Introduction: Cultural Critique in Cyberspace




This dissertation is a case study applying methods of rhetorical analysis and cultural critique to the burgeoning online phenomenon called the Xenaverse: the online spaces devoted to the cult following of the syndicated television program "Xena, Warrior Princess." My work combines two modes of inquiry:

(1) Locating and capturing texts from multiple sites on the Internet known to be parts of the Xenaverse, and

(2) Supplementing those texts with data generated from the limited use of the ethnographic tools of participant observation and informant interviews, both electronic and face to face.

The primary focus of my analysis is on constructions of authority in cyberspace. I explore the constellations of social forces in cyberspace which have led to the success of a noncommercial, highly trafficked, dynamic culture or what is sometimes called a "community." The strengths and weaknesses of this online "community" are examined in terms of the ideals of radical democracy, using Fantasy-Theme rhetorical analysis. This research examines how the rhetorical visions of this culture are used to write the narratives of its ongoing existence, in a way that is increasingly independent of the dominant narratives of the television program itself. Using the relevance of an insider's point of view and taking a case which implies successful democratic social resistance to diverse hegemonic forces, I look beyond the Xenaverse and consider the strength of the frequently-cited claim that the medium of cyberspace is intrinsically democratizing. Considering that claim critically, I suggest democracy both is and is not being enhanced online.


Central Research Questions

My central research questions grew out of wanting to find ways to further investigate the (often utopian) democratization claims about online cultures. Through my initial readings I saw two somewhat disparate cultures forming: one around the "programmed deliverables" world of television culture, and the other forming around the fantastically growing World Wide Web, which has essentially absorbed the rest of the Internet into its culture of curious surfers and information-seekers engaging in what Stuart Moulthrop calls "secondary literacy," or electronically- and graphically-enhanced alphabetic cultures (Moulthrop 1991). Which culture would gain ascendancy? Would TV lure bored surfers back? Or would the television set turn into a "dumb terminal" for Web surfers? An overly simplistic dichotomy of active and passive electronic interactions had split the two cultures in my mind. Then it became a moot distinction. Streamed video broadcasts now arrive over web pages. The Web is more like a giant sinkhole, sucking all media into its "docuverse" (Nelson 1987). And now with developments like PointCast, which uses "push technology" to deliver "programmed" information over the Web directly to people's terminals, users can interact with the Web actively or passively, or both ways at the same time.







With the active/passive dichotomy gone, I then considered social constructions of authority. Many claims have been made about technologies' influence on constructions of authority, with many of these claims falling prey to a kind of technological determinism I will discuss in the dissertation. Meanwhile, theories of radical democracy seem to depend on the assumption that there exists an interactive and critical citizenry. The prevailing levels of authoritarianism in a culture can affect whether or not a mass culture can be easily influenced by a form of authoritarian central control, or whether or not a society holds a diverse enough base of folk cultures to have the strength to stand against that sort of control and manipulation (Strinati 38-40). By examining "the politics of artifacts" (Winner 1986), "the politics of the interface" (Selfe and Selfe 1994), and the levels of user empowerment in the face of non-democratizing central control factors, I want to study what kinds of cultures are being born in these cyberspaces. Are they authoritarian, or resistant to authority? Are they extremist? Are they inclined to rant? And if so, why? What keeps Internet fringe groups thriving? And what does it tell us about constructions of authority in less extreme contexts?





I first investigated the Xenaverse as a potential site for my research out of mild curiosity. I located the web site published onscreen at the end of the syndicated television program, "Xena, Warrior Princess." Several links and a keyword search later, I realized I had accidentally discovered an online phenomenon of more than 600 web sites and other modes of communication that had sprung up around the show in the two years since it had been on the air, playing mostly late night and on non-network channels (and in world-wide distribution). Through the use of the Internet, fans of the show were exhibiting the intense devotion and cult-like behavior usually associated with followers of "Star Trek," or "Trekkies." These people and the texts they create make an excellent site for my study of extremism on the Internet. In this dissertation, then, I write The Ballad of the Internet Nutball, the seemingly ubiquitous Everyperson of cyberspace. I focus on a highly interactive and offbeat social phenomenon creating itself online in order to study how authorities are being socially constructed, how existing authorities are treated, and how the complexities of power/knowledge are distributed through language and observation.


In a nutshell, The Ballad of the Internet Nutball is about how language and other "texts" construct a particular social culture, the Xenaverse, hypertextually and dialogically in cyberspace. It specifically looks at how persuasion happens in electronic contexts in order to discover how power/knowledge and authorities are being constructed. This dissertation examines the tension created by three apparent paradoxes in the online culture: of community and transience, of power and vulnerability, of insularity and interactivity. I examine these paradoxes in terms of the activist project of fostering democratic empowerment for marginalized groups through the creation of dynamic cultures both within and beyond the Xenaverse. This study also seeks to enact in hypertextual practice and critical research praxis the intellectual ideals of this study, with form mirroring content as the study itself becomes part of the online Xenaverse through interactive new media structures for dialogic research in cyberspace.


The icon of Xena's Sword takes you into a detailed introduction to the theories and method behind my research. The icon of Xena's Breastplate explores argumentative claims made about constructions of authority across forms of communications technologies. The icon of Gabrielle's Staff tells the story of my growing understanding of hypertext theory and how it works in practice. The round Chakram icon takes you to a Navigational Map where you can begin your exploration on your own terms.



The Ballad of the Internet Nutball: The Xenaverse in Cyberspace

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