The Virtual Campfire: Chapter One

A History of Mediating Communications Technologies

/ The Development of Modern Communications Media
/ Computer-Mediated Communication in Historical Context
/ Conclusion

In this chapter, I briefly trace the development of modern communications media, focusing specifically on Europe and the United States. Beginning with the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in the mid-15th century, I discuss the evolution of what would later come to be called “the media” in terms of major technological developments, social and political shifts, controversy regarding institutional ownership and regulation, and the emergence of a “public sphere” in relation to “mass culture.”

The second half of this chapter traces the development of computer-mediated communication in relation to complex social, cultural, and political processes that unfolded in the United States over the latter half of the 20th century. I call attention to similarities to prior forms of media, as well as the ways in which the growth of computer-mediated communication can be viewed as both an extension of and a departure from traditional patterns of media development.

The Development of Modern Communications Media

The advent of recognizably “modern” technologies of communication can be traced back to the middle of the 15th century, when the techniques for printing developed by Johannes Gutenberg began to spread throughout the emergent European nation-states. During this period, a mode of agrarian production organized through feudal relations began to be replaced by capitalist production of commodities, due in large part to the expansion of trade, colonialism, and the rise of urban areas. Additionally, this period involved simultaneous processes of centralization and dispersal of authority. While the means of production and distribution of commodities became increasingly controlled and regulated by centralized political institutions and detached from social relations, this was accompanied by the enormous reproductive power of the printing presses, which were quickly spreading information and ideas across Europe.

In 15th century Europe, the printed word was principally dominated by the church (which sought to reproduce sacred knowledge) and the university (which sought the standardization of moral and philosophical knowledge). Around this time, the introduction of postal services enabled written communication between two geographically distant individuals. However, literacy and thus written communication was, for the most part, restricted to a small minority of the educated, wealthy economic and political elites. The new possibilities afforded by the printing press aided political and religious authorities in establishing standardized national languages that helped to reinforce national identities [12].

By the 16th century, the secularization of knowledge had intensified: the power of the church gradually declined in the face of religious fragmentation, while the university flourished with the advent of modern science and the increase of literacy (though still largely limited to the wealthy elite) (Thompson 1995). Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses (1517) were initially enclosed with a scholarly letter protesting the sale of indulgences to raise money for the Roman Catholic church. Luther then posted a copy of the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of a German church, which at the time served as bulletin boards for advertising events on university campuses (Junghans 2003: 26). The subsequent mass circulation of the Ninety-Five Theses sparked widespread debate that challenged the authority of the Roman Catholic church, contributing to its eventual fragmentation in the form of the Protestant Revolution.

Throughout the 17th century, newspapers, pamphlets, and periodicals began to circulate with regularity. As a result, knowledge about the world beyond one’s direct experiences of it became available to and arguably constituted “the public,” who were also increasingly exposed to a variety of different perspectives on issues pertaining to their lives (Thompson 1995: 65-67). This “public” was made up of literate, bourgeois individuals, defined by Jürgen Habermas (1962) as:

…the sphere of private people come together as a public; they soon claimed the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves, to engage them in a debate over the general rules governing relations in the basically privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social labor (27).

This form of “public,” intellectual opposition to the detachment of the state-controlled commodity market from everyday social relations has long been a primary concern of those in power. In turn, they sought to control the production and dissemination of knowledge in the interest of political stability.

The intellectual culture that took shape in Europe over the 18th century is known as the Enlightenment. In this metaphor of knowledge production, the “light” of scientific truth is heralded as dispelling the “darkness” and “shadows” which religion had imposed. Through this configuration, media forms became valorized for their potential to transmit truthful knowledge to the “masses.” The rising authority of the new intellectual elite was accompanied by the proliferation of printed news organizations that operated separate from, and often in tension with, governments in power. Political attempts at censorship were contested by the liberal voices of the literate, intellectual sphere. The freedom of the press came to be seen by intellectuals as a fundamental right of society, an ideal that is reflected in the First Amendment of the American Constitution. This liberal discourse positioned the media as a powerful means by which to educate “the people,” an ideological category that served as the foundation for the growing popularity of democracy.

