TEXT: STALDER: THE FUTURE OF DIGITAL COMMUNITIES, by Tatiana Bazzichelli / Translation: Camilla Serri

Edited by Lora McPhail for NMF

This text is republished in collaboration with Digicult.it. It was released on March 2006, and has been edited for republication.

It was almost 10 years ago, when in 1994 Pierre Levy wrote “the collective intelligence”. Maybe it was a too positive vision of what was going to be the digital, but that book developed a lot of scenery, from the idea of a virtual community to a cyberspace made of related minds.

These were the days of the first theories on online communities, that years later saw lot of people using computers and modem to connect to BBS, the first idea of horizontal network. Many things change — from BBS to mailing lists, and then the first weblog. Nettime, Rhizome, Syndicate, Faces, Spectre follow the history of net culture, and also nowadays they are very important for people who want to stay tune on the development of the international media art. But research is still going on.

New standards for social networking are now popular, as they seem to be the new mania for a lot of web surfers. From the most commercial like Friendster and Myspace, that create a community of friends of friends, compiling a form and entering into the game with a home and a contact list, to laboratories like FOAF, Friend of a friend project, which main idea is searching new standards to the online customization of each communities.

Foaf-a-matic is an easy JavaScript that allow the user to create a description of himself and his community in Foaf, using XML and RDF. Information such as name, e-mail, also name and e-mail of friends, allow spider, that analyze online descriptions, to connect communities, bringing interesting development to creations of digital communities.

To analyze the present of digital communities and new development of social networking, we met Felix Stalder, moderator of Nettime, international mailing list about net culture. Felix Stalder lives between Zurich, where he is a member of the Department of new media in he Academy of Art and Design, Vienna, where he is an independent researcher and Toronto, where in the 2000 create together with Jesse Hirsch the project Open Flows Networks Ltd. (http://openflows.org), focused on open source as a social principle, a topic that is another interesting avenue of research into the world of digital communities.

Tatiana Bazzichelli (TB): You have been co-moderating the Nettime mailing list for the last couple of years. Do you think that things have changed in digital communities since the 1990s? What do you feel are the conditions of collaborative networking today?

Felix Stalder (FS): I think the entire concept of “digital community” as something that is distinct from other forms of community has lost of much its currency. Just as the concept of cyberspace as a space that is distinct from physical space has lost much of its connotation.

It has been replaced by a much more mixed understanding of community, where informational and physical contacts co-exist and require each other. I think there are a lot of smaller projects and personal friendships that have grown out of Nettime as a community, but they are a bit more selective, or private in nature.

As a whole, I don’t think Nettime is much of a community. It’s more of a commons, a resource that is jointly maintained. This concept is, perhaps, more limited by the density of the social interactions. But, I doubt that you can create a community solely by email. In the early years of Nettime the community character was defined by a relatively cliquish social basis, where people knew each other from festivals, and other meeting places: The list was very homogeneous. While there was a lot of talk about diversity, its practice was much more exclusive than it is now.

Now with 3500 people on the list, this is no longer the case, and the idea of holding another Nettime meeting has not been proposed in a long time. After all, how much do you have in common with a group of people who, like you, spends an hour or two reading, and occasionally, writing for Nettime?

This is not a pessimistic characterization, but in 10 years we all learned what email can do and what it cannot do. The general conditions of collaboration, on the other hand, have seemed to improve. There has been a tremendous collective, (and perhaps better), connective learning curve on how to use new technologies for collaborative purposes, such as Open Content Licenses, which are conducive to normalized collaboration. But, from my particular point of view, it seems like the aim of such collaborations are a bit more focused on practical issues, and the “community” part is residual. Or, rather, it is generally understood that much more is needed to form a community than the act of collaboration.

TB: It seems that in the last few years people on the mailing lists are more interested in posting ready-made works or announcing their initiatives rather than engaging in deep discussions. Do you think the interest has declined and fewer people want to assume social responsibility?

FS: In the case of Nettime, we decided to spin-off the announcements into their own list, (nettime-ann), in order to prevent them from dominating the discursive space — It seems to have worked quite well. Nettime still functions as a place where people write significant original content. But, I don’t think it’s bad when people post work that has been produced elsewhere, in addition to the original content, because what they do is introduce that content into the commons where it is maintained in the heads and on the hard disks of the subscribers, as well as in a couple of online archives. It only becomes problematic when the list starts to feel like a dumping ground, but that’s a question of moderation and preventing people from posting their half-baked term papers. But, for Nettime, this has not been a problem.

