Thursday, December 6, 2012

New partnership with Microsoft India Researcher bears fruit


Nimmi Rangaswamy from Microsoft Research Labs India and I have been working on creating momentum in shifting the focus of ICTs for International Development (ICT4D) research towards a broader and less utilitarian perspective. Over the years, it has been interesting to see how Nimmi and I through our independent anthropological fieldwork were coming to a similar conclusion on the need to pay attention to "leisure" behavior of Internet users in emerging markets if we are to genuinely understand the multiple dimensions of new media practice in the global South. For instance, her research with Kentaro Toyama on cyberkiosks revealed the following:

From field ethnography, we find that urban youth slang and speech styles do not lag behind in villages. Neither do communication styles and channels. Instant messaging is immediately embraced by younger kiosk operators. Fan clubs of matinee idols bring in youth fashion and trends along with film music. Most popular films and film music are released within a month in hub-towns. Cassettes, pulp-film magazines, and even VCDs are snapped up quickly by rural consumers. We found in one case, that women from a village in Tamil Nadu flocked to a rural kiosk where an online celebrity chat was organized with the director of a contemporary soap opera. (Rangaswamy and Toyoma 2006: 5)

Around the same time, my book "Dot Com Mantra: Social computing in Central Himalayas" (Ashgate Pub) amassed evidence of a range of primarily leisure practices that users engaged in at cybercafes in rural Himalayas challenging notions of how rural people would be driven to use these new tools for mainly socio-economic mobility.

So naturally, when Nimmi and I connected at the ICTD conference in London 2010, we schemed up ways in which we could work together. Since then, she has served as a guest lecturer for my course on ICTs and International Development over the last 2 years. Also, we recently submitted a panel for ICA, a commentary piece for review at the ITID journal and are currently working on a book proposal on this very topic. It is indeed exciting when one finds a collaborator who one can seamlessly work with!

So its good to know that all this effort is starting to pay off with the recent acceptance of our article for publication "Digital leisure for development: Reframing new media practice in the global south" by the Media Culture & Society journal.

Below is the Abstract of this paper and as you can see, this is really a call for a shift in research. We hope its useful to those in this field !
Photoshopping of newlyweds, downloading the latest movies, teens flirting on social network sites and virtual gaming may seem like typical behavior in the West; yet in the context of a village in Mali or a slum in Mumbai, it is seen as unusual and perhaps an anomaly in their new media practice. In recent years, some studies (Ganesh, 2010; Mitra, 2005; Author removed, 2010; 2012; 2nd Author removed 2012; Kavoori, Chadha & Arceneaux, 2006) have documented these leisure-oriented behaviors in the global south and argued for the need to emphasize and reposition these user practices within larger and contemporary discourses on new media consumption. Yet, for the most part, studies in the field of Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) have duly relegated such enactments as anecdotal. This is partly due to the fact that much of this research is driven by development agendas with a strong historical bias towards the socio-economic focus (Burrell & Anderson, 2009). Data that is not directly addressing project-based outcomes is sidelined. However, as emerging economies globalize and urbanize exponentially, and their users become more critical consumers and creative contributors of digital content or ‘prosumers’ (Bruns, 2008) and arguably free laborers (Scholz, 2012) instead of classic development beneficiaries, a paradigm shift is needed in approaching this new media audience with a more open-ended, explorative and pluralistic perspective.Thereby, this commentary piece serves as a call to rethink new media practices in the global south by looking at the implications and impacts of ICTs as leisure (entertainment/pleasure/ play) artifacts in the context of developing economies and emerging markets. We believe this line of inquiry is timely and enables a strategic bridging of the new media studies and development communication domain. Despite studies yielding insightful commentaries on ICTs in this arena, we believe resource constrained environments generating rich usages that are not overtly utilitarian have remained hitherto unexplored. A critical movement is needed among scholars focusing on emerging economies to re-conceptualize the mobilization and serviceability of ICTs to extend beyond a conservative understanding of developmental value. This will help in focusing on the heterogeneous and life enhancing aspects of technological use encompassing both experiential and purposive elements of ICT adoption: their interplay with systematic/systemic ecological constraints to provide an analytical and descriptive study of the technology spectrum and use in these contexts.
To illustrate our argument, we offer some critical points of contention that need addressing and new avenues for research if we are to rethink, reframe and refresh our thinking on Web 2.0 enactments in the global south. 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Conference on The Shape of Diversity to Come: Global Community, Global Archipelago, or a New Civility?