With the onset of the Industrial Revolution beginning around the middle of the 18th century, the technical means by which the printed form was circulated were vastly improved. These technical advancements coincided with the expansion of literacy among the rising middle classes, allowing for a wider and more diverse array of producers and consumers of mediated culture. However, though the representation of media as liberating and enlightening would come to promote the optimistic reception of all subsequent forms of media, the contrary call for censorship and control of knowledge by ruling political elites would continue to problematize this discourse, claiming that increased access to mediated information would lead to political instability and a disintegration of the moral fabric of society.

The beginning of the 19th century witnessed a dramatic increase in urbanization and literacy rates in Western societies. The concept of “the masses” began to be applied increasingly to the widening readership of newspapers, which played a significant role in the shaping of national consciousness (Anderson 1991), while new literary genres also disseminated a bourgeois ideology of domesticity. Throughout the early Victorian era, ideals of “proper” domestic life proliferated through plan books, home manuals, and magazines. The home was depicted as the spiritual haven of the family, a place of rest and relaxation in sharp contrast to both the competitive, acquisitive world of work and to what was seen as the dangerous, unruly realm of urban commercial entertainment, comprised of “low” cultural forms such as popular theater, circuses, and dance halls (Spigel 1992). “Proper,” bourgeois leisure activities, such as piano playing and Bible reading, were to take place in the feminized domestic sphere of the home. Over the postbellum era in the U.S., however, this mentality began to fade as improvements in transportation led to the development of suburbs and enhanced access to increasingly commercialized urban centers. The latter half of the 19th century saw the gradual formation of a new professional middle class and was marked by a concomitant shift in the ideals of family leisure, moving away from religiosity and toward the material luxuries of consumerism.

Propelled by the profitable possibilities of a widening public audience, as well as the rising affordability of production and circulation, producers of print media became increasingly commercial in their interests. Seeking to capitalize on the distributional power of the media, during the final decades of the 19th century newspapers and magazines in the United States began to be funded by commercial advertisers and regulated by emerging media conglomerates. Around this time, the Kodak camera was introduced into domestic use and sold by the millions (Briggs and Burke 2005: 134). Such luxuries were no longer limited to a wealthy elite, as industrialization had resulted in an overall increase in material wealth and leisure time and an emergent professional-managerial middle class primarily employed by large corporations. New domestic technologies of leisure, such as the phonograph and the radio (and later, television) were promoted in home magazines, and their widespread reception, which brought the public sphere into the private domain, was conversely accompanied by the growth of department stores and commercial entertainments that drew women out of the home and into the public realm (Spigel 1992). Together, these factors contributed to a deterioration of the boundaries between the public and domestic spheres.

The rise of a suburban middle class, which took shape as the bourgeoisie sought to distance themselves from the “dangerous classes” gathering in the industrial urban centers, was facilitated by the development of transportation systems, beginning with the railway. Post-industrial America has been characterized as “a highly mobile world where communities are joined together through transportation and communications systems” (Spigel 2001: 392). By the turn of the 20th century, along with the automobile, both the telephone and the radio had been invented in the United States [13]. Both were revolutionary for enabling the instantaneous communication of speech: the telephone allowed two spatially distant individuals to communicate directly with one another; the radio, on the other hand, could be used for two-way, point-to-point communication between individuals and within small groups, with each individual playing the roles of sender and receiver; but it could also lend itself to “broadcasting” messages from a central source to widely dispersed receivers. Most importantly, these technologies were to be incorporated into the domestic sphere of the home, while simultaneously providing a means of connecting with the world outside of the private sphere.

