Friday, April 18, 2008

Flame Proof

I've been thinking some about the dynamics of the electronic mailing list as it applies to extended families. In the era of digital communication, often announcements of family news are made via e-mail sent to multiple addressees who may -- in turn -- share their reactions and responses to these revelations among kin who are sharing the same channel. In the book that will be coming out next year, I write a lot about government e-mail and the ways that it travels -- or fails to travel -- between institutional stakeholders and how both bosses and underlings may engage in angry, seemingly inappropriate "flaming."

In the case of family e-mails that are posted in a collective forum, the rules about decorum that govern electronic interactions in professional environments are even less likely to hold. What Dubrovsky calls the "equalization phenomenon" of e-mail certainly further undermines conventional hierarchical structures in family dynamics, where otherwise silenced members can have the time to compose carefully orchestrated statements about rights and responsibilities. On the other hand, the e-mail list can also make manifest many kinds of inclusion and exclusion that elaborate the normal forms of "talking behind someones back" into well-developed mythologies. E-mail also rewards those who write good memos and are good at concise lawyerly rebuttals, which privileges interpersonal interactions that aren't always nurturing or inclined to include others in the narrative.

I've been a lurker during a series of heated exchanges involving cousins for the past week, reading messages that seem to have every possible kind of conflict imaginable (gender, generational, religious, class, etc.) and all kinds of rule-making and rule-breaking activities (wedding invitations, building dedications, customs of hospitality, religious conventions, travel planning, budgeting/home economics, and even institutional commitment and criminal sentencing as part of the back story). It's contentious and yet remarkably rich discourse that shows complicated people engaged in what Bill Readings has called "dissensus." The messages range from the agonistic to the dialectically critically reflective, but they are full of struggles being worked out in sentences and paragraphs.

At the same time I have a close colleague with whom I drive to work. She has started using an online social networking site to keep in touch with her adult children who are dispersed on other coasts and even continents. They hope to get closer by trading photographs and video clips to shorten the geographical distance between them. She describes the experience as "nice" and associates it with practices of sharing.

So here's my thesis: As geographically dispersed extended families choose to maintain kinship ties electronically through new social networking sites, where they just post pictures and status updates, rather than through older genres of computer-mediated communication such as e-mail lists where there are real possibilities for deliberation, something is lost in these sanitized corporate environments. Although there may be less conflict and angst at the level of individual discursive exchanges between family members, as Ian Bogost has argued in the case of campus relationships defined by Facebook, the pre-sets of the software constrain the kinds of sociality that can be expressed.

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