Book review

Personal connections in the digital age, by Nancy Baym

Elizabeth Ellcessor

University of Wisconsin–Madison, Madison, Wisconsin, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Communication; Community; Identity; Internet; Mobile phone

Ellcessor, Elizabeth. 2011. Personal Connections in the Digital Age, by Nancy Baym [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 7. doi:10.3983/twc.2011.0279.

Nancy Baym. Personal connections in the digital age. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2010, paperback, $19.95 (196p) ISBN 978-0745643328.

[1] Combining a wealth of scholarship with illustrative anecdotes, Personal Connections in the Digital Age offers an accessible, chatty, and cogent account of how new communications technologies affect interpersonal communication and relationships. Nancy Baym has long addressed these questions in her work, including Tune In, Log On: Soaps, Fandom, and Online Community (2000) and more recent work on social networking sites and music fandom. Personal Connections is not a book about fandom, though it draws on Baym's earlier research and uses examples from fan studies. Rather, it is an engaging introduction to online communication and is a good foundation for anyone attempting to understand online fandom, communities, or personal social networks.

[2] This book is part of the Polity Press Digital Media and Society series (, which aims to make current thinking on digital media accessible to a broad audience. Personal Connections features six chapters. The chapters build upon one another conceptually, though the detailed index makes it possible to navigate the book more topically. Overall, Baym offers an overview of online communications research, providing a road map from which students, scholars, and other interested readers could further explore this diverse literature. Drawing on disciplines including communication, media studies, science and technology studies, and sociology, as well as research in human-computer interaction, Baym deftly illustrates the complexities of communication, community, and identity online.

[3] From the first chapter, "New Forms of Personal Connection," it is clear that Personal Connections is as interested in similarities between digital forms of communication and other forms of interaction as it is in differences. It focuses primarily on the Internet and the mobile phone, both technologies that seem to blur traditional boundaries by which we have understood communication. The distinctions between communicating with one and communicating with many are lost, a strict sense of privacy and publicity is blurred, and the ability to extend communication across space and time in new ways shapes the forms of communication seen in digital media. Yet despite ways in which digital media challenge traditional frameworks, Baym argues they are part of everyday life in the present historical moment and emphasizes "how people incorporate digital media into their routine practices of relating" (5), rather than sensationalizing the new.

[4] This perspective becomes clearer throughout the second chapter, "Making New Media Make Sense," which turns to the stories we tell about new media, which both reflect and shape the meanings we assign to those technologies. Through advice columns such as Dear Abby, as well as reprinted newspaper cartoons, Baym illustrates how online communication moved from the fringes of society to become a mundane part of cultural life. In letters from the mid-1990s, "cyberaffairs" were viewed as a result of the Internet's destruction of real-life relationships, reflecting a technologically determinist perspective in which a technology is seen to directly cause social behavior. Opposed to technological determinism is the social constructivist perspective, which views the uses of new technologies as the outcomes of social factors. Finally, Baym introduces and endorses a social shaping of technology perspective that maintains that the affordances and constraints of technology are taken up and reworked by individuals in diverse ways. This centrist position, in which both technology and society shape meaning, is closely related to studies of media domestication that track how technologies move from the edges of society to being thoroughly integrated parts of daily life. This, then, is the nuanced approach seen in later letters to Ann Landers and her ilk, as the electronic form of communication is ignored to focus on the personal relationships and difficulties that may have led to an affair. This chapter indicates that new media forms of communication are remarkable only insofar as they provide a moment in which ever-present anxieties about the nature of self, others, and relationships can be expressed.

[5] Digital forms of communication, which occur in the absence of visual and embodied social cues, are the topic of chapter 3, "Communication in Digital Spaces." Baym's primary argument here is that digital communication should not be understood as an impoverished version of face-to-face communication, but as a mixed modality that combines elements of face-to-face communication with elements of written communication. From this perspective, we can see that there are social cues specific to digital formats that enable us to nuance communication, from emoticons to caps lock to abbreviations and slang. These cues, as well as photos, video, or other multimedia representations of self, allow us to convey friendliness, build intimacy, or express strong emotions. Other factors that affect digital communication include social forces such as race, gender, or culture, as well as familiarity with a medium or our existing relationships with those with whom we communicate. Thus, Baym repudiates claims that the lack of cues and the asynchronicity of digital communication necessarily lead to antagonism or impoverished relationships.

