Personal Connections in the Digital Age

September 30, 2010

Everyone has an opinion about the impact that new information and communication technologies (ICT) have on our lives, and anecdotes abound about the things they have done to us and our relationships. Because a clear (n)etiquette has not yet been established, speculation is rife about what "healthy" ICT use and behaviours really are. Here, Nancy Baym offers a much-needed and thorough review of the collected evidence that dispels some of the myths about the direct, transformational effects of ICT. In employing psychological, sociological and cultural-studies approaches in its examination of these issues, this book is markedly different from others covering the same subject.

Baym has written a clear historical and empirical account that shows that new phenomena are not as new as they seem, and should be placed in the context of wider societal trends. She argues that we need to consider "both the technological as well as the personal, cultural and historical presumptions" underlying ICT.

Her main point is that within the flexible boundaries set by technology, social structures and everyday routines determine how technologies are integrated into our daily lives. Research shows that ICT do not often have predictable effects on our lives or relationships, basically because life gets in the way.

Baym thus avoids the techno-determinism that still creeps into research and proliferates in the anecdotes we tell about our experiences with technology. This is important, because technological determinism ignores the innovative ways in which people use and give meaning to technologies and fails to highlight the replication of existing social inequalities in the digital world. Striking a balance between pure social constructivism in which technology is completely irrelevant and techno-determinism is not easy, and she tackles this challenge successfully.

An important aim of Personal Connections in the Digital Age is to dispel media panics, and the research presented here shows that fundamentally little has changed. People are not necessarily more likely to meet different people online, they are not more likely to lie or to be rude when anonymous, and technologies do not necessarily make people happier.

No matter our own experiences, after being presented with the research, it is difficult to disagree with the idea that contextualisation at the personal and societal level is key; in Baym's words, "We should always be wary of simple explanations."

With its emphasis on evidence and complexity, it is a slight shame that in the area where panics are often largest, namely intimate relationship development and maintenance, the book is dominated by Baym's personal experience of befriending a member of one of her favourite bands via the internet. It is a great story and offers a personal, upbeat and unique account, but it is only a cursory glance at what we know about intimate relationships and ICT. Here it would have been better if she had let the research, instead of her personal experience, speak.

For those well versed in the debates about the bright and dark sides of relating through technologies, this book may offer a few new insights. In addition, it is an excellent refresher on the history of the debates that have taken place. For the general reader, it offers a rigorous review of existing research and provides a deeper understanding of the everyday mediated experiences to be kept in mind when we tell our own anecdotes. Combining in-depth knowledge of the topic based on decades of Baym's own and others' research with a clear, concise and straightforward writing style that makes it a joy to read, this is the kind of accessible book that many academics would love to have written.

Personal Connections in the Digital Age

By Nancy Baym. Polity Press, 196pp, £50.00 and £13.99. ISBN 9780745643311 and 43328. Published 23 April 2010

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