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Karaganis, J. (ed.), Structures of Participation in Digital Culture. Social Science Research Council. (2008)

November 5, 2010

Structures of Participation in Digital Culture was interesting to read for the most part and I enjoyed the various arguments pertaining to digital culture put forth by authors from so many diverse backgrounds.

Below is a short summary of chapters 4 and 8, followed by comments/questions for class discussion:

Chapter 4: Other networks: media urbanism and the culture of copy in South Asia, by Ravi Sundaram

Sundaram uses the Indian capital of Delhi to examine his assertion that “new visibilities, networks within networks, and conflicts over intellectual property have changed the old world planner city.”  Sundaram emphasizes the following key points:

  1. Commodity culture has taken over Delhi, due in large part to significant urban density, mass migration, and economic expansion.
  2. Delhi can literally be divided into zones based on the production and consumption of commodities:
    1. Old walled city area: outdated and caught in a time-warp but still the center of commodity exchange
    2. The new municipal area: inhabited by “colonial capital” and the political elite.
    3. The southern part of the city: the most affluent part “where networks of corporate globalization are stronger” than elsewhere in the city.
  3. Media networks have been transformed and the gray market has facilitated the sale of pirated versions of popular cultural products (CDs, cassettes, gadgets, etc.)
  4. Urban planning is on the decline in Delhi, and from this declining landscape new media markets have emerged that exist in the gray areas between legal and illegal.

    a typical Delhi grey market

  5. Pirate electronic networks have led to two cultures: informational bleeding and “just in time” media.
  6. The urban experience in the Indian capital is now heavily contingent upon the media market which in turn is complicated by IPR and the “copy culture”.

Chapter 8: None of this is real: identity and participation in Friendster, by danah boyd

Written in typical danah boyd style, this article shed some very valuable light on the ways in which social networking websites (in particular, Friendster) is being mobilized by the youth. boyd explores the ways in which Friendster has evolved since its launch in 2002 and the manner in which its users (mostly, early adopters) negotiate social boundaries. boyd emphasizes the following key points:

  1. Social networking sites (SNS) are being used in order to maintain existing personal relationships much more than initiating relationships with people.
  2. Friendster essentially “flattened” networks by collapsing a range of relationships into the category of “Friends” in order to allow more visibility for social relationships.
  3. Online networks lead people to “recalibrate” their social structures to “accommodate the conditions and possibilities of online networks.”
  4. People belonging to two “subcultures” (I prefer the term co-culture, though): gay men and Burners were among the earliest and most active users of Friendster.
  5. Participatory performance is of particular relevance vis-à-vis Friendster. Users were performing their identities on SNS by customizing profiles, much like Watkins’s description of MySpace in The Young and the Digital (2009). These identity performances allowed users to “make meaning and build context”, both of which evolved over time.
  6. Friendster was among the first SNS to afford community formation in an online space and participants affiliated to different co-cultures started building online collective identities.
  7. Impression management (management of multiple personas of the same user) is especially significant on SNS because they problematize social boundaries between people as much as much as they facilitate new connections and relational maintenance.
  8. Although Friendster allows for an emphatic articulation of who “you” are, it only gives users this ability through “predefined mechanisms for expression.” In so being, a lot of users find Friendster formulaic.
  9. There is a marked sense of dilemma in users’ performance of identity on Friendster. While the performance of social relationships doesn’t substitute the relationships themselves, social distinctions are being rendered increasingly defunct by Friendster.

10.  Although Friendster let users gain control over their own identities, this control came at the expense of a “larger consensus about the norms and purposes of the system.”

Overall comments

What I took away from both these chapters is that digital media are making relationships more visible (via SNS, for example) and commodities more readily accessible (via the gray market, for example). However, both these phenomena are to be understood within the larger context of communicative ecology as explained by Horst and Miller (2006). Thus, what are people using Friendster for, and why? What are people going to the gray markets in Delhi for, and why? Clearly, cultural change is being facilitated in both these cases thanks to digital technology, but as Kim says, digital technology by itself does not do anything; instead, it is deployed toward specific objectives. My takeaway from these chapters is that the way digital technology is being used the world over is dislocating culture (the known way of life) and relocating it within newer structures of participation with new codes of conduct and new ‘norms’. Therefore, although concepts such as agency, expression, and networks are central to the idea of digital culture as we have come to understand it in these past 12 weeks, it also entails a redefinition of the self in a world where the mediascape is in a state of continuous flux and fragmentation. And, in the years to come, I believe the issues of power, control, and representation, and surveillance will become increasingly salient to the ways in which we understand digital culture.


  1. boyd suggests that “individual sociability will never operate on a global scale” although millions of people are now connected through SNS because these enormous networks are ultimately based on one-on-one relationships and small communities. What do you think?
  2. As per boyd, Friendster demonstrates that there is an inverse relationship between the size of one’s social network and the quality of one’s relationships with the “friends” within one’s network. In your experience, do you find this to be true?

Note: I had a lot of difficulty in understanding most of Sundaram’s exposition mostly due to the way he presents his arguments. So while I cannot comment on his arguments, I do believe that there’s a lot of value in the assertions that boyd makes vis-à-vis new media, social networking, and interpersonal relationships. However, I am biased because I am an admirer of boyd’s work and follow her blog rather regularly. By the way, if you’re interested, here’s the link to her website and here’s the link to her blog. She’s just SO cool! 🙂

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