< Book Review: The host in the machine


Thomas-Jones, Angela. The host in the machine: examining the digital in the social. Oxford: Chandos, 2010. viii, 142 p. ISBN 978-1-84334-588-6. €55.00.

Social networking and social media have become one of the hot topics of our society lately. Social networking sites attract myriads of users who present their profiles and spend hours and hours communicating with people they have never met. Is it a different mode of existence? How does it influence psychology of people? What benefits could be derived from this online experience by companies, individuals and communities? These issues are discussed in a growing body of scholarly and popular literature.

Angela Thomas-Jones, a researcher of popular culture at Murdoch University, Western Australia, has written a book investigating the phenomenon of online social networking as a part of everyday life that is influenced by our cultural norms and traditions and in turn affects the lives of people engaged in social networking sites.

The author takes stance that virtual reality is as real as physical reality and becomes a large part of peoples' everyday life. It is interwoven with their work, family events, interests, and general existence. Moreover, its events can not be valued less than any other happening of physical reality. Virtual relationships influence and shape the life in physical space as much as physical life shapes human behaviour in virtual spaces. She provides plenty of evidence starting with the introduction where she recounts a re-union organized through the Facebook and how this fact itself has affected the relations of the classmates gathered in it.

The book is built around the life cycle of digital presence on the Web: birth, life with all its variety, and death.

The chapter on birth includes constructing a representation of self online and building relationships through gaming, dating, or social networking sites. The author explores differences and imposed limitations or opened possibilities in different online networking sites that construct certain conditions for online existence.

One of the chapters in the book deals with a reconstruction of social structures on the Web in terms of representation of celebrities with the crowds of their fans and followers. The network is full of socially conditioned behaviour with pecking and approaching order that recreates different distances between the members of the communities. A special attention is devoted to net celebrities, conditions of their birth and features of their behaviour.

The life-cycle on the net includes a variety of communication modes, networking for career, finding jobs, using networking for work related purposes and attitudes towards the usage networking sites at work. The book is full of interesting stories and examples illustrating the thesis of the author. Being a part of our reality, the life on the net involves also a significant amount of negative behaviour, such as bullying. Harassment on the net has its consequences as real as those in the physical world, especially damaging in psychological sense. The author discusses the cases of net-murder and suicide too.

The social 'friendships' always come at a price of exposing oneself to the others not only by providing details of ones life, but also facing the stories of others in the details that are neither wanted, nor appreciated. Moral and ethical issues are as complicated (or even more complicated) in the social networking sites as outside virtual spaces.

I appreciated the chapter of virtual death on the Web. This part contained quite many surprises both in relation to disappearance of a living person from virtual spaces to the impossibility of dying on the net after ones physical death.

Two-way flow of information between user and digital presence is a constant read thread tying up the whole text. This life on the net is still a novelty for all of us, though one can imagine that the generations growing with the social networking possibility at their fingertips from early childhood would regard it as a self-evident norm of life.

I would think that this book will be of interest to many readers who appreciate serious but accessible texts on popular culture and our co-existence in modern society with omnipresent technologies.

Elena Maceviciute
Faculty of Communication
Vilnius University
March, 2011