I am co-organizing a conference with Wouter Been and Mireille Hildebrandt from the Faculty of Law at Erasmus University Rotterdam on The Shape of Diversity to Come: Global Community, Global Archipelago, or a New Civility?

The Call for abstracts is open (Deadline October 21st 2012)

Check out the website for more details:


Keynote speakers

Julie Cohen is a Professor of Law at the Georgetown University Law Center. She recently published Configuring the Networked Self: Law, Code and the Play of Everyday Practice (Yale University Press, 2012).
Chandran Kukathas is author of The Liberal Archipelago: A Theory of Diversity and Freedom (Oxford University Press 2003). Kukathas is currently chair of Political Theory at the London School of Economics.
Emmanuel Melissaris is Senior Lecturer in Law at the LSE Department of Law. He is the author of a recent work on legal pluralism and legal theory Ubiquitous Law: Legal Theory and the Space for Legal Pluralism (Ashgate, 2009).
Jos de Mul is professor in Philosophical Anthropology and its History and head of the section Philosophy of Man and Culture and Scientific Director of the research institute 'Philosophy of Information and Communication Technology' (FICT). Among his books are Romantic Desire in (Post)Modern Art and Philosophy (State University of New York Press, 1999), The Tragedy of Finitude (Yale University Press, 2004), and Cyberspace Odyssey (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010).
Saskia Sassen is Professor of Sociology at Columbia University. Recent books are Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages ( Princeton University Press 2008), A Sociology of Globalization (W.W.Norton 2007), and the 4th fully updated edition of Cities in a World Economy (Sage 2011). Her books are translated into over twenty languages. She is currently working on When Territory Exits Existing Frameworks.

About the conference

The nation state, imagined as a formation encompassing a culturally unified people, is now straining under the challenges of globalization and the revolution in communication technology. This conference will consider the dynamic changes that are currently taking place with respect to cultural and religious diversity as a result of the explosion in communication technologies, address the conflicts they give rise to, and discuss the ramifications for both law and politics.

Two views on the impact of communication and information technology dominate the scholarship: one in which communication leads to the emergence of a global community and an interconnected global culture; and a second in which it leads to an archipelago of communities that do not necessarily converge with the boundaries nation states, i.e. to a cultural Balkanization of the world across national borders.

This conference will also address a third alternative. Instead of presenting the implications of the networked information and communication infrastructure in the opposing metaphors of a global community or a global archipelago, one can also argue for a normative understanding of what is at stake. Instead of endorsing either utopian notions of global community or dystopian fears of an Internet with walled gardens, one can vouch for an internet that allows for interconnectivity without accepting the increased personalization that leads to unprecedented surveillance and social sorting in both the private and the public sphere.

We hope this conference will be a stimulating gathering of scholars from different disciplines and increase our understanding of the legal and political implications of globalization and communication technology for national and cultural identity.


Sunday, September 30, 2012

New Publication Out: THE END OF THE ART CONNOISSEUR? EXPERTS AND KNOWLEDGE PRODUCTION IN THE VISUAL ARTS IN THE DIGITAL AGE

A joint paper with Filip Vermeylen is out in the Information, Communication and Society Journal. This is part of a larger research effort to understand the impact of digitalization and globalization on the art market as we compare the art worlds of Mumbai, Amsterdam and New York. While I bring the new media angle to this with a special focus on how emerging markets are capitalizing on virtual platforms to reinvent and structure themselves through strategic information indexing online, possibly creating new post-colonial art spaces, Filip is taking on a more economic and historical angle to see how these markets are shifting and decentralizing from the typical Western to a more Postmodern frame.

