Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Brenda Danet - Commemeration Panel at AoIR 10.0

In late 2008, Professor Brenda Danet, a dear woman and brilliant Professor that I had been privileged of studying from - passed away. Brenda was born in the US, made aliya and joined the Dept. of Sociology and Social Anthropology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and was of the founding pioneers of the Dept. of Communications at the Hebrew University. In her later years, Brenda got married to Professor Walter Kahn and was affiliated with the Dept. of Anthropology at Yale University. More fascinating information on Brenda Danet can be viewed at her spectacular website http://pluto.huji.ac.il/~msdanet/
Two commemorative events were erected in her honor by both the department of Sociology and Social Anthropology and the Department of Communication at Hebrew University. The first took place in late December 2008 at Beit Meirsdorf in Jerusalem and was moving and enriching. However, I would like to dedicate this post to the commemorative panel that took place at the association of internet researchers (AoIR 10.0) that took place in Milwaukee on October 2009. After I posted a CFP for a commemerative panel with an emphasis on ONLINE LANUGUAGE, PLAY AND PERFORMANCE (a topic that Brenda made a significant contribution to) in early 2009, a panel of four scholars was erected. Lori Kendall, a highly accredited ethnographer of cybersociety; Susan C. Herring, a top socio-linguist and dear friend of Brenda gave a joint talk with her student Asta Zelenkauskaite; Carmel Vaisman, Brenda's last doctoral student and myself presented. I am enclosing links to view four items:
1. Pictures from the commemorative event in Jerusalem and Milwaukee. http://picasaweb.google.com/ongolan/CommemorationEventInHonorOfProfessorBrendaDanet#
2. Carmel Vaisman's presentation at the event can be viewed at:
3. My presentation's slides can be viewed above and correspond to the following presentation text.
4. The abstract of Susan C. Herring and Asta Zelenkauskaite's paper can be read here: http://slis.iu.edu/news/story.php?story_id=2031

Finally, I am enclosing my presentation. I hope this evokes interest in readers of this blog to further research Danet's fascinating work and contribution.

Brenda Danet – Panel

Milwaukee 2009

Slides available for download at:


[Opening slide] Welcome everybody. This panel is dedicated to the memory of a pioneer of the cultural introspection of Internet studies. The late Professor Brenda Danet.

My name is Oren Golan and I am a former student of Professor Danet. Today I wish to sketch something of Brenda's sociological imagination and invite our panel to rethink Danet's work and legacy in light of their own work and fields of interest.

Brenda was a central figure in the Association of Internet researchers. She was of its original founders participated in its gatherings at aoir [show slide] and I believe took part on its boards. I am sure some of you may know much more than I do about her participation but I can say that she was here from the very first conference in Lawrence Kansas (2000) and maintained an extensive commitment to the society’s mission and functions.

She was part of the AoIR's working group that dealt with questions of ethical research on CMC [show slide], an important document that till today resonates as a leading source of reference and guidance. Brenda was also of the founders of the first online scientific journal dedicated to this line of research – namely that of “the Journal of computer mediated communication” (JCMC).

Beyond her affiliations, Brenda was a pioneer in uncovering the worlds of chat and social interaction over the Internet. However her studies predated the birth of the web. In her past, prior to her preoccupation with the Internet, she had been interested in various sociological fields including studies on the encounter of bureaucracy by immigrants culminating in a book she wrote with Elihu Katz. She looked at patterns of culturally stemmed corruption that include bribery, embezzlement and nepotism that are expressed in her 1989 book "Pulling Strings" (show slide). And was deeply invested in studies of material culture, language and the law.

To slightly digress, I would like to add that it should be noted that she was instrumental in developing media and communication studies In Israel at a time when it scarcely existed within Israeli academia.

In her classes, that I had the good fortune to participate in, she told us that she was attracted to studying the Internet after doing a study of Medieval wills of 805-1066 ad. In these wills she uncovered points of transformation from oral to written culture. Her focus on a charismatic point of history, where a significant change occurred, motivated her to look upon contemporary culture with a similar outlook. Brenda felt that we are in fact at a critical point of history, just a generation before what is now deemed as "digital natives". In this sense we can see how Brenda's imagination stemmed from her appreciation of the Internet as a link in a historical change. A cultural shift between different orientations. This gaze recurs in her later work as well, rather then simply comparing the Internet to face to face and offline modes of behavior.

