Reviewed by Nancy K. Baym
Writings about cyberspace tend too often toward utopia or dystopia, oversimplifying and overgeneralizing in the process. In contrast, Gurak's book offers a refreshingly balanced analysis of how cyberspace offers both new possibilities and threats. Through close empirical analysis of two specific online protests -- against Lotus MarketPlace and the Clipper Chip -- Gurak argues convincingly that cyberspace enables unprecedented opportunities for information distribution and community formation, thereby enhancing the power of citizens. However, she also shows how cyberspace promotes insularity and misinformation, squelching dissent and inhibiting its potential. Though both protests focused on privacy, the lessons they offer have implications for anyone concerned with public discourse.
Gurak's analyses are wonderfully detailed and clear, and will be accessible to readers from a wide variety of backgrounds. She displays an unusual sophistication about the conduct of online research, offering an important lesson for other scholars. Ultimately she argues that online communities are persuasive bodies whose nature arises from a combination of human agency and complex societal forces rather than being determined by the computer medium. Instead of worrying about whether online community will replace offline community, she suggests that the real concern should be the insularity and extreme specialization that online forums encourage. Our challenge is to understand which voices do not enter the debate, why they don't, and how the internet's potential to foster broader, more inclusive discussions can be enhanced. One could quibble with some of her points -- the anger she sees in the Lotus MarketPlace protest letters is more apparent to her than the reader, her comments on the "extreme" gender differences in online interaction styles are overstated, and she never addresses the issue of why these two very different kinds of ethos would appeal to the same community of privacy advocates -- but these concerns are minor compared to the overall strength of the work. Gurak's book is one of the best so far on cyberspace, both for its content and its demonstration that our understanding of the internet will come not from polemic, but from close analyses of real instances of online interaction.
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