overload, but approach this problem creatively. One way is to “stop searching; start questioning”. To begin with, we should seePageRank as a tool that misinterprets the process of information sorting. Its algorithm is inherently discriminatory, recording our personal data, preferences and search history, and adjusting search results according to “our interests”. Google’s personalization of the internet is turning into a paradigmatic example of the “echo chambers” Lovink is fearful of. Searching through the data is not better “with our world in it”, as Google wants us to believe, but on the contrary. Most of the internet’s potential is unreachablethrough the information highway metaphor (that takes us from place A to place B), but via that of searching and getting creatively lost in a vast number of small streets.

Google’s inability to produce a valid notion of database management forces Lovink to discuss networked cultures as a means of social change. Although the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi triggered the Tunisian revolution, and not Twitter, we should not hastily dismiss the potential of online collaboration, such as Streamtime. Slacktivism is a concept Lovink uses as a witty designation of our inability to benefit from the potential of a digital agora. Instead of using network as an organizing tool, Lovink suggests we should find the political in the very presence of “organized networks”29 and their ability to produce social and cultural artefacts. He proposes “orgnets” – a concept that differs from the state of affairs in digital capitalism insofar as they are not just extensions of our daily habitus. Orgnets represent a model of individual and group culture that uses contemporary cultural trends to strengthen newly established networks, and not the other way around. Orgnets do not, in his vision, abolish organization in favour of the “rhizome”, but embrace the very concept of community that had been lost amidst this database overload.

Lovink’s new book at times looks like an archaeology of the internet– and the multiplicities it embodies, an archaeology of many histories, presents and futures at the same time. It is not easy to write a review of a book that is trying to break with the tradition of overviews, paraphrasing and postmodern terminology. Although he’s rather vehement in critique of academic (new) media studies and their partially failed rhetoric of description of today’s media discourse – in a way, Lovink’s critique is, above all, directed towards the growing mass of popular literature that ignores the specificities and intricacies of technological and software developments. If the “social” became a feature, recent developments in the digital realm must be re-examined. Namely, ourselves, the driving force behind the veil of corporate “social networks”. In so doing Lovink gives us a challenging assignment – the termination of the aesthetics of astonishment before “new” technology. We are challenged not to partake in the tautological pleasures of naming and implying just by uttering the magical words of “digital media” (for they seldom are analogue today, anyway). It is a harder task then it may seem. Upon casting out redundant terminology and presumptions, there is, unfortunately, not much left. Lovink’s book presents a masterful effort in dealing with this situation.

References
Leo Charney and Vanessa R. Schwartz, Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life, (London: Univesity of California Press, 1995).
Jay David Bolter, Remediation: Understanding New Media, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2000).
Andrew Keen, The Cult of the Amatur: How Today’s Internet is Killing our Culture, (New York: Crown Business, 2007).
Pierre Lévy, Cyberculture, (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press: 2001).
Geert Lovink, “Blogging, the Nihilist Impulse”, Eurozine, January 2, 2007, accessed May 20, 2012, http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2007-01-02-lovink-en.html.
Lev Manovich, “The Practice of Everyday (Media) Life” in: Video Vortex Reader, ed. Geert Lovink and Sabine Niederer (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2008).
Paul Virilio, The Vision Machine, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994).
David Weinberger, Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room, (New York: Basic Books, 2012).

Boris Ružić is an Assistant Lecturer in the Department of Cultural Studies, University of Rijeka, Croatia and part of the PhD programme “Interdisciplinary Humanities” researching The Dialectic of the “Filmic” Image: Beyond the Illusion and Presence. He is editor of “The Window into the Digital” on Croatian radio, a programme dealing with topics such as technology, media and philosophy in contemporary society. He is also an author and columnist for the Croatian website tportal. His publications deal with the comparative dialectics of analogue and digital media and film.

  1. Lovink, Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media, 1 (up)
  2. The most important part of echo chamber argument lies here – by selecting information, we are reassuring our own beliefs, dismissing content we find uninteresting, contradictory or “false”. Although the theory is tempting, recent studies, such as one from Eytan Bakshy, suggest we maintain notable connections with so called “weak ties” – enabling us to expand our knowledge by sharing content we personally didn’t stumble upon. (up)
  3. Lovink, Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media, 10 (up)
  4. Virilio, The Vision Machine, Indiana University Press, 2005 (up)
  5. Charney and Schwartz, Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life, (London: University of California Press, 1995): 279 (up)
  6. This is, at the same time, as Lovink notices, a demanding task because Internet thrives on popularity and by shutting our resources out and “reclaiming our time”, we are loosing ground in the virtual sphere. (up)
  7. Lovink, Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media, 29 (up)
  8. Recent developments through which Facebook bought Instagram for 1 billion dollars go in favour of such thinking. By buying Instagram, Facebook did not buy software for taking pictures, it bought the users themselves. (up)
  9. Lovink, Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media, 50 (up)
  10. Lovink, Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media, 51 (up)
  11. Lovink, Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media, 95 (up)
  12. Things aren’t always so simple, and Lovink is aware of that. For example, prevalent for contemporary discussions over the privacy on the internet undoubtedly is the problem of responsibility for what is said in cyberspace. Lovink recognizes Germany as a country that provides legislative problems for young bloggers, demanding the responsibility over the anonymity, which is traditionally seen as a form of strong internet censorship. (up)
  13. Lovink, Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media, 96 (up)
  14. It needs to be said that Lovink at time falls into his own trap, using theorists from “analogue” cultures in describing modern phenomena. A prime example is his mentioning of Marshall McLuhan while describing blogging as “oral culture”. (up)
  15. Lovink, Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media, 58 (up)
  16. Lovink, Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media, 63 (up)
  17. We are all aware of that to the point of banality. When I go on to buy a relatively popular book, I seldom go through all of user review as they can be tiring and counterproductive. (up)
  18. Lovink, Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media, 75 (up)
  19. Lovink, Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media, 78 (up)
  20. Of course, complete abandonment of existing theoretical approaches is not a case in point. Even Lovink’s book contains a few references ranging from Adorno and Baudrillard to Zizek, if not for anything, then for the purpose of productive criticism. (up)
  21. Lovink, Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media, 88 (up)
  22. Lovink, Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media, 5 (up)
  23. Lovink, Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media, 117 (up)
  24. The importance of “organized networks” is maybe best seen in the case of Egyptian protests of 2011 when President Mubarak ordered the shutting down of whole telecommunication infrastructure which lasted for a few days, leaving 90 percent of the internet blocked. (up)
  25. Lovink, Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media 134 (up)
  26. Lovink, Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media, 137 (up)
  27. Lovink, Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media, 146 (up)
  28. Lovink, Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media, 148 (up)
  29. Lovink, Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media, 166 (up)
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