Antonio Casilli‘s Les Liaisons Numériques: Vers Une Nouvelle Sociabilité? is an rigorous yet original exploration of the many ways in which information and communication technologies change the way we interact. I do hope the book gets translated in English in a near future as it is quite relevant to the current debates on the political impact (or lack thereof) of social networking platforms.
At the same time, the book does not really deal with larger, macrosociological questions that have been at the heart of current discussions, such as the role of social media in social movements and revolutions, the issue of privacy (if there is still such a thing) and control (from governments or corporations).
In the book, Casilli tackles three major topics:
- The issue of space in cyberspace, in contrast to physical space and the relationships between the two;
- The issue of the body, virtual or physical, and the relationships between the two;
- And the strength and weaknesses of digital ties (in the tradition of Granovetter’s strength of weak ties).
In all three sections (space, body and ties), Casilli engages in quite a bit of debunking, arguing against both cyber-utopians and cyber-prophets of doom. He does so by marshaling personal stories and studies, engaging with the current research, explorations of a variety of social networking platforms to give us a sense of the variety of “digital liaisons” and interactions, as they mix aspects of “something old, something new”.
The bottom line is that social networking platforms change the way we interact and have given birth to new forms of sociability that take into account off-line aspects of our identity but also allow us to construct a hybrid online multi-faceted self. Physical spaces, physical bodies and off-line ties do not disappear, contrary to what the cyber-pessimists keep telling us, but they continue to exist both alongside cyberspaces, virtual bodies and online ties, interacting with them in a variety of fashions.
In this sense, digital interactions should lead us to reevaluate the sociological trope of individualization, as individualization-within-social-contexts provided by digital environments, as well as the concept of community. For instance, in virtual communities, interactions involve quite a bit of gift / counter-gift mechanisms (the reference to Mauss is appropriate here) which may take the form of links or retweets and other tokens of mutual recognition. In addition, virtual communities correlate involvement in the community and desire for public recognition. And finally, community members need to have the sense that their contributions make a difference rather quickly, which serves as a motivator for further participation and people collect social rewards that are proportionate to the time and energy they devote to the community.. As Casilli notes, this is somewhat different from off-line communities where social recognition takes time to build and where rewards are much more uncertain.
The emergence and growth of virtual community then should put to rest the notion that communities need physical spaces to exist and thrive and face-to-face settings are no longer the exclusive (and authentic) mode of interaction. At the same time, virtual interactions do not replace physical ones, they enrich them, but they have their own norms. This leads Casilli to invoke the concept of double habitat.
The reexamination of spaces with the virtual cities and e-governments also leads to changes in our conception of public spaces (in Habermas’s sense) and political participation. Which is all well and great but does contribute to the digital divide, with stratification modes based on presence or absence on networks, information-rich versus information-poor and where distribution and allocation of assistance, support and resources take place through networks. In such a world, those with fast Internet access enjoy social privileges as opposed to the social exclusion of those left off-line.
This also raises the questions of the possibilities of political contestation when there is no actual space to contest (hence, I think, the social uses of hacking). So, for Casilli, one must not be naive in thinking that the “everything virtual” is the easy solution to all sorts of social integration issues or that the Internet is the great democratization tool where everyone is equal. At the same time, the rise of virtual communities may very well be a sign of closure of physical spaces of sociability.
The rise of virtual communities has been accompanied with a redrawing of the line between public and private spaces. In debates about privacy, the big issues had to do with how much outside intrusion into one’s private sphere. But with online communities, the issues is that of how much one should make public private information. Actors have limited control over the former, but can strategize on the latter, with all the corresponding risks. After all, at this point, most community users know that whatever bits of information they put online can never be private again in a context of ubiquitous and continuous surveillance, something that Casilli calls participative surveillance.
When it comes to the body, Casilli goes after the common assertion that the Internet is full of fat people, living in their mom’s basements, socially awkward, and reconstructing a fake, ideal body in virtual environments. But, as Casilli demonstrates, contrary to that assertion, the Internet is full of bodily traces, photos, videos, real-life looking avatars and other signals of one’s real physical appearance. Most social networking platforms have, as their first step in participation, the building up of a profile, using a variety of media. And there is no doubt that Goffman would have a field day studying all the ways in which we present our selves in these environments.
In this context, it is amazing that an important meme still is that of the disappearance of the body. And while that actors “work” on their body as online project through a variety of media, it is mostly not in order to deceive but rather to harmonize their avatars with the social community they are a part of. In this context, I highly recommend the section on pro-ana virtual communities as illustration of the social construction of the body and computer-assisted socialization.
In the last section of the book, Casilli proposes his own version of the strength of weak ties, as applied to virtual communities and digital interactions. At this point, of course, it feels like shooting fish in a barrel to go after the Putnam thesis. Again, reality is more nuanced and more complex than that. The first thing that Casilli notes is that virtual interactions supplement existing social relationships (bonding capital). But there are also new forms of sociability that people engage in based on affinity, opportunities and need for social recognition.
In social networking platforms, weak ties correlate with high sociability. Heck, I heard about Casilli first on Twitter where I started following him (he showed up on Twitter’s recommendation of people I should follow because I followed other people), based on a tweet linking to his blog post on Avatars. Once his book got published, he also used Twitter to publicize it, so, the next time I went to France to visit my family, I got myself a copy in a brick-and-mortar bookstore… See? No separation between virtual and physical, between strong and weak ties, between bonding and bridging.
The weak ties between members of virtual communities and social networks fill structural holes and give members access to resources that they would not have access to, if they were limited to bonding capital and to off-line preexisting relationships. And once structural holes are filled, information circulates more easily.
On a larger, and more political, scale, this is what Wikipedia does: not so much revealing secrets but making information circulate, and, at the same time, exposing the fact that traditional media operate more like the little boxes of bonding relationships (and in the little box, you have political and media elites). In this sense, online “friends” (as in “Facebook friends”) are conduits of information more than they are friends (in the traditional sense). I have to say that I use my Twitter timeline, in part, as a source of information (along with my newsreader) and no longer television.
It may feel, at times, that the book is a bit all over the place. It is. And I think it is deliberate. The entire book is not so much a study as an exploration of the diversity of ties and of the various forms that sociability takes in the context of Web 2.0. It is rich in examples and case studies, along with the more traditional social-scientific research. It is also highly readable and the numerous “stories” make it quite entertaining. As I mentioned above, I do hope it gets translated in English soon.
Highly recommended (for French-reading audiences, that is).