Master of Arts
Faculty of Arts
Smith, Alison Jane, Online memorials: adaptive practices in technoscientific and social change, Master of Arts thesis, Faculty of Arts, University of Wollongong, 2004. http://ro.uow.edu.au/theses/2176
The development of the internet has been accompanied by discussion and speculation on its functions and possibilities, particularly the ways in which the internet will, or has the potential to, change society. The relationship between technology and social change has long been discussed in the philosophy of technology and technology studies. A common strategy has been to make a case study that will allow the researcher to investigate the relationship between society and a particular kind of technology. I have adapted this approach, making a case study of a specific social practice, the memorialisation of the dead, rather than a technology. Working across the fields of cyberculture and thanatology, in this thesis I argue that online memorials are an exemplary instance of the mutual constitution of technoscientific and social change.
My analysis of online memorials has been informed by two interdisciplinary fields, thanatology and cyberculture studies. My research in thanatology, especially the institutions and practices that produce death ritual in contemporary industrialised societies, theories of grief and bereavement, studies of material mourning culture and the care of the . dying and bereaved, provides the necessary theoretical framework for an understanding of offline memorial practice and consequently, a comparison of offline and online memorial texts. Researching theories of the relationship between technology and social change focusing on alternatives to technological determinism has revealed the extent to which cyberculture studies is concerned with the effects of changing technologies on society. Cyberculture studies has tended to emphasise a view of the internet as a transformative phenomenon, separate from everyday lived experience. My research into theories of the relationship between technoscience and society has led me to work towards dismantling the construction of the internet as a separate space with transformative effects.
An online memorial can be described as a vernacular text published on the world wide web made by a bereaved person to commemorate someone who has died. I have treated online memorials as a genre, an approach that ailows the comparison of one individual text with another, but also enables a discussion of features and characteristics in general terms. When analysing specific examples of the genre, I have considered these web sites in terms of four elements: design, media, connectivity and interactivity.
An approach that treats the online texts I have studied as part of a social practice that occurs both off and online is particularly suited to avoiding a determinist construction of the internet as transformative. By considering the similarities and differences between offline memorial practice and what can be described as a genre of memorial sites, I have identified and discussed a process of adaptive change that occurs within the social practice of memorialisation, and across online and offline memorialising activity. In the case of online memorials, the makers of memorial sites adapt from both prior forms of death ritual, but also the practices and techniques of online culture. The makers of these sites make considered and knowing use of the repertoire of death ritual, as well as their experience as participants in a variety of online activities, to produce a genre of texts that, while changed from prior practices, remains legible and meaningful.