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Key media and sociological concepts in Baym’s (2010) new book

May 24, 2010

Baym, N. 2010 Personal Connections in the Digital Age. Cambridge: Polity.

I’m greatly enjoying reading this new book by Nancy Baym. It’s concise and lucidly written and I think media and communication students and scholars will find it very inspiring. Two contrasting sets of concepts presented in the book have caught my eye:

A. Seven ways of comparing digital media with one another and with face-to-face communication (chapter 1):

  1. interactivity
  2. temporal structure
  3. social cues
  4. storage
  5. replicability
  6. reach
  7. mobility

B. Two key online groupings  (chapter 4)

  1. communities
  2. networks

I haven’t yet had time to finish reading the book, let alone to review it, but on first inspection I am troubled by this contrast between a rich set of technological concepts and a meagre pair of entwined sociological concepts. This positing of communities and networks as the paradigmatic social formations of the digital era is, I have argued, characteristic of internet/new media studies (Postill 2008).  Yet relying on this odd couple for our social mapping is problematic. For one thing, the vast diversity of social formations found among humans can hardly be captured with two terms. Second, both notions have had chequered careers as social scientific concepts.

Since we’ve already got a set of 7 media concepts, we should at the very least match this with a corresponding set of 7 social formations. These are my seven killer formations (notice that I am avoiding the community/network duo):

  1. families/kin groups
  2. peer groups
  3. schools, colleges, etc.
  4. workplaces
  5. third places (pubs, web forums, dewaniya…)
  6. publics
  7. transient formations (air travellers, concert-goers, demonstrators…)

Combined, these two sets of concepts (or a similar pair) will provide a more robust heuristic when it comes to mapping the shifting terrain of new media and their social consequences. The point I’m trying to make is that families, peer groups, schools, companies, publics, etc. have not gone away with the proliferation of digital media. On the contrary, they are still absolutely crucial to both sociocultural reproduction and change.

There is also the question of historical comparison. Unless we start with a diversified social terrain as our baseline in a given place or territory at a given point in time (e.g. 1980) and then compare this at a future date (e.g. 2010), we won’t be able to gauge the extent and quality of the social changes – including in what ways digital media are implicated in these changes. The familiar meta-narrative that we once had local communities and associations and we now have ‘networked individualism’ (Wellman, Castells) simply won’t do.


Postill, J. 2008 Localising the internet beyond communities and networks, New Media and Society 10 (3), 413-431; pre-publication version

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 27, 2010 11:23 pm

    See also recent blog post on concept of ‘polymedia’ by Madianou and Miller: .”

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