UW News

April 18, 2002

Profile: David Silver strikes cybergold

Steve Hill
University Week

David Silver definitely isn’t working in your father’s university.

Silver is one of the UW’s hot new scholars in the burgeoning field of Internet studies. His work studying the rapidly emerging cyberculture has landed him on the pages of The New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education and many more of the nation’s newspapers. Not bad for someone who’s most significant contribution to the field — the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies — started without the impassioned professional drive one might expect.

“Back when I started the site, I thought it was a hobby,” Silver said recently from his first floor office in the Communications building. “Then it became this big deal in academia.”

Just how big a deal is it? The online center, which he created while pursuing his doctorate at the University of Maryland, grew to be one of the most visited sites on that institution’s servers.

The center continues to exist in its virtual state, but now is on UW servers at http://www.com.washington.edu/rccs/. One of its staples is book reviews, about three or four a month that cover a variety of books about the Internet from a cultural perspective. When he started the site in 1996 he and a handful of friends were writing the reviews. Now he puts out a request and gets 30 or 40 people asking if they can review the books.

People weren’t always so enthusiastic about cyberculture.

“There was this professor in Maryland, and I love this guy, but he said, ‘You can’t have a field, you don’t have a canon. You can’t have a canon when you don’t have any books.’ I turned around and this was in 1996 when maybe there were only two shelves of books in my office. Now there’s this,” Silver said, pointing to no less than 10 shelves packed side to side and up and down with books. “This is all cyberculture studies. From policy to hypertext to issues of gender and race — cultural issues.”

Part of his motivation for building the online center was to help overcome the isolation he felt among scholars not particularly interested in the Internet as a discipline.

“I wanted a community,” he said.

At that time as a doctoral student he was told by colleagues in his home department, American studies, that they didn’t care much about computers and if he did, he ought to pay a visit to the computer science department. So he did. There, he found the same sort of ambivalence toward what he saw as the fascinating intersection of culture and technology.

“So I decided I was just going to create a site and try to foster a community,” he said. “I knew people out there studying it. A lot of my friends and colleagues were studying it and this was a way for us to virtually come together.”

Some validation finally came five years after he launched the site with the March 30, 2001 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. The story, “Internet Studies 1.0: A Discipline Is Born,” quoted Silver and other scholars doing similar work.

“It was a big deal because it was the first time they said, ‘Something is happening here with Internet studies.'”

Obviously, Silver had noticed a few years earlier. As an undergraduate at UCLA he developed an interest in how technology can be used as a form of resistance or cultural creativity — the printing press and early days in radio, for example, and the impact those technologies had on society. The next step may have been a matter of good timing as much as anything.

“When I graduated with a bachelor’s this thing called the Internet started getting popular and I was very interested in it,” he said. “I went to Maryland … and realized that my interest in the Internet was much less a hobby and kind of an obsession.”

Some of the things he’s seen as the online center has blossomed have fed his interest in the field. Among the most interesting, he says, is the Internet’s ability to bring a variety of people together. For example, he enjoys watching tenured professors who have studied the development of, say, radio, work with graduate students interested in the development of the Internet. He’s fascinated with conference panels that include full professors, junior professors and graduate students. And he has enjoyed his own collaborations with undergraduates studying computer science and engineering.

“That’s been a really exciting thing,” he said. “I’ve worked with a number of the computer science majors here and they’re fantastic. I’ve worked with them on a couple of independent studies, and to have them reflect about what they’re doing and answer questions about culture and society, whereas they’re more often asked questions about code, is very interesting for both of us.”

He’s also interested in teaching undergraduates in his own department. He’s got three courses during this, his first year at the UW and he’s developing another — cultural diversity in cyberspace — with a grant from the UW’s Curriculum Transformation Project.

But more than anything, Silver is enjoying running his ever-expanding e-community from Seattle, one of the nation’s cyberculture hot spots, and the UW, which he says is as cutting edge an institution for Internet scholars as any in the U.S.

“To me, this community offers a really interesting opportunity to make that connection between the city and the University.”

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