PAPER TITLE: THE END OF THE ART CONNOISSEUR? EXPERTS AND KNOWLEDGE PRODUCTION IN THE VISUAL ARTS IN THE DIGITAL AGE
(download PDF)

ABSTRACT: In this digital age, declarations surface of the death of the expert and the democratization of information. Crowd wisdom is seen as the new guide in constructing and evaluating knowledge. In the context of the art world, this tension between the amateurs and the experts becomes particularly pronounced as popular meets high culture. Questions arise such as: what is the role of the expert in the evaluation of art in contemporary times? Do social media dismantle age-old hierarchies and established priesthoods in the art world? And can we assume that mass participation in valuation results in better judgments? This article addresses such popular notions of participation and expertise concerning social media in the art world through a historical lens by re-examining and positioning art experts from past to present. Particularly, characteristics of intermediaries in the art market are examined closely regarding their strategies in knowledge production and the establishment of expertise. This historical situatedness enables us to move beyond the hype of new media expectations, generating more appropriate avenues of investigation to better grasp

possible changes amongst actors within the contemporary art world. This examination is not just theoretically relevant but practically so, given current pressures on art institutions to embrace and reach out to new audiences online.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Paper out in the 'Development in Practice' Journal on INGO Organizational Culture


My article on INGO organizational culture and its shaping of the microfinance development project is now out in the Development in Practice Journal. Click HERE for the full article:

Title  "Your kool-aid is not my kool-aid:" ideologies on microfinance within an INGO culture


Abstract
Development investigations focus on synergies of institutional cultures for policy and practice. International non-governmental organisations (INGOs) currently enjoy a privileged position as harbingers of world culture unity. While there is contestation on INGOs as monolithic entities, few studies delve into the voices of actors within INGOs to provide for a more pluralistic perspective. This paper separates the actors from their institution by examining their different socio-cultural takes that drive them. This emphasises that as projects and visions come and go, institutional actors draw on their own philosophy that does not necessarily mirror their institution’s stance. Here, the focus is on one of the most important current development initiatives – microfinance – revealing individual understandings of what is sustainability, the role of external actors, indicators of success, exit strategies, and ethical action. In spite of situating this in the microfinance area, what is revealed is that actors are motivated by their own constructed ideology, often alluding peripherally to the specifics of microfinance. This opens another avenue of enquiry as to why organisational ideologies and popular development visions such as microfinance take on such diversity of forms and outcomes. Contrary to the world culture unity model, such communication disjunctures can be useful in understanding diverse development outcomes.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Digital Crossroads Conference on Media, Migration & Diasporas in a Transnational Perspective


I recently attended and presented at my first Netherlands conference at the University of Utrecht on Media, Migration and Diasporas in a Transnational Perspective. It dawned on me that after three years of being in the Netherlands, I've not actually attended a local conference until now. Partly its because I believed somehow that these linkages within and between universities in the Netherlands would happen organically since its such a densely knit and small country. Ironically, I believe now that because of these factors, these linkages are far weaker as the Dutch tend to reach out rather than within to build networks across Europe and beyond. So its not a coincidence that this 'local' conference was deeply international as it was the culmination of a grant project entitled “Wired Up: Digital media as innovative socialization practices for migrant youth”, carried out by the Faculty of Humanities (project leader Dr. Sandra Ponzanesi) and the Faculty of Social Sciences (project leader Prof. Dr. Mariette de Haan) at Utrecht University in collaboration with Vanderbilt University, USA (Dr. Kevin Leander, Peabody College for Education).


