The cultural transformation driven by the internet & the case study of asexuality

The aforementioned transformations in the socio-cultural and the cultural system are generalisable beyond the particular experiences of asexual individuals. Some have suggested that the heterogeneity which manifests itself through the Internet precludes generalisation. For instance Gauntlett and Horsley (2004: 28) argue that the diversity of material available online means that it is “not possible to say that online communication is one thing and one thing only” and thus argue that “research about the Internet as a social, psychological and linguistic communication site is most fruitful when it is based on the specific case at hand”. While their argument is undoubtedly correct as a denunciation of abstract theorising about the ‘Internet’, it has no bearing on theorising about the cultural dynamics of the Internet when this is grounded in empirical case studies. While the specific consequences of the changes I am detailing may manifest themselves in the asexual community only, it is my contention that the changes themselves are not limited in this way and that furthermore they hold salience for all Internet users given the nature of human cultural agency.

The Internet facilitates an unprecedented degree of access to the cultural system far above and beyond that which would have been accessible to even the most committed of searchers in the pre-Internet age. Whereas once access to the cultural system was heavily mediated by the socio-cultural context, the Internet has both democratized cultural production and democratized access to the increasingly diverse cultural system which results. It is easier than ever for individuals and groups to articulate ideas within the social arena. Until relatively recently the effective social dissemination of ideas depended, inter alia, upon writing letters to the editor, producing articles for magazines or getting books published. In contrast now every individual potentially has access to a whole range of outlets for the production and dissemination of ideas: contributing to an online discussion forum, setting up a website, writing on a blog, producing you tube videos, setting up groups on social networking services, editing Wikipedia articles etc (Beer and Burrows 2007). The proliferation of these technologies (perhaps able to be subsumed under the notion of the ‘digitization of culture’) is “helping to challenge – even, in some instances, break down – the difference between production and consumption” (Taylor 2001: 16). The sphere of cultural production was traditionally separated from the sphere of cultural consumption by the usually prohibitive barriers to entry which inhered in the former but not in the latter, as the political economy of culture rested on widespread consumer access to a range of mainstream cultural products produced by an increasingly small number of major international corporations (Held et al 1999: 350).

Certainly this universal accessibility only obtains in principle, as the consistent availability of Internet access and the practical knowledge necessary for this sort of online activity are still dependent upon the social distribution of resources. However the available evidence suggests that an increasing portion of the population, albeit it concentrated among younger Internet users, is involved in the production of online content and that an even greater number are consuming this sort of ‘do it yourself’ online content. As long ago as 2005 research has suggested that a small majority of teenage Internet users have done one or more of the following: “creating activities: create a blog; create a personal webpage; create a webpage for school, a friend, or an organization; share original content they created themselves online; or remix content found online into a new creation.” (Lenhardt and Madden, 2005) While structural obstacles still prevent the full realisation of this democratisation of cultural production, it seems to be the case that these are diminishing with time and that, furthermore, they are less onerous than inherent in ‘old media’ cultural production. Similarly access to the increasingly diverse stock of ideas is less contingent upon the individual’s local context than ever before.

These technologies have proved to be the necessary condition for the formation of an asexual community, as their creative use enabled the rapid formation of a self-conscious community. Consider that Bogaert (2004) performed a secondary analysis of a dataset about sexual behaviour in order to offer an estimate of the prevalence of asexuality within the wider population. Given that the pre-existing data came from a study in 1994 this suggests that there were people who could be classified as asexual at least 7 years before any organized asexual community began to emerge. Furthermore it seems intuitively plausible that there were individuals who lacked sexual desire prior to this time. When considered in terms of this historical context, it becomes clear quite how rapidly increasingly sophisticated ideas about asexuality were able to be communally articulated and disseminated, in spite of their apparent absence before the turn of the century.

The growth of the Internet also means that most individual are no longer limited to their local socio-cultural context. Scherrer (2010a) suggests a significant degree of geographical dispersal amongst the asexual community. As earlier discussed, the existing literature renders it plausible that there were many who did not experience sexual desire (i.e. who had the experience of being asexual without possessing such a concept through which to interpret that experience) significantly prior to the formation of the asexual community.  The concepts, labels and identities which have emerged through online discussion within the asexual community have been integral to the shaping of asexual experience (Chasin 2009, Scherrer 2010a, Scherrer 2010b). Whereas asexual individuals were previously reliant on those within their local socio-cultural context when seeking to discuss or deliberate about their experience, the formation of the Internet liberated them from that geo-local constraint and thus massively expanded their pool of potential interlocutors: in allowing those with shared experience to conduct creative dialogues over time the Internet facilitated the emergence of an asexual culture and, with this, the cultural resources which enabled the production of distinctly asexual selves. As Chasin (2009: 12) observes “within the asexual community there is a clear and creative generation of new words and discourses, which asexual people use to explain and shape their experiences, relationships and identities”.

The asexual community is a striking example of the Internet facilitating the articulation and affirmation of a personal difference (the absence of sexual attraction) which was previously silenced and largely invisible. Through the dissemination of concepts within the cultural system (i.e. articulating coherent understandings of asexuality which are available online and increasingly through the mass media and academic research) and establishment of a cultural presence online, asexual identity becomes a socio-culturally available option for an increasing number of people who previously might have simply experienced themselves as different from their peer group and assumed this difference was a consequence of pathology. While the particular content of this process may be specific to asexual individuals, it is facilitated by processes which are not and furthermore it is only through an appreciation of the specificity of the former that we can begin to develop empirically adequate and theoretically rigorous accounts of the latter. In other words we can only understand ‘identity technologies’ through in depth analysis of the actual identities which ensue from them

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