Communities of Innovation:
Cyborganic and the Birth of Networked Social Media.

Jennifer C. Cool (December 2008)

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Cyborganic, the subject of this study, was a community whose members brought Wired magazine online; launched Hotwired, the first ad-supported online magazine; set-up Web production for CNET; led the open source Apache project; and staffed and started dozens of other Internet firms and projects--from Craig's List to Organic Online--during the first phase of the Web's development as a popular platform (1993-1999). As a conscious project to build a hybrid community both online and on-ground, Cyborganic's central premise was that mediated and face-to-face interaction are mutually sustaining and can be used together to build uniquely robust communities. Yet, Cyborganic was also an Internet start-up and the business project provided both impetus and infrastructure for the community. The social forms and cultural practices developed in this milieu figured in the initial development of Web publishing, and prefigured Web 2.0 in online collaboration, collective knowledge creation, and social networking.

The objectives of this dissertation are several. The first is to demonstrate the role of Cyborganic in the innovation and adoption of networked social media through an ethnographic case study of the group, showing it as exemplary of the regional and cultural advantage of "technopoles," and as precursor to contemporary phenomena of online social networking. The second objective is to interrogate the relation between entrepreneurial and utopian practices and social imaginaries in the Cyborganic project, identifying not only their synergies, but also their tensions. Finally, my third objective is to ground celebratory and utopian discourses of new media genealogically, showing that the social media heralded today as "revolutionary" grew from earlier media and practices, similarly hailed as revolutionary in their day. Rather than representing rupture with the past, the narrative of social revolution through technologies is a cultural legacy passed through generations already, and one that draws on quintessentially American attitudes and practice.

Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Introduction, From Communities of Innovation to Cultural Critique
Chapter 2: Epistemology, Fieldwork, & Situated Knowledge
Chapter 3: Cyborganic Sources: Technocultures and Countercultures
Chapter 4: Cyborganic as Network of Innovation: A History of the Project
Chapter 5: The Cyborganic Whole: Business and Community, Online and Onground
Chapter 6: Project for Life: Cyborganic's Creative and Communitarian Imaginaries
Chapter 7: Cyborganic and Social Change: The Power and Limits of Community
Bibliography (PDF, 20 pp.)
Appendices (PDF, 6 pp.)
Chapter 1, Introduction (Chapter 1 PDF)
This chapter traces the genesis and interconnection of my three objectives, defining my use of the terms social imaginaries and community, and my understandings of media. While I use "Web 2.0" as an emic (insider) term, in my analysis I employ the compound networked social media to refer to the popular proliferation of communications forms, practices, and mediated imaginings developed concurrently in the growth of computer networking and personal computing. All communications media are axiomatically social. Thus, what I mean to highlight by applying the word "social" is a focus on infomated (Zuboff 1988:9-10), many-to-many communication which, at the level of production, involves social design--that is, engineering the system to enable and promote certain forms of connection (e.g., "send this to a friend" links)--and at the level of consumption involves social networking (a particular way of using media). Similarly, the term "networked" points both to the technical infrastructure of these media that enable aggregation of infomated data streams, and to the practices and imaginaries of their use. Networked social media thus refers to the nexus of (1) user-generated content (aggregation/participation), (2) social design/social networking, and (3) computer-mediated community. All elements of the nexus are present in contemporary Web phenomena such as Wikipedia, Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, and, though each element is positioned differently in different genres, services, and contexts. This claim is argued through the cultural history of networked personal computing (chapter 3) and ethnography of Cyborganic (chapter 4-6), that emphasize the role of communities of producer/users in realizing the structures and genres of communication encompassed in networked social media.
Chapter 2, Epistemology, Fieldwork, and Situated Knowledge(Chapter 2 PDF)
In this chapter, I describe my field research and methods; explain the epistemological and disciplinary grounds from which I proceed; and address questions of my positionality as the ethnographer of a community I helped create, lived in for six years, and in which I remain bound.
Chapter 3, Cyborganic Sources: Technocultures and Countercultures (Chapter 3 PDF)
Chapter 3 traces the sub-cultural legacies that came together in Cyborganic. In one sense it is a cultural history of networked personal computing and Silicon Valley that traces the role of communities of producer/users in the rise of the Bay Area as a hub of technoculture over the last century. In another sense, it is a genealogy of the "culture of the creators of the Internet" (Castells 2001: 37) attentive to the formation of practices, values, norms, and knowledge, rather than "a quest for their 'origins'" (Foucault 1977:144-145). Castells has described Internet culture as "characterized by a four-layer structure: the techno-meritocratic culture, the hacker culture, the virtual communitarian culture, and the entrepreneurial culture" (2001:37). Many studies have emphasized the crucial blending of military, university, and industrial interests in the growth of Silicon Valley (Sturgeon 2000; Leslie 2000; Saxenian 1994; Hanson 1982) and the Internet (Abbate 1999). Communications scholar Fred Turner (2005, 2007) and veteran Valley journalists (Hafner and Markhoff 1991; Freiberger and Swaine, 2000, Markhoff 2005) have traced the connections linking the countercultural substrates of Internet culture (hacker and virtual communitarian) and the institutionalized ones (techno-meritocratic, entrepreneurial) to one another and to the Bay Area. Drawing on these works, I present a historical account of the way these distinct cultural layers came to be amalgamated, highlighting the long legacy and vital role of communities of producer/users in the development of Silicon Valley, personal computing, and the Internet.
Chapter 4, Cyborganic as Network of Innovation: A History of the Project (Chapter 4 PDF)
Though I describe Cyborganic's growth as a local, online community, and as a business, this chapter is essentially a network history. That is, it gives a narrative account of the individuals, firms, projects, and communities that connected Cyborganics to each other and to San Francisco's Web industry in the 1990s. As such, it identifies the contributions of Cyborganic members to the development of new Web-publishing firms, software, and production processes. Two thematic arguments are developed in the analysis of this network history, both in the service of showing Cyborganic as exemplary of the regional and cultural advantage of milieus of innovation. The first compares Cyborganic to communities of producer/users discussed in chapter 3, enumerating the legacies inherited from this earlier generation of Internet culture, and highlighting their common symbiosis of technology, enterprise, and sociality. The second argues that Cyborganic drew on Silicon Valley's culture of entrepreneurial sociality to join place, technology, and community in new productive relationships that yielded new businesses, commercially successful software products, and process innovation.
Chapter 5, The Cyborganic Whole: Business and Community, Online and Onground (Chapter 5 PDF)
Business and community, online and face-to-face: these are the symbiotic pairs and poles that constituted Cyborganic. In this chapter I work to give an in vivo sense of the norms and forms of networked social media the group produced and practiced. My analysis works to show the inseparability of Cyborganic's business and community projects, and their mutually reinforcing articulation online and onground. This demonstration serves the first of my monograph's objectives (the milieu of innovation argument), and also the second (examining the relations of entrepreneurial and communitarian), in two ways. First, it looks closely at the media themselves to detail a number of innovative forms and uses of networked media within Cyborganic that have--with the rise of blogging, Facebook, and Twitter--become predominant. Second, it illustrates the vital roles place, culture, and dense social ties of community play in milieus of innovation by showing the multiple synergies of Cyborganic-s online and face-to-face, entrepreneurial and communitarian dimensions.
Chapter 6, Project for Life: Cyborganic's Creative & Communitarian Imaginaries (Chapter 6 PDF)
In Chapter 6, I turn to examine the utopian aspects of Cyborganic arguing that the group's creative and communitarian practices and imaginaries are best understood as a response to the economic, social, and cultural transformations of network society. I call this response a "project for life" to distinguish it from the business project, and to propose that Cyborganic be understood as a cultural commune of the type Castells describes as aiming to produce a "local utopia" addressed to "the real issues of our time" (Castells 1997:61). As such, it was a defensive project, aimed at providing a support system for its members and a refuge against the atomizing, individualizing forces of contemporary urban life. However, I argue, Cyborganic was also a creative project that can be understood in the broader context of "urban social movements" (Castells 1997:60). I discuss the utopian ideals at the core of Cyborganic's business and the many voluntary projects led by community members. For example, the initiative to set-up a local area network and web presence for the Dalai Lama's Tibetan Government in exile that drew attention from the U.S. Department of Defense as an example how sub-state actors can have a disproportionate effect on geopolitics by using network technologies. In the second part of the chapter, I turn to the tensions between Cyborganic's entrepreneurial and communitarian social imaginaries and bring to the surface conflicts and contradictions, gaps and paradoxes, apparent from the ethnographic material presented throughout the work.
Chapter 7, Cyborganic and Social Change: The Power and Limits of Community
(Chapter 7 PDF)
The story of Cyborganic is a story about the productive power of community, in particular, of intentional communities mobilized in conscious projects of self-creation. But it is also a story of constraints and limitations on this power vis-à-vis larger social structures and cultural forces. In this chapter, I situate Cyborganic in the history of utopian experiments and exemplary communities in the United States. Within this history, Langdon Winner (1986) identifies and critiques a dominant cultural narrative of social transformation through technology. Identifying this narrative in Cyborganic and the wider community of Net geeks and Web heads of which it was a part shows it is neither as new nor as revolutionary as commonly conceived. More significantly, it shows up the structural limitations of community as a social form and demonstration models of the good life as a tactic for realizing social change. While Cyborganic's project was innovative in imaging and building new, influential forms of techno-sociality, in terms of constituting social subjects, it was politics by other means, argument by example, by technology. It was also supremely bourgeois and bohemian in creating a new style of life, rooted in a calling and countercultural status identity. It was a project for life in a social order dominated by work.