Canadian Journal of Communication Vol 38 (2013) 585–609
©2013 Canadian Journal of Communication Corporation


Classifying the Internet: Everyday Negotiations of Technology and Social Order

Delia Dumitrica

University of Calgary

Delia Dumitrica is Instructor in the Department of Communication and Culture at the University of Calgary. Email: dddumitr@ucalgary.ca .


ABSTRACT  Inspired by the work of Michel Foucault, this article explores the classificatory pairs used by 28 Internet users in four urban centres across Canada to describe their daily use of the Internet. The pairs—work/personal, reader/contributor, information/communication, and freedom/control—offer a snapshot of the everyday struggles over the subject positions and the social order that those wider discursive constructions of the Internet present to us. The struggles speak to respondents’ diffuse, yet ongoing, concerns with the increased commodification of Internet spaces. The article argues that there is a need to open up spaces for the critical consideration of our own roles, as Internet users, in the economy of the Internet.

KEYWORDS  Internet; Everyday life; Discourse; Systems of classification; Social order; The economy of the Internet

RÉSUMÉ  S’inspirant de l’œuvre de Michel Foucault, cet article explore les classifications binaires utilisées par vingt-huit internautes dans quatre centres urbains d’une part à l’autre du Canada pour décrire leur emploi de l’internet au jour le jour. Ces classifications (travail/personnel, lecteur/contributeur, information/communication et liberté/contrôle), qu’on peut qualifier de constructions discursives, donnent un aperçu des luttes quotidiennes sur la position du sujet et sur l’ordre social menées par les internautes. Ces luttes reflètent les préoccupations diffuses mais soutenues des répondants à l’égard de la marchandisation croissante d’espaces internet. Cet article soutient qu’il existe un besoin de dégager des espaces pour la prise en compte critique de nos propres rôles en tant qu’internautes dans l’économie de l’internet.

MOTS CLÉS  Internet; Vie quotidienne; Discours; Systèmes de classification; Ordre social; Économie de l’internet


Introduction

If a lot of the Canadian scholarship on the Internet has focused on the policy drivers of the introduction of information and communication technologies (ICTs) (e.g., Alexander, 2001; Barney, 2004, 2005; Buchwald, 2000; d’Haenens & Proulx, 2000; Young, 2003), there is considerably less work on the integration and the meaning that such technologies have acquired in the everyday lives of people (notable exceptions are Bakardjieva & Smith, 2001; Shade, Porter, & Sanchez, 2005). In becoming part and parcel of our daily material reality and worldviews, ICTs have to be thought of in terms of “the structuring character that technology has in our society” (Martín-Barbero, 2011, p. 326). In other words, ICTs are not merely tools people use to accomplish their daily tasks, but also social mechanisms through which individuals become inserted into the social arena. This view requires us to enlarge our definition of ICTs beyond merely their hardware or software aspects to include the processes through which these technologies are (materially) produced at the confluence of political, economic, and cultural dynamics, as well as (discursively) constructed in terms of the social functions they are supposed to fulfill.

Such an approach is, of course, not new: theoretical and empirical work inspired by the politics of technology (Winner, 1985) and the mutual shaping of technology and society (Grint & Woolgar, 1997) have been widely discussed in the field of science and technology studies (STS). However, with the few notable exceptions mentioned above, there is almost no work on the everyday discursive construction of the Internet in Canada. This article seeks to contribute to this problematic, by bringing to light the tensions and struggles emerging from respondents’ discursive integration of ICTs into their mundane routines. It is argued here that these stories should be understood as part and parcel of what Patrice Flichy (2007) refers to as “cyber-imaginaire” —the collective discursive constructions of the Internet proposed by the industry, media pundits, and technical communities.

Discursive constructions of the Internet constitute an important dimension of “building the identity of a social group or a society, and providing resources that can be reinvested directly in the preparation and implementation of projects” (Flichy, 2007, p. 208). They also attempt to mobilize the different stakeholders—users included—around a specific agenda. In this process, users are also inscribed within a vision of social order; this inscription, however, is not to be understood deterministically: individuals negotiate their own positions and make decisions by reproducing, modifying, or contesting these visions. In other words, the discursive constructions of ICTs are neither homogeneous, nor unproblematic. They are understood here as a site of struggle over meaning and, by implication, over social order. This is particularly salient since the contemporary “cyber-imaginaire” (re)confirms ICTs as desirable, unavoidable, and universal solutions to profound social issues, such as democratic decision-making, poverty, inequality, and managing uncertainty (Flichy, 2007, but also Mosco, 2004). On the other hand, the “cyber-imaginaire” also inspires future designs and informs their subsequent implementation: “The imaginaire is at the center of design and use of the internet” (Flichy, 2007, p. 208). Questioning how these technologies are imagined in the context of our mundane Internet use—and reflecting upon the tensions permeating them—helps us bring to light the images, values, and tensions over the “legitimate” social order. For the ways in which ICTs are integrated into our daily lives cannot be divorced from the processes through which wider social values, meanings, roles, and functions are constructed (Haddon, 1994; 2004).

From this theoretical vantage point, this article proposes an empirical, qualitative study of the everyday understanding of the Internet in the lives of 28 Internet users in Canada, which has some of the highest broadband penetration rates (fourteenth place) (Broadband Commission, 2012), as well as some of the highest Internet use rates (nineteenth place) in the world (Internet World Stats, 2012). Furthermore, in 1994, the government made the “information highway”—the Canadian policy metaphor for the Internet and the information society—a policy priority, setting in motion a government/industry partnership that has overseen the development of the internet delivery infrastructure and has controlled Internet access across the country (see for example, Abramson & Raboy, 1999; Barney, 2004,  2005; Young, 2003). The usage figures and the ongoing policy/industry interest in ICTs paint the picture of a society in which citizens (albeit certainly not all of them) both embrace the Internet and are enticed to do so through various public discourses (e.g., policy, media pundits, technology experts, academics, etc.). Importantly, the vast majority of these public discourses, originating primarily in policy and industry spheres, position citizens primarily as consumers of ICTs and as skilled labour for the sector (e.g., Fraser, 2007; Young, 2003).

This article reverses the focus from public discourses to the everyday stories of Internet use and the classificatory systems employed by respondents. Although the small sample used here is not representative of the entire Canadian population, these stories are still informative in terms of the unproblematic use of, and the tensions surrounding, these discursive classifications. These stories, I argue, offer a snapshot of some of the everyday struggles over the “structuring character” (Martín-Barbero, 2011, p. 326) of technology. My theoretical framework borrows from the thought of Michel Foucault (e.g., Foucault, 2002), arguing that through classification, we engage in a process of “ordering,” and thus making meaningful, the world around us: “[W]e sort dirty dishes from clean, white laundry from colorfast, important email from junk” (Bowker & Star, 1999, p. 2). Yet the systems of classification are not merely subjective cognitive mechanisms of understanding the world around us: “[A]ll classifications that stick exist only within practices and institutions” (Hacking, 2004, p. 285). In other words, the use of classifications cannot be divorced from the wider institutional discourses opening up specific subject positions within the power arrangements sustaining social order. For this reason, after discussing the classifications used by the respondents in this study, the article speculates on their significance in terms of their relation to wider, institutional discourses. I argue that the classifications used by respondents to make sense of the Internet are indicative of an ongoing struggle between a utopian view of technology as enabling the protection of freedom, choice, and equality, and a growing concern with the corporatization of the Internet. Workplace routines and duties appear to drive the further integration of ICTs into everyday life, with important consequences in terms of how one’s previous socio-economic position drives but also constrains the possible benefits to be derived from the further integration of technology into one’s life. Overall, these classifications recommend a consumerist approach to the Internet, where the use of these new information and communication technologies becomes a symbol of integration into the social order. However, as the tension over these classifications indicates, the discursive battle over framing the role and function of the Internet in our lives is not over yet.

