IR13 Sunday highlights: mobile ecologies, Instagram, disruptive spaces, teaching on Facebook…and a bit more activism

Image of a barber and phone shop in Langa
Store in Langa township, courtesy of Adamina

The day began with ‘Mobile ecologies: mobile phones and young people’s online participation in public access venues in Cape Town’ from Marion Walton and Jonathan Donner. Walton started by saying that mobile Internet in South Africa doesn’t, for the most part, mean smart phones, the Web, or Twitter: it means “feature phones”, and probably platforms like Mxit. Southern ecologies of use for mobile phones are also very different from Northern contexts: most public schools don’t have the resources to provide training in technology, and the overlap between mobile use and the spheres of tertiary education and the workplace is limited (since many people don’t have the opportunity to study further and unemployment is high). Those who are poorest pay the highest costs for data, as prepaid data access is far more expensive than broadband access. Putting this together allows a better understanding of mobile Internet use beyond well-off users in the North: as Internet handsets become more accessible, they amplify some people’s participation more than others, interacting with existing inequalities in diverse ways.

Later in the session, Magdalena Olszanowski looked at Instagram’s spaces of flow. This is one of those talks where I knew absolutely nothing coming in (I don’t use Instagram, let alone study it) , but there were some useful links with the reading I’ve been doing lately on space/place that I want to explore later. It was also lovely seeing the slides, which (as you might expect) were illustrated with beautiful photos.

Slide detailThe next session was a tough choice between ethnographies of online and mobile media and a session on social movements. I ended up going to the latter, but I’ll have to chase down the papers on ethnographies later (and this talk on the ethnography of microblogging and this book and, now that I look again at the program, also the work on social media: technologies of control). There were a couple of good papers in the social movements session on the use of new media in Egypt and Tunisia, questioning the dominant narratives of social media use as key to organising on the ground. Simon Lindgren‘s work on disruptive spaces also looks useful, including the recommendation to look at the edges of networks as well as the cores in research.

There were also a few papers I missed (or other links that turned up in the tweet stream): Agency, Resistance, and Orders of Dissent, Farida VisSocial Media, Social Change, Johnny Unger’s work on Occupy, and an open access special issue on socially mediated publicness,

network mapTim and I presented in the following panel (slides to come), on politics and civic engagement, so my note-taking was limited. Tim’s paper on ‘#auspol, #qldpol, and #wapol: Twitter and the new Australian political commentariat’ will probably be of interest to some readers (so keep an eye on his site for updates), Sharon Strover and Sujin Choi’s ‘YouTube and civic engagement’ was notable for its examination of reply networks on YouTube, and Sheetal Agarwal et al’s paper (also out of SoMe Lab) provides a good model for understanding OWS as a networked organisation (or a series of interconnected networked organisations).

Nearly 70% of students see giving support as a key reason for participating in the group.
Giving support is even more important for students than receiving it.

The day (and the conference) ended with a lively discussion from my colleagues Mike Kent, Tama Leaver, and Kate Raynes-Goldie on the use of Facebook in tertiary education, with Clare Lloyd‘s research presented in absentia. Mike presented the most positive perspective, arguing that while boundaries need to be set, Facebook provides a familiar environment for student engagement that stimulates discussion effectively. Tama’s position was a cautious but still predominantly positive, and focused specifically on Facebook, student engagement, and the ‘Uni Coffee Shop’ group. Clare Lloyd and Kate Raynes-Goldie argued for the need to be careful about context collapses when using Facebook and to avoid getting stuck in a false choice between Facebook and Blackboard. All in all, the panel and following discussion was in favour of using Facebook in a carefully-informed and well-managed way.

IR13 Saturday highlights: Jedward, Peppa Pig, Occupy, Occupy, more Occupy, Twitter, Twitter, and more Twitter

A kitten falling asleep
(Kitten gifs are allowed for blog posts on Internet studies conferences. Because kittens.)

