Exploring Online Dialogues as Contextual Practices

Written by: Dwi Aini Bestari


During my internship at the Institute of Network Cultures, I developed an applied research on online dialogues from an ethnographic approach. Inspired by INC’s recent project, “Fear and Loathing of the Online Self” (FLOS) and INC’s agenda of creating an international online dialogue, I tried to combine the two notions to illustrate how understanding the online self as part of contextual practice could be an insightful perspective. Not only to discover the possible limitations of certain approaches to online dialogues, this could also be used to explore further opportunities to overcome the boundaries.


Acknowledging the “Divides”

What does it mean to see the online self and online dialogues as part of contextual practice? Couldry (2010) implies how understanding a media related phenomenon requires us to not only conceive it as a text or structure of productions; instead suggesting two essential questions to address: “What types of matters do people do in relation to media? What type of matters do people say in relation to media?”. In additions to that, he indicates that it should also be understood within a concrete contextual setting, as what people do with media cannot be universally assumed. Contextualizing his argument in the notion of online dialogues, I use the proposed questions to reflect on how different people in different contexts are engaged in online dialogues.

Utilization of online platforms for collaboration and participation in online dialogues is not genuinely new. Several studies argue how these platforms can illustrate Habermas’ concept of public sphere, where people with an internet connection can participate in the rational critical debate (Hargittai & Jennrich, 2016; Barton, 2005). However, others reveal how internet access and an opportunity to ‘speak’ do not equate to forming an online public sphere (Poell, 2009; Hacker & Van Dijk, 2000). Studies that assume to criticize these online platforms generally illustrate several issues, two of which are inequality of access caused by digital divide (Van Dijk, 2005) and the lack of ‘rational critical debate’ due to the scarcity of reflection in the discussion (Poell, 2009).

I am personally interested in the problem addressed by Van Dijk about the questionable notion of participation.  When particular group of people use certain platform for online dialogues, it is then important to reflect and evaluate this: in which context do participation and engagement work? Why and how some people participate whilst some others do not? In consideration of this, I shall refer to Hargittai and Jennrich’s discussion on ‘the online participation divide’ (2016) where they discuss to what extent participatory activities are equally distributed among different types of people. If the term ‘divide’ is firstly used to refer to difference in access to the Internet (Hoffman & Novak, 1998), the notion of divide in the current wider spread of the Internet develops in “differentiated usage context” such as differences in information seeking, types of contents accessed and effective and efficient usage of the Internet itself (Hargittai & Jennrich 2016). And clearly, they can have implications in online participation.

These differences referred above, I argue, need to be firstly acknowledged before deciding approach and platform to use for online dialogues. Deciding which platform is the primary and which one is the secondary one or which platform works better than others cannot be executed by making universal assumption. Instead of focusing on one platform, for instance, we can also expand the online dialogues through different platforms depending on specific country or group we want to reach. Again, as I have implied before, adjusting to the context is equally important as considering the affordances of platforms themselves.


Approaching Online Dialogues with Cultural Sensitivity

To illustrate how online dialogue works in a different way in different context, I present discussions on online participation and dialogues in Indonesian new media landscape. In Indonesia where reading and writing are not completely internalized amongst the people, the selection of the right platforms, contents and formats becomes particularly important in inviting online participation. Merlyna Lim (2013, 636) argues that enhancing online participation in Indonesia “needs to embrace the principles of the contemporary culture of consumption: light package, headline appetite and trailer vision”. To try to adjust with this situation, an online dialogue can be first exercised from the mainstream social media platforms. Regardless the challenge of ephemerality issue, using the mainstream platforms and light format is worth to consider to first build awareness.

Additionally, in targeting a specific country, it is interesting to also understand how a platform can be localized by using a certain format. For example, we can see this phenomenon of using Twitter for interactive dialogue amongst many organizations, communities and companies’ Twitter accounts and their followers in Indonesia. There is a practice on Twitter called ‘KulTwit’, an acronym of Kuliah Twitter, which literally means ‘Twitter Lecture’ in English. At a glance, KulTwit may appear similar to Live Tweet. However, KulTwit, in accordance with its meaning, resembles a ‘lecture’ situation that involves the ‘speaker’, who is usually an expert in a particular field, the institution as a moderator and the followers being listeners or ‘students’ in the class who can also interrupt. Instead of merely sharing information and contents through short links, these Twitter accounts will generate an interactive discussion, led by the speaker, through which followers can ask, respond and debate with each other.

In Indonesian context, I argue the utilization of multiple platforms to reach the target participants would be a strong strategy because each platform is typically used for a different purpose and involves different topics. For example, my ethnography study demonstrates how the online self is dispersed, not only following the platforms’ affordances, but also the sociocultural boundaries. Some informants in my ethnography study reveal how they will use a specific platform called LINE to articulate their concerns on sensitive topics such as politics, sexuality and other critics, as this is a more private platform. This is inseparable from the fact that online activities in Indonesia are sometimes restrained and challenged by local cultural values.

On the other hand, as online dialogue is also part of a social space, online approach should be accompanied by the offline, together with a profound understanding of the challenges and opportunities in specific contexts. In fact, the use of technology in Indonesia occasionally remains secondary to the social ones (Nugroho & Syarief, 2012, 95). This illustrates my previous argument that what defines a primary tool and a secondary one or which platforms is more effective over others cannot be assumed. Although Indonesian people are becoming increasingly engaged in internet practice, participation in a discussion or a dialogue is a completely different matter. In this situation, the assumption that users are active should be reconsidered. A good strategy would be to approach actively and to connect with local communities. This is something that can be performed in different countries, rather than waiting for students, activists and other potential participants to join the online dialogue.

Above is the illustration of how online dialogue is approached in specific context, following the social and cultural setting embedded. In the end, I would conclude that understanding the online self and online dialogue as a part of contextual practice should not only be discussed as a topic in our academic dialogue, but also be a method applied in creating the dialogue itself. We are part of it, aren’t we?



Couldry, Nick, Theorising media as practice. Theorising media and practice 4 (2010): 35-54.

Hargittai, Eszter, and Kaitlin Jennrich, The Online Participation Divide. The Communication Crisis in America, And How to Fix It. Palgrave Macmillan US, 2016. 199-213.

Hoffman, Donna L., and Thomas P. Novak. “Bridging the racial divide on the Internet.” (1998): 390-391.

Lim, Merlyna. “Many clicks but little sticks: Social media activism in Indonesia.” Journal of Contemporary Asia 43.4 (2013): 636-657.

Nugroho, Yanuar and Sofie Shinta Syarief, Beyond Click-Activism?: New Media and Political Processes in Contemporary Indonesia. Jakarta: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, (2012).