A double dose of digital drivel

September 22, 2000

Internet scholars are stuck in the past while the public plays with the future, argues David Gauntlett

Before the mid-1990s, academics knew everything about the internet. No wonder: they ran it. It was their best kept secret.

Then came the worldwide web, invented by Tim Berners-Lee in about 1992. It made the internet so easy to use that journalists had no trouble writing three supplements a week about it.

All this media fuss was fantastic for internet scholars, who had all been writing about "virtual communities" on the net and how people could play with their identities in virtual chatrooms. Most of these articles and books were thin on theory. In fact, they said little more than "Wow! Virtual communities!" and "Holy Cow! In cyberspace no one knows who you are!" Nevertheless, they were records of a new phenomenon and valuable in themselves.

Then what happened? A lot of people gained access to more information that they had ever dreamed possible. Millions of ordinary people made their own websites. The music business was revolutionised. Activists were activated. And e-commerce became the future (it became the past for a couple of months earlier this year but now it is the future again).

You would expect internet scholars to lap this up. It is a transformation of modern society, affecting everyday life as well as broader social processes. If busy sociologists such as Anthony Giddens have jammed it into the heart of their theory, surely dedicated internet researchers and communications experts must be having a field day.

But no. Publishers are still churning out books called Virtual something and Cyber something else. They might as well be called Wow! Virtual Communities! and Holy Cow! In cyberspace no one knows who you are! Even the journals are still publishing those articles that people were pulling out of the drawer in 1996. Has no one changed the record? The internet might change politics. It might not. It is a global phenomenon. It is not really a global phenomenon. Something funny happened to a bunch of people in a chatroom. Give me a break.

Academics have always liked to discourage interesting phenomena by writing cautious, boring books about them. But the ratio of exciting web developments to turgid monographs has beaten all records. It is as if internet scholars are so upset at the rate of change and innovation - "how could my article on Multi-User Dungeons have become prehistoric so soon?" - that they have decided to pretend that time stopped in 1997.

When I was trying to recruit contributors for a book on the subject it became evident that most people writing about the web had never made a website in their lives and had no idea of the new wave of communities that has developed between the builders and users of millions of special interest and personal websites around the world.

Meanwhile, the new digital media - and its interacting audiences - have given the field of media studies a much-needed shot in the arm. The teaching of the subject has progressed ahead of the research and publishing. I know people teaching about political, social, technological and artistic aspects of the internet that you never see in print. For media studies, as for the media industries, there is no going back. How long before the internet scholars get out of their newsgroups and join us in the new century?

Web Studies: Rewiring Media Studies for the Digital Age, edited by David Gauntlett, is published this week (Arnold, Pounds 14.95). Details: www.theory.org.uk

* Have academics studying the internet fallen behind the times? Email us at soapbox@thes.co.uk

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