On Saturday there were four sessions, each of which had up to four papers in them. Even though I skipped the third session to drink coffee and debrief, it was a lot to digest. Happily there was a good mix of papers relevant to my research and papers not-at-all-relevant but interesting enough to help me push through the exhaustion. (My apologies to any presenters who were unnerved by my glazed appearance in your session. It’s not you, it’s jetlag!)
There were quite a few papers looking at various aspects of Occupy, many of them doing large-scale Twitter analysis. Zizi Papacharissi elaborated on her plenary, talking about the rhythms of Occupy: broadcasting and listening practices on #ows. She spoke briefly about the affect of the Twitter stream, which is an idea that makes sense to me on an intuitive level: if I understand it correctly, this is the idea that the stream itself (rather than individual tweets or accounts) has a certain texture and rhythm. This is something I’ve had a sense of when following or participating in high-volume Twitter streams; analysing it seems tricky, but focusing on the emergence of tagging networks and other emerging structures seems to yield some useful results. For example, the Occupy movement’s openness seems to mean that #ows tags are often associated with those of more right-wing movements, particularly the Tea Party.
A map of network connections for sites shared associated with OccupyThere were also quite a few papers on Occupy from the Washington University Social Media Lab (and, having a quick look around their site, it looks like they’re doing a heap of stuff I want to look into further). A couple of papers used Gnip Powertrack and Radian6 to analyse content from Twitter and/or YouTube, showing that much of the content shared around Occupy is from professional sources (although there’s more movement-produced material than for other movements, like the campaign around Proposition 8 in California). The presenters emphasises the importance of the surrounding environment in shaping media use: the context shaping Prop 8 (in 2008) is very different from that around Occupy. (A number of the talks at IR13 made this point, which I think is an important one: protest ecologies matter.) There was also some useful discussion of the ways in which protesters use hashtags to sort through the vast volume of material associated with #ows.

The final session for the day included another WU SoMe Occupy paper: Kevin Driscoll‘s work on how activists understand and make choices around different platforms. Some of his findings were quite different from what we’ve found (which is not surprising given the diversity of the Occupy movement) so I’m looking forward to looking into this more. And just in case that isn’t enough Occupy, I’m hoping to find some of the Occupy papers that I ended up missing because of clashes, including #Occupy the City (another paper out of the UW SoMe Lab) and The Occupy Movement Online: Same Label, Different Projects, from Tomi Oladepo and Dennis Nguyen. The latter is one of the few papers that looked at the Occupy movement beyond the West.

Image of Ireland's entrants, Jedward
This paper actually made me regret not watching Eurovision this year

The next session I went to looked at ‘fans and Twitter’. While it’s great seeing what other researchers who are in my area (more or less) are doing, I like interspersing these with talks where I’m learning something entirely new, or making new connections. I particularly enjoyed Rachel Magee et al’s paper on fans’ Twitter use around The Hunger Games, and #Eurovision: Twitter as a Technology of Fandom, from Axel Bruns, Stephen Harrington, and my colleague Tim Highfield.

There are some useful parallels between studying fan cultures and social movements which I’m beginning to consider. In both cases, there’s a significant difference in the framework of the research between those working inside communities and those looking in from the outside. I’m curious to see whether there’s much writing looking more directly at this connection and the ways in which fan studies and social movement research might interact. There are also issues of ethics and representation: Rachel Magee anonymised all data as part of the university ethics requirement, which meant that she was not able to quote any tweets directly or even mention the characters which participants were acting as on Twitter, which is in sharp contrast to the approach I’ve taken.

Introductory slide for the talk, with an image of Peppa Pig
Peppa Pig is the future

The final session included a couple of papers that relate to my work on the digital liberties movement: Mauger‘s on the Pirate Bay in Denmark and Burcu Bakioglu‘s on Anonymous’s war on the anti-piracy campaigners. Tama Leaver also gave a talk on global media distribution and the tyranny of digital distance which expanded on his pre-conference presentation. I learned less about Peppa Pig than I was hoping to, but the argument was interesting enough to overcome this gap in the literature.

One of the benefits/downsides of the very lively #IR13 Twitter backchannel is that the already-difficult choice between sessions is made harder by people tweeting about excellent talks happening at the same time as the excellent talk you’re attending. Among the many other gems that I’m sure future browsing through the program will turn, I missed Joseph Reagle’s Infocide in Open Content Communities, what seems to have been an important roundtable on the politics of algorithms, Holly Kruse’s paper on pneumatic tubes (there seems to be more about this here), and Helen Keegan‘s This is Not a Module: Learning Through an Alternative Reality Game, Running the game seems to have been a nerve-wracking experience (since it involved elaborate pranking), but ultimately awesome. I can only hope to give students such an interesting experience.

IR13 Friday Session: Protest and Online Activism

"Class Let's Take a 15 minute break" Nice, class is over!There have been more talks here on activism than it’s been physically possible for me to attend without splitting into two. Friday afternoon’s session on protest and online activism began with a look at ‘Protest and Internet humour memes in UK universities’ from Gordon Fletcher, which was pleasantly LOL-heavy (even if I was missing the appropriate background for many of them). Fletcher argues that while this is politics of a sort (“politics, but not as we know it”), it’s not necessarily particularly effective politics: it’s not going to start any revolutions.

