Analysis of Atomic:MPC using Actor Network Theory
The actor-world of www.atomicmpc.com.au
is both varied and diverse in terms of its constituent actor-networks, and so I feel the best approach to analysing it is to start from 'the beginning', looking at some of the actor-networks that were both involved, and have subsequently evolved.
Towards the end of 2000, ideas for a new computer magazine were floating around between a group of friends. It's doubtful that this would have gone very far, had it not been for a publisher (AJB Publishing) offering control of a new mag to former-PCPowerPlay editor, Ben Mansill. The scene was set, the spotlight on, and the focus? Geeks who like their computers with a more-than-healthy dose of performance hardware. It's likely that the exact size and composition of the intended market was unknown, although to be sure, the market existed, an untapped resource that lay unaware in its torpor. One thing could be relatively certain, though: readers of the new magazine, to be called Atomic: Maximum Power Computing, would generally be avid internet users. Taking this in stride - and the bonus of (relatively) cheap market research - it was decided to have an online forum ready to go at the launch date of the magazine.
With resources in high demand but short supply - a not-atypical scenario for a new magazine in need of time and money - best usage of those resources on hand was the priority. Drawn into the actor-world, and possibly the base actor (along with the magazine as a black box entity, encapsulating aspirations, content, and staff, amongst others) in the world so far, came the computer that would host the website, the publishing company's old mail server. Whilst nothing spectacular, it was adequate, and accommodated a certain degree of future growth. Design of the website and coding of the forums were done 'in-house', making use of available staff within the company. The site design was minimalist and simple, yet looked slick and refreshingly uncluttered compared to other sites at the time. The forums were 'quickly' hand-coded and put together, required to be no more than functional, and manage to do its job in the short-term.
Initial advertising was done through AJB's original IT magazine, PC@uthority, and old fashioned word of mouth. Interest was generated, the first issue of the magazine was released, the site was launched, and the foundations were finally in place.
As time progressed, and the forums increased in size, word of mouth spread quickly throughout other online forums. A group of actors, disillusioned with the PCPowerPlay forums and staff treatment of members/readers (and the website in general), heard talk of a similar community, one that had an older average member age - and hence a more mature feel to it. Slipping into a funnel of interests, they found the answer to most of the problems they'd previously had with various online communities. In a sense, the Atomic website and forums can be seen as an obligatory passage point - more and more people were finding the solution they were after - an online community to call home and feel welcome in, made up of people from all age groups with a common interest.
In all of this, one should not underestimate the impact that the staff had on the community. Unlike virtually any other magazine websites at the time, the Atomic forums became a tight-knit community between readers (and non-readers who just happened to 'surf' across the site) and writers. The magazine staff would regularly participate in forum discussions, and even help out with technical problems some users had with their home computers. By interacting regularly with (at least part of) their reader base, they were able to shape the direction of their new community, subtly (yet surely) translating a very homogeneous group of actors into the 'Atomic community'.
The relative success of the forums and their community can be characterised by the following quote: "He who is able to translate others' interests into his own language carries the day… But interests, like everything else, can be constructed." (Bruno Latour, Give me a laboratory…, pg 144-145) It wasn't simply enough for the staff to perceive a market that would be interested in something unique to the print world. By creating an online community centred on the magazine, they were creating interest in parts of Australia that would not otherwise have had access to the magazine, or even known about it. By using a writing style that was refreshingly tongue in cheek, they could appeal to the 'hardcore tech gamer' community, while poking fun at the representation such a segment of the community attracted in the popular mass media.
Like any successful actor-network (or world, even), the Atomic website is a stabilised investment of form, one that has well and truly 'clotted' it's social, physical, and literary forms. Taking a step inward and exploring the substituent actor-networks, it can be seen that "…there was no essential distinction between production and consumption. The two took shape and adjusted to one another in the same movement." (Callon and Law, Construction of Sociotechnical Networks, pg 74). As both a generator and orderer of information, the actors that take part in the website are creating and constructing various ways of communicating ideas, opinions, and beliefs.
The actual layout and format of the site itself is essentially a formalism; "This is because, like all formalisms, it connects and defines the relations between a set of terms." (John Law and Annemarie Mol, 'Situating Technoscience: an Inquiry into Spatialities', www.comp.lancs.ac.uk/sociology/soc052jl.html 26/11/02). The layout of the site - having the main viewing area with a side-bar to the left for navigation; the structured layout of the forums on various topics; the break-up and formatting of pages of threads in each forum - is all standardised for virtually every user. There is only a slight dissociation, more so a weakening of the site's stability, due to the variability of world wide web browsers that are used. Due to web pages being parsed by the user's browser, there is a risk of being displayed incorrectly when certain browsers are used (thanks to the different formatting and parsing conventions maintained by each). It may show the text laid out differently (different fonts/sizes, lack of unsupported image types, etc), but it still remains essentially the same. Even using a text-only browser such as Lynx, while the visual format appears radically different, the underlying layout and design is still visible. While various viewing platforms (a black box that takes into account the browser used, and other viewing discrepancies that may arise from differing operating systems, hardware, et al) may buck and try to derail the stabilised actor-world, they have been translated carefully, and their homogeneous nature has been taken into account. The posting conventions espoused by most forum-goers (capitalisation, paragraphing, and other factors that affect readability) can be seen as a type of formalism too, in that it allows different users to understand and communicate with each other, and in some instances, defining how the post will be reacted to. Unreadable or annoying/useless posts can become stigmatic, with users avoiding that poster altogether.