[6] From communication may come community, and such is the focus of the fourth chapter, "Communities and Networks," which is likely to particularly appeal to those interested in fandom. Baym retains the term community in talking about online groups, justifying it through five qualities that indicate community both on- and off-line. These include a shared sense of space, shared practices, shared resources and support, shared identities, and interpersonal support. Baym gives several examples, including some drawn from the soap opera fans of Tune In, Log On, as evidence for the existence of these qualities in online communities. However, she then turns to social networking sites and the growing importance of what she terms "networked individualism," or the creation of a personalized community that centers on the self rather than on a topic or shared identity. In this context, she acknowledges that it is more difficult to claim a shared space, and even shared practices or community norms can be difficult to identify. Near its end, this chapter turns to accusations that online interactions weaken real-world communities, presenting evidence that Internet and mobile phone users are slightly more civically and politically engaged than nonusers. Though the effects of this engagement are unclear, Baym refuses to place the digital in opposition to the real, arguing that it is clear that "new media do not offer inauthentic simulations that detract from or substitute for real engagement" (98).

[7] In chapter 5, "New Relationships, New Selves?," the process of meeting new people is discussed, as is the presentation of self. Digital forms of interaction may be said to lower inhibitions, make it easier to find shared interests, and make it easier to make friends across social divisions; simultaneously, they force us to consider whether those we interact with are who they say they are. To a degree, we can rely on identity cues, such as screen names, photos, displays of technical skill, or lists of "likes" to understand one another. Even social identity, seen in group membership or friend groups (on social networking sites in particular) can be used to make sense of another user's identity or to communicate about the self. And while the absence of embodiment in these contexts seems to make it easy to lie or to create varied identities, these breaches of authenticity occur off-line as well, and the evidence is that most people offer fairly accurate, if slightly idealized, representations of themselves online. This chapter also features a brief overview of the ways in which differences of gender, culture, and race persist in online identities.

[8] Once we have met someone, how do we use digital media to build or maintain that relationship? This question is at the heart of chapter 6, "Digital Media in Relational Development and Maintenance." Baym begins with a story of online meeting turned on- and off-line friendship, suggesting that as relationships strengthen, more forms of communication are added, which gradually expose us to more social cues (as in moving from e-mail to telephone calls to a first date). Additionally, it seems that the closeness of the relationship changes the communication content; as discussions span more topics and include more personal information, the relationship becomes closer. Less remarkable, and more prevalent, than online acquaintanceship turned real-life interaction is the off-line relationship that grows to include digital components. Many people use various digital media to communicate with real-life friends and family members, and Baym notes that there is no correlation between the most common media used in a relationship and the closeness of that relationship. That is to say, the coworkers we see each day are not, by virtue of face-to-face communication, closer to us than the family members we may Skype or e-mail several times a week. Thus, digital communications technology is not isolating people but rather augmenting existing social relationships. There are, however, risks to digital forms of relationship maintenance, including the ambiguity of the social networking site "friend"; disagreement about the manners of mobile phone use in social settings; and the risks involved with disclosing too much information to what may be uncertain audiences.

[9] In her conclusion, "The Myth of Cyberspace," Baym returns to the problems of technologically determinist accounts that frame cyberspace, the online, and the digital as separate from embodied life and social interactions. Such a stance inevitably leads to broad generalizations and minimizes the effects of the users' decisions and autonomy in media use. Instead, Baym states that "mediated communication is not a space, it is an additional tool people use to connect, one which can only be understood as deeply embedded in and influenced by the daily realities of embodied life" (152). She argues that this requires us to take a highly contextual approach to the study of online communication as it is being used by some groups of people in some circumstances for particular reasons. Returning to a social shaping of technology perspective, this is to say that both the nature of the media and the needs and desires of the users shape the meaning and utility of a given medium at a given time.

[10] Perhaps the greatest strength of Personal Connections is its steadfast refusal to accept dominant narratives or simple explanations for the relationships we carry on in digital forms, while providing a stunningly clear introduction to these complex social and technological dynamics. Yet this book remains fairly firmly in a Western, largely United States–based perspective on digital communications. Though there are nods to digital divides, inequalities of access, and global differences in technology use, these are not central. Additionally, questions of privacy, which have attained new prominence in an age of Facebook's and Google's dominance, are only mentioned in passing. These criticisms, however, do not detract from the value of this book for a newcomer to the field. With a stunning bibliography and a solid introduction to the major questions of digital community, identity, and communication, Personal Connections is a welcome replacement for the dry textbooks, facile summaries, and marketing hype that often fill this role.

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