The concept of 'migration' here is heavily influenced by Appadurai's construct of the flows and disjunctures between people, places and ideas. Some interesting discussions and questions followed, particularly as social sciences are placing the "e" before a range of socio-cultural and political issues and domains such as e-Diasporas, bringing to the fore the legitimate question of to what extent is this field transforming with its digitalization? Are 'Diasporas' a construct imposed online as group formations and communities are formed across transnational settings or should we be looking at different kinds of lens such as cosmopolitanism to understand these social practices? Undoubtedly, there were several case studies especially amongst asylum seekers and minorities that emphasized the alternative and more fluid characteristic of  SNS spaces,  facilitating the integration of these marginalized communities in their material surrounding. Of course one should not negate the fact that within SNS, there are strong hierarchies that dictate the process of socializing and membership within their communities but even with this criteria, it still appears to allow for more mobility than in real world settings. What was particularly fascinating was the reminder that in spite of the lack of physicality within online forums, the participants embody and manifest discourses that subscribe to the body form such as racial, ethnic and gender slurs. These were seen as social bonding mechanisms for the 'core' community, at once excluding and including. Overall, an illuminating experience.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

New Paper out in the Asian Journal of Communication




Title of Paper: The folksong jukebox: singing along for social change in rural India
(Download PDF)


Abstract: In designing digital literacy content for marginalized demographics, we need to garner local resources to structure engaging and meaningful media experiences. This paper examines the socio-cognitive implications of a novel edutainment product in rural India on learning, stemming from an e-development initiative funded by Hewlett-Packard. This product encapsulates a multiplicity of media forms: text, audio and visual, with social-awareness folk themes endemic to the locality. It uses the karaoke ‘same language subtitling’ feature that won the World Bank Development Marketplace Award in 2002 due to its simple yet innovative application that has proven to have an impact on reading skills. The product strives to combine cultural regeneration, value-based education, incidental literacy and language practice through entertainment. The paper investigates how this product addresses engagement and empowerment simultaneously, based on elements such as emotional appeal, multimodal stimulation, interactivity, contextual content and local representation. This is useful for practitioners and scholars interested in the design of novel edutainment content for international, underrepresented demographics.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Capitalizing on Contested Identities in this Digital Age

I am currently at the West-Asia North Africa (WANA) Forum in Amman Jordan that is sponsored by the Nippon Foundation on the subject of Social Identity and the Regional Common. I spoke on the topic of "Capitalizing on Contested Identities in this Innovation and Digital Age" in the morning session on a panel that was comprised of some fascinating people listed below and Chaired by the Royal Highness El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan and Chairman of the WANA Forum.

  • Fredrick Chien, Chairman of the Cathay Charity Foundation, Taiwan
  • Mona Makram-Ebeid, Member of the Advisory Board to the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, Egypt
  • Munira Shahidi, Chair of the Shahidi International Foundation for Culture, Tajikistan
  • Omar Christidis, Founder of ArabNet, Lebanon
  • Munir Fasheh, Founder of The Arab Education Forum, Palestine
All these panelists talked about aspects relating to how this region could experience transition and the role of identity in this process. Below are some of my thoughts that shaped my speech on this topic where I extrapolated on the harnessing of contested identities for novel business opportunities in these emerging markets
......................................................................................


A professor I met a few years ago at a conference in India came to visit me in the Netherlands as she had just moved to Europe. She and I were having dinner when of course I asked her what prompted her to move. She shared the news that she married a man who was doing his postdoctorate research at a cancer lab that was situated in Leuven, Belgium. Of course I asked how they met. She went onto explaining that her parents did the work for her. They went online the popular matrimonial online site called shadi.com and looked for a man for her. But what guided their search? Well, apparently caste was of most importance. They looked for a man who was of the same caste as hers, Brahmin, the priestly upper caste and from Mangalore in the South of India. They also consulted the astrology charts. And of course, he was to be of good financial standing and have potential for earning. He fit the criteria. They then contacted him and expressed interest. He responded positively. She said things have changed though these days. ‘It’s rather modern you know,’ she said. She did not right away meet him like in the traditional arranged marriage classic scenarios where parents meet and approve or disapprove of the match. She instead started IMing him and skyping before they both decided that the families should meet. After a few months of digital romancing, they were happy to proceed to the next level. He flew down and the girls parents and her went to their house to make this formal. Shortly after, came marriage.

