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Sunday, June 12, 2005

You Can't Erase A Mirror

For the 2005 Digital Communities conference in Italy, I had planned to present a paper entitled Where is Malta? (Re)Mapping a Small Island Nation on the Internet. My intention was to follow-up on a similar study, Dealing with Malta's Image on the Internet, which I began back in 1996, when I started my post-graduate studies at New York University.

For many years, I've been fascinated with the relationship between the natural space of our small nation and its mediated social presence on the Internet from the perspective of its Internet-using inhabitants, the Maltese living in diaspora, and some of the tourists who visit the Maltese Islands. I base my observations mainly on material from online message boards, blogs and websites I've followed over the past ten years as a participant observer. Such work raises questions about how and why new communication technologies are being used to produce new geographies, new types of space, and new communities.
Toni Sant at the 2005 Digital Communities conference in Benevento
It appears that the Internet is giving Malta a new space wherein it can be re-mapped. Through the Internet, Malta is enacting a complex strategy for survival. In some ways it is an attempt at what geographer David Harvey calls "spatiotemporal utopianism." This new map of Malta has Borgesian aspirations but even if the (re)mapping exercise is a failure, it is important to trace the moment when the readers start mistaking the map for the territory.

After reading about this year's Prix Ars Electronica awards in the Best Digital Communities category I decided to alter the tone and scope of my presentation at the 2005 Digital Communities conference. Instead of the planned academic paper, I chose to give a position paper about the read/write effect on Malta of what is being called Web 2.0.

What follows is a brief excerpt from the presentation I gave in a seminar room adorned with ex-voto frescoes at the Universita' degli Studi del Sannio in Benevento just a few days ago. I reproduce these fragments here to give you, my blog readers, a sense of what's going through my head as Immanuel Mifsud and Sharon Spiteri prepare to launch Tabellina, and in the aftermath of all the attention the Maltese blogosphere received in the popular press last week. Please keep in mind that the text presented here has been slightly amended/abridged for practical purposes.

I believe Malta is currently witnessing a silent revolution through a growing number of Internet users who are coming to realize that they can have their voices heard without a controlling intermediary. This major paradigm shift is silent because those most active in it are yet to realize the true potential of digital communities and still see themselves as isolated individuals.

Although Malta is a tiny nation dominated by majority rule, embodied in the major political parties and the Roman Catholic church, a small digital community is about to embark on a path of social change which potentially has a much larger effect than any other effort the same social network could attempt without the benefit of the electronic networks of digital telecommunications.

Identity and self-image play an important part in the formation of digital communities. All identities are filtered through the personal experiences and the emotional ups and downs that flow through our interactions with and in everyday life. The Internet goes beyond all other media formats in altering a person's relationship to the so-called 'real' world of everyday life. It offers more possibilities than any other single-medium satellite communication. I don't say this hypothetically or from a position of utopian desire. I've lived on the frontline of Malta's cyberspace for over 10 years.

My observations of Malta's image on the Internet are informed by the way I value my roots. By roots I do not mean that which ties me to a place, but a political stand that permits me to change places. My analysis is shaped by a revaluation of my own Maltese identity. Eugenio Barba, the founder of the International School for Theatre Anthropology, maintains that, "defining one's own professional identity implies overcoming ethnocentricity to the point of discovering one's own center in the 'traditions of traditions'." I have come to see the Internet as an arena where what Barba calls the 'tradition of traditions' can manifest itself in the formation of digital communities that would not come together as easily off-line.

Over a short period of about 10 years, we have become used to a worldwide web that is very different from what came before. Dubbed Web 2.0, the current online experience and the power and potential of the read/write applications that have risen over the past few years, make the web a truly different medium from all previous communications media.

With applications like blogs and wikis, web users have started to control their own media content. These users are not only consuming content but creating it too, and often for the same people whose content they're interested in. The possibility for many to communicate with many others is a different model than the one-to-many format seen in radio and television broadcasting. This new mode of communication is very different in structure and level of access to the channels of production. More than any other country that boasts a deregulated media scene, Malta gives ordinary citizens very few opportunities to reach a mass audience.

Several Maltese bloggers, both in Malta and overseas, have publicly observed that the traditional media are dominated by mainstream ideas manipulated by the traditional institutions. They have already recognized that there is the potential to create a loose social fabric among the online community forming around the various bloggers who want to speak and hear about ideas that are not in line with those of the politicians or the church. Some of these ideas are sometimes aired by the traditional media in Malta in the guise of democracy and freedom of speech, but they are either editorialized in a way that the dissenters are marginalized or used to strengthen the main message proposed by the traditional institutions in the first place.

Digital communities enable group action and interaction. They also engender constructive contexts and social capital. Reconfiguring the power relationships between ordinary citizens and traditional institutions, digital communities can give a voice to marginalized individuals providing peers who listen and contribute to the development of their unpopular ideas.

This is precisely what many Maltese Internet users are on the verge of discovering.

Blogger Arcibald said...

Hi... this is a really interesting subject - well done. In actual fact I've started thinking about my MA thesis proposal which I need to submit by mid-August and I'm thinking of doing something along the same lines - about the Maltese online sense of community.

Even though I'm still in the early stages to decide from which perspective I'm going to tackle it - I would really like to thank you for providing me with some great ideas! 

9:23 PM, June 12, 2005
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Maltese online sense of community is inexistent! 

3:34 PM, July 05, 2005

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