Over the course of the 20th century, both the telephone and the radio were integrated into the everyday lives of Americans. Though amateur “ham” radio, a predominantly masculine pastime, flourished throughout the first decade, the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912 (largely attributed to the abundance of casual transmissions that drowned out the important warning message) triggered the United States government to pass the Radio Act of 1912. Limited to extremely “short wave” transmissions, amateur radio became significantly less popular, and by the advent of World War I in 1917 was officially eliminated altogether. However, following the end of the war in 1919 these restrictions were removed and radio again began to flourish, marked most notably by the shift to corporate control in the formation of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), which sought to monopolize the industry and mass produce “radio music boxes” for popular consumption (Briggs & Burke 2005: 130). The 1920s saw the rapid development of broadcasting systems, allowing radio transmissions to be sent from centrally organized “networks” to a vast heterogeneous audience (Thompson 1995: 79). By 1927, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) had developed and would become powerful commercial broadcasting networks, backed financially by advertising.

Film emerged as a form of public entertainment with the opening of the first American film theatre in 1905. Filmmakers and film stars alike migrated to Hollywood, California, where the birth of American cinema flourished. By the 1920s, much to the indignation of independent and amateur producers, both the motion picture and radio industries were largely controlled by privately owned corporations and regulated by the government. The rising popularity of movies, particularly among youth, was seen as potentially threatening family life by eroding boundaries between public and private recreation. In response, a moral panic swept the country, orchestrated by moral reformers who warned that by moving leisure outside of the home these “new commercial amusements” were posing a threat to parental authority over children (Spigel 1992: 25). Radio broadcasting, in contrast, was represented as a form of home entertainment and education, gathering families together around an “electronic hearth” within the security of the domestic sphere. Additionally, the ‘golden age’ of radio was marked by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous “fireside chats,” which were broadcast between 1933 and 1944. These broadcasts, which attracted more listeners than the most popular programs at the time, helped to form a “virtual campfire” that would strive to unite the nation in the tumultuous era of the Great Depression and World War II.

The mass popularization of radio broadcasting, evidenced by its adoption in 81% of American homes by 1940, empowered the radio industry with the means by which they would eventually come to develop television broadcasting (Spigel 1992: 29-30). Indeed, the technological innovations that allowed radio broadcasting to flourish, particularly the valve amplifier, were necessary precursors for the development of television (Briggs and Burke 2005: 141). This development would have to wait, however, as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) insisted on establishing national standards, which would be delayed for another ten years as the country became embroiled in World War II. As soon as the war ended, however, television sets began to be advertised to the public in popular print media and on radio, and were quickly adopted throughout the 1950s, reaching a majority of households by 1955 (Spigel 1992: 32). The post-war economic boom in America contributed to renewed interest in the domestic sphere; television, then, was the perfect, affordable addition to the expanding middle-class nuclear family households, and popular television in turn offered its audiences images of and instruction in the new form of suburban family life.

By and large, the new TV industry adapted forms of entertainment programming that had been originally developed for radio, such as comedy-variety, soaps and sitcoms. While soaps were aired in the daytime and aimed at housewives, primetime sitcoms were increasingly designed for the “family audience,” while other, adult-oriented genres, such as sports, comedy variety, and live dramas made collective spectator entertainments formerly associated with the public sphere into a component of the private sphere. Theatrical, collective spectator entertainment thus became an important element of the domestic in an era marked by increasing privatization of everyday life. The development of television as a “mass medium” helped to shape popular imagination, circulating images of a happy, harmonious, suburban middle-class family ideal. Popular television, like newspapers and radio before it, began to play a critical role in the shaping of national consciousness.

National politics became the highlight of television in 1960, as millions of Americans tuned in to watch the Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates. Kennedy, with his composed appearance and charismatic personality, could attribute his victory, at least in part, to the capacity for television to endear such “personalities” to its massive number of viewers [14]. His inauguration occurred at a critical juncture in American history, as the relative domestic tranquility and consensus politics of the preceding era had already begun to give way to the tumultuous Civil Rights Movement [15]. The mass media played a critical role in shaping national consciousness of the movement through potent and increasingly sensationalist coverage, which relied heavily on recent technological innovations (such as the portable camera) that enabled mobility in newsgathering. At the same time, institutional power was being challenged on an ideological level, as countercultural values were embraced by the New Left, composed primarily of college students. The origin of the term “New Left” can be traced back as far as 1960, to an open letter written by sociologist C. Wright Mills entitled Letter to the New Left. It outlined the purported “end of ideology,” which Mills defined as “the ideology of an ending; the ending of political reflection itself as a public fact,” and advocated progressive change through the formation of a “New Left”:

The Right, among other things, means — what you are doing, celebrating society as it is, a going concern. Left means, or ought to mean, just the opposite. It means: structural criticism and reportage and theories of society, which at some point or another are focused politically as demands and programmes. These criticisms, demands, theories, programmes are guided morally by the humanist and secular ideals of Western civilisation — above all, reason and freedom and justice. To be “Left” means to connect up cultural with political criticism, and both with demands and programmes. And it means all this inside every country of the world.

(Mills 1960: electronic document)

Though Mills died an early death in 1962, he continued to live on as an iconic hero for the New Left student radical movement. As the decade unfolded, a widespread attitudinal rejection of the capitalist values of the postwar era was accompanied by the popularization of humanistic ideals such as autonomy and communality. The grassroots formations that developed in this era were dispersed and decentralized, connected in a web marked by overlaps and intersections as well as offshoots and fragmentations. As we shall see, the political and social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and the values of individual freedom and local community they made fashionable, were to become significant historical precedents for the development of computer-mediated communication.

Computer-Mediated Communication in Historical Context

In the 1970s, American military researchers developed the first computer network, known as ARPANET. Though initially created to allow researchers in the Department of Defense to operate multiple computers at a distance, the potential of this technology for interpersonal communication was quickly realized by programmers, academic scholars, and scientific researchers. Throughout the 1980s, computer networking was adopted by hobbyists and developed into a viable communications medium. Ordinary citizens could legally communicate with one another through personal computers and telephone lines, leading to the rapid grassroots development of Usenet and bulletin board systems (BBSs) (Rheingold 1993). While BBSs typically formed around local geographic areas and were centralized in nature, requiring a central system operator, Usenet groups (coined “newsgroups”) were decentralized, allowing for the emergence of global news servers organized by topics of interest.

These early forms of computer-mediated communication, first developed around 1980, coincided with the invention of the first MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) in London. Howard Rheingold (1993: Chapter Five) defines MUDs as:

Imaginary worlds in computer databases where people use words and programming languages to improvise melodramas, build worlds and all the objects in them, solve puzzles, invent amusements and tools, compete for prestige and power, gain wisdom, seek revenge, indulge greed and lust and violent impulses. You can find disembodied sex in some MUDs. In the right kind of MUD, you can even kill--or die.

MUDs allowed for synchronous “real time” conferencing, as opposed to the asynchronous conventions of newsgroups and BBSs. Internet Relay Chat (IRC), developed in 1988, further enabled synchronous communication. Both MUDs and IRC were voraciously adopted by college students, setting off a moral panic over their addictive and transgressive properties that echoed previous moral panics surrounding cinema, television, and video games.

Like the radio before it, computer networks were originally invented for military use. However, the development of computer technology as a medium for civilian communication finds its beginnings in the intellectual sphere. Just as print media were largely produced by the church and the university between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, so too was computer-mediated communication initially confined to powerful institutions, namely the government and the academic and scientific research communities. The subsequent adaptation of this technology for personal use by a small group of hobbyists has a parallel in the history of the radio. At the turn of the twentieth century, amateur “ham” radio enthusiasts were the driving force behind the rapid technological advancement of the medium, and likewise, it was a community of computer “hackers,” rather than the government, who have been principally responsible for the early technological developments of the computer [16].

