On the 15th Anniversary of Print Edition of Netizens

Introduction to Spring 2012 issue of the Amateur Computerist, Vol 21 No. 2

On May 1, 1997, the book “Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet” was published in a print edition.(1) This May Day, May 1, 2012 marks the 15th anniversary of that occasion. Five years ago, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the book, I wrote an article for the online magazine Telepolis. In the article I wrote that an anniversary “offers an occasion to consider the potential of the Net that was identified in Netizens and to assess what has developed with regard to this potential today.”

I reviewed some of the background of Netizens: “During the course of his pioneering research in the early 1990s, Michael Hauben discovered a surprising phenomenon. He recognized that there was a new social consciousness developing among those in the online community. At the time, the Internet had recently emerged as a new communications infrastructure. More and more people were gaining access. The experience of being online and of having access to the participatory interactive online environment was proving to be a significance experience.”

The article continued, “People were eager to explore the nature and power of these new communication capabilities. To be online led to a feeling of empowerment. The idea began to impress itself on some in the online community that here was the potential for a new meaning for the concept of citizen. Could the Internet make it possible for the citizen to be able to act in a way not hitherto possible? Could the Net really make it possible for citizens to become active participants in the process of determining what happened in their society?”

The result of this process was that “a new identify was in the process of being generated. This was a social identity as a citizen of the Net, as a netizen.”

To celebrate the 15th anniversary of the publication of the print edition of Netizens we have gathered a number of articles written or presented as talks by Michael Hauben.(2)

This collection brings together both new work Michael did after the publication of Netizens along with work done earlier which was not included in the book. Also included in this collection are some of Michael’s articles that were published in Netizens. This collection of articles and speeches particularly concentrates the ability Michael had to reflect on the importance of a current development through the perspective of a commentary on an earlier development. He was thus able to grasp the long range broader implications of the contemporaneous development of the Internet.

In his article “The Expanding Commonwealth of Learning: Printing and the Net,” (p. 22 Spring 2012 issue) Michael writes, “Understanding how the printing press unleashed a communications revolution provides a basis to assess if the establishment of worldwide computer communication networking is the next communication revolution.”

The articles in this collection consider how the Net is expanding the ability of the common people with access to the Net to communicate with each other and to offer to the world their thoughts, ideas and questions, in short, for the common people to contribute to the intellectual and creative commonwealth still coming into existence in a way never before possible.

And it is this broadening of intellectual and collaborative cooperation that similarly makes possible and desired more democratic political structures and institutions.

For Michael, the key to this ferment is the Netizen, those who contribute to the ever expanding public set of resources. This is the unique advance.“Making a contribution is an integral part of Netizen behavior,” writes Michael.

He sees the Net as a “new kind of public space,” a space that makes “collaboration and cooperation possible.” This new public commons, as Michael characterizes the public space made available via the Net, is one where “people are encouraged to share their views, thoughts and questions with others.” It is a “many to many” process where netizens can broadcast to others around the world and get responses back. This participation Michael recognized is an empowering experience.

Personal computer pioneer Lee Felsenstein realized that “the development of the commons to the exclusion of the big media representations makes this a grassroots medium or a new enlarged public commons.”

Similarly the ability of netizens to contribute to and create their own news is a means to create an alternative to the commercial business oriented media. This makes possible a means to effectively challenge the outdated forms and processes that have come to dominate in the commercial media environment.

The Net is “the poor man’s version of the mass media” writes Michael. With the Net, the monopoly of the elites over the media was broken. One important example of the potential of the Net, Michael explains, is that the Net bestows, “the power of the reporter on the netizen.”

Netizens now have the ability to not only critique the misrepresentations and limitations of the commercial media, but also to create a more broad ranging and accurate media.

Similarly in his article “Participatory Democracy: From the 1960s and SDS into the Future Online” (first article Spring 2012 issue), Michael shows how an early goal of SDS was to create “a medium to make it possible for a community of active citizens to discuss and debate the issues affecting their lives.” This new communication infrastructure would be one that would make it possible for people to have a means to participate in the discussion and determination of the political decisions of their society. Michael pointed out that Usenet and the Internet provided what SDS saw as necessary but lacked, in Al Haber’s words, “an institutionalized communication system that would give perspective to our immediate actions.”

The articles in this collection, we hope, will help to stimulate thought and discussion over the potential of the Net and Netizen, but more profoundly, over how to recognize, the important prototypes that are developing and emerging. The aim is to nourish those that will help to bring about the changes which will bring more power to the grassroots of society in the new global commons.

Notes

(1)Michael Hauben and Ronda Hauben, “Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet,” IEEE Computer Society Press, Los Alamitos, 1997.

A prepublication edition “Netizens: An Anthology” is available online.

(2)For the collection of articles, see
In honor of Michael Hauben and the Emergence of the Netizens, Amateur Computerist, Vol 21, No. 2