Netting Out the New in the Consumption of the Internet? Postmodern Versus Longstanding Theme Perspectives

Stephen J. Gould, Baruch College, The City University of New York
James R. Coyle, Baruch College, The City University of New York
[ to cite ]:
Stephen J. Gould and James R. Coyle (2000) ,"Netting Out the New in the Consumption of the Internet? Postmodern Versus Longstanding Theme Perspectives", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, eds. Stephen J. Hoch and Robert J. Meyer, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 138.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, 2000      Page 138


Stephen J. Gould, Baruch College, The City University of New York

James R. Coyle, Baruch College, The City University of New York


The Internet is continuing to grow so rapidly and become so ubiquitous that it is incumbent for consumer researchers to fully investigate and grasp it. While there are many ways to approach this phenomenon, one that is very powerful for capturing its effect is the theoretical conceptualization of postmodern versus longstanding themes. This perspective attempts to gauge what is new and different about the Net in relation to what is extension of the old and familiar. To investigate these issues, an exploratory study of 28 consumers using written protocols was conducted.


Two major themes were found, both of which draw on postmodern change as reflected in the Net experiences: (1) extending the self through Net activity, and (2) making comparisons between experiences that are longstanding (established, older, e.g., shopping offline) versus postmodern (new, disruptive, e.g., shopping online). Regarding extending the self, postmodernization drives the self to explore more phenomena and be more plastic than it was generally in the past. This postmodern self is continually undergoing an extending process in which it travels along a space-time continuum anchored by offline and virtual poles (although it may in fact be much more multipolar than this conceptual boundedness permits). Thus, the extended self (Belk 1988) or Net Self (Tambyah 1996) is a crucial element of the Internet experience. How is this extended self actually extended and the Net Self onstructed? Based on the consumer narratives in this study, one aspect concerns mastery of the Net (cf. Belk 1988) and another concerns involvement or interest in a particular Net activity.

The issue of longstanding versus postmodern comparisons must at first be considered in terms of the prior work shaping this issue. Firat and Venkatesh (1995) wrote of the liberatory aspects of postmodern construction of the self and consumer behavior. Thompson and Hirschman (1995) studied consumer responses to the alleged seductiveness of the postmodern with its allure of being able to remake oneself in any way one desired and found in fact that longstanding, more fixed (or modernist) themes retained much of their power. Viewing this from a Net perspective, Gould and Lerman (1998) found that there is a subtle interplay of the longstanding and postmodern on the Net and that hyperreal self-plasticity and fluidity are being negotiated and contested rather than being one-sidedly or overwhelmingly embraced. In the present study, consumers discussed using the Net and other media in rather traditional terms: (1) to communicate, (2) to gather news and other information, and (3) to shop. While there is often a displacement of basic consumer activities to the Net from the offline world, there does not appear to be a sharp paradigmatic shift as postmodernist theory might predict. Instead, we see longstanding, traditional consumer concerns dominating the narratives.


While in many ways there does not appear to be a radical displacement of consumer perspective as postmodern theory might suggest, there does seem to be room for a multilevel perspective involving both postmodern and longstanding themes. For instance, using the Internet, itself, is not one totalizing phenomenon but a variegated one, reflecting a range of experiences from shopping (which at least in some aspects replicates offline shopping experiences) to more identity-bending (postmodern-tending) ones (e.g., becoming an #Avatar’ figure online and encountering other similarly constructed virtual selves in virtual encounters). In this regard, the following have context-setting implications for how a particular Internet experience is perceived: (1) consumers’ stages of Internet and life experience, (2) the type of experience being had on the Internet, and (3) historical contingency factors which in the Internet space-time continuum will reflect extremely rapid and uprooting changes.

Much as the discourse of technology may be deconstructed into constituent parts with uncertain and blurred boundaries (e.g., high tech versus high touch), we find that the Internet experience may be similarly treated (e.g., on versus offline, real versus virtual). When seen as a phenomenon of phenomena, it becomes less likely that researchers will attempt to lasso it into a totalizing discourse which puts everything into its theoretical place as if there were a place to put or contain it. Instead, it needs to be investigated in a fine-grained manner without over-characterization of it in terms of either its longstanding or postmodern sensibilities. A more contingent approach in which different forms of cultural production are seen with respect to different Net activities and different consumers seems indicated. Many Net consumption activities are lacking in the main elements of hyped up virtual reality we often hear about. In many respects, this virtuality is a mapping or simulation of the offline world in contradistinction to the hyperreality of Baudrillard (1983) in which the simulation presages or dominates the external #real’. On the other hand and at other times, the online simulation can be the dominant and prefiguring element. In that case, consumer activities in which the consumer engages in identity play and the like is the very stuff of virtuality. How these two Net phenomena interface and play themselves out in the future is not only a topic of research, but also is one of fascination and mysery.


Belk, Russell W. (1988), "Possessions and the Extended Self," Journal of Consumer Research, 15 (September), 139-168.

Firat, A. Fuat and Alladi Venkatesh (1995), "Liberatory Postmodernism and the Reenchantment of Consumption," Journal of Consumer Research, 22 (December), 239-267.

Gould, Stephen. J. and Dawn B. Lerman (1998), " "Postmodern" Versus "Longstanding" Cultural Narratives in Consumer Behavior: An Empirical Study of NetGirl Online," European Journal of Marketing, 32 (7/8), 644-654.

Tambyah, Siok Kuan (1996), "Life on the Net: The Reconstruction of Self and Community," in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 24, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch, Jr., Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 172-177.

Thompson, Craig J. and Elizabeth C. Hirschman (1995), "Understanding the Socialized Body: A Poststructuralist Analysis of Consumers’ Self-Conceptions, Body Images, and Self-Care Practices," Journal of Consumer Research, 22 (September), 139-154.