Understanding technology in everyday life

For Fabio Josgrilberg (2011), “technological, political, and economic choices … exist in continuous tension with the everyday life practices, which, in turn, serve to consistently reinvent the technologies that are deployed by IT and telecom industries and by governments at all levels” (pp. 295-296). In itself, the tension between institutional structures and the lifeworld has deep theoretical roots, including symbolic interactionism, phenomenological approaches, the critical perspective advocated by Henri Lefebvre, and the Habermasian system/lifeworld model (Highmore, 2002). Yet the recognition of “everyday life” as a site of research has been strenuous: the “everyday” has been described as a realm of the obvious, a “residue” left behind once all specialized activities have been removed, or a “meta-field” enveloping all social activities (Highmore, 2002; Sandywell, 2004; Seigworth & Gardiner, 2004). To a certain extent, the tendency to downplay everyday activities transpires in the interviews conducted here. On the one hand, what the participants had to say about the Internet was neither new nor surprising. People do rely on the Internet in their daily practices and develop their own routines around the use of ICTs. On the other hand, the participants also felt that their private Internet use was “banal” and, to a certain extent, of little consequence on a wider social scale.

Yet, it is precisely the tension between the structural level and everyday life that makes the latter a crucial site of understanding the nature of social order. If we approach the “everyday” as the site where individuals have to work with pre-existing structures and discourses, then micro-interactions—as well as our assessment of them—become significant. Glimpsing how the interviewees make sense of the Internet outside formal settings, such as the classroom or the workplace, provides a basis for assessing the distance between the constraints and orders pressed upon us by formal settings (such as the governmental framing of ICTs mentioned above) and our own use of, and take on, them.

A rich scholarship, drawing from a variety of theoretical perspectives, has focused on the status and meaning of technology in everyday life (e.g., Bakardjieva, 2005; Ihde, 1990; Orlikowski, 2000; Oudshoorn & Pinch, 2003; Silverstone & Hirsch, 1994). Of relevance here is the line of research interested in questions of power, since it focuses on the ways in which people are simultaneously enrolled into particular techno-social arrangements and agents pushing for technological change (e.g., Bakardjieva, 2005; Bakardjieva & Smith, 2001; Green, 2001; Silverstone & Hirsch, 1994). The integration of ICTs in everyday life has also been studied as an act of consumption. Consumption has been seen as an ambiguous practice, speaking both to processes of identity construction and to the wider politico-economic dynamics within which such identity projects become possible. Eileen Green (2001) encapsulates this ambiguity when arguing that technologies “may be marketed as ‘leisure goods’, but for an object or a technology to be accepted, it has to be found a space and assume a function; in short, it needs to mesh with the everyday” (p. 175).

The interviews in this article are approached as sites where the tension between normative discursive constructions of the Internet and micro-appropriations of it can be analyzed. Michel de Certeau (1984) has argued that everyday life is the site where people employ different “strategies” and “tactics” to find their own space within the macrosocial structure. This model prompts a re-conceptualization of technology use as a site of negotiation between the meanings proposed/inscribed within technology and the individual’s context, needs, and goals. Technology use needs to be reconsidered as precisely the act that needs to be further observed and understood (e.g., Røpke, 2001; Selwyn, Gorard, & Furlong, 2003; Wellman & Haythornthwaite, 2002). ICTs become the new mechanisms through which the individual and the household are integrated into the social structure; at the same time, ICT use also injects wider social spaces into the household (Silverstone & Hirsch, 1994). ICTs thus become “social and symbolic, as well as material objects, and as crucially embedded in the structure and dynamics of contemporary consumer culture” (p. 4).

The integration of ICTs into the household has also been researched as an act of “domestication” (Berker, Hartmann, Punie, & Ward, 2006; Haddon, 2004). Focusing on the detailed practices through which people integrate ICTs into their homes brings to light the ambiguity of technology: its meaning, roles, and functions are far from being universal; rather, in the process of domestication, people engage in a constant re-configuration of both the technological artefacts and their meanings (Berker et al., 2006; Oudshoorn & Pinch, 2003). Unfortunately, the focus on what “users” do with technology often loses sight of the fact that domestic spaces remain spaces of consumption, intrinsically linked to capitalist processes of commodification and ideological reproduction. Interestingly, the emphasis on “users” corresponds to the emergence of a popular discourse on the alleged centrality of regular people—referred to as “users,” “consumers,” “creators,” or “producers”—in the realm of ICTs. In their book on “digital natives” (the generation that grew up with the Internet), Palfrey and Gasser (2008) construct an image of the Internet as the enabler of individual creativity. While this creativity might not necessarily be politically significant, the authors argue that it has been “normalized” as an everyday task. As Internet users, we are all “creating” new content with every Facebook status update, every email, and every comment we leave. The rise of new labels such as “Web 2.0,” “participatory media cultures,” or “social software” has only added to the popular feeling that ICTs are changing social arrangements, undermining traditional channels of power and creating a more egalitarian society (Flew & Smith, 2011). The interviews discussed here echo the emphasis on “empowerment”; yet, as I argued next, this discourse is also challenged by a constant return to the image of the “user” as a mere “consumer” of online content.

For Berg (1998), such trends are linked to the emergence of a new business model within the field of ICTs. This model advocates the incorporation of the “consumer” into the design stage. Although the business sector may see this form of “user participation” “as a means to achieve more democratic technologies” (p. 479), scholars such as Tiziana Terranova (2000) and Lisa Nakamura (2002) have challenged the optimism around “social production”1 by exposing it as racialized, gendered, and permeated by class divisions. Such challenges recuperate the ideological effects of popular discourses on ICTs, emphasizing the economic inequalities (re)produced by ICTs and questioning the networks of power relations legitimized by such discourses. Importantly, such approaches remind us that the ubiquity of ICTs cannot be divorced from the “triumph of capitalism” that has permeated all aspects of social life, including the household and everyday life (Garnham, 2000; Webster, 2000). Although the users interviewed here did not explicitly deconstruct the capitalist undertones of this “producer” discourse, they nevertheless engaged with it in a number of ways, pointing to the increased unease with the various forms of control experienced throughout their mundane use of the Internet.

