In Guiliana Bruno’s book Atlas of Emotion, she begins her first chapter with an exploration of the haptic nature of film, and its implications for liberation: “because of film’s spatio-corporeal mobilization, the spectator is rather a voyageur… my aim is to reclaim emotion and to argue, from the point of view of a film voyageuse, for the haptic as a feminist strategy of reading space.”[i] Bruno here focuses not only on film, but specifically on films shown within the physical architecture of the cinema; that is, the building that contains the apparatus necessary, traditionally, to show films. That architecture, while far from nearing its demise, is certainly no longer as essential to viewing films as it historically has been. However, that does not mean that film – and its voyeuristic and haptic extension, digital media and the internet – has given up its liberating promise.
If film is haptic, the internet is undeniably more so. Navigating its worlds is not a passive event – if watching a film ever was passive – but rather requires physical interaction with a mediating device. Beyond that interface, however, is the internal architecture that has sprung up to cater to the so-called digital generation. From chat “rooms” to cyber “space”, the internet can only be described in spatial terms. These spaces are inhabited by people - very real friendships form between people who visit the same “place” regularly. From these bonds, internet subcultures emerge.
These internet subcultures are heavily comprised of younger people; between a quarter and a third of social media users are under 24, and over half of users are under 35 – depending, of course, on platform.[ii] These young people, particularly in the US, are finding their physical spaces more policed than ever, and increasingly turn to social media as a freer place to socialize with their friends.[iii] The haptic dimension of the internet has the power to collapse and supersede physical space, sometimes unnoticeably. Within linguistic communities (English-speakers, for example) the geographical barriers between different people can be almost invisible. There are a few notable exceptions, such as use of AAVE or the distinctive linguistics of Scottish Twitter, but for the most part, national barriers disappear in regular conversation online.
Furthermore, among online communities, social capital is tantamount. Especially within fan communities, artists and writers will spend hours producing a piece for both the joy of creating it and, crucially, the social accolades they receive when they post it. If what is important in digital communities is the digital space that provides a platform for the community, not the physical spaces that its members inhabit, then the invasion of the physical world into the digital can be uncomfortable or even uncanny. Where it increases connection, such as sending a physical letter to an online friend, this discomfort is pushed aside; when it decreases connection, such as tightening online legislation in certain countries, the discomfort turns into full-fledged panic.
It is precisely this phenomenon that plays a role in making net neutrality a point of such anxiety amongst online subcultures. If a forum is like a physical space, then the idea of some people being unable to access that forum because of tighter restrictions on use is analogous to showing up at your favorite coffee shop to find that forty percent of its regular patrons – including the person you were supposed to meet - have vanished with no explanation. Furthermore, these shifting laws have the potential, if applied recklessly, to seriously curb the creation of fanart and other media within such subcultures.
[i] Bruno, Giuliana. Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Emotion, and Film. Verso, 2011, pg 16.
[ii] “Average Age of Social Media Users.” Statista, Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/274829/age-distribution-of-active-so...
[iii] Boyd, Danah. It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. Yale University Press, 2015, pgs. 84-90.