The original There and Back Again chronicles the life of a hobbit—Bilbo Baggins—as he journeys through Middle Earth. His adventures and life don’t center on (or even address) technology, yet the title of his book, in- dicating the need for adventure as well as the grounding influence of home, might be a key metaphor for Internet researchers.
Bilbo’s title is, I believe, a better way to think about the Internet than the ubiq- uitous Microsoft catchphrase, “Where do you want to go today?” Although Microsoft’s version captures the wonder of exploring a new space, Bilbo’s title more accurately describes the impact of the Internet on most of us today. Al- though it can be an unforgettable trip, there is always the need to return home to the everyday. Additionally, use of the Internet is becoming more than a journey “there”—it is becoming part of what we do “back” at home as well. And although Internet researchers can get caught up in their journeys and explorations—like Bilbo—they need to acknowledge how integrated the Internet is in daily life, and how it is becoming part of both “there” and “back again.”
The work presented in this volume examines those integrations through the study of how communities and cultures are forming in and through use of the Internet, as well as how the Internet is becoming a space to research as well as a space that shapes the rest of our knowledge and research. Initially, the task of identifying and narrowing down the number of relevant pieces from three confer- ences for this annual seemed overwhelming, and my fellow editors bravely took on the task of doing that work and assembling a coherent group. In rereading (or reading for the first time) this body of work, often updated for this volume, the complicated connections between “there” and “back” kept appearing. So, al- though the “sexiness” of Internet research is perhaps on the decline, its relevance and level of sophistication are increasing.
In working with the contributors to this volume, I was awed by the breadth of
knowledge and depth of research areas that have developed relating to the Inter- net. Although I was aware that numerous fields and disciplines were studying the Internet from their own particular angle, I had of necessity isolated myself a bit, concentrating on work done in media studies, women’s studies, and digital gaming in particular. Reading a wider variety of work than that gave me new perspectives and fresh understandings about the Internet and its role in shaping our world, or, more important, our role in shaping its use and structure.
In considering how this body of work “comes together,” to say larger or more generalizable things about the Internet, I’m more tentative. One thing that’s easy to say is that Internet research has found a home in just about every discipline and field in the academy. As research about the Internet has infiltrated most academic areas, it has largely moved from being considered a novelty to being an integral and integrated part of larger study. We don’t much believe in or study disembod- ied online experience anymore, looking instead at the articulations between offline and online activities. It’s not enough to say that we “become someone else” on- line—how can that be possible when a person surfs the Web, talks on the phone, and makes dinner all at the same time? Perhaps our “multiple selves” should be re- imagined as multiple life roles, of which online activities can contribute to (or de- tract from)—but likely not play a primary role—at least for most people.
The Internet has evolved in popular representations from a place for the weird and strange, to the dangerous, to the commercial, and now to just another part of our communication system. Yet, that communication system isn’t shared by every- one, as we must continually remind ourselves. Research on the persistent digital divide, both nationally and globally, tells us that even as some gaps close, others open (such as the growing shift from dial-up to broadband or other high-speed ac- cess that is creating a new have/have not fissure). Questions also arise about the possibilities for leap-frogging past certain divides, such as with the call for wireless access for disadvantaged regions of the world, rather than relying on (non)existent phone lines. We also must keep aware that government initiatives can be defunded and folded just as quickly as they were put in place, especially in times of budget shortfalls.
As Internet research addressing issues such as these has broadened and deep- ened, it’s become easy to fall behind in understanding how that growing body of work fits together. Even within a narrow area such as media studies, the growth of research is explosive. We are forced to become specialists within an already special- ized field. Likewise, the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) conferences have grown in participation, so much so that there are multiple competing sessions at any one time, leading away from the cozy atmosphere of the first conference, to better mirror the larger disciplinary conferences with their separate “tracks” or “di- visions.” Is that the future of AoIR and Internet knowledge?
Although Steve Jones (in this volume) has written about how AoIR started as a place for people on the margins of their disciplines, when my own research career began, Internet research was not widely practiced in my school (Mass Communi- cation), but was enthusiastically accepted as an appropriate area for research. My
Consalvo v-viii-64 2/26/04 11:28 AM Page 3
consalvo | Internet Research: There and Back Again 3
traditional scholarly associations all accepted “new media” research, and the sense of marginalization or exclusion felt by some earlier researchers was never my expe- rience. I suspect that experience is growing, for many disciplines at least.
The creation of AoIR was an attempt to construct a “tent” for those working outside of the bounds of their own disciplinary homes. AoIR was a place to con- gregate with others who knew and understood the language of the Internet—no need to define what Usenet was here or question the value of exploring Multi- User Dungeons (MUDs) or Multi-User Dungeons that were Object Oriented (MOOs). The tent sheltering us all has grown large.