Method

Given its focus on mapping everyday conceptualizations of the Internet, the project relied on 28 in-depth, semi-structured interviews undertaken in 2008 in four urban centres across Canada (Calgary, Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver).2 Qualitative interviews are generally used when an in-depth understanding of respondents’ views within their local contexts is required (Holstein & Gubrium, 1999; Kuzel, 1999; Qu & Dumay, 2011). Such interviews “enable interviewees to provide responses in their own terms and in the way that they think and use language. [They] prove to be especially valuable if the researchers are to understand the way the interviewees perceive the social world under scrutiny” (Qu & Dumay, 2011, p. 246). As such, qualitative interviews have to be understood as local contexts within which the participants “assemble” meaning (Holstein & Gubrium, 1999). The interviews examined here were seen as interactional situations within which the Internet was made sense of by invoking, using, and negotiating familiar taxonomies. The project used a convenience sample, formed primarily through availability and self-selection, following an email recruitment process using various departmental lists in several higher-education institutions in the four cities indicated above. In line with qualitative approaches, the sample was small, as the goal was not to generalize to large populations, but rather to provide “thick descriptions” of meaning-making processes in these local contexts (e.g., Qu & Dumay, 2011).

Interviewees ranged between 20 and 40 years old, were all living in urban settings, holding or working toward the completion of higher-education degrees (see Table 1). Two respondents had already finished their studies: one was a higher-education faculty member and another was a radio editor. I kept these two within the sample primarily for two reasons: first, their accounts of Internet use were in-depth and informative for the purposes of this research. Second, other respondents were studying at the time of the interviewing and working part or even full time, which meant that the sample included accounts from both students and employees. The self-selected participants responded to the call because of their professional interest in ICTs—they were using or developing ICT-related products (software) as part of their academic and professional lives, but they also shared an enthusiastic view of the possibilities opened up by the Internet (a film ticket was provided as a reward, but several participants turned it down). This familiarity with and enthusiasm for the Internet ensured that respondents engaged in complex meaning-making processes about the role of the Internet in their lives. Within this sample, the occurrence of repetitive themes and ideas was taken as a token of reaching a level of saturation (i.e., no new ideas were proposed) sufficient to enable the researcher to proceed with the analysis.

 

Table 1: The interview sample

Table 1: The interview sample 

The theoretical interest in classifications as mechanisms of insertion into (as well as negotiation of) social order drove the structure of the interviews, in the sense that respondents were asked to talk about their Internet use, as well as what the Internet represented for them.3 The researcher was subsequently interested in identifying how these classificatory systems were used to make sense of Internet use practices. All interviewees were asked these questions, but the researcher also made use of probing questions, asking respondents to further elaborate their answers or provide specific examples.4 Each interview lasted about one hour.5 The interviews were subsequently transcribed, and respondents were assigned a pseudonym. The transcripts were subjected to a qualitative thematic analysis driven by the researcher’s interest in capturing the classificatory systems through which the Internet was discussed. Braun and Clarke (2006) define thematic analysis as a method used for “identifying, analyzing and reporting patterns (themes) within data” (p. 79). The analysis was done by hand and involved several focused readings of the transcripts. It is important to note that the type of analysis performed here does not dwell on the frequency of use for these classifications. Rather, in line with a Foucauldian approach, the focus is on bringing these classificatory systems to light, exposing them within their discursive contexts, and questioning the type of work they do (i.e., what type of social order they invoke, what subject positions they open up, etc.).

In the first stage of analysis, transcripts were read, summarized, and organized by question. The data was organized around the three main questions analyzed here: 1) How do you use the Internet? 2) What does the Internet mean to you? and 3) What values do you associate with the Internet? Answers to a fourth question, soliciting opinions on the regulation of the Internet, were also included when available (this question was asked as a follow-up to a general discussion about Canadian content on the Internet). This organization of data allowed the researcher to identify the main themes brought up by respondents. Braun and Clarke (2006) argue that identifying themes is an important decision researchers must make in qualitative thematic analysis; a theme was not considered here in terms of its prevalence across the sample, but rather in terms of the types of actions and values respondents brought up. The second stage of analysis consisted of a focused reading of the transcripts directed by the themes previously identified; in this stage, the themes were further examined by the researcher in terms of the classifications used by respondents to explain their Internet routines. In the third stage, these classifications were further refined and clustered, and the transcripts were read again with this goal in mind. Braun and Clarke (2006) describe this as a “theoretical” (or deductive) thematic analysis, in which the researcher’s interest (in this case, an interest in taxonomies) drives the analysis. By the end of this process, the researcher identified four major conceptual pairs used by participants to describe their Internet use: work/personal, reader/contributor, information/communication, and freedom/control. The next section discusses each of these conceptual pairs.

Classifying Internet use

The stories of Internet use offered by the participants in this project may be seen as simultaneously apprehending and producing the Internet. They speak to the systems of classification through which this group conceptualized—and consequently made sense of the integration of—the Internet in their everyday lives. Such classifications often remain invisible and appear trivial to participants (Bowker & Star, 1999), hence the insistence in this sample on how “uninteresting” and “banal” one’s Internet use is. However, understanding how these categories are used may provide the groundwork for subsequent research interrogating them in terms of their distance from more formal, abstract discourses. Ian Hacking (2004) argues that classificatory systems are not only used to make sense of the world, but also function as mechanisms that draw boundaries around “the space of possible and actual action” (p. 287). He adds that attention to everyday forms of classification is important in providing an understanding “of how the forms of discourse become part of the lives of ordinary people” (p. 278).

In the context of this sample, four conceptual pairs helped respondents articulate their daily Internet use: personal/work, reader/contributor, information/communication, and freedom/control. It is important to emphasize that these pairs remain a co-construction between respondents and the interviewer, who further probed some of the answers, eliciting descriptions, but also occasionally suggesting specific types of online activities, such as using online social networks or email or contributing content in various forms. Holstein and Gubrium (1999) argue that qualitative interviews are interactions driven by the agenda of the researcher, and, as such, the questions and interventions of the researcher “do not tell respondents what to say, but [offer] them pertinent ways of conceptualizing issues and making connections—that is, [suggest] possible horizons of meaning and narrative linkages that coalesce into the emerging responses” (p. 118). In that sense, it is impossible—from an interpretive epistemological position—to argue that these conceptual pairs mirror respondents’ internal cognitive maps; the focus here is on describing how they were used in communicative interactions. These conceptual pairs represent the grids of classification according to which Internet use was discursively arranged, normalized, and legitimized. Yet these classifications cannot be seen as originating from the respondents; in using them, respondents relied on taken-for-granted and collective systems of classification to position themselves as ordinary, yet proficient, technology users.

The work/personal distinction

The role of technology in structuring, standardizing, and re-organizing our everyday lives has been long noted (Highmore, 2002; Kern, 1983; Lefebvre, 2004). Yet this re-organization has always been fraught with tension. For Henri Lefebvre (2004), everyday life was the site where different times intersect: biological time, standardized time (the 24-hour time and the world time zones), work time (working hours/shifts), neighbourhood time (the local cycles of traffic), et cetera. However, most of these different times were, in fact, the result of specific macro–power networks that organized, pressured, and ultimately produced the frame of our everyday existence (Lefebvre, 2004).