Brenda was one of the first scholars that shed light on the expressive side of the Internet. Rather then portraying the Internet world as that of a heightened form of technology, Danet viewed the culture of its participants as that of a new cultural frontier. She saw it as a plane of human interaction where new forms of verbal and visual acts of play are introduced. She focuses on these acts of play and playfulness as an informal culture that enables participants to perform their expressive behavior with few social sanctions and functioning as a social stage in Goffman's terms and a heightened awareness of the act of expression in the terms of Richard Bauman, a well known folklorist and student of the ethnography of communication she used to quote. In fact, the topic of todays' discussion is borrowed from an issue she edited in the Journal of computer-mediated-communication in 1995 [show slide]

Danet's gaze was pointed at the grassroot and folk constructions of the Internet by surfers, rather then by web designers, companies or states. She was fascinated with the cultural production of hackers and the playful virtuosity that accompanied the web in its pre-social network stages. A world where Emails, Chatting, websites, bulletin boards and Instant messaging were the primary tools.

As early as 1991, a time when Internet's cultural studies were still in its initial stages, Danet discussed the @ sign, spoke of flame wars, discussed experimental theatrical attempts that were taking place among surfers.

Brenda documented these virtual planes that from todays' perspective, a mere decade later, and in light of new technologies as well as social commercialization, institutionalization and popularization of the Internet, can seem like a ‘time capsule’ that skillfully reproduces a lost era on the one hand, yet is still relevant for understanding current developments and for offering tools for its exploration.

In this issue, and in her own studies, Brenda explores the poetics of the much overlooked issues that inhabit Internet and computer culture. She culminated her 1990's research in a 2001 book named "Cyberplay" [show slide] that summates her theoretical approach with an ethnographic gaze on 5 Case studies of IRC groups that focused on Internet art (colors and rainbow) and their cultures of exchange, as well as studies on the changing language of correspondence that email has introduced

In these instances, Brenda demonstrated case studies in creativity on the Internet, from playing with a host of different fonts to the group rewriting and performance (in cyber language) of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Danet drew some intriguing connections between creativity and play on the Internet and traditional art forms. For instance, she equates IRC (internet relay chat), often expressed in intricate visual patterns, to quilting [show 2 slides] : "I believe that cultivation of certain aspects of the form and content of images was in itself a source of great pleasure for the players. . . . This is no different from individuals engaged in needlepoint or quilting, who take pleasure in seeing the design emerge and in completing it" (pp. 257-8). We can observe this comparison by these slides that appear in her book and on her website.

However, the point she is making is not merely about the aesthetics of the two works of folk art , but of the activity itself and the communal sense it generates, particularly in cyberspace.

Brenda’s focus on online culture had a great deal of emphasis on the aesthetic and semiotic aspects of virtuality, but her contributions can be seen at least in two other aspects:

1. She developed tools for online research in a field that didn’t really have any at the time. For this endeavor, she borrowed concepts from the study of linguistics, literary criticism, the history of art and the field of anthropology to construct understanding on the communities and virtual artifacts that were produced. A broad and interdisciplinary approach that can inspire future students in the field.

2. Brenda acted an archeologist of online art and form uncovering the poetics of style and form of surfers' expression while highlighting the pramgmatic functions of online production as a form of playful communication.

Since Cyberplay, in the new millennia, Brenda focused on the local or glocal advance of the Internet to indigenous and non-English speaking populations. This culminated in a grand two stage project with Susan Herring, who is with us today and included an edited publication in the JCMC (2003) and in a book published two years ago (2007) by the Oxford university Press. Perhaps Suzan can comment on this project later on if time allows.

[To turn to our presenters] Today we have presenters that will discuss Brenda's work in line with their own., Lori Kendall who's ethnographic gaze will demonstrate theoretical aspects of play and work online; And two empirical studies that demonstrate Danet's approach - Susan C. Herring and Asta Zelenkauskaite analyzes gender variation in nonstandard typography —in mobile phone text messages (SMS) and Carmel Vaisman, who was brenda's last doctoral student will discuss Israeli teenage girls's blogs as sites of online performance.


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