Issue 18.2, May 2003


Essay Excerpt

Musical Community on the Internet: An On-line Ethnography

by Lysloff René T. A.

Throughout much of its relatively short history, the Internet has been the focus of considerable speculation and theoretical discussion from a field now widely known as cultural studies. What ties a great deal of this scholarship together is a common understanding of the Internet as a site for the production of "cultural texts" and an approach that explores, as Rosemary Coombe puts it, "the relationship between the word and the world" (Coombe 1998:17). It is hardly surprising, then, that much of the critical commentary on the Internet comes out of English departments and communications or media studies programs because, after all, the Internet is indeed largely textual in nature, being made up of e-mail, discussion groups, message services, websites, images, and other forms that lend themselves to symbolic analysis. Yet what troubles me about a great deal of this literature is that it tends to be concerned almost solely with social effects (real or imagined) rather than the various apparatuses (technological as well as social and political) and the people who are actively involved in using the Internet on a daily basis. I find an imbalance between the tendency to theorize the Internet at a general level and not enough close-to-the-ground ethnographic study of the new social spaces the Internet makes possible. Mizuko Ito, an anthropologist who has conducted on-line fieldwork, suggests that many of these studies erase the real world technological and social underpinnings of Internet phenomena: "Much of the social commentary around virtual worlds implicitly reinscribes a split between information (virtuality) and materials (reality), describing ways in which on-line spaces provide a space of 'pure information that is both amputated from, and inconsequential for, real world physicality" (Ito 1997:88). Furthermore, it is too easy to forget that like the products of mass media, the "cultural texts" produced by the Internet are them- selves public representational forms, a part of what might be called "public culture." The danger of a purely textual approach is that it perpetuates "the fantasy that one can understand the workings of public cultural representations solely by interpreting/deconstructing [such] representations" (Ortner 1999:55-56). (233)

René T. A., Lysloff. "Musical Community on the Internet: An On-line Ethnography." Cultural Anthropology 18, no. 2 (2003): 233-263