Communication created and shared through the Internet has proliferated since the mid-1990s, with more people adapting to the web’s creative spaces through easy-to-use technology. Indeed, much popular communication today is likely also to be classified as computer-mediated communication. The Internet not only provides access to web spaces where people view or listen to digital video, photographs, music, and stories, but also allows people to produce and disseminate their creative materials to mass audiences. In this respect, the Internet serves as a literal “circuit of culture,” a theory explaining human identity, production, consumption, regulation, and representation of the cultural objects of everyday life.
In the mid-1990s when Internet access became more widely available, a cultural divide existed between those who understood Internet protocols and creative conventions, and those who were learning. As these so-called “newbies” flooded existing virtual communities, clashes occurred, prompting calls for patience and “netiquette” as more people participated in new online environments. The culture made possible by interactive technologies – sometimes called cyberculture or technoculture – at first appeared rigid and rule-bound, but new computer protocols soon leveled distinctions between long-time and newer users. At the same time, the global nature of Internet communication became more prominent, with more opportunities for cultural exchange of ideas and artifacts within a decentralized communication system. Whether it is for discussion of international human rights or for participation in multi-user virtual worlds using alternate identities, people find variety, affinity, and personal satisfaction on the world wide web.
The most common popular communication software for the Internet includes instant messaging, Internet chat, and electronic mail messages. In the mid-1990s, with new technology, email attachments containing computer-generated images began to be exchanged among private individuals, with some attachments achieving incredible popularity. One such phenomenon, the animated “Dancing Baby” or “Baby Cha-Cha” in 1996, provides an example of the Internet’s circuit of culture. It was first produced as a computeranimation demonstration, sent as an email file to friends by its creator, and then disseminated throughout cyberspace by email and on websites. Other people mixed music or additional images with the file, and eventually the dancing baby appeared in early 1998 as a hallucination on Ally McBeal, a popular US television show.
Networking web pages – weblogs, message boards, and social websites such as Facebook.com or MySpace.com – allow users to share opinions within a community of interest while also displaying personal content. Weblogs, or “blogs,” appear as a kind of reverse chronology public journal featuring entries that may be created by one or more participants. Blog sites such as Blogger.com and LiveJournal.com provide webpage templates to make postings easy for users. Social networking sites such as Facebook.com, started in 2004 by a Harvard University student, also provide templates for users, who create personal websites listed on a directory and are thereby linked to networks of real-world friends, academic peers, and ultimately new online acquaintances.
Personal and collaborative websites – where users are encouraged to upload their own digital art, music, photography, video, and written text through peer-to-peer file sharing – serve a variety of interests including mass media, religion, politics, education, and celebrity fandom. In terms of electronic text, news media, and information technology websites served as some of the first spaces, or portals, allowing users to post letters to the editor or messages within topical online forums. Online literary efforts include hypertextual novels, websites that allow children to write more about their favorite characters from the Harry Potter series, and fan-written television scripts. Joke Hermes (2005) believes this synthesis of mass media and the computer screen “aids a more fluid sense of who we are,” and that individuals are working to build identity in these activities. In this sense, computer users oscillate between identities as consumers and as producers, a cycle in which fans’ values are sold back to them (Hills 2002).
Celebrity sites, some operated by companies and others by dedicated fans, have become repositories of thousands of photographs submitted by fans and photographers worldwide or copied from other websites. Since replication and dissemination of these digital images are easy, copyright laws and privacy issues are often ignored. Producers of all digital creative products, whether photos, animation, video, or music, face similar challenges.
Peer-to-peer file sharing has produced the most acrimonious debate among musicians, corporate music producers, and fans. Sites such as Napster, which allows music fans to download audio files, often illegally, were forced for a time to cease operations. Yet these sites’ existence forced musicians and music companies quickly to respond to fans’ demand by providing the means for legal file sharing. Borrowing from the culture of rap and hip-hop music, fans also remix or “mash” tracks of existing popular music to produce their own music creations, sometimes adding video to these original mixes. Again, with fans leading the way, musicians and corporate producers expanded their products, releasing extra remixes of songs and other digital ingredients to meet this demand.
Cheaper and easier digital video capabilities have encouraged amateurs and professionals to post documentaries, films, promotional footage, and snippets of everyday life on sites such as YouTube.com. This video-sharing site, started in 2005 with the tagline “Broadcast Yourself,” capitalizes on the culture of web cameras, voyeurism, reality television, tiny handheld video cameras, and ever-present camera phones.
When video, music, and more static art forms exist on websites, their essence is made similar, because genres blur and all are “subsumed to the universal medium of the bit” (Andrejevic 2004). At Rhizome.org, an electronic media arts site, artists have been uploading their own digital artworks since 1996. These artists have now been joined by digital musicians, videographers, and photographers who no longer have to wait to be discovered by corporate interests, but can try to build their own fan base via the Internet.
Copyright and control of intellectual property continue to be debated as file-sharing networks on the Internet continue to mutate and proliferate. A political parody produced at JibJab.com about the 2004 US presidential election sparked legal action by another company claiming to own copyright to “This Land is Your Land,” a folk song used in the animated parody. While JibJab.com prepared its defense of the parody, millions of Internet users viewed the animation, and television shows broadcast the cartoon. Ultimately, the song was deemed to be in the public domain. Later, however, JibJab.com sued a private blog which had used a few seconds of the parody in a music video mix, forcing the blog’s author to remove the link to the digitized media product.
Other challenges involve balancing free speech rights with hate speech laws, when electronic messages, web postings, and digital art or music include potentially obscene, libelous, or threatening material.