The idea of Internet use as a daily routine was explicitly addressed by 11 (out of the 28) participants (henceforth all participants are referred to by a self-chosen pseudonym). These routines were described by the interviewees as re-constituting both their personal and professional lives in a way that often blurred the boundary between these two spheres. For instance, Alyse described her daily Internet routine as follows: “When I wake up, I check my email, check my friends’ blog posts, and then I’ll jump out of the bed and start my day.” Internet use patterns are imagined here as part of the natural flow of everyday activities—waking up, starting the day. However, this also opens up those personal and private aspects of our lives (which we often take as “our” spaces of agency and autonomy, apart from the constraints of the society in which we happen to function) to the influence of other “rhythms” (Lefebvre, 2004), such as work or peer pressure. At the same time, this Internet use also limits the amount of private time available for other activities (Haddon, 2004), which, in turn, may fuel the desire to somehow “digitize” such activities, thus integrating them into the routine of Internet use. Thus, we catch up with our friends by reading their emails and blogs, while simultaneously feeling that without access to the Internet, we would no longer be able to nurture those social connections.

Twenty-six (of the 28) interviewees talked about their Internet use by explicitly classifying these daily routines of Internet use in terms of personal and professional activities. For example, we may perform the same type of tasks at work and in our personal lives. Shannon talked about using the Internet for school and for personal entertainment. In her personal life, Shannon enjoyed reading the secrets people voluntarily disclosed on a popular blog and checking her Facebook profile. At work, she had to browse the Internet to find information on behalf of customers: “[W]hat’s the nearest Laundromat, what restaurant you should go to … what people said about restaurants.” In both instances, her Internet use consisted of looking for “information” (further discussed next). Similarly, Colleen talked about the Internet as a means of retrieving information for both work and personal interests, concluding, “I don’t actually know how I would survive without it.”

The feeling that living one’s life without the Internet is impossible to conceive of can be seen as an indicator that the information-seeking and -sharing patterns associated with the Internet constitute the lens through which our own lives are re-conceptualized as practices of sharing and retrieving information. Through the Internet, work and leisure come to consist of the same practices: browsing and making sense of text, images, sound, or multimedia. TorontoStudent did not even separate his Internet use at work from his personal use, but simply listed the uses: “I use it to conduct the vast majority of my academic research. I use it to arrange social events with friends. I use it to look for work. I use it to stay informed about current events. … I would say it supports my daily existence in a pretty essential way.”

Importantly, our discussion here is not about “work” in general, but about the work performed by a subset of the labour class. Thus, it is relevant that, for my sample, these patterns of use were driven primarily by the routines instilled by specific institutional practices (e.g., the education system, white-collar workplaces). In her work, Sally’s task was to monitor the news, and she relied on the Internet to do that; in her personal life, in a similar way, she searched for anything that qualified as entertainment. Work and personal Internet use informed each other in a seamless way. SuzyS talked about how using the Internet for school taught her how to further use it in her everyday life: “[W]e’re taught to make sure [the information] comes from a peer reviewed [publication].” She explained that these practices are really important, as they allow you to distinguish “fact” from “fiction”: “If I’m looking up a fact, how do I know that that’s true or believable?” Similarly, AveryA talked about how her use of the Internet for school was driven by the institutional setting (schoolwork): “[W]e get tons and tons of emails from school, so you always have to check and make sure you’re … doing this or that.” In one of her summer jobs, AveryA had learned to use a blog aggregator: “So I’ve got on to using that and that’s really fun; I enjoy having a blog aggregator because it’s a little bit of entertainment every day, because otherwise you’re just sitting here and you’re like—It sucks.”

Online communication was also discussed in relation to professional practices. Colleen mentioned she had four different email addresses—one linked to her current school, one linked to her old school, the “garbage” email address (that she used to subscribe to various e-newsletters), and her personal one. However, the personal one “hardly ever gets used as a result because I’m busy on the [school] one.” Her example points to the tension between personal and work-driven communicative practices. Other participants brought up this tension, talking about the communicative demands placed on them by school or work. Participants still made an effort to separate their personal and work-related communication (e.g., keeping different email addresses). At the same time, however, this effort seemed undermined by the blurring of the boundaries between work and personal Internet use. As Yvette summarized, “[E]mail is the main form of communication both for … my business life as a student as well as my personal life.”

Two respondents directly challenged this blurring of the boundaries. Julie, a French Canadian, talked about how she used the Internet “for everything,” adding, “I mean, for my studies, obviously.… And then there’s a whole personal life.” Julie was able to neatly separate her personal and professional Internet uses because she had to navigate between two languages: English for her professional life and French for her personal life. She explained:

What’s difficult for me is thinking about the Internet in generic terms because there are really clear moments in my mind, you know, am I talking about doing research, am I talking about going about my personal life, like these are two very different spaces for me … And when I look at the Internet I’m either in the home, the personal sphere of my life, or the professional sphere of my life, and these are two different Internets for me.

Similarly, Deb drew sharp distinctions between her professional and personal life. She described how she often feels overwhelmed by the number of work-related emails she receives, and she talked about the extension of working hours into her personal life:

I also feel I can’t ever leave my work, because when I leave work at the end of the day. … I’d check my email last thing before I leave the office, and it’s the first thing I do when I go in through the door. As if something earth-shattering is going to happen in the last 15 minutes. … I probably check email at least once an hour through the time I’m at home, on weekends and in the evenings. So I started to feel a little bit trapped by that. I feel that if I’m getting an email, I have to reply, right away. … It started to feel like it’s taking away a bit of my autonomy. Like other people have access to me. … People don’t need to be in touch with me immediately … but I kind of behave like that by email, like people have that access to me.

The fact that both Julie and Deb were working in higher-education settings, having finished or being in the process of finishing their doctoral studies, may be relevant here. In their study of the integration of ICTs into everyday life, Selwyn, Gorard, & Furlong (2003) have argued that “over their lifetime, we have seen examples of how older adults therefore move through different states or levels of technology (non)use depending on their circumstances and context” (p. 24). Deb and Julie relied heavily on ICTs in both their professional and personal lives. At the same time, however, they were concerned about the consequences of this reliance, particularly in terms of its unwanted effects on the thin boundary separating work from personal life. The suggestion made by Selwyn, Gorard, & Furlong (2003) may prompt us to question the extent to which classifications of the Internet change with our circumstances. It may be the case that Deb and Julie’s concerns about the effects of the Internet on the boundary separating work from personal life reflect a transition from one life-context to another.