However the site is actually viewed, the clear and relatively simple navigational design remains virtually the same for all people. The forums have implemented a dual ranking system, one to show how many posts have been contributed, the other to show how 'favoured' to the Staff you are. The 'post count' ranking system is seen by the staff, and some users, as being very important - luckily, it is infrequently abused by people who 'rank spam', an attempt at dissociation that sees a user post unwanted information to the benefit of no-one, simply to get a higher rank. Those seen to consistently add a certain je ne sais quoi that is desirable to the community, are given the title of 'Hero' by the staff (ranked as 'Gods'), as a way for the staff to keep the standards high. Both ranking methods create an environment where certain forum members tend to receive automatic respect. Of course, being a diverse collection of people, not everyone tends to agree on this. When new appointees to 'Hero' are nominated, there are factional groups that will show their support, or disappointment. It's a tribute to the staff and senior forum members that they can generally contain this 'hubris', and placate disgruntled users. Sometimes a person may feel strongly enough to leave, but oft times, they stay and try harder to achieve 'Hero-hood' themselves. It's rather easier to translate people who share common interests, and who look up and respect you.
The Atomic community is constituted of "… extremely diverse groups of actors… Simply put, [Atomic] is heterogeneous." (Star and Griesemer, Translations and Boundary Objects, pg 387) Each user can be viewed as a black box, with the varying factions and cliques that form amongst friends, creating localised actor-networks made up of these black boxes. The localisation refers both to the closeness that online communities can engender for a small population spread across a large continent, as well as the physical proximity some members share with one another. Sometimes, the black box that is a particular member may be opened; certain forum members are quite open, and willing to share intimate aspects of their lives. Through this close-knit sharing within the community, people started to meet up with other members in the same locality, forming solid bonds of friendship. An extension of the agency of the magazine, and website, can be seen in how it has enabled the building of smaller communities. The magazine and website both have engineered homogeneous groups of entities - publishers, retailers, advertisers, readers (and non-readers of the magazine, too). In addition to this, it's lent its agency to certain community-member groups; at an event in January this year, a host of sponsors were found so that all profits could be donated to the Multiple Sclerosis society of Australia.
The forums are "heterogeneous, requiring many different actors and viewpoints. It also requires cooperation. The two create tension between divergent viewpoints and the need for" order. The website interface provides a standardised method for submitting posts, and viewing the site, and acts as a boundary object. As a boundary object, it is "both adaptable to different viewpoints and robust enough to maintain identity across them" (Star and Griesemer, Translations and Boundary Objects, abstract). They have up until now, been remarkably successful at this. In the past 6-12 months, they have grown to such a size that the website has started to destabilise. The numerous fixes to the hand-coded forums have been patch-jobs at best, yet all that was available within the constraints of time and budget. This is, and is likely to be, the closest the website has come to dissociation so far. When members have problems posting, and long page-load times just to read content, there are bound to be those who get sick of waiting, and find better things to occupy their time. However, the forums have become big enough to reach a critical mass - as some members leave (some also just find themselves bored, or are upset they haven't become a 'Hero' yet), other new people come along, and find something worth staying for. In this way, there's a continual circulation of new faces, and fresh ideas. Along with a change in membership, comes a change in content; there is no singular essence to what is 'Atomic'; it's a nebulous entity that's continually in a state of flux. When one group of posters are visibly present, it may become more intellectual; another group may make it more humorous; one group may make it more philosophical, while another may make it 'baser' and trashy. Somewhat unusually, it's often required to point out to members that they hold some measure of agency themselves - the place is what they make of it, and as such, it's unfair to sit around complaining about what other people make of it, and not contributing anything themselves. From whichever context it's viewed, there is certainly a continual power play, balancing the wishes and needs of the 'member population' with those of the staff. With such a light-handed style of moderation in use, most members enjoy the full gamut of experiences to be had by an open forum that asks little more of members than they keep the content legal. Such an approach encourages outspoken individuals, which encourages confrontation and debate; peer group pressure has enough agency over most individuals that this is kept to, and carried out in, both a healthy level and manner. If the magazine stopped production (due to some unforseen circumstances) it is likely that the community would stay on; whether the forums would remain in their current shape is irrelevant - they're an evolving actor-world, and some slight changes to the server hosting the site, or removal of copyright property, would not alter the world in itself, merely the façade it presents to the outside world.
The internet, a much larger world of which Atomic is but a small pinprick of a black box, is based on both the supporting hardware, and the information that flows across said hardware. The quote "Information…. is the direct result of the construction and extension of networks which are, at one and the same time, networks of production, distribution, and exchange" by Callon and Law (Construction of Sociotechnical Networks, pg 76) is a good summation of this. Of this larger 'actor-universe', the Atomic actor-world is a microcosm: it has been drawn together from a largely heterogeneous 'actor-universe', and for almost two years now, has drawn into itself a host of "juxtaposed components", harnessing the "diverse trajectories of various entities", that is a "stabilised, self-sustaining [and growing]" network which has resisted dissociation of the actor-world ( Helen Verran, Class notes, 'Science, Technology, and Society). Even though losing some substituent actor-networks, it has ably replaced them with new ones. Atomic is, a stabilised, homogeneously engineered, actor-world.
Interviews with various Staff and readers/members of Atomic: MPC magazine, and www.atomicmpc.com.au.
Class reader for Science, Technology, and Society.
Situating Technoscience: an Inquiry into Spatialities, John Law and Annemarie Mol, Centre for Science Studies, Lancaster University.