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“There isn’t really one internet, there are many internets”

Jessa Lingel challenges commonly held assumptions about online technologies and social media platforms.

Jessa Lingel is assistant Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Digital Countercultures and the Struggle for Community.

Christophe Bruchansky: In “Digital Countercultures and the Struggle for Community”, you argue that social platform don’t aways encourage authenticity and self-exploration. Could you give an example?

Jessa Lingel: We see a lot of platforms that are based in normative claims about identity.  Speaking broadly LinkedIn is a platform that prescribes neoliberal visions of self-promotion, NextDoor reinscribes middle class suburban homogeneity, Instagram supports conspicuous consumption. The thing is, every platform can be subverted, so even if these platforms tend to promote some users and uses over others, there are also constant opportunities for rupture and reappropriation.

Christophe: In your book, you describe tactics that body modification, punk music, and drag queen communities have used online to oppose mainstream values and norms. Overall, would you say that online social networks have reinforced mainstream values and norms, or that they have increased the number of tactics to challenge them?

JL: The thing is, there isn’t really one internet, there are many internets. So it’s impossible to generalize about whether they’ve reinforced mainstream versus countercultural values.  I do think that more and more people are accessing the internet from a smaller number of sites – so Google and Facebook control an increasingly large share of how people access web-based content.  These are private industry rather than government, and publicly traded meaning that they’re beholden to shareholders rather than users. They’re also largely unregulated. There will always be weird, countercultural and heterogeneous content on the web, the question is, will it become increasingly difficult for everyday users to access it?

Christophe: In the three communities that you have studied, what fundamentally brought them online? What objectives could they pursue online that could not be attained otherwise?

JL: Most of the countercultural groups I’ve studied are always already online, for the same reason that most people are online – it’s a powerful communication tool that connects people to each other across distances and to build affinity.  For people with countercultural or marginalized interests, the internet can help forge connections that would otherwise be difficult to build, whether because of geographic or other social/cultural barriers.

Christophe: On the back side, from all tactics counterculture communities deploy offline to retain a sense of identity and alterity, would some be impossible to replicate online?

JL: All of the groups I study have important relationships that are built online, and also important relationships that are built offline. Particularly as people access the web via mobile devices, an online/offline divide makes less and less sense as a meaningful binary of people’s relationship to technology, and for that matter, people’s relationships to each other.

Christophe: How might future developments of mainstream social networks affect the aforementioned online tactics? Are you feeling concerned or optimistic about some specific developments?

JL: I think we’ll see an increasing fragmentation of platforms as people invest time in multiple platforms, and platforms emerge to serve niche groups.  My guess is that we will look back at the period of Facebook and Twitter dominance as a rare moment of concentration of users in a small number of platforms.

Christophe: Under what conditions are digital communities encouraging the development of a pluralistic society?

JL: At their best, digital communities can support meaningful dialogue between diverse groups of people. This is precisely why we need to work towards about digital literacy and regulation of media production and distribution to address the politics and bias of algorithms. Social media platforms can be designed in ways that support some kinds of community building and discourse over others.  We need to encourage platforms to work towards equitable, inclusive and diverse perspectives.

Christophe: In your opinion, will there always be a place in people’s lives for purely analogue communities and how could the interplay between digital and analogue communities impact pluralism?

JL: Again, I see the online/offline binary as less and less productive for talking about relationships between people and technology.  The internet is increasingly embedded into our everyday lives, without firm distinctions between online and offline. That said, I believe that people will always need and value offline forms of community.  In terms of pluralism, I think it’s fair to say that one of the most productive dynamics takes shape when online tools can put us in touch with more diverse and heterogeneous networks that can manifest both online and off.