From reader to contributor

A second means of organizing one’s Internet use was the pair “reader/contributor.”6 While the question of Internet-user agency is arguably more complex than this dichotomy (van Dijck, 2009), the ways in which the pair framed the classification of daily Internet use was indicative of the tension between the image of the Internet as a “user content–created community” (Sheila, Julie) and the reality of a consumption-driven Internet use. Although the Internet, as a general and abstract object of knowledge, may be imagined as permeated by values such as freedom, collective intelligence, and equality, its concrete use by individuals in everyday life remains understood as the domain of the atomized, private consumption of information and communication (e.g., Chu, 2010).

While all respondents emphasized the information that one is able to access—and by extension, consume—online, only a few identified themselves as contributors to this wealth of information. In most cases, such contributions included uploading personal photos, blogging on various matters (from personal life to work-related projects), or commenting in various online environments. Twelve (out of the 28) participants in this project indicated that they have contributed some form of online content. Five of them added that their contributions (consisting of blogs or blog posts) were a thing of the past: Shannon and James felt they had nothing interesting to say and resigned themselves to merely reading what other people blogged about; the others emphasized the lack of time as a barrier to updating their blogs. Yet some of them continued to upload other types of content, primarily personal photographs.

In general, however, such contributions were not deemed “important” by the respondents. “I certainly trade photos,” James recounted. “And photography I do, I generally post it on the Internet. Photos—I generally used Google Picassa. In the previous year, I spent a year travelling so it was kind of half blog, half photo album that I was updating pretty regularly just so people in my family could keep tabs on me and things like that.” It may be the case that these contributions were seen as personal (rather than professional) projects and, as such, as less important. This was also Gene’s case. When asked about being a contributor online, he invoked a concern about privacy to explain why he does not upload content: “I am not big on posting personal information to the Internet, very wary of my privacy. … And that’s why I’m quite reticent to publish too much; there’s only the very basic information that I’ve put up there.” While it is interesting to note how privacy concerns and the idea of contributing content overlap in this case, most of the respondents regarded their contributions to online content as rather small and unimportant projects, uploaded mainly for friends and family. The mere fact that these contributions pertained to one’s personal life rendered them irrelevant or uninteresting. The sphere of personal life remained, for these respondents, conceptually unrelated to the image of the Internet as “collective intelligence” or “user-generated content.”

By contrast, the respondents who had contributed content as part of their professional lives seemed less ambivalent about these postings. Seven respondents mentioned that they have uploaded content (blog posts, websites) as part of their work, primarily research. These respondents were actively involved in the socio-political life of their communities: Ruby, TorontoStudent, Sally, and AveryA wrote for collective (student-run) or personal blogs dealing with educational or political issues; Dyer and John had a research blog and website, respectively; Kathleen had a website for her personal business. Where the other contributors in this group qualified their online contributions through the lens of “personal” life, the contributions related to professional life did not seem to require any further explanation or qualification. Respondents stated them as a matter of fact and moved on with their stories. Although this may only be a consequence of the interview setting (since I did not ask any follow-up questions on this matter), it nevertheless suggests that the personal/work pair remains an important lens through which one’s relationship to the Internet (i.e., content consumption or production) is understood.

Communication and information

With one exception, all respondents talked about the Internet as a means of communication and information. As Ruby summarized it, the Internet represents a “way to communicate quickly with other people.” In an increasingly mobile world, where young, middle-class people get to study abroad or merely in a different province, the ability to keep in touch with one’s friends and family becomes crucial. Furthermore, communication through the Internet allows the sharing of pictures (or even multimedia), adding an extra layer of intimacy to the maintenance of social ties. What makes the Internet so important, however, is not only the desire to preserve the social ties resulting from the increased mobility of this social stratum, but also the changing perception of time. Communication is expected to be both instantaneous and convenient, in the sense of being able to deal with it at one’s own pace.

The view that the Internet allows one to preserve these social ties, with very few time or cost constraints, often inspired passionate accounts of the Internet as a “really powerful communication tool” (Dyer). John, for instance, compared the Internet to the public transit system: should the latter disappear one day, he would be unable to get to places. Similarly, the Internet was his “connection to the world or to things.” Julie echoed this view: she did not care much if the phone was not working, “but if the Internet is off, it’s a crisis.” Of course, should the Internet be down, most of the respondents could easily revert to phones; yet the Internet remains envisaged as the primary means of communication with friends and family. This classification is significant in relation to the increasing integration of mobile telephony services, long-distance plans, and Internet access.

Communication through the Internet remains primarily a connection with friends and family. Bakardjieva and Smith (2001) propose that, in everyday lives, the usefulness of the Internet is a function of personal contexts. In their typology, the Internet becomes useful for individuals who feel isolated in some way (e.g., sickness, shyness), who are dislocated, or who have a globally dispersed family. Only two respondents talked about the Internet as a means of communication with people outside their usual social network. Bakardjieva and Smith (2001) refer to these Internet users as deriving a sense of belonging from a dispersed community of interests. In this study, these respondents looked at the Internet as an opportunity to connect with like-minded people regardless of geographical distances. For example, Alyse enthusiastically talked about the possibility of striking up new conversations: “But primarily I view the Internet as people finding each other and finding conversations and sharing their perspectives from around the world.” She further emphasized the feeling that the Internet creates a space of global communication: “being able to talk, not just to my American friends, but to other Canadians, an Australian who’s now living in Japan, people in England, all having conversations about that political event happening in that country.” Yet this vision of the Internet as an arena of global communication seems dependent on the respondents’ personal context, resulting in a social network spread across great distances and often crossing over national borders. This personal context often elicits a view of the Internet as a global medium; yet the opportunity to be part of this global dynamic is, to a great extent, intrinsically linked to specific factors permeating one’s life, such as the opportunity to travel (for school or work) or the presence of immigrant ties.

The image of the Internet as an effective means of communication was challenged from two different directions. First, two respondents argued that communicating through the Internet may raise privacy concerns; in this case, they referred primarily to communication through social networks like Facebook. Two other respondents questioned the “efficiency” of Internet communication. John associated Internet communication with social isolation and procrastination: “You sit there for no reason and just enjoy being connected to what people are doing, you know, even though it’s not productive. In fact, it’s quite stressful because there’s a lot of idiots [on the Internet].” John offered this account within the context of a larger discussion. In high school, he enjoyed communicating through the Internet, but as he grew up and moved on with his life, he felt there were more opportunities for him to meet new people. He did not need the Internet anymore. Similarly, AveryA added that she already spends too much time online, so communicating with other people through this medium only increased this amount of time.

In conjunction with the perception of the Internet as a tool for communication, respondents also talked about the Internet as a repository of information. Joe characterized it as a “network of information,” while James talked about it through the metaphor of the “university”:

In some ways, the Internet is kind of like an institution, like the university, where you have all these different disciplines that are kind of located in different buildings and if you’re looking for information or you need to contact someone about something, you can just—Instead of knocking on someone’s office door or going to a class—you can just go to the website.

James further explained that in addition to encompassing all this information, the Internet also brought along the possibility of communicating it. In fact, the enthusiasm respondents felt when talking about the Internet was often linked to this perceived novelty of blending together information with the ability to make it available instantly. AveryA and SuzyS explained that without the Internet, they would not be able to find answers to all the questions they have: “I would think of a question [and] I didn’t know the answer and now I can find it immediately” (SuzyS).