Next Dan Mercea (co-authoring with Paul Nixon) looked at the use of Twitter and Facebook in attempts to recruit participants to the Occupy movement in the Netherlands. Whereas most participants in our research on Occupy Oakland saw Twitter as the primary online platform for communicating about the movement (even if this was often problematic), participants in Netherlands Occupy sites relied far more on Facebook. Mercea and Nixon also found that both Facebook and Twitter played a role in helping participants to initially learn about the Occupy movement, but wasn’t actively used to try to recruit participants. Participants’ use of both Facebook and Twitter also tended to taper off over time, and lost importance as a source of information or engagement with Occupy.

GWEI screenshot
GWEI’s site is eye-bleedingly bright, and the background flashes constantly. You have been warned.

The talks which followed were a little less relevant to my own research (and, sadly, my note-taking seems to drop off significantly towards the end of the day, especially at conferences that involve international travel): Constance Elizabeth Kampf looked at ‘The past, present and future of online activism towards business’, drawing on some great case studies. I particularly liked the Google Will Eat Itself project, which claims it will use revenue generated from Google ads to buy Google shares, and eventually turn Google into a public trust. (GWEI currently owns 819 shares, totalling USD 405.413,19, meaning it will be 202.345.117 years until GWEI fully owns Google.)  Zeena Feldman‘s ‘Beyond freedom and oppression’ looked at practices of resistance to the commodification of the Couchsurfing website, as users tried to continue their engagement without fully capitulating to the site’s shift to for-profit status.

IR13 Plenaries: identity, humanity, affective news, and the department of shameless studies

  1. This afternoon’s session was a knockout. Liesbet Van Zoonen‘s keynote, ‘From identity to fragmentation: fixating the fragmented self,’ was brought together a heap of information which I was at least vaguely familiar with into new configurations, making important connections between the commodification of identity on social networking sites, the policing of identity by the state, and the increased push from multiple directions towards singular, normative forms of identity. I highly recommend reading Axel Bruns’ summary, as well as reading the final version of the talk when it’s published in Media, Culture and Society early next year.
    After the keynote, Daniel Miller used Oliver Sacks’ work as a frame to introduce his own, starting with the way in which Sacks’ stories often focus on the loss of something that we think of as being quintessentially human, and using this as a platform to talk about ‘biological technologies’: our nervous system, brain functions, senses, and so on. This narrative allowed for a relatively smooth transition from a discussion of ‘internal technologies’ to one of ‘external technologies’, configuring our use of communicative technologies as part of what makes us human. Miller pointed out that even face to face communications are structured by social technologies: rules about what we say to whom, body language, and so on. Miller’s current ethnographical work focuses on social media use by people living in a hospice, which he argues allows a better understanding of the role communicative media will play in our lives than the current focus on young people’s use does.
    The second plenary talk, from Zizi Papacharissi, was full of extra reading and analysis that I want to dig into more deeply. She spoke about recent research into ‘Affective news streams and networked publics’, referring to Twitter use in the Egypt uprising and Occupy Wall Street. There are plenty of connections here with the research I’m doing with Tim: the use of Twitter as an alternative information channel, a tactical communication tool, and a way to strengthen bonds within the movement. Papacharissi looked in detail at what characterised the use of Twitter in the context of the #egypt hashtag: instantaneity (which was also linked to the spreadability of tweets); the emergence of crowdsourced elites (especially activists on the ground and those elsewhere who were acting as effective curators of information); the importance of solidarity in the semantic mapping of #egypt; and ambience (a constant presence of the Twitter stream, and the repetition of retweeting). She argued that this combines the practices of oral storytelling with more traditional approaches to news reporting, and doesn’t “rob movements of the leaders”: leaders emerge through crowdsourced practices.
    Terri Senft‘s performance was an amazing note to end on. She focused on the idea of oversharing online, of being “too much”, “shameless”, and the ways in which this is gendered, linking it to her work on cam girls. The content of Senft’s talk was excellent: like Van Zoonen, she talked about things you’ve probably heard of (Habermas! cam girls! Amanda Todd! abortion! feminism!) but made interesting new connections, perhaps the most useful of which is around the way shame is mobilised to shut down women’s involvement in public spheres (particularly online). You should check out more of her work. What was most inspiring about her talk, though, was her ability to speak poetically and personally, and to tie this to her analysis. The tweets (below) during and after her talk attest to the power of her presentation, and seem to have inspired quite a few people to think more about how they present their own work. It’s given me a little more encouragement to be brave, to leave in a few more of those sentences that I write and then read over and delete because they seem too personal.
  2. hollykruse
    So, @terrisenft starts speaking, and the #ir13 tweetstream blows up. That seems about right.
    Fri, Oct 19 2012 07:42:35
  3. JennyKorn
    @terrisenft: “AND now” is better than “what now.” It means we are capable of what’s to come/what to do/how to handle #ir13
    Fri, Oct 19 2012 07:43:22
  4. scroeser
    #ir13 @terrisenft’s talk is poetry, and personal, and I hope someone in here is recording it because I want to share it very much.
    Fri, Oct 19 2012 07:44:25
  5. scroeser
    #ir13 @terrisenft’s shifted from accepting the narrative of cam girls as “too much” to a feminist analysis that narrative. (YAY!)
    Fri, Oct 19 2012 07:47:46
  6. SteeleCat717
    Some of us thrive, some of us survive and some of us die in a culture of sexism – @terrisenft #ir13
    Fri, Oct 19 2012 07:57:14
  7. scroeser
    So, so happy to hear @terrisenft arguing for “writing that moves, holds, provokes, or comforts” and links with activism #ir13
    Fri, Oct 19 2012 08:03:31
  8. ldinstl_chimera
    “Write for the people who agree with you…” Professional advice to @terrisenft by a colleague. #ir13
    Fri, Oct 19 2012 08:05:42
  9. LizaWasHere
    Better, a little, maybe, with allies. RT @mamanin: It does get different, but only when you find better allies. Oh yes. @terrisenft #ir13
    Fri, Oct 19 2012 08:06:54
  10. raisecain
    .@tim_hutchings @terrisenft I agree we need this type of writing & so we need pedagogical shifts that facilitate it
    & legitimize it #ir13
    Fri, Oct 19 2012 08:13:14
  11. jakoblinaa
    @terrisenft shows the way to combine research, critical thinking and personal, honest , emotional involvement. waw ! #ir13
    Fri, Oct 19 2012 08:03:37
  12. witty_knitter
    #ir13 A commenter on @terrisenft’s presentation asking how we write about events that leave us speechless.
    Fri, Oct 19 2012 08:07:54

