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Cyberculture is most commonly used to refer to forms of cultural expression and activity that take place in cyberspace, i.e. on the Internet, the world wide web, or other forms of digital environment. While some commentators limit the remit of the term to emerging ”subcultures” and marginal cultural activities online, amongst academics and commentators cyberculture is usually read more widely, and used to describe many forms of human-digital interaction, digital-mediated communication, virtual worlds, and so on. As an academic topic, therefore, cyberculture combines insights from cross-disciplinary studies of how people and digital technologies live together. Hence, the -culture suffix refers to culture as ways of life, rather than narrower understandings of cultural activities as analogous to the arts. In this fully expanded sense, cyberculture represents a field of study centred on social and cultural understandings of the interrelationships between humans and digital technologies.
The development of cyberculture studies has, since the early 1990s, passed through a number of inter related phases, and at the same time witnessed diversification and proliferation. Scholars with backgrounds in computing, anthropology, psychology, media studies, architecture, philosophy, neuroscience, sociology, geography, lingustics and cultural studies – among many others – have developed research agendas exploring the still-emerging realms of cyberculture. For example, early academic studies investigated how online forms of communicating and socializing were rescripting key sociolocultural concepts as identity and community. Studies of early experiments in cyberculture, such as multi-user domains (MUDs) or email bulletin boards sought to understand the relationship between ”real” and ”virtual” identities and communities, and to use conceptual tools such as poststructuralist understandings of identity to theorize new cultural formations in cyberspace. Predictions about future developments in both cybertechnologies and uses of those technologies contributed to a mushrooming of academic and journalistic work – for example the vast amounts of commentary on virtual reality, much of it speculating from early and somewhat limited experiments in creating interactive and immersive virtual worlds.
Later studies have kept pace empirically and conceptually with changing technologies and advances in theory, such that cyberculture studies now considers much more than human-computer interaction. As digital technologies have migrated into ever more aspects of everyday life, from computer-generated imagery in films to portable and mobile devices, so the focus of enquiry and the theoretical resources have co-evolved with the technologies and their uses. Insights from science and technology studies (STS), for example, have provided frameworks to understand cyberculture as a process whereby humans and digital technologies exist in cohabitation – a theoretical position challenging the ”commonsense” notion of technological determinism, which suggests that technologies have a determining impact on shaping users’ behavior. Instead, STS-based studies emphasize a two-way process, or ”co-configuration” of technologies and users. Another major development has been the related field of new media studies, where the various forms of digital media content, and processes of media production and consumption, are explored. Again, given the rapid diversification of media content and devices, this field is continually moving, and drawing on a wide array of theories and methods.
Methodological innovation has, in fact, been a signature of cyberculture studies. A growing interest in in-depth ethnographic enquiry, in particular, has produced landmark studies but also provoked debate about the redefining of this technique in a digital age. As a way of exploring the cultures of cyberculture, virtual ethnography has arguably achieved a dominant position in the academic’s toolkit. At the same time, novel and experimental forms of research practice have developed.
- Bell, D. (2007) Cyberculture Theorists: Manual Castells and Donna Haraway. London, Routledge.
- Bell, D. & Kennedy, B. M. (eds.) (2007) The Cyber-cultures Reader, 2nd edn. London, Routledge.
- Marshall, P. D. (2004) New Media Cultures. London, Arnold.