This is part of a series of posts highlighting the Theorizing the Web conference, April 14th, 2012 at the University of Maryland (inside the D.C. beltway). See the conference website for information as well as event registration. To the questions posed in the title of the panel “Whose Knowledge?  Whose Web?”, the answer has too often, and too simplistically, been “everyone’s.”  Among Web 2.0’s most strident enthusiasts, the rise of user-generated content is heralded as the reclaiming of knowledge production from entrenched institutions, allowing a brave new world of pluralist democracy to find expression online.  These digital evangelists speak of the emancipatory promise of the Internet in language usually reserved for that of markets.  In both cases, the prescription is the same: progress is a matter of access.  Hence, the “digital divide” has become a discussion about disparities in connectivity rather than one about the expressions and reproductions of social inequalities online.

This panel, featuring work by Emily Lawrence, Piergiorgio Degli Esposti & Roberta Paltrinieri, Andrew Famiglietti, and Martin Irvine*, problematizes the rosy picture of a digital public sphere in two critical ways.  The first problem is empirical: as Web 2.0 enters its second decade, how does its track record compare to its promise of producing pluralist knowledges?  The second is theoretical: are offline social inequalities merely mapped onto new digital platforms, or do social formations in digital space create new forms of discrimination?  Papers in this session examine how publics are formed online and what are their affinities, criteria for belonging, and methods of exclusivity.

Join us this Saturday at 2:30-4:00 for discussion—come as meat to Room B of the Theorizing the Web conference or watch via livestream and tweet your questions.

*Note: Due to an unforeseen scheduling conflict, Martin Irvine will not be able to attend the conference.

[Paper titles and abstracts after the jump.]
Emily Lawrence – “Epistemic Privilege and the Reification of Natural Kinds in the Radical Feminist Blogosphere”

Individuals sometimes claim epistemic privilege in order to assert their authority on a given subject; this occurs both online and off, but it is uniquely observable in the digital world. Claims of epistemic privilege depend upon the notion that, as a member of a socially disadvantaged population, the speaker inhabits a privileged perspective from which they are distinctly able to produce objective knowledge about the world. This ability confers special access to knowledge by way of an underprivileged individual’s dual vision, or their simultaneous perception of the hegemonic cultural narrative and their own systematic marginalization. Postmodern feminist theorists have rightly criticized this form of epistemic privilege as essentialist (among other things), but related claims continue to appear in informal discourse.

I will provide a Foucauldian account of some such claims in a digital radical feminist community comprised of a network of bloggers and their reader-commenters. While other online groups engage in some similar behaviors, radical feminists are of particular interest for several reasons: (a) There is a wealth of preexisting theoretical work dealing with the policing of gender norms that illuminates the community’s internal practices; (b) the phenomenon is easily discernible as a consequence of the explicit character of rule setting in these blogs; and, finally, (c) the result of the examined behaviors is antithetical to the social constructivist thesis foundational to radical feminism.

Two main sorts of claims to epistemic privilege appear in this radical feminist community: (1) That community members have special access to the truth because they are women and/or biologically female and (2) that community members know the truth because they have read particular texts (i.e. they are well-versed in the theoretical underpinnings of radical feminism) and have paid attention to/responded to the world around them in the appropriate way. (1) and (2) are interdependent, however the contours of their interdependency are disputable. Members of the community believe that (1) is a necessary condition for (2) – that is, someone cannot in the first place comprehend radical feminist texts and the oppression of women unless she is a women. In contrast, I will argue that it is actually the case that (1) and other similarly structured claims grow out of (2), which is to say, the expectation that community members possess certain kinds of knowledge about the world generates group norms that members themselves both adhere to and enforce, thus maintaining particular ingroup/outgroup dynamics on the basis of epistemic privilege (i.e. “We know what you, as an Outsider, cannot possibly know”). Through the systematic imposition of these norms, the community discursively constructs a collective identity and, resultantly, a social kind. This process eventually engenders confusion between social kinds and natural kinds, because members of the community deem certain seemingly essential properties of one’s identity necessary for legitimate group affiliation.” “This essay revisits Yochai Benkler’s theory of peer production. In particular, I argue that Benkler’s belief that peer production allows for a more diverse information environment may overlook important forces encouraging centralization and preserving status quo in contemporary peer production practices.

