Blog Post

Possibility of a shared sense of past in the online community

Right now I am doing research for my doctoral dissertation at the Duke August Library (HAB) in Wolfenbuettel, Germany. This is a beautiful city -- many of the buildings here survived WWII intact, so the older parts of the city have a very historic presence. Another scholar working here explained to me that he was originally attracted to the field of history because his family background was intertwined with historical events: his grandmother lived in Vienna and collected newspapers announcing the beginning of WWI, for example, so for him history was always contextualized and immediate. This discussion makes me wonder about the possibility of a "shared sense of past" in the online environment. Are the cultural touchstones for this community still linked to national borders and geographic locations? For example, since my computer is now in Europe, many online videos from the United States are blocked to me (The Office). There are so many online references to this show, which I am familiar with because I watched the online version in the United States, and I would argue that quotes from it are becoming a kind of shorthand for certain common experiences (strange co-workers, tense office parties, and so on.) What kinds of references form the basis of an online community? Are there online events that form a sort of "canon" --the advent of Google, or the beginning of Youtube? What are the shared contexts or histories? Movies, books, comics, blogs...?



One example that reminds me a little bit of one possible online community is the monastary in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (which I just read.)

The monks in this story share one common language, Latin, in addition to their mother languages (the parallel in the online world is of course English)

their shared sense of purpose/community is informed by their context: the monks in The Name of the Rose are almost without exception interested in learning, in the works of the great scholars, in studying and contemplation, in furthering scholarship, and they have chosen to be in the monastary to pursue these goals (I would argue that many of us in the academic environment fall into this same category-- we have chosen to be here--but the online environment of HASTAC also requires an appreciation for knowledge and learning)

the monks also recognize certain foundational authorities (the Bible, writers such as Roger Bacon and Aristotle, their abbot) while also questioning them. Blind obedience is not seen as desirable in this world (Who are your authorities? The US constitution? The Daily Show? your boss?)

the cohesion and stability of this fictional world is threatened by dissenting voices


Just this afternoon I was reading "The New Memoryism," a chapter in Peter Middleton's Distant Reading: Performance, Readership, and Consumption in Contemporary Poetry.
Unlike other cultural theories, New Memoryism (Middleton's own term,
coined in parody of New Historicism) is supposed to draw attention "to
the role of communications technology in the workings of our concepts
and metaphors for memory" -- a task which (he argues) seems increasingly important
since the advent of the internet and its endless archival capacities.
Middleton does a particularly nice job of connecting historical studies of memory (the work of Mary Carruthers and Frances Yates, which your post reminded me of!) to what a study of memory in the digital age might look like.

Which is all my roundabout way of saying that I share your interest in these questions! :) How technologies influence our sense of identity and mediate our memories seems like such a fundamental issue in any scholarship, particularly media-related or historical work. That's why, for all its goofiness, I kind of like the "New Memoryism" idea. The monks in The Name of the Rose have a shared space in which to speak the same language, read the same books, keep records of their communal activities; what are those spaces today?