On Method: Research and Internet Culture

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In The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, Sherry Turkle (1985)

argues that in an “ethnography of a science of mind,” the essential question is

“how ideas developed in the world of ‘high science’ are ‘appropriated’ by the

culture at large.” Turkle rightly states that such investigation “calls for a genre

of field research with some special qualities” (p. 317). Though I have not

borrowed from the clinical interview style, I maintain that an understanding of

the interrelation between thoughts and feelings and computer-mediated interaction

requires a special field approach. In The Anthropology of Online

Communities, S. Wilson & L. Peterson (2002) review dominant research

questions that have influenced the study of the Internet. Quoting Hakken’s

insightful statement that the incorporation of popular rhetoric on technology in

scholarly Internet research has created “multiple, diffuse, disconnected discourses

which mirror the hype of popular cyberspace talk” (as cited in Wilson

& Peterson, 2002), Wilson & Peterson go on to suggest that research be

brought back from:

cyberspace and virtual reality into geographical, social spaces, to

address a variety of issues such as the ways in which new participants

are socialized into online practices, how gendered and

radicalized identities are negotiated, reproduced, and indexed in

online interactions; and how Internet and computing practices are

becoming normalized or institutionalized in a variety of contexts

(Wilson & Peterson, 2002).

Wilson & Peterson (2002) also call for a simultaneous interest in online and

offline interactions “to address important issues of the social role of technology,

the relationship between language and technology, and questions of access to

technologies in traditionally marginalized communities.”

In his study of cyberspace community organizing, Stoecker (2002) concludes

that the Internet contributes to the construction of both weak and, at times,

strong ties. Stoecker praises the Internet and computer-mediated interaction

for their important contribution to the emergence and development of an

internationally organized opposition to global capitalism going as far as to state

that it is “difficult to say whether this international level of community organizing

could have occurred without the Internet” and that “[at] the very least, it would

have been a lot much more expensive and time-consuming for activists to find,

develop, and coordinate mobilizable networks” (p. 153).

Referring to the Islamic portal “IslamOnline,” J. Anderson (2001), for example,

shows how this site services Muslims across the globe and plays the role of the

traditional “Shaykh” by providing formal and informal counsel on religious and

mundane issues, especially for Muslim women in Diaspora. Anderson makes

the point that:

the medium [cyberspace] affords a continuum not only of formats

from counseling to religious ruling but also a continuum of

interaction from silent and self-directed seeker to actively engaging

the shaykh. Moreover, they are accessible internationally,

effectively creating a new public that itself combines traditional

elements with modern technology (2001).

In a more focused study, V. Mamadouh (2001) analyzes the role of computermediated

interaction in the design and construction of a Dutch Moroccan

identity. Mamadouh refers to Websites as “agenda setters and gatekeepers”

because they mediate the construction of identities on the basis of selected

content they propose to target publics. More generally, Mamadouh concludes

that for young Dutch Moroccans, “the Internet may also provide ways to

escape the closed group of peers at school and in the streets and widen their

horizons while constructing a self-defined identity and deciding to which

group(s) they want to relate (most)” (p. 262).

It seems that irrespective of approach or methodological design, most Internet

research is now keen on transcending the dividing line between virtual and

social reality, on one hand, and computer-mediated interaction and other forms

of communication and networking, on the other. The online/offline dichotomy

or the elevation of a form of interaction over others displaces the dynamic site

where identities are negotiated and overlooks the important role of agency.

Computer-mediated interaction is likely to extend to mobile phone and, at

times, to face-to-face communication. It is now quite common in Moroccan

cybercafés to see Internet users chatting on the phone at the same time as in a

private chat box. What must be underlined is that online performances are not

only simulated rehearsals in a disembodied virtual world but, for regular Net

communicants, they have become an integrated part of everyday experiences.

In the words of Mitra & Schwartz (2001), a “metaphoric shift” is needed “to

understand the role of the Internet in everyday life and move away from the

naturalized understanding that the Internet is a tool for entering cyberspace

only. It is indeed a tool for living both in cyberspace and real life and thus the

understanding of the Internet lies in the realm of cybernetic space.”

To accelerate this metaphoric shift, Mitra and Schwartz propose the term

“cybernetic” as the space in-between cyber space and real life. They point out

that most Internet research has focused either on the discursive or behavioral

aspects of Internet use and has consequently failed to conceptualize the space

where the discursive and behavioral merge. To overcome this conceptual

limitation, Mitra and Schwartz propose the notion of “cybernetic space” to

allow for “the simultaneous understanding of both the real and the cyber as one

conceptual whole and the Internet can be analyzed from both perspectives.” In

addition, they argue that:

The emphasis on the cybernetic space [...] makes it important to

see how people behave when they are faced with the discourse of

Internet as they are able to re-negotiate their identities in cybernetic

space. The behavioral in the real can become influenced by

the discourse encountered in the cyber and it is the sum of the

behaviors and the discourses that need to be studied together when

looking at cybernetic space. This recognition could lead to a new

set of research agendas and goals as we examine the Internet and

the many technologies that are being built to make it easier for

people to access the discourses and then live in cybernetic space

(Mitra & Schwartz, 2001).

