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FleshFactor: "why is the there, there?"

A E C  F O R U M - "F L E S H F A C T O R"

Thanks for your reply, Orlando.  I think that one of the questions that
has to be faced with regards to virtual communities is this: to paraphrase
Gertrude Stein, why is the there, there? 

This is a question that I ask myself increasingly.  I ask it more each
time I read about some new demographic slice n dice marketing tool in
WEBWEEK or RED HERRING, tools like Firefly, etc.  These tools, in the
guise of providing social interaction & services for users do at least
appear to be collecting data which later may become available as
narrowcast tools for marketeers.  This dovetails also into the discussions
re postings to this list by Pattie Maes vis a vis intelligent agents. 

I do not think that I am able to avoid having to confront the idea that
when we speak of social interaction on the web on Internet 1, we are
increasingly speaking of discourse that has been commodified. 

To me, the first interesting problem from the point of view of the
commodification of social interaction on the web on commercial sites is
that the value that is brought to these enterprises is brought to them
through the actions of content providers who are convinced or coerced to
remain together as a hive. 

As the content-creation machinery must be marshaled to remain together in
order to acquire the desired demographic information, the most effective
method of manipulating the engine or network together is under the rubric
of sociability, or "community."  One notes, for example, with interest,
that some of the most avid supporters of the notion of virtual community
are voices from within the corporate community which see the whole idea of
virtual community as a means to increase their market share, as a method
of opening themselves to new audiences, and also as a way to obtain very
detailed and specific information about consumer behavior. 

Webweek, for example, has run advertisements within the pages of its
hardcopy edition within the last few months boasting that a given consumer
datawarehouse can deliver extremely specific demographic groups thus
relieving the corporation of broadcast advertisements, narrowcasting being
less expensive and more effective.  Much discussion is given in the design
of corporate web presences to the question of how to design the web visit
registration form in order to elicit the most productive responses, and
what kinds of rewards are most effective in order to obtain the desired
demographic information from the "hit." 

The virtual community enterprise appears to be a more efficient method of
obtaining this crucial demographic information, and the virtual community
through its appearance as a so-called "trusted intermediary" can then
enter into contracts for the use of this information with hard-goods
manufacturers.  The fact that the virtual community member also deposits a
good bit of his or her personal intellectual property on the site, and in
fact is encouraged to compete to deposit his or her prime creative
detritus on the site, thereby questionably giving up the rights to said
property, is just so much more frosting on the cake for virtual community
enterprise management. 

Virtual communities also tend to go through crisis cycles very quickly,
and each crisis cycle is marked by the emergence of new, albeit temporary
leaders who respond to the perceived crisis needs of the community in
often heroic style, referring to themselves as "servants" and signing up
long lists of volunteers with expansive titles that tend to accomplish
more or less nothing more than extended policy and self-governance
wrangles.  The cycle of leadership on the one site that I studied, for
example, tended to run about approximately three weeks, and the cycle took
on a stylized form that put one in mind of a scripted play.  That this
kind of firm, stylized cycle takes place is no doubt due to the time
compression that appears to be a definitive characteristic of cyberspace. 

Virtual community enterprises are highly mediated projects that exhibit
qualities of double artifacts in that they consist almost entirely of
highly aestheticized representations of fabricated interactions that
cannot be situated as subjects.  Constructed of free-floating and
duplicitous paradoxes, they are modernist projects, not postmodernist, as
they are frequently described. 

I say that they are modernist projects rather than postmodernist because
they exhibit an allegiance to the form of the form (I am referring to the
discussion of modernist/pomo lit crit written by cultural historian Hayden
White in his book "The Content of the Form:  Narrative Discourse and
Historical Representation" 1987, Johns Hopkins University Press) to wit: 

"...And this is consistent with the larger purpose of a thinker who wishes
to dissolve the distinction between surfaces and depths, to show that
wherever this distinction arises it is evidence of the play of organized
power and that this distinction is itself the most effective weapon power
possesses for hiding its operations..." 

And please also remember that Bruno Latour has written a lovely dissection
of the modernist paradox in "We Have Never Been Modern" (Harvard
University Press, 1993) to wit: 

"Because it believes in the total separation of humans and nonhumans, and
because it simultaneously cancels out this separation, the Constitution
has made the moderns invinceable.  If you criticize them by saying that
Nature is a world constructed of human hands, they will show you that it
is transcendent, that science is a mere intermediary allowing access to
Nature...If you tell them that we are free and that our destiny is in our
own hands, they will tell you that Society is transcendent and its laws
infinitely surpass us.  If you object that they are being duplicitous,
they will show you that they never confuse the Laws of Nature with
inprescriptible human freedom.  If you believe them and direct your
attention elsewhere, they will take advantage of this to transfer
thousands of objects from Nature into the social body while procuring for
this body the solidity of natural things..." 

Think about the social construction of the cyborg, for example, in Donna
Haraway's work, and her references to colonialism. 

Carmen Hermosillo      <Carmen.Hermosillo@seagatesoftware.com>

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