Review: Personal Connections in the Digital Age

Baym, Nancy. Personal Connections in the Digital Age. Polity, 2010. 185 pps.

Baym, Nancy. Personal Connections in the Digital Age. Polity, 2010. 185 pps.

At only 185 pages, Nancy K. Baym’s new book Personal Connections in the Digital Age may seem sparse in length, but it is dense in information.  As part of the larger Digital Media and Society series, Baym focuses with precision and critical perception on the ways we connect with other humans via digital mediums and platforms.  She builds her argument from a general discussion of more dense topics like technological determinism, social construction, and the way culture shapes and is shaped by technology and moves to specific examples illustrating how communities and personal identities have developed through digital means.

Baym understands that communication via the Internet has been viewed in the past with suspicion.  Through letters written to Ann Landers and shared in her advice column in the 1990’s, Baym explores the changing reception to the Internet as people first viewed it with suspicion and then acceptance. From that point, Baym discusses how and why people build relationships online before moving to a discussion of the role identity plays in our digital interactions.  She gives particular attention to disconnects between the potential for the Internet to build enriching and rewarding relationships versus potentially dangerous or misleading relationships.  She also describes the process of developing a relationship online, assigning specific stages used as an online relationship grows that parallel her earlier examination of people’s reception to the Internet.

Every topic in the book is academically grounded, which would make this an excellent starting point for research.  At the same time, the topics are made accessible through contemporary examples including YouTube, letters to Ann Landers, Last.fm, SNSs, and relevant comic illustrations.  Baym complements important concepts with illustrative anecdotes from her personal and professional life.  As much as the book’s scope is rooted in description and explanation, her ultimate goal is to dispel myths surrounding perceptions of relationships developed via digital means and to provide a complete picture of the possibilities.  She ends with a plea to avoid technological determinism in favor of a belief that “people are adaptive, innovative, and influential in determining what technology is and will become” (151).

Baym’s writing is rooted in her own research and experiences. From there she is able to draw from a rich well.  She is able to center the text on her own research without limiting the scope of the text.  She makes connections to other leading researchers such as Danah Boyd and important contributors to the ongoing dialogue surrounding personal communication via digital means, for instance references to BijkerHughes, and Pinch.

What this book does not contribute is a discussion of methodology.  Instead, this book is a contribution to general scholarship, placing the novice reader in a position to join the conversation fully cognizant.  For those well-versed in the world of digital media, Baym’s work is a strong synopsis of current academic research and findings.  For the politically minded, Baym offers excellent insights into the way digital media influence civic and political engagement in the context of local communities, which is of particular interest to readers of Electronic Media and Politics.

Baym combines depth and rigor with a voice that is above all readable.  Her subjects are timely, grounded, engaging, and even occasionally humorous.  As a classroom text or as personal reading, Baym offers an enjoyable reading experience that will not disappoint in detail and will delight in the closer examination of how personal connections are developed online.