The metaphor of cybernetic space allows observation of the zone of interplay

between the real and the virtual. However, even if diasporic people create their

own virtual communities and construct autonomous identities, the elements of

“location, nationality, and movement” may remain as important in the invented

virtual world as they are in real life. In chat rooms, a user’s identity is first

established by announcing his/her sex, age, and location (gender, class, and

geographical location). Information on sex, age, and location (ASL) is often

decisive in triggering the interest of other chat users or starting individual

relationships. Likewise, chat users may prefer certain virtual locations to others

and, in fact, tend to become regulars of selected chat sites. Such behavior may

be motivated by the desire to “home” the virtual location and turn it into one’s

private cybernetic space. However, the emergence of diasporic virtual communities

or cybernetic relationships is largely mediated by the user’s identity

“in” and “out” of the cyberworld. While cybercafé owners agree that the most

popular chat sites are “www.caramail.com,” “www.amitié.fr” or

“www.abcoeur.com,” most of my female informants state that they are also

regulars at “www.arabia.com” because it is the congregation site for Arabs

from different geographic locations. According to my informants, Moroccan

female chat users prefer cybernetic correspondence with fellow Muslims from

Europe or North America because, in case the virtual correspondence develops

into a more “serious” relationship, it would be ethically viable and socially

more acceptable for them to wed a Muslim. This is why most of them prefer not

to commit to a correspondence when the user’s identity does not correspond

to the profile they seek.

From a conceptual perspective, the idea of cybernetic space validates the

notion of virtual community by tying it to reality. Also, emphasis on the interplay

between “real life” and “cyber identities” corresponds to the dialectical

interaction between what Victor Turner (1982) calls “social drama” and

“liminality.” Turner defines social drama as an “experiential matrix” which

consists of “[b]reach, crisis and reintegrative or divisive outcomes” (p. 78). The

cultural life-world of social drama rests upon a dialectical process, which

engages the serious and the playful, structure and liminality, and order and

randomness. This dialectical process finds its articulation in liminal spheres

where moral, artistic, analytical, and ritual orders of culture are simultaneously

in ploy and in question. This “betwixt and between” phase, Turner asserts, is

“humankind’s thorny problem [...] [and at] the same time [...] our native way

of manifesting ourselves to ourselves and, of declaring where power and

meaning lie and how they are distributed” (Turner, 1982, p. 78).5 Liminal

spaces and interactions can mediate conditions for community formation by

channeling subversive and oppositional perceptions that act as a backtalk to

dominant worldviews. Thus, cybernetic space becomes, along Geertz’s (1973)

definition of culture, a site where individuals create a web of symbolic social and

power relations to rehearse their identities and subject positions.

In conducting the present study, I share with J. Abdelnour Nocera (2002) the

epistemological foundations he lists for cyber research. I start from the premise

that:

A person living in virtual settlements is [...] conceived as a

responsible creating agent with a history of its own. As in real life,

signification in cybercommunities is a collective achievement, and

each one of the members inside that collective recreates, reproduces

and changes it (Fernandez, 1994). This vision of the knowing

process turns inquiry not into a simple discovery or a critical

method of analysis, but into a complicituous partner within the

meaningful systems in which we live, whether virtual or real.

Cyber research, as any other sociocultural inquiry, is part of the

reality-producing enterprise (Anderson, 1992; Caputo, 1992).

In addition, as a general rule, concepts are constructed ideas/ideals and as

such, they are residues of commitments and expectations but also of apprehension

and skepticism. The reliance on “concepts” to define forms of social

organization and ways of life is an arduous endeavor that needs clarification.

The construction of an ideal is in itself an act with manifold implications since

it bears directly on the relationship between theory and praxis. Societies and

cultures have historically drawn on home-designed and imported constructed

ideals for self-identification and for bestowing “meanings” on the systems that

regulate relations among group members. Myth, magic, art, religion, science,

and technology are examples of constructed ideals that have organized the

lifeworlds and systems of human societies from the most isolated and nomadic

tribes to the post-modern virtual and cybernetic communities.

