The disciplinary force of new media?

At the weekend a left-wing blogger made an off hand comment on Twitter that one might have expected would have just faded away within a few days. Luke Bozier tweeted that:

Gordon Brown’s WebCreator website is not befitting of a former Prime Minister. Tangent should be ashamed.

The company in question produce a lot of Labour websites. I don’t recall ever seeing any that look particularly impressive and it’s difficult not to agree with Luke that Brown’s new website is poor. It looks like a site produced through a free template rather than the work of an elite web design agency. Imagine Luke’s surprise when he recieved the following communication from Tangent:

I respectfully suggest you delete that tweet, issue no more similar ones and generally try to sell your products in a more professional way. I really don’t like the prospect of either a public slanting match or legal action, but if I need to protect my company’s business and reputation, I will.

However the story has since started to grow through new media. It’s trending on Twitter. More coverage of it here, here and here. In my mind this a perfect example of the emancipatory force of new media: it partially overturns the asymmetry of organizational and communicative power which makes legal threats from a corporation to an individual so effective. Obviously there are countervailing tendencies (cultural fragmentation, isolated privatism, hedonistic distraction) but we need to carefully assess the actual consequences of this technology as it is played out on a day-to-day level.

Perhaps at some point this might involve recording and cataloguing incidents such as this so that web scholars have an extensive databank of empirical case studies through which to develop theoretical understandings of the social changes wrought by the internet. My fear is that so many fascinating instances like this (which, in part, reveal real structures underlying our mundane experience of the internet) are likely to be lost simply because they are too small, too mundane and too individually insignificant.

Too often the debate about the internet seems to be stuck between the boosters (e.g. the next generation of digital technology will usher in a new cyber utopia), the moralists (e.g. technology is undermining the moral fabric of human society) and the cynics (e.g. all new technology has created a moral panic and therefore we should dismiss the significance of contemporary technology). It’s only through cataloguing and analyzing the small, mundane and insignificant that we can get beyond these polarized positions and really start to understand the impact digital technology is having on social life.

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