In fact, almost all participants talked about the wealth of information they were able to access on the Internet. Most of this “information” consisted of work-related items (e.g., journal articles, conference papers, coding solutions, etc.), news and opinions, and entertainment, as well as practical things such as directions, restaurants, dictionaries, hobbies. On the one hand, respondents felt the Internet contained a “wealth of information”; on the other hand, what was crucial about this wealth was the convenience of access and the perception that any question can be answered instantly. The Internet became imagined as a comprehensive and always changing encyclopedia (Dora), providing instant answers to all questions (Ruby, SuzyS). Importantly, in this case, the Internet was often reduced primarily to Google and Wikipedia, seen as the repositories of this information.

This view, however, did not go unchallenged. Several participants noted that equating Google with information is misleading. These participants were obviously familiar with the practices of academic writing, as they emphasized that Google may be only the starting point of any research process. For reliable and specialized information, they relied on research databases. Other participants challenged the notion of “information.” Emily argued that information on the Internet was just “a bubble with everything in there, and you just sort of have to make it your own. … So you have to make up your own boundaries. … You have to be sure about who’s writing what, and how legit things are. I think it’s up to the individual user to decide that for themselves.” On the other hand, Horatio saw this as precisely the problem with thinking of the Internet as a source of information:

Now, there’s so much information available on the Internet, like it’s possible just to pick out the thing you agree [with] so you never read any opposing viewpoints and I find I’m prone to that. … And now I sort of try to check out like right-wing websites and read them just to see what other people think. … It’s good to get other viewpoints because … if you’re just reinforcing [your own] viewpoints … it can become unhealthy and become more rigid.

These two images—the individual as a responsible agent making his or her own sense of the information found online, and the individual as ideologically biased and seeking self-reinforcement through his or her information consumption patterns—bring up the question of expertise or “information literacy.” On the one hand, respondents talked about themselves as mere consumers of information. On the other hand, even consumers need time and practice to acquire the skills required to evaluate the information they consume. Of course, this raises the question of whether the collective “cyber-imaginaire” entices us to realize the need for this “information literacy” as a legitimate public concern (with ensuing implications in terms of education and funding programs), or whether it tends to hide away this need. Respondents saw the Internet as a source of information and did not feel it is necessary to bring up crucial questions, such as asking what information consists of, who produces this information, for what purposes, and who can access it. The last question in particular is conspicuously absent from this sample; in fact, respondents often emphasized their view of the Internet as a source of global information that everyone can access. As the two examples above indicate, it is not the case that respondents never questioned this view: both Emily and Horatio signalled their unease with a universal notion of “information” that is not properly questioned. Yet, when describing their vision of the Internet as information, most of the participants did not bring up these questions (which, I argue, are crucial for placing the issue of “information literacy” on the public agenda), choosing to focus instead on the wealth, ease, and speed of “information.”

Freedom and control

Eight participants described the Internet in terms of freedom and control. The former was described in relation to the ability to find and share information. SuzyS talked about the Internet as a novel way of becoming informed, concluding: “now I don’t feel stuck in a little box of ignorance.” Colleen and Star also described the Internet as a space of freedom because everyone was potentially able to contribute content. Star argued that while she did not have the skills or the money to create content for broadcasting, she would be able to create online content. Sheila argued that online content was available in a democratic manner because of the efforts of civil-society organizations (such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation) to keep it free of state regulation and corporate monopolization. The Internet, she argued, has to stay free because it is a “user content–created community.”

This democratic aspect of the Internet was seen as under threat by specific forms of control. Commercial attempts to limit access to content and access to the Internet (by charging for them) were described as anti-democratic. These responses juxtaposed the image of the Internet as a democratic space with the image of the Internet as a space shaped by profit-making motives. Ella argued that the Internet was—and should remain—a democratizing force, primarily since it enabled a healthy civil society. In her articulation, the Internet appeared as the epitome of democracy: a place where citizens come together, contribute content, and work with each other around matters of common interest. On the other hand, Ella noted that not everyone had access to the Internet. This introduced lines of division, between those who were able to use the Internet and those who were not. Furthermore, business control over the Internet was seen as further diminishing this democratic potential of the Internet, as the latter would become a space for marketing and profit-making.

Aside from corporate control, Sheila listed other forms of control over the Internet: the police may monitor criminal activities online; workplaces may monitor employees’ Internet use; Internet businesses may police their own content. Deb added yet another layer of control: the control stemming from expectations and values brought on by Internet communication. As mentioned above, Deb felt that the Internet made her expect instant communication as well as around-the-clock availability. This resulted in an increased intrusion of work into private life, prompting Deb to reconsider her Internet use in ways that resisted this intrusion. However, as Ella explained, the struggle between efforts to preserve the democratic potential of the Internet and those to commodify it is still unfolding.

Discussion: Struggles over meaning, subject positions, and mundane classifications

As the Internet becomes entrenched in our lives, the ways in which it is discursively constructed open up new social roles and practices: some of these roles and practices promise that technology will solve crucial problems such as poverty, inequality, or democratic deficits; others constrain individual autonomy, threatening to further commodify our choices, social ties, and home spaces. It is at the level of everyday life that we can observe how these discursive openings and pressures are being felt, negotiated, and ultimately integrated within a coherent narrative. The empirical study of these negotiations is much needed in order to develop a wider basis of discussion for the significance and broader impact of everyday conceptualizations of ICTs in Canada. The results presented here make a modest contribution to this problematic. On the other hand, the question of the significance and wider impact of negotiations to the mundane classifications of the Internet remains of theoretical interest. Crucial here is the relation between everyday talk and macro-discourse (Bowker & Star, 1999; Hacking, 2004). This section engages in a more speculative discussion of the lessons that may be learned by comparing these everyday classifications with the wider policy articulations of ICTs, loosely understood here as consisting of the reports of the Information Highway Advisory Council (IHAC, 1995; 1997) and the federal government’s responses to them (Industry Canada, 1994; 1996), the CRTC competition report (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications, 1995), the digitization report (Federal Task Force on Digitization, 1997), the broadband report (National Broadband Task Force, 2001), and the digital economy consultation paper (Government of Canada, 2011).

In their examination of everyday talk about the Internet, Bakardjieva and Smith (2001) conclude that this technology is often understood as an “alternative” allowing people to transcend certain material or social limitations (e.g., isolation, change of location, globally dispersed families, uncertainty and dissatisfaction with one’s job, sense of belonging to wider interest-based communities). However, if this is an “empowering” aspect of the Internet, it is also under pressure from “the totalizing ‘stabilization’ of the consumption possibilities (e-commerce, WebTV, etc.) foisted [on internet users] by the dominant economic and political rationality” (p. 81). This tension was also present in the sample discussed here. Sometimes, it took the form of a concern with the blurring of the boundary between personal and professional lives. At other times, it was expressed in the juxtaposition of images of the Internet as a space generated by the people, for the people, and images of corporate control of the Internet. Finally, this tension was also present in respondents’ evaluation of their own contributions to this “user-generated” space: the banal and uninteresting details of personal lives were not seen as legitimate online content, yet professional contributions were unproblematically considered as part of the “wealth” of online information. These everyday classifications were simultaneously open to negotiations and resistances, and to closing down the subject positions available to respondents in talking about the Internet.