Ideologically, the “hacker” movement embodied many of the ideals of the international Situationist movement of the 1960s, a radical cultural movement which sought to subvert the tools of societal control for libratory ends. According to Situationists, social domination worked through centrally produced, controlled and supposedly controlling mass media; these constituted what French Situationist leader Guy Debord (1967) called “the society of the spectacle,” wherein interpersonal relationships are mediated and saturated by icons and images in an increasingly consumerist society. The Situationists advocated détournement, referring to the specific tactic of appropriating and “turning” the instruments and products of “spectacle society” to other, libratory ends. While the most well-known Situationist practice of détournement was altering prominent billboard ads, 80s “hackers” concentrated their energy on manipulating computer networks.

However, Situationist ideology also highlights the contrary process of recuperation, in which threats to the dominant political order are appropriated or reappropriated by “the spectacle,” absorbed and made “safe” for mass consumption. This was certainly the case with prior broadcasting media, which by that time had become controlled and packaged for mass consumption by large media conglomerates, such as CBS and NBC. There was, nevertheless, a striking difference between the national moods that had shaped the reception of earlier culture industries and computer-mediated communication: radio, film, and television had all emerged in eras characterized by a popular desire for national unity and material wealth; the computer, however, was developed in large part by those who advanced an ideological rejection of capitalism, imperialism, and consumerism.

Thus, the historical precedent for the grassroots development of computer-mediated communication was primarily the U.S. countercultural movement of the 1960s. Just as the mass circulation of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses had a pivotal role in the fragmentation of religious authority in 16th century Europe, so too did underground publications (such as radical newspapers, political pamphlets, and ‘zines’) in the 1960s help to foster collective resistance to political authority in the U.S. One of these publications was the Whole Earth Catalog, whose readership connected disparate academic, technological, and countercultural communities. Its focus on reader contributions and practice of publishing financial accounts mirrored the interactive and open-source nature of modern Internet technologies. The Whole Earth Catalog, created by Stewart Brand in 1968, was inspired by Brand’s involvement with systems theory and New Communalist politics (which were based on the democratized spread of information and collective consciousness). New Communalists rejected private property values, which they argued alienated individuals from society, and sought transcendence in the form of a “back-to-the-land movement” [17].

Brand’s quest to create collaborative communities led to the creation of the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (more commonly known as the WELL), a collective of online message board forums established in 1985. The intimate social dynamics of the WELL constituted the central theme of The Virtual Community, published in 1993 by Howard Rheingold, who’d been an active member since its inception. The members of this “virtual community” consisted of technologists, academics, and counterculturalists (particularly fans of the Grateful Dead), reflecting the dispersed networks previously established by the Whole Earth Catalog. The overarching ideology of the WELL traces its roots to the Situationist International and the New Communalists of the 1960’s, who sought to appropriate the tools of societal control in order to bring about personal empowerment and communal world-building. With the introduction of the “hacker” came a return to the ideals that defined the New Communalists; namely, that “information wants to be free” (Brand 1985: 49).

These lofty goals were famously articulated in a treatise entitled A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace by John Barlow, published in 1996. Barlow, an information technology journalist and pundit, had also been a lyricist for the Grateful Dead, whose fans constituted a major segment of The WELL. He wrote his treatise following a Congressional meeting in which the Communications Decency Act (1996) was passed, which sought to restrict pornography on the Internet. Barlow called for a social revolution that would overthrow the oppressive forces of government, replacing them instead with the pursuit of individual enlightenment, communality, and collective consciousness. His triumphant manifesto is constructed as a pointed attack of the legal system on behalf of the civilians of cyberspace; like the Situationists of the 1960’s, he invokes a primitivist image of revolution as reclaiming a tribal past, free of the iniquities of individualism and capitalism and defined instead by a return to communality and the gift economy:

Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions (Barlow 1996, emphasis added).

Discourses on cyberspace are centrally rooted in idealistic notions of freedom, on the one hand, and cautionary moralistic fears, on the other. The notion of cyberspace as a “libratory space” parallels older optimistic discourses surrounding new forms of media; the 18th century popularization of printed news was celebrated as a means of enlightening “the people,” and early discourses surrounding radio and television similarly hailed these technologies as enabling access to the greater world. Likewise, this idealistic construction of new communication technologies has historically been countered in the form of institutional control and the proliferation of a “moral panic” which in turn calls for and legitimizes government regulation; that is, knowledge should be controlled in the form of “papa knows best,” so as to protect the innocent and naïve (particularly children) from the putative dangers posed by unmonitored engagement with new media.

