Utopia functions in an ambiguous space of double meaning: it can refer both to u-topia, ‘a place which does not exist’, and to eu-topia, a good place, a ‘place to be desired’ (Bauman, 1976).
To expand on Bauman’s definition, Birkerts states that ‘tales of utopia are created in order to stimulate hope about possibilities for the future’ (1996). Upon conducting research surrounding the topic of utopia and utopianism in networked societies, there is significant evidence supporting the claim that it does have a place on the internet. According to Howcroft and Fitzgerald, the internet has the capacity for both utopian and dystopian outcomes simultaneously on a range of factors, and that which are realised depends on the contingencies of any particular situation (1998).
Driven by popular social networks and independent websites, anti-brand activists have utilised these platforms to come together and form online utopian communities. ‘Anti-brand communities create a virtual reality that fosters utopian thinking. These communities are visionary, creating ideal social and political schemes. The interactions among community members are based upon visionary ideals of urban planning, activist projects, and controlled consumption lifestyles’ (Hollenbeck and Zinkhan, 2006).
According to Hollenbeck and Zinkhan’s study on the topic, members of anti-brand communities believe that reality has become distorted by contemporary consumption practices, and that consumers are subconsciously participating in a consumer culture that is entirely subservient to corporations. Through the analysis of individual case studies such as anti-McDonald’s, anti-Wal-Mart and anti-Starbucks, it is evident that these are all utopian communities proven by their efforts to overcome cultural influences by publicising that consumerism cannot always provide what it promises (Hollenbeck and Zinkhan, 2006). Quotes from members of these communities further exemplifies their utopian views:
‘We offer a place where people can come together and be valued for who they are and not what they own. I feel like our online community is a place of equality and true democracy.’ (Dave, anti-McDonald’s)
‘When we meet online, it almost feels like we are escaping our surrounding environment. So many people that I talk with think that Wal-Mart is great and I can’t understand why. They all want the lowest prices they can find. Yet they complain about outsourcing! I want to scream at them, ‘don’t you know that you are the cause of outsourcing!’’ (Tom, anti-Wal-Mart)
The passion for their respective causes is evident in these expressions as they call for the active transformation of society to realise a better, more ‘authentic’ means of existence (Yar, 2012). In summary, the evolution of technology and the information era has simply increased the ease in which people can come together to form communities and share their views and beliefs. The contemporary networked society proves itself to be a platform that promotes equality, communication and information sharing – hence the emergence of virtual utopian communities.
Bauman, Z. (1976). Socialism: The Active Utopia. London: Allen and Unwin
Birkerts, S. (1996). The electronic hive – refuse it, in Kling, R. (Ed.) Computerization and Controversy, 2nd Edition, Academic Press, San Diego, pp. 79-82.
Hollenbeck, C and Zinkhan, G. (2006). Consumer Activism on the Internet: The Role of Anti-Brand Communities in NA – Advances in Consumer Research Volume 33, eds. Connie Pechmann and Linda Price, Duluth, MN : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 479-485.
http://swcta.net/moore/files/2012/04/dystopia.pdf Debra Howcroft and Brian Fitzgerald 1998
Yar. M. (2012) ‘Virtual Utopias and Dystopias: The Cultural Imaginary of the Internet’, in K.Tester & M. Hviid-Jacobsen (eds) Utopia: Social Theory and the Future. (Aldershot : Ashgate) http://www.academia.edu/4738519/Virtual_Utopias_and_Dystopias_The_Cultural_Imaginary_of_the_Internet