While a theoretical modelling of this relation is beyond the scope of this article, it is worth mentioning here the ongoing attention that ICTs have received in the context of Canadian policy. Of course, I am not suggesting that these policy discursive constructions are directly influencing my respondents. However, policy discourses constitute normative visions of how the Internet should be developed and for what purposes. Furthermore, such discourses legitimize particular distributions of state resources, being part and parcel of the emergence of institutional structures within which our lives unfold. For example, Shade, Porter, & Sanchez (2005) juxtapose children’s views of the Internet with the Canadian policy concerns over children’s use of the Internet, questioning the extent to which children are encouraged to view themselves as “citizens or … as mere consumers, with their ability to interact with friends and access an array of content” (p. 523). While other discourses (e.g., popular culture, education) may be equally relevant in influencing everyday conceptualizations of the Internet, the amount of attention that ICTs have received in the context of federal policy makes them particularly salient in the context of this discussion.

Since the 1990s, the Canadian federal government has advanced an economic framing of ICTs as drivers of and solutions to a global, highly competitive, and unregulated market, in which Canada’s success depends on its ability to incorporate and advance technological solutions. The first federal consultative committees entrusted with providing directions for Canada’s policy were asked to look at how ICTs can be deployed to foster innovation and increase economic gains. The committees enshrined the free market as the driving force behind Canada’s Internet infrastructure (Barney, 2004, 2005; Rideout, 2002). The government took upon itself the role of nurturing the ripe conditions for fostering innovation and economic growth through ICTs by providing the funding to make the Internet both accessible and necessary in the lives of regular citizens (i.e., funding for infrastructure and content, providing official information in an electronic format). In turn, this has increased the Internet’s profitability for businesses. On their part, citizens were expected to embark upon the “information highway” by becoming the next generation of digital-economy workers, as well as the consumers of products and services produced by this economy.

This economic framing remains visible in the newest policy efforts to re-inscribe ICTs as the growth engine of the Canadian economy. In 2010, the federal government held public consultations designed to assess how Canada can succeed in the “digital economy.” The latter was defined loosely as an accelerated adoption of ICTs across the economy and enhanced protection of intellectual property rights; furthermore, “digital economy” was also described as “help[ing] governments to provide services; and allow[ing] citizens to interact, to transmit and to share information and knowledge” (Government of Canada, 2011).

For Fabio Josbrilberg (2011), such macro-discursive constructions of ICTs in institutional settings are often in friction with everyday life understandings; the relation between them remains messy and largely unpredictable, yet it nevertheless shapes the form that the “information society” will take in the future. To what extent do such policy constructions provide “a kind of structure for everyday life from which to create spaces and reinvent life” (p. 304)? The classifications discussed here seem to indicate that everyday life remains a space where the corporatization of the Internet is both a lived experience and worrisome. The accounts offered by respondents are, by their very nature, complex vacillations between acceptance of and resistance to a social order subsumed to economic reasoning. The classificatory pair “work/personal” in particular speaks to the interplay between this economic reasoning and everyday uses of the Internet. On the one hand, workplace and work drive the integration of ICTs into everyday life, creating a subsequent desire and expectation for the digitization of other aspects of our lives. To put it differently, the more skilled we become at using ICTs in the workplace and the more available these ICTs become for personal use, the easier it is for us to think that digitizing other activities will make our lives more convenient and efficient. On the other hand, several respondents were also wary of the blurring of this boundary between work and personal lives. Naomi Fraser (2007) has argued that Canadian ICT policy can be seen as an attempt to discursively inscribe government, businesses, and citizens into the role of “model users” of ICTs. When considered from this perspective, respondents’ use of the “work/personal” classificatory pair speaks to both the tension and the internalization of this discursive construction of the “model Canadian citizen” as a labouring and consuming body.

However, it should not be forgotten that this specific subject position for the “model citizen”— that of a labouring and consuming body—is not available to everyone. In fact, we need to question what types of workplaces further drive the integration of ICTs into our daily lives, and what (economic) resources are needed for the consumption of these products and services. Respondents in this sample often espoused an enthusiastic view of the Internet as a progressive force, as a space of opportunities. Indeed, they were excited about the endless list of opportunities opened up by ICTs. Yet, they were also in the best position to benefit from these opportunities: they had been equipped, via their education and professional careers, to be part of the exciting “digital economy” (to use the policy formulations). In that sense, enthusiasm for technological affordances cannot be divorced from one’s socio-economic position. The question of the intersection between socio-economic divisions and who is being left behind as a result of the increased integration of the Internet into our daily lives remains in urgent need of further research.

Even though the respondents in this sample were in a position to reap the benefits of the further integration of the Internet into their everyday lives, the subject positions from within which they are able to do so are, to some extent, disempowering. Respondents saw their personal Internet use as personally gratifying, and this made them enthusiastic about the integration of the Internet into their everyday lives. Yet, the Internet was gratifying also because they were in a position to make use of it at work and at home, enhancing their knowledge and use of this technology. Respondents thus valued (formal) knowledge; their social context was mobile and consisted of friends and family spread across geographical distances, and they generally lived in an urban setting in which making use of the Internet was rewarding.7 On the other hand, the classificatory pairs “personal/work” and “producer/consumer” opened up problematic subject positions from within which personal Internet use was devalued in terms of its contribution to the economy of the Internet. For instance, respondents described the Internet as a space of information and knowledge; they often invoked the idea that this space was the result of the collective contribution of Internet users. Yet they rarely considered their personal Internet use as part of this space of information and knowledge; it was mostly in their professional capacities (as students and/or as members of the labour force) that they saw themselves as contributors to this space.

For critical Internet scholar Christian Fuchs (2009), “knowledge is in global network capitalism a strategic economic resource… . Its production is inherently social, cooperative and historical. Knowledge is in many cases produced by individuals in a joint effort” (p. 77). At the same time that within knowledge capitalism, personal creativity and knowledge become central to economic exchanges, these personal contributions become devalued. Such contributions have been acclaimed for their “free” nature (see Fuchs, 2009): examples such as Wikipedia are often brought up in support of the view that personal contribution on the Internet enhances the latter’s (economic) value. Where Tapscott and Williams (2006) praise such examples as the dawn of a new “production system,” critics emphasize the increased co-optation of free labour and the commodification of the “free gift” aspect of Internet use for personal reasons (e.g., Fuchs, 2009; Postigo, 2003; Terranova, 2000). Gane and Beer (2008, p. 98) point out that our online presence is not only an act of consumption (though it often appears to be so), but also a production of a commodified online space that can be re-sold for the profit of particular actors (e.g., by selling Internet access services, or by selling social network users to advertisers) (also Fuchs, 2009).