Following these early grassroots formations, a variety of new Internet-based technologies of communication emerged, principally based in the World Wide Web, which debuted as a public service in 1991. The creation of the Mosaic Web browser in 1993, made freely available to the public, catapulted the Web into mainstream popular use. User-friendly “Internet gateway” services, chiefly America Online, Compuserve, and Prodigy, drew tens of thousands of new home users onto the Internet and into online chat rooms. This rise in popularity sparked commercial interest in the Internet as a new medium for advertising, the mode by which the vast majority of online companies would support themselves financially (as opposed to selling services directly).

Throughout the mid- to late-1990s, personal “homepages” were created in abundance, a trend aided by free web hosting services such as Angelfire and Geocities that offered limited server space in exchange for ad placement. In 1995, online dating site debuted, and set a new standard of subscription-based online services. However, while companies with profit in mind flocked to establish their reputations on the Web and create lucrative services for average Web users, the decentralized and rapidly-expanding nature of the Web and the anarchic principles it was founded upon made it a challenge for any one site to draw in paying customers. Global online gaming communities, or “massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGS)” reached widespread popularity in the late-1990s with games such as Ultima Online and EverQuest. The late 1990s was also marked by the rise of online diary sites, such as LiveJournal and OpenDiary, which enabled the proliferation of personal online diary communities linked together by interest.

More recent developments of the World Wide Web are collectively often called “Web 2.0” technologies, referring to a shift toward more interactive Web-based applications that derive the majority of their content from users themselves. Tim O’Reilly, credited with coining the term, cites Craigslist as one example; the site allows visitors to browse and post local classified ads freely. Examples of recent “Web 2.0” technologies include: weblogs (more commonly known as “blogs”); social bookmarking; personalized photo and video sharing; online social networking sites; wikis (collaborative websites); and RSS feeds (allowing users to subscribe to regularly-updated web content such as blogs and podcasts). As these technologies have proliferated and come into popular use, they have evoked a host of speculations over how they may be extending and/or transforming processes of individual production of media and virtual community formation.


Media frames are persistent patterns of cognition, interpretation, and presentation, of selection, emphasis, and exclusion, by which symbol-handlers routinely organize discourse, whether verbal or visual.

-Todd Gitlin, The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in
the Making & Unmaking of the New Left, 2nd ed.

Since the advent of the Gutenberg printing press in the mid-15th century, the process by which individuals accumulate knowledge and communicate with one another has undergone a rapid evolution. With each new advance in communications technologies, the spatial and temporal dynamics that had traditionally limited the flow of information were increasingly transcended. Over the course of these developments, institutional control over the production and dissemination of media forms has profoundly shaped the arena of public discourse and national identity; the public, in turn, has routinely contested and subverted their authority, adapting media forms to various agendas of liberation, personal empowerment, and revolution.

It is hardly a coincidence that the emergence of mass reproduction of the printed word was coeval with the emergence of modern capitalism; the commodification of cultural forms makes profitable such technologies of mass distribution. As we have seen, the expansion of a prosperous bourgeoisie together with the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution resulted in “mass” consumption of newspapers and magazines, prompting the rise of commercial advertising and corporate control of mass media industries. Over the course of the 19th century, the dramatic increase in wealth and leisure time enabled some people to spend more time developing their individual hobbies and interests. Vehicles of mediated information and entertainment, in particular the radio and the cinema, became increasingly commoditized, marketed to serve the eclectic tastes of the public. The World Wide Web, in its current form, is the greatest cultural marketplace, incorporating each prior form of commoditized media in its monetized offerings. However, just as corporate control and commercial advertising have been disparaged and resisted through “alternative” radio and avant-garde anti-commercial video in the 1970s and 1980s, so too has commercial exploitation of the Web been resisted through the popular practice of sharing and downloading free content, as well as the “open source” movement [18].