Piergiorgio Degli Esposti (
@pgde) – “Social Capital and Forms of Inclusion/Exclusion in the Process of Consumption”

Social networks are becoming the new paradigm of social organization. They are the material basis of expansion when talking about social structure because they carry out ruling functions and processes (Castells M.).  They cast cycles that represent a central flow of logic which in turn become interconnected with open structures in continuous transformations. It has made society ripe with potential for consumption and communication as it has increasingly made economic, cultural and political distances seem nonexistent.

Traditionally, the term “digital divide” is intended to portray the limited access to informative and communicative resources made available only to privileged patrimonial structures or household revenues (Bourdieu). In addition, it can then be considered a gap that separates different structures within the network by predominated forms of human and physical capital. Abundances of such capital creates different types of power observable in society. Access to a particular powerful structure thus depends on the network’s logic of inclusion/exclusion of different subjects. It works like a filter which privileged structures use to instantly invest in a subject that meets their criteria, almost like a symbol that represents a level of capital that fits within the structure.

It becomes interesting to investigate this argument from a sociological standpoint: whether this acceptation of society, produced by the network, presents its own characteristics or simply reproduces the same dynamics of modernity. Our hypothesis is that the different forms of power linked with their relational capital assumes a diverse dimension where networks are capable of bringing offline, deep rooted inequalities to human and physical capital inequalities online.

From the same perspective, we can also question if the activity of consumers within these social networks could be measured in social capital, similar to the way human and physical capital is empirically measured. In this light, social capital plays a more precise role in the process of inclusion/exclusion of subjects between structures much like the other two capitals are weighed in. While focusing on the sphere of consumption, our contribution of social capital comes from the comparison of the different theoretical approaches of Pierre Bourdieu and Robert Putnam.  

Famiglietti (
@afamiglietti) – “In Fork We Trust: Why Technologically Empowered Individuals Can’t Guarantee Media Diversity”

In his 2006 magnum opus, Wealth of Networks, Yochai Benkler theorizes that access to the distributed means of information production will allow individuals to participate in a radical new method of producing knowledge and culture. Benkler argues that this new method of information production, which he dubs “”peer production,”” will lead to greater social good. Most of the benefits Benkler imagines as arising from peer production, from greater research into pharmaceuticals for diseases afflicting the poor (Benkler, 2006, p. 310) to increased “”individual autonomy””(Benkler, 2006, p. 133) flow from his belief that peer production will liberate individuals to produce diverse information based on diverse desires and motivations. Benkler uses Wikipedia, and specifically Wikipedia’s article on the Barbie doll, as an example establishing peer production’s ability to create information reflective of diverse points of view.

This essay returns to this article, some six years after Benkler did his research, and investigates how diverse the information on Barbie available to Wikipedia readers really is. I find that many of the criticisms of the doll’s roll in consumerism and patriarchy have been removed, softened, or re-framed. I argue that this suggests that peer production theory’s understanding that the power of individuals use technological means to “fork,” or split from, projects provides protection for marginalized viewpoints is likely flawed. Instead, it seems that more overtly political negotiations are required if we desire a truly diverse information environment. ”


Martin Irvine – “Mediology, Network Theory, and the Web: De-Blackboxing the Shiny New Boxes” [Note: Due to an unforeseen scheduling conflict, Martin Irvine will not be able to attend the conference]

The question of agency and techno-determinism continue as two macro-level topics invoked and elided in popular discourse about the Web.  The idea of the Web and 2.0 functions remain trapped in black-box mystifications and outmoded causal agency tropes (“Facebook has caused x, y z…”).  Popular discourse about the Web and all Internet-deliverable media, now almost a complete proxy language for marketing and consumerism, seems especially well-defended against complexity issues. Each advance in both the back-end complex functionality of apps and the front-end quality of user experience (e.g., the new iPad) also re-installs the technology transparency paradox: successful technologies become invisible as technology by rendering material operations opaque to users.  Likewise, Web technology ecosystems exist to increase efficiencies of scale and scope, further obscuring the interdependent institutions, technologies, and global political economies which are the preconditions for their power and success. For questioning the material conditions and complexity of the Web today, two inclusive systems models have not yet been fully considered in most communications and media theory fields:  mediology, developed by Regis Debray and colleagues in France and Germany, and Actor-Network Theory, developed by Bruno Latour, John Law and others within the sociology of science.

This presentation will outline a synthesis of productive points of convergence in Mediology and Network Theory for a critique of technology transparency issues, lingering techno-determinism, and agency assumptions in discourse about the Web and recent apps. This critique has important consequences for thinking about major issues like technology policy, agency in social media, industry concentration, user communities, and many other dimensions for the future of the Web.