Now this seems to be an interesting case of multiple and contested identities, one may argue. To start with, there is a strong identity of caste, in this case the upper caste Brahmin or priestly caste. There has been strong belief particularly in the West that with modernization, education and globalization, these particularities and local practices will fade away. However, its far from gone. In fact, a few years ago, the digital boom in India not only created the typical outsourcing hubs but also e-entrepreneurship to satisfy social needs such as this which is highly lucrative. From one website a few years ago, this practice has burgeoned into several competing matrimonial websites such as Jeevansathi.com, 123Matrimonials.com, to IndianRishtey.com


And if we are to open a newspaper in India, you would see two to three full pages on horoscopes and astrology related matters. Then there is the regional identity as they both are Mangalorean and share the same dietary and linguistic and other social preferences. The tightening of community along regional lines has become more paramount in this fast changing world. Migration patterns and diaspora communities reflect this need to serve as a social glue. Localizing ones identity is becoming more of a pathway into tight and intimate communities to strengthen their social capital. And of course there is the upper class and well educated identity that comes with its privilege and international access and exposure as we can see here in this case where she is now part of this global diaspora. So from being deeply local to being highly international oriented, one can well rest a case that this is indeed a case of multiple identities.

 Now why would this be a case of contested identities? Did this professor demonstrate a struggle with these multiple identities? Did she express deep anguish with such different roles of being educated, international oriented and being traditional by subscribing to the arranged marriage through caste and astrology? There is belief that as education increases, so will our courage to dispel traditional practices that have anchored us or chained us perhaps.  There is belief that traditional practices evoked traditional identities which fragments us as communities, societies and nations and in this global era, it is paramount to move forward and not be entrenched in the old ways of belief and ritual. It seems that identity has found its way somehow on the evolutionary chart where the end point is something of ‘beige,’ where the starting point seems to be more of a spectacle of color.

Just to clear matters up, the professor was by no means troubled by these multiple identities. In fact, it seemed rather natural to her and social media was a mere facilitator of this seamless way of being. It appeared to be more content than contest in nature. Yet, others may perceive this as deep contradiction which brings me to another point. Identity is not something which is intrinsic and innate but that which is perceived by oneself and others. So why should it matter if someone else perceives this as a contested identity? It would theoretically not matter at all. However, practically, based on the position of the group perceiving it, it would matter a great deal or be of complete inconsequence. For those who have the power, be it governments, business groups, social groups of higher standing, policy makers, consumers, and the like, these issues can reach center stage. 

While undoubtedly the hierarchy of identities have had serious political, social and cultural ramifications, I focus on the side that has often been overlooked, its potential for innovation. Take business for example. Why wasn’t match.com , a company with 20 million members in 25 different countries, the platform that initiated shadi.com or other such Indian matrimonial sites and instead left a space for more home brewed Indian companies to enter the fray? That brings me to the third point which is that multiple identities can be seen as problematic say for documentation purposes, for surveys, for politics and interest groups, for sharing of resources and the like or can be seen as an opportunity. Stereotypes can offend undoubtedly but can also provide the opportunity to compete with company giants with narrowed worldviews.  In fact, local knowledge of caste and astrology and other categories that matter to the Indian demographic has been harnessed by local entrepreneurs. They have seen that in this information age, it’s not just about how much information is accessed but rather how relevant is this information to their target group that gives them a competitive edge. How information is indexed, searched for, organized and connected is very much a big business and essential if local communities are to stay competitive in this global and innovation era. So basically, diversity of identities, if harnessed and catered to rather than being looked at as mainly problematic can open new avenues and opportunities for business practice. Instead of balancing the traditional with the modern, we need to recognize that diversity is opportunity, not a hindrance. 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

New Paper Out in the Development in Practice Journal: Is the doctor on?

