Saturday, January 2, 2010

Creating Communities

The internet, it is often said, is a democratic medium in which users are free to express themselves and their thoughts directly to the worldwide audience. As in the non-cyber world, there are degrees of consequence associated with such expression. As we have seen all too frequently, at the worst end of the spectrum of consequences are reprisals taken against those who use the internet to speak their minds, particularly in authoritarian regimes, where such dissent would not be tolerated as a physical act of speaking. At the other end of the spectrum of consequences, we see examples of job seekers denied jobs or people fired from their jobs due to questionable postings on social networking sites. Both ends of this consequence spectrum involve the piercing of the internet’s fluid nature by concrete, outside norms, be they state repression or employer concerns over employee activities and behavior.

This piercing is fascinating, yet what is also fascinating is the creation of communities within the internet itself and how these communities then pierce the concrete communities and norms of those who participate in them and vice versa. The recent movie “Julie and Julia” provides insights into these relationships and the process of community and norm building online.

The plot of the movie is relatively simple, and parallels the lives of Julia Child and Julie Powell. While the portions of the movie pertaining to Julia Child are extremely interesting, the focus of this post is on the portrayal of Julie. Julie is a woman in her thirties who moves from Brooklyn to Queens with her husband at the beginning of the movie. While both boroughs are part of the larger City of New York, it is clear that each has its own culture, and that Julie is not pleased with the move, which is justified as allowing her husband to live near his office. Julie’s real passion is writing, however the novel she penned was not successful and so she has taken a bureaucratic job. The movie is set in the year 2002 and, we soon discover, Julie’s job at the Lower Manhattan Development Agency involves taking calls that are primarily related to post-September 11th related questions from the public. The audience hears the calls she receives on a daily basis, which range from idiotic questions to irate callers to truly horrible stories of loss and tragedy. With one exception, Julie’s friends are highly successful and shallow, and her meetings with them seem to make Julie feel inadequate. Indeed, when one of her friends, a writer for a New York magazine, asks to interview her for a story, Julie finds out too late that the real subject of the story is New Yorkers who have lowered their job expectations.

Julie’s one passion is cooking and her icon is Julia Child. Eventually, Julie decides to start a blog which will chronicle her attempts to complete every recipe in Julia Child’s famed cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, over the course of a year. In creating the blog, Julie creates the rules and boundaries for the community she hopes to foster through her project. She will make every recipe – even the difficult recipes or the recipes that are difficult for her, such as those involving the cooking of live lobster – and will tell her readers the results even if the results are not as envisioned in the cookbook. Julie also does not shy away from bringing others, such as her husband, into the blog community through references to his assisting in her culinary endeavors.

The blog starts off with no readership except for Julie’s mother, who sends her messages questioning the advisability of the blog. When Julie starts to question her project she discovers, however, that she has readers and fans, and soon the blog becomes a top-rated blog. From there the fan base continues to grow, with readers offering suggestions and comments online. The boundaries of the online and concrete start to cross, however, when readers begin to send Julie cooking products in the mail and when the blog catches the attention of traditional media. This cross-over continues into Julie’s personal life, when she insists that she has to keep up with the project because of her readers even when her marriage starts to suffer. It continues when her husband tells her not to mention him in the blog and when her boss nearly fires her for calling in sick when it was clear from the blog that she was quite healthy. Further, her boss makes it clear that she would lose her job if any references were made to him in the blog. In the end, Julie completes her project and, in a bittersweet blog posting, also ends the blog despite the national attention that it has gathered throughout the course of the year.

Thus, Julie is faithful to the law she established regarding the duration of the blog. However, it becomes apparent throughout the movie that she cannot enforce some of the other laws and rules she established for the blog community at the beginning of her project. Julie does establish a community in which she and her talents for writing and cooking are validated, and in which she does not shy away from open dialogue regarding her successes and failures. However, she cannot keep this community from crossing over into her concrete, quotidian community and life. The blog becomes a source of tension between Julie and her husband, both in terms of her dedication to the community which sprung up around it and in terms of his inclusion in it. By reading her blog posts, Julie’s boss was clearly able to ascertain that she was not ill when she claimed to be, indicating that membership in the community expanded beyond those who were truly interested in the project, as originally intended. The attention garnered by the blog ultimately demonstrated that, while Julie could set the basic parameters of the community as she envisioned it, her ability to control the community and enforce these parameters was limited given the fluid nature of the internet.

Ultimately, Julie’s blog demonstrates that the internet is indeed a democratic medium in which individual people can not only speak their minds but also create communities around their interests. Julie’s blog also demonstrates the difficulties associated with enforcing the laws and norms of an online community and in keeping this community separate from one’s concrete community.

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