Computer-mediated communication, though originally developed for military use like the telegraph and radio, grew in an independent grassroots manner. In this way, the development of the Internet differs markedly from the military and corporation controlled communications technologies that had developed over the past two centuries. Studios dominated the film industry and corporate broadcasting networks dominated the radio and television. However, while the reception and development of these prior technologies were heavily influenced by public desires for domestic technologies and national security following wartime crises, computer technologies evolved in an era marked by widespread rejection of the governmental, military, and corporate institutions of power and control. In many ways, this emergent “public sphere” would come to more closely resemble Habermas’ (1962) depictions of the 18th century “sphere of private people come together as a public,” as the development of multiple social and political reform movements “claimed the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves.”

The evolving nature of “mass media” has both shaped and been shaped by a series of shifts in the public and private spheres and the relations between them. Once primarily relegated to the church, the university, and the coffeehouse, the mid-18th century marked a notable shift toward reading as a popular domestic leisure activity. The seemingly contradictory effects of industrialization and urbanization, characterized by the privatization of the domestic sphere in an increasingly large-scale mobile society, were resolved through the widespread incorporation of broadcasting media in the home, which Raymond Williams (1992; 1974: 20) describes as “mobile privatization.” The introduction of the telephone, newspapers, radio and television broadcasting brought the public realm into the private sphere, in turn at least potentially inculcating a sense of commonality amongst dispersed audiences. Lynn Spigel (2001: 392), expanding Williams’ theory, discussed what she termed “privatized mobility,” as the “media home” became increasingly experienced as “a vehicular form, a mode of transport in and of itself that allowed people to take private life outdoors.” With new technologies such as the media-loaded car and the mobile phone, people could also “be at home” while in public spaces.

The evolution of computer-mediated communication, in turn, has itself evolved from a state of “mobilized privatization,” where computer-mediated communication was seen as providing a domicile window to imagined communities (such as fandom newsgroups and the virtual worlds of MUDs), to “privatized mobility,” when the mass popularization of Internet use and the development of the World Wide Web resulted in the personal lives of individual Internet users becoming increasingly broadcast to the world in the form of personal homepages and virtual diaries, and extended the spatial and temporal dynamics of interpersonal communication with offline relations through e-mail and instant messaging. With the rise of “Web 2.0” technologies, computer-mediated communication has entered a new stage of “networked individualism,” wherein disparate pre-established communities (family, classmates, colleagues, co-workers, etc;) are situated within the context of one’s online identity, allowing one to maintain an extensive network of both strong and weak social ties (Boase, Wellman, Quan-Haase, & Chen 2003). Here I am referring specifically to the rising popularity of online social networking, the development of which is outlined and discussed in the next chapter.

>> Chapter Two: A Brief History of Online Social Networks


  1. Benedict Anderson (1991) speculates that nations are “imagined communities” brought into being through a particular mode of communication he calls “print capitalism,” especially the newspaper, where unifying ideas are horizontally shared with disparate individuals.
  2. The early 20th century, an innovative period marked by mass reproduction of “luxury” commodities, has been coined both “the Age of the Automobile” and “the Age of Broadcasting” (Briggs & Burke 2005: 149).
  3. By 1955, television sets had been incorporated in 65% of American households (in Spigel 1992: 32).
  4. The 1955 Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned previous rulings allowing “separate but equal” racial segregation of public schools, has been widely regarded as marking the advent of the Civil Rights Movement.
  5. The term “hacking” actually originated in the amateur radio community in the 1950s, referring to practices of creatively tinkering the machine in order to improve its performance.
  6. This American movement is characterized by a demographically prominent migration from urban to rural areas throughout the 1960’s and 70’s, with the creation of somewhere between 2,000 and 6,000 communes (Turner 2005: 487).
  7. The “open source” movement refers to a set of practices for writing software and making freely available the original source code, allowing others to more effectively expand upon already created software.
© Jenny Ryan 2008