This perspective informs my reflections on the organizing interaction principles

between real life and cybernetic spatial relations. However, I have been

interested in cybernetic space only in so far as it relates to the politics of the

public sphere and cultural politics. Similarly, I define the importance of

cybernetic culture in terms of its contribution to the ongoing reconstruction

processes of power relations in contemporary Morocco. I approach computer-

mediated interaction, in general, and the Internet in particular, as media

of emancipation. My perspective on the cybernetic world is committed to the

view that the Internet has “produced new public spheres and spaces of

information, debate, and participation that contain the potential to invigorate

democracy and to increase the dissemination of critical and progressive ideas”

(Kellner, 1998, as cited in Dahlberg, 2001). However, even concerning the

frequently cited case of Internet use by the Zapatista activists in Mexico,

theorists have warned against romanticized interpretations of Internet communication.

6 As Wilson and Peterson have noted, case studies which research

online communities in the context of geographical group formation “illustrate

how offline social roles and existing cultural identities are played out, and

sometimes exaggerated, in online communication” (Wilson & Peterson, 2002).

I also take note of their statement that “research in multilingual, multisided

Internet experiences would contribute to debates in the literature which seeks

to position studies of mediated communication and technology in local social

and communicative practices” (Wilson & Peterson, 2002).

This research seeks to extend the exploration of computer-mediated interaction

and appropriation of new media and communication technologies to non-

Western social and cultural environments. Theoretical designs gain in strength

and richness when they travel to new and diverse test-grounds. In traveling

theory, as Clifford has noted, “the organic, naturalising bias of culture – seen

as a rooted body that grows, lives, dies, etc. – is questioned. Constructed and

disrupted historicities, sites of displacement, interference, and interaction come

more sharply into view” (as cited in Belghazi, 1995, p. 166). Furthermore, an

interpretation of cultural and communication studies in terms of traveling theory

is of “particular interest in the Moroccan context” since, as Belghazi (1995, p.

166) argues:

(…) there has always been a powerful trend among Moroccan

intellectuals to conceptualize scholarship as a site of travel and to

perceive uprootedness as inextricably linked to dissent. Thus,

when schools were founded in the fourteenth century during the

reign of the Merinid dynasty, one of the most outstanding scholars

of the time, Cheikh Abili, objected to them on the ground that they

tied scholars to particular places and made them dependent on the

authorities which paid them (Al Wancharissi, 1981: 479).

There is a lesson for cultural workers to take from this fourteenth-century

thinker. If scholars back then resisted placement and containment within

circumscribed borderlands, it would be untenable on our part to insist on

dwelling a narrow world of cultural and media theory in the age of the World

Wide Web. Furthermore, the notion of virtual hrig is itself anathema to borders

or frontiers. Hrig is primarily about transgression and the implosion of borders.

It is about navigation, displacement, and estrangement. At the same time as it

implodes borders, it also sets off an interaction process between social space

and virtual habitat, local geographies and global networks and begins the

conversation on identity, subjectivity, and power relations.

As a cultural worker, I have been receptive to both popular and scholarly

conversations on cybercafé culture and computer-mediated interaction. While

qualitative research findings make the spine of this research, I have also been

attentive to all the “noises” accompanying the expansion of new media and

communication technologies. I have observed how, in a cybercafé near a

mosque in Rabat, at the call for the prayer, Net communicants exit the “profane”

World Wide Web and cross over to the sacred realm of the mosque. The

smoothness of the transition gives insight into the trans-border zone into which

identities emerge. I have traced the beginning of a popular construction of

cybercafé culture and computer-mediated interaction in print and visual media

and grapevine stories. In parallel, I have borrowed from the general guidelines

of ethnographic research. I have done observation in cybercafés, conducted

unstructured and in-depth interviews with Internet users, and organized focus

and debate group meetings on issues involving technology and cultural implications

of computer-mediated interaction. In total, I have met with 220 young

people aged between 18 and 25 years. Females constitute about 65% of the

sample public I have interviewed. The choice of this age and gender category

of Internet users is premised on the personal observation that young women

represent a dominant segment of cybercafé clienteles. This decision is also

based on the assumption that women’s online and cybercafé experience may

provide a better insight into the interplay between computer-mediated interaction

and identity construction.

Finally, though I have visited cybercafés in middle and lower middle class

neighborhoods in Rabat, Casablanca, and El-Jadida, three Northwestern

Moroccan cities, issues of class or status have not been taken as criteria for the

selection of the sample. Also, my primary interest has been the study of

emergent cybernetic culture which online interaction is generating. Rather than

online discourse or performance, my interest is in the textual tapestry that

accompanies the expansion of chat and Internet culture. Though I do not claim

that this research allows for extrapolations on the effects of computer-mediated

interaction on the dominant culture in contemporary Morocco, it nonetheless

indicates some of the strategies available to the youth to reconstruct power and

social relations. In the next section, I proceed with a description of online

interaction and cybercafé culture in Morocco.