IR13 plenaries: Queercore, caravans, and porn

Why can't more conferences start with panels of excellent female scholars?It was refreshing to begin the conference with plenary speakers bringing excellent feminist and queer analysis to bear on Internet Studies. Mary Gray, Larissa Hjorth, and Susanna Paasonen all posed challenges to the dominant focuses of Internet Studies. Gray questioned technology- (and particularly device-) centred approaches, and the accompanying focus on ‘big data’. (I’ve also been having some useful discussions around this latter focus as gendered: this push towards a ‘scientific’ and quantitative approach has important implications when women are still discouraged-both subtly and unsubtly-from engagement in STEM fields and the statistical training required for big data projects.)

Image of a colourfully decorated caravan
smartphones as caravans, courtesy of @evestirling

Gray also critiqued the ongoing focus on normative users in research, looking instead at ‘boundary publics’ – in this case queer rural youth. Hjorth, similarly, implicitly challenged the common focus on (young, well-off) men and technology use by looking at the ways in which mobile use is affecting the space of ‘the domestic’, and the relationship between mothering, smartphones, and labour.

Finally, Susanna Paasonen provided a useful counter to the assumption (perhaps more common in popular narratives than academic discourse) that digital content is disembodied. This is often tied either to a narrative of loss (of authenticity, of tactility), or a narrative of freedom (from physical limitations). Paasonen argues, in contrast, that the materiality of consuming digital content matters: digital content is always mediated through particular devices, which have different affordances and encourage particular kinds of uses. Image of Paasonen in front of a slide showing the cover of the porn filmPaasonen also got quite a few scandalised/delighted titters from the audience by showing a short clip from a porn film (which, she notes, she inherited in Super 8 form from her parents). While this added some (more) humour to the talk, I think it’s also important politically. The politics of pornography have always played a large role in discussions of the Internet. We need to be able to talk productively about pornography not only in order to understand the Internet, but also because it plays such a large role in the construction of sexuality and desire in many societies.

I’m looking forward to reading more work by all of these speakers, especially as my still-slighly-jetlagged self is having some trouble processing the more theoretically dense aspects of the talks in aural form. Corrections, comments, and reading suggestions are welcome!

IR13 Preconference Workshop, The Internet, Mobile Media, and Journalism: Technologies of News in the 21st Century

This afternoon’s workshop was a great start to the conference. It’s always fun to sit in on workshops that are almost-but-not-quite my area, partly for the additional connections to my research, but also to spend some time learning about entirely new areas. Here are a few rather sketchy notes from today’s session (these are as much for my future reference as for an audience, so please excuse the many gaps):

Sheetal Agarwal‘s work on ‘Online journalists’ professional norms and work routines’ draws on in-depth semi-structured interviews to look at how online journalists perceive their work. This research shows important differences between the practices, norms, and values of journalists working for print editions and those working for online news sites (even for those working for the online editions of established news organisations). For example, journalists working for online sources tend to reject the notion of neutral and objective news coverage, arguing that the pretence of neutrality hides the reality of subjective coverage from the audience. These journalists are also working in institutional contexts where time pressures and a lack of resources mean that there’s