Framing Political, Personal Expression on the Web

Framing Political, Personal Expression on the Web

Matthew W. Wilson
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-026-4.ch250
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The World Wide Web, as a collection of Web sites, Web services, and Web-enabled technologies, is a space of expression and contestation—a social construction of sorts. Additionally, the Web, as a locus of investigation, is gaining attention from scholars in the social sciences, feminist and critical theorists, as well as more recent poststructural reconceptualizations across many disciplines. One unifying interest is precisely the topic of this article: How might we recognize what is considered political and personal in a virtual space? To what sense can we distinguish political and personal expression online? This article frames the diverse perspectives for interrogating political and personal expression on the Web, while offering considerations for why these sorts of projects are at all necessary or useful. The determinacy of virtual, Web-based locations as political and/or personal is a complex endeavor. Does a prochoice posting to an anti-abortion online discussion group constitute a political act? What is potentially meant by “political”? Several discussion forums or news groups contain categories like “politics” or “government and politics” (see Yahoo! Groups for example); and yet, such groups may or may not be perceived as “political”. This perception of “being political” is dependent on certain philosophical tensions about what can be considered political in certain spaces and times. Other Web sites seek to build politics through the Web, via such movements as e-democracy, online deliberation, or public participation geographic information systems (Davies & Novack, forthcoming; Dragicevic & Balram, 2006). However, while building politics is certainly political, surficial analysis of such online-coalition building endeavors may resist or gloss the multiple political implications for constructing a politics. Therefore this entry contains a discussion of politics and “the political”; each as a perspective has certain methodological and empirical contingencies. Namely, how do we study online interactions? What sorts of data might we collect? Furthermore, how are we, as researchers, already implicated in our studies of online interactions? This entry proposes a diversity of approaches in studying interactions within the Web as informed by both the information sciences and the humanities and is organized into four sections: first, a background section which contemplates more traditional debate in political theory made relevant to studies of the Web; a second section which proposes (post)modernist and poststructuralist framings for researching personal and political expression; third, a section offering future research questions in this research area; and finally, conclusions that reflect upon research on the Web.
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While certain academic traditions analyze political encounters as separate from those situations that are supposedly personal, critical interruptions in these traditions have shown that the personal and political are quite interrelated and inseparable, if not fictitious designations of expression. Most obvious of these critical interruptions are the women’s and GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender) movements, with the blurring of these boundaries as central to an active social movement. These interruptions highlight the co-constitutiveness of the political and the personal, and render suspect analyses that enforce a strict dualism. Therefore, it may be as no surprise that analyses of interactions on the Web are similarly complex—given that the Web is simultaneously coded as personal and political, public and private. Identity and embodiment—or what constitutes the “self”—are intriguingly negotiated in virtuality, making a mess of any rigid enforcement of public/private, political/personal evaluation of online culture. This section explores these public/private, political/personal frameworks as a background for studies of interaction on the Web.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Post-structuralism: Post-structuralism is a response to foundationalism, concerned particularly with the work that language performs. Similar to postmodernism, post-structuralism challenges singular narratives and objectivity, but focuses on the processes of subjectification and identity formation through language.

Foucaultian Perspective: Foucaultian perspectives are post-structuralist critique specific to Michel Foucault, a French political theorist. Foucault’s writings have been used in various academic disciplines and political projects. His interest in power is well cited as a methodology exploring processes of subject formation through normalization.

Cyborg: The cyborg is a figure deployed most popularly by Donna Haraway to depict the partial subjects of postmodern technoculture. The cyborg is a method of critique, allowing theorists to challenge nature/human, mind/body, virtual/material dualisms.

Postmodernism: Postmodernism is a category of thought within literature, architecture, and the arts, emphasizing complexity, chaos, and indeterminacy as a response to the modern tradition which emphasizes progress, determinism, and singular narratives. Within investigations of interaction on the Web, postmodernism informs the notion that data are always framed and relational. Postmodern perspectives advocate that there is no observational, transferable, or generalizable truth inherent to human behavior.

Social Construction: Social construction is a perspective in research that argues all experience (including language, information, and knowledge) is premised on social relationships.

Web 2.0: A movement in Internet development and design, focusing on interaction and complementarity. Jesse James Garrett is a well-known advocate/critic of Web 2.0 approaches. Web sites that deploy Web 2.0 concepts usually build interactions with the “look and feel” of a computer application, using XML and Javascript (AJAX) to allow for greater responsiveness.

Epistemology: Epistemology is the study of how we are able to know what we know. As a way to study knowledge, epistemological critique challenges assumptions about truth, causal relationships, and evidence.

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