My paper "Is the doctor on? In Search for Users of Rural Medical Diagnostic Software in Central Himalayas" has come out in the Development in Practice Journal.

Abstract: The Indian healthcare sector provides ripe ground for development as access to high-quality and timely medical diagnosis remains unrequited among its vast rural populace. With an acute shortage of doctors in rural areas, medical diagnostic software has been created as a surrogate, propelling non-physician workers to step in. For diagnostic software to function effectively, it is paramount to identify the user. Using an intended pilot programme of RightChoice software in the central Himalayas, the present article focuses on the political and economic complexities involved in identifying users of such software.

New Paper Out in the Current Sociology Journal: Typology of Web 2.0 spheres

My paper, "Typology of Web 2.0 spheres: Understanding the cultural dimensions of social media spaces" has come out in the Current Sociology Journal.

Abstract:

It has taken the past decade to commonly acknowledge that online space is tethered to real place. From euphoric conceptualizations of social media spaces as a novel, unprecedented and revolutionary entity, the dust has settled, allowing for talk of boundaries and ties to real-world settings. Metaphors have been instrumental in this pursuit, shaping perceptions and affecting actions within this extended structural realm. Specifically, they have been harnessed to architect Web 2.0 spaces, be it chatrooms, electronic frontiers, homepages, or information highways for policy and practice. While metaphors are pervasive in addressing and normalizing new media spaces, there is less effort channeled into organizing these digital domains along cultural lines to systematize and deepen understandings of its histories, agencies and communities. Hence, this article proposes a framework that reveals dominant cultural dimensions of Web 2.0 spaces through a five-fold typology: (1) utilitarian-driven, (2) aesthetic-driven, (3) context-driven, (4) play-driven and (5) value-driven. This effort capitalizes and transfers mappings of actors and networks from real to virtual space to capture and organize diverse cultural (re)productions.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

IDEAPLAY: New Media, Society & Change

Recently I was invited by the Department of Education at Michigan State University to give a public lecture and some interviews on how people learn to leisure and labor with new technologies in rural India. They did a wonderful job in capturing the interview through their multimedia portal IDEAPLAY, an excellent way to disseminate and share conversations that take place at this department. Below are the links for the interview:

IDEAPLAY: Payal Arora on New Media, Society and Change 

Learning to leisure and labor with new technologies in rural India

There is an intricate relationship between leisure, labor and learning. Much is revealed from eight-months of ethnographic fieldwork on computer-mediated social learning in rural India.  The role of educational institutions against informal learning spaces such as cybercafés in fostering digital engagements is explored. Issues of global knowledge constructions, plagiarism, and collaborative/peer based learning with computers is analyzed in this unique emerging market context.  The researcher gained employment at popular cybercafés to capture the spectrum of youth learning with new media spaces. It is found that leisure occupies a central position in the embracing of new media technologies and much labor goes into such playful and creative processes. Through Orkut, music downloads, instant messaging and dating, these cybercafés transform into recreational hubs while incidental learning occurs. New media spaces it is seen allow for new exposures and opportunities for learning; yet, what constitutes as ‘good’ learning is subjective to the nature of mediations, both social and technical. Collaborative and informal learning are liberated from formal curriculum and yet, such freedoms bring with it deep and persistent (mis)education. New kinds of expertise are created online that compels us to re-examine the role of the teacher as authority in knowledge construction. World knowledge is locally designed and is often not shared, creating cosmopolitanisms in global education. In essence, it is found that learning through digital spheres is indeed creative but not necessarily ‘correct’ by formal education standards nor compatible with global understandings.  Thereby, through a series of specific digital explorations and encounters by the youth, we learn that interaction does not necessarily equate to understanding, learning with new technologies can be peripheral and fleeting and that which gets learnt can diverge far from what is expected to be learnt.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