Only a few of the respondents in this sample identified themselves as contributors. They did not see their routine use of the Internet as contributions to the space of information and knowledge, but rather as “trivial,” since it pertained to the maintenance of social relations or personal hobbies. As a result of this devaluation of personal contributions, respondents tended to see their online presence as a personal choice, rather than as part of an economic exchange process. As Terranova (2000) has argued, knowledge capitalism is permeated by a vision of work as “leisure”: personal contributions are both voluntary and unpaid, “enjoyed and exploited” (p. 33). Yet they increase the overall value of digital spaces, a value that is subsequently pocketed by businesses. The “digital economy” rests upon the commodification of hobbies and leisure, allowing corporate actors to claim a right to derive benefit from a culture that is ultimately “created by the masses, for the masses” (Postigo, 2003, p. 605). The failure to conceptualize the real economic value of one’s presence on the Internet reintegrates us within a social order subsumed to profit-making goals.

Conclusion

The classificatory pairs discussed here should be understood as indicative of an ongoing struggle over the meaning of the Internet. Respondents’ articulations of their daily Internet use represent a struggle over the social roles that the Internet is seen as fulfilling. The discussions in this sample were marked by a tension between an abstract and a practical understanding of the Internet. The “Internet-in-general” was enthusiastically described as a space of personal agency and freedom; these depictions were subsumed in the image of the Internet as a democratic space. Respondents were enthralled by the possibilities of connection, information, and convenience that the Internet appeared to have opened up for them. The Internet not only allowed them to feel cosmopolitan and interact globally; it also seemed to increase their autonomy, understood primarily in terms of access to information. As SuzyS described it, she was now able to find answers to all her questions and, as a result, she no longer felt constrained by the “little box of ignorance.” This view of an “Internet-in-the-abstract,” I argue, expresses the respondents’ dreams of a “better society.” Interestingly, this vision of a “better society” seems to rest on the assumption that individual empowerment is a consequence of improved access to communication and information. Individual Internet use was, however, understood as shaped by work practices, social expectations around technologically mediated interaction, and commercial pressures. It is telling that the image of the Internet as a democratic, user-generated space was contrasted with corporate efforts to control this space. The tension speaks to the ongoing concern about the threat of the corporatization of democracy. This view of “Internet-in-use” expresses a critical and genuine concern regarding the possibility of preserving a free, open, and user-generated community in the face of a prevailing instrumental rationality—or what Bakardjieva and Smith (2001) call the domination of “economic and political rationality” (p. 81).

This tension is significant because it suggests that such economic and political instrumental rationalities do not go unchallenged. Yet, in itself, this challenge should not be seen as necessarily effective in preventing the further corporatization of the Internet. In the Habermasian (1976) model, instrumental rationality is a type of goal-oriented logic; this logic assumes that everything—people, objects, or the Internet, for that matter—is a means of achieving specific goals (for instance, accumulation of profit). Instrumental rationality, characterizing political and economic actors, is countered by the “lifeworld” or the communicative encounters between people functioning according to a different logic: “Socialization processes proceed according to norms or rules of communicative interaction, while production processes are governed by rules of instrumental and strategic action” (Held & Simon, 1976, p. 137). Without going into the details of the Habermasian model, I would like to propose that the classifications discussed here may be seen as indicative of precisely this everyday struggle against the “totalizing” grip of instrumental rationality. At the same time, respondents’ uneasiness with considering themselves producers actively involved in the “user-generated” Internet is problematic: the roles that such articulations open up for people remain confined to the consumption of Internet products and services. Further research is needed to question which social actors become legitimized as rightful providers of information and communication, and for whose benefit information and communication are provided.

Notes

1. “Social production” refers to collaborative content produced by users (Flew & Smith, 2011, 104).

2. The interviews received ethical clearance from the University of Calgary Conjoint Research Ethics Board (file #5356).

3. The interview data discussed in this article constitutes only the first part of the interviews. Participants were also asked their opinions on how national identity may be relevant in relation to the Internet (either in terms of content or in terms of the material infrastructure). The responses to these questions were not included in this analysis, and as such, they are not discussed here. It should be added that the rest of the interviews were also driven by an interest in classification—primarily an interest in how the classification systems associated with nationalism are made sense of by people in everyday meaning-making processes.

4. The questionnaire was not piloted prior to fieldwork, as this is not a mandatory step in qualitative research. Inspired by the arguments developed by grounded theory, qualitative interviewing often looks for information-rich cases and aims to develop theoretical models through a constant comparative analysis of data that takes place concomitantly with the data collection process (with the two mutually informing each other) (Coyne, 1997).

5. The entire interview lasted one hour (see note 3 above). The questions included in this analysis were discussed at the beginning of the interview, lasting 20 to 30 minutes.

6. In some of the interviews, the pair “reader/contributor” was introduced by the researcher, through follow-up questions probing the respondent’s use of the Internet; in such cases, the participants willingly engaged with the pair, indicating familiarity with it. In other cases, however, the pair was naturally introduced by respondents to describe their own Internet use.

7. For instance, not everyone who is geographically mobile is automatically able to rely on ICTs to keep in touch. Benefiting from the “opportunities” of preserving social ties depends on the availability of economic resources, the technological infrastructure in the place where you live, various forms of literacy (language literacy, technical literacy), et cetera.

Interviews

Samantha, personal interview, Calgary, May 23, 2008.

Shannon, personal interview, Vancouver, June 4, 2008.

Sheila, personal interview, Vancouver, June 5, 2008.

Sally, personal interview, Vancouver, June 5, 2008.

SuzyS, personal interview, Vancouver, June 5, 2008.

Ruby, personal interview, Vancouver, June 5, 2008.

Coleen, personal interview, Vancouver, June 6, 2008.

Star, personal interview, Vancouver, June 6, 2008.

Ella, personal interview, Vancouver, June 6, 2008.

Diane, personal interview, Calgary, September 4, 2008.

John, personal interview, Calgary, September 17, 2008.

Joe, personal interview, Calgary, September 26, 2008.

Deb, personal interview, Calgary, September 17, 2008.

Nina, personal interview, Calgary, October 8, 2008.

Re, personal interview, Calgary, October 8, 2008.

James, personal interview, Calgary, October 9, 2008.

Gene, personal interview, Calgary, October 9, 2008.

Emily, personal interview, Toronto, November 11, 2008.

Sydney, personal interview, Toronto, November 11, 2008.

Dora, personal interview, Toronto, November 11, 2008.

Alyse, personal interview, Toronto, November 11, 2008.

Horatio, personal interview, Toronto, November 10, 2008.

Sockmonkery, personal interview, Toronto, November 10, 2008.

AveryA, personal interview, Toronto, November 10, 2008.

Julie, personal interview, Toronto, November 10, 2008.

Kathleen, personal interview, Toronto, November 10, 2008.

TorontoStudent, personal interview, Toronto, November 10, 2008.

Yvette, personal interview, Montreal, November 13, 2008.

Dyer, personal interview, Montreal, November 13, 2009.

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