Book Review

Networks without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media, by Geert Lovink
Despina Skordili MA New Media & Digital Culture Utrecht University
The emergence of the network society has been the main preoccupation of interdisciplinary research, focusing on the new power relationships which are being formed and the new ways of communication and exercise of control in society. The term has been coined almost two decades ago and has been examined by multiple scholars, most significantly by sociologists Manuel Castells and Jan van Dijk. Providing a definition of network society is a difficult task, mainly because different theories approach the network in different ways: as a fact or as a concept; as a something tangible or as an abstract idea. For Castells, as it can be seen in his essay “A Network Theory of Power”, networks are the main actors of power in the contemporary society (2011: 773), whereas Van Dijk focuses on the individuals as the basic units of the network society, linked in different levels of formation, such as groups, organizations etc. (2006: 20). The evolution of new media technology has played a major role in the examination of the network society. For Van Dijk, information and communication technologies (ICTs) are the main factors in its formation, as he states in the introduction of his essay “Networks: The Nervous System of Society” (2006: 19). This idea is rejected by Castells, who emphasizes on the “cultural materials” which influence the processes of communication in the network society: “ideas, visions, projects, and frames” (2011: 776). Recently, the discussion on Web 2.0 has raised academic interest in network politics, focusing on its participatory culture and on the emergence of new ways of social networking. Professor of New Media and founder of the Institute of Network Cultures in Amsterdam, Geert Lovink, contributes to this discussion with a new approach, looking at the Web 2.0 hype as a new “bubble” (2011:1), referring to the bubble of the late nineties. In his book “Networks without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media”, Lovink examines the ways in which we engage today with the networks that are being structured through the new media technologies that dominate contemporary societies. He describes an internet culture bombarded by a constant stream of information overload (Chapter 1), obsessed with self-promotion (Chapter 2), desperate to get noticed online, instead of propelling discussion which can reach consensus (Chapter 3), characterized with insufficient media literacy (Chapter 4) and critical approaching of new media (Chapter 5), unable to discover an outstanding way of self-expression (Chapter 6) or to critically exploit the “transition from analogue to digital” (Lovink, 2011: 22) (Chapter 7), attracted by a new online aesthetic of quick satisfaction (Chapter 8), relying on the quick knowledge of search engines and, therefore, unable to critically translate information (Chapter 9) as well as to organize effective online activist strategies (Chapters 10 and 11). At the same time, he stresses the inadequacy of current network theories, which are preoccupied with the creation and structure of networks, rather than focusing on the tension and conflict they bring about on society. “We need”, he

argues, “a contemporary network theory that reflects rapid changes and takes the critical and cultural dimensions of technical media seriously” (Lovink, 2011:23). Consistent in his emphasis for a more critical approach, he provides a thorough analysis of this over-hyped Web 2.0 concept, enriched with cases on blogging, social networking websites, online activist movements, search engines and artistic projects. Lovink’s critique in “Networks without a Cause” can be placed inside the frames of a broader discussion concerning the political capacities of the Net. The evolution of new media technologies has rendered necessary the reconsideration of traditional concepts, such as public sphere, power, democracy, control. Ever since its commercialization in the mid-nineties, the internet has been placed with the expectation of becoming a new site of political communication, a site where the habermasian passive consumer public (Habermas, 1996: 191-193) would give its place to a platform of active participation, striving to reach for consensus. This romantic idea of the internet as a public sphere has been the subject of criticism by many scholars. Professor of political science, Jodi Dean, argues that the concept of the public sphere is not applicable for computer-mediated communication. The public sphere is a place where individuals come together to discuss matters of mutual interest and take political action. According to the habermasian definition, this action inside the frames of the public sphere is set through some norms that are necessary for democratic practice: there should be disregard for social status, questioning and critique of issues of common concern and inclusivity to anyone (Habermas, 1996: 36-37). However, Dean argues that, instead of promoting active participation, internet politics are being formulated around the interest of financial markets. As a result: “the Net is one of the spaces where this conflict rages in fullforce. When we talk about the Net as a public sphere, we displace attention from this conflict”. (Dean, 2003: 103). Information is indeed put out there, but there is no discussion going on which could lead to consensus. In the Web 2.0 era, Jodi Dean’s question “is the Net a public sphere?” becomes “do all these online social networks really have a cause?” This is the question that Geert Lovink seeks to answer. Therefore, his original contribution to this discussion is exactly the suggestion of how we could exploit the potential of the Net in order for it to become a place of participation in political communication. He gives an answer to this criticism of the internet as a public sphere by suggesting what is missing. By acquiring media literacy, exploiting our critical capabilities, learning how to question online content, developing new forms of design, artistic creativity and technological architecture, by expanding our online space against what social media, such as Facebook, define as “social” and by strengthening the sense of community that has been lost in the age of information overload, maybe we can still transform these network into a place of social change. References: Castells, Manuel. 2011. “A Network Theory of Power”. International Journal of Communication 5: 773-787 Dean, Jodi. 2003. 'Why the Net Is Not a Public Sphere'. Constellations 10 (1): 95-112 Dijk, Jan van. 2006. “Networks: The Nervous System of Society”. In The Network Society: Social Aspects of New Media, 19–41. London: Sage Publications

Habermas, Jόrgen. 1996. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge: Polity Press. Lovink, Geert. 2011. “Networks without a cause: a critique of social media”. Cambridge, UK: Polity

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