New Paper out "Leisure Divide: Can the poor come out to play?" by The Information Development Journal

My paper on "The Leisure Divide: Can the poor come out to play?" has just got published by the Information Development Journal Here's the Abstract: As billions of dollars are invested in mitigating the digital divide, stakes are raised to gain validity for these cost-intensive endeavors, focusing more on online activities that have clear socio-economic outcomes. Hence, farmers in rural India are watched closely to see how they access crop prices online, while their Orkuting gets sidelined as anecdotal. This paper argues that this is a fundamental problem as it treats users in emerging markets as somehow inherently different from those in the West. After all, it is now commonly accepted that much of what users do online in developed nations is leisure-oriented. This perspective does not crossover as easily into the Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) world, where the utilitarian angle reigns. This paper argues that much insight can be gained in bridging worlds of ICT4D and New Media studies. By negating online leisure in ‘Third World’ settings, our understandings on this new user market can be critically flawed.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

EUR fellowship grant 2012-2014 for the research proposal, “Virtual parks: Conceptualizing leisure spaces in the digital age”

Dr. Payal Arora, a member of The Erasmus Centre of Media, Communication and Culture (ERMeCC) has received € 135,000 from the EUR fellowship grant scheme for 2012-2014 to study the conceptualizing of leisure spaces in the digital age. For the next two years, the recipient of this grant Dr Arora will be investigating how real and virtual leisure spaces can be comprehensively framed through a historical, transnational and cross-cultural lens. This project has also procured a book contract with the Studies in Science, Technology & Society Series of the Routledge/ Taylor & Francis Group. The forthcoming book will be published under the title, "Virtual and Real Leisure Spaces: A Comparative and Cross-Cultural Analysis." In essence, the early 20th century birthed a radical phenomenon across several cultures and nations- the demarcating of certain public space for primarily leisure purposes. From India to the United States, urban parks became a symbol of democracy, openness, and freedom as they emerged from a protracted struggle to shift from the hands of the State or imperial powers to that of the masses. There was much euphoria about their unregulated and public character, reflecting a new age of modernization and civilization. Yet, over time, it has been revealed how contentious the process of shaping, regulating, and sustaining of public parks can be as well as its pluralistic and transcultural nature. Interestingly, the 21st century is celebrating the birth of another leisure space that shares this rhetoric of being open, free, universal, non-utilitarian, and democratic: social network sites. As the Net shifted from the hands of the State to that of the user, its leisure spaces have been looked upon as sites where regardless of gender, age, and/or culture, people commune, browse aimlessly, socialize and share their views openly. Yet, two decades later, usage of these online spaces reveal its deeply political, commercial and socio-cultural character that opens debates of critical concern on what constitutes as openness, universality and democratic as governments and corporations are finding ways to architect and manage these virtual geographies and, users are harnessing these sites for a range of activities.
Thereby, this project draws parallels between urban parks and social network sites, and aims to highlight the historicity and plurality of public leisure spaces and provide a much needed rootedness in this highly speculative media discourse. While social network sites have a short history, the study of underlying structures, networks and its cultures have been of core preoccupation in the sociological and anthropological field for decades. Urban parks, be it the classic 19th century parks or more contemporary theme parks, corporate parks, walled and community gardens, and commercial parks serve as spatial metaphors to reveal different aspects of new media spaces. Metaphors have been used strategically in the social sciences and humanities to unpack complexity and normalize novelty by extending the meaning of content/context to which it is applied. Here, urban parks as a metaphor serve as a powerful tool to construct and comprehend virtual space by overlapping the physical onto these digital domains. This capitalizes on the now much accepted notion that the Net has spatial characteristics in common with real-world places and how we comprehend geographic space reveal insights and lines of enquiry into how we spatially comprehend Web 2.0 spaces.