More generally, I don’t think interest or social responsibility has declined. In the mid 1990s there where very few forums where people could talk intelligently about “networked cultures.” Now, every university has its own new media department. There was a very brief moment of convergence when a lot of people had no place in the existing intellectual institutions and they began to build their own contexts. Now, we are witnessing a kind of re-specialization, where some people have been swallowed up by institutions, while others are active in more specialized, practical contexts, such Indy media.

Nettime is one of the few places that has survived as a purely discursive space that is neither production-oriented nor institutionally anchored. That is, as far as I can see, very unusual.

TB: What role do communities and weblogs play in the emergence of the “digital commons?” More specifically, what role do digital communities play in encouraging the use of free technologies and software, i.e. Linux OS and other programs developed in its spirit?

FS: I think that commons-based information feels necessarily social, in the sense that its clearly developed by peers, (rather than an anonymous corporation), and that, in most cases, one is dependent on some of these people to fully use it. It feels very different, although not always better, to read discussion lists when you are trying to get your machine working than it is to read a manual.

Even if you do not interact yourself, you are still relying on the interaction of other people in very transparent ways. This makes it clear that the development of this resource, be it software or text, like Wikipedia, is a communal effort. For this effort to work it needs a certain social and technical infrastructure, just like commercial production needs the firm as its organizational base.

In other words, “communities” are the social basis for open source production in software and beyond. Though, I presume that it varies from participant to participant how this sense of “communal” feels. For example, there are Linux user-groups that meet locally in person. Some people like it, because being a Linux user is an important part of their identity. Others hate it, because they realize that having common technical interests is not enough for them to associate in a more general way. I think the fact that people, individually, can determine very precisely how much community they want from a commons-centered group is an important aspect why so many people can, indeed, collaborate. For some, it’s just a one-hour/week thing they do: For others, it’s the center of their life.

TB: Do you think social networks can make it easier to manage – and enjoy – digital communities? Do they manifest some new potential or do you think they are just a new way of invading people’s privacy?

FS: Personally, I don’t like services such as Friendster because they have a tendency to consider relationships only as “social capital,” which I find very limiting. With an eye to marketing, it’s quite obvious why commercial providers (Google, Yahoo!, etc) have a strong interest in these applications. It’s a dream come true — marketing segments that identify themselves. When you can combine that data with the data from a blogging community, it’s even better. These services also tend to create gated communities, since the protocols and databases are not open. So, you cannot link from one service to another. This already indicates that they are not really interested in supporting social networks, but in hoarding personal data. This does not apply to FOAF, which really is only a meta-data specification. It’s not an application. Rather, it tries to establish a new standard for annotation and syndication.

That said, I think the ability to visualize relationships in virtual communities can be very interesting, in as much as it helps the community to become more aware of its own structure, dynamics and blind spots. So, the critical question is less, “Do we have privacy or not?” Instead they are, “What are the conditions under which we become known to others?,” “Who defines the categories that I can choose from to represent myself?,” “Who defines the rules according to which we can engage with one another?” For example, in 2003 Friendster kicked out a number of people who were not interested in ‘serious networking’ but rather engaged in role-playing [See: http://archive.salon.com/tech/feature/2003/08/14/fakesters/ ].

Generally, I think tools that can help to create context around online social interaction are interesting and positive. But, to implement them in a way that can deal with the richness of such context is very difficult. The same, though, could be said of dating sites, and they are hugely popular.

TB: Speaking about Telestreet Italian Communities, last year you wrote about some activists in Zurich who adapt and extend the Telestreet model through a local TV and digital video archive. Could you tell us something about this phenomenon in Switzerland?

FS: I wouldn’t call it a phenomenon in Switzerland, but in Zurich there is a group of people who are deeply influenced by the Italian Telestreet experiments as a way to connect their political, social and artistic interests. They have done some very interesting work, such as connecting micro-broadcasting to p2p file sharing. But, in the absence of larger social movements, their work is mainly prototyping and artistic experimentation, an area in which I think they do very interesting stuff.

Article Links:

Edd Dumbill “XML Watch: Finding friends with XML and RDF” in IBM.com:
http://www-106.ibm.com/developerworks/xml/library/x-foaf.html

Ben Hammersley “Click to the clique” in Guardian Unlimited Network:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/online/story/0,3605,870848,00.html

Liz Turner, “ Mapping distributed communities using SVG”, personal website:
http://liz.xtdnet.nl/MappingDistributedCommunities.html

felix.openflows.org

www.foaf-project.org

www.friendster.com

www.myspace.com

www.ecademy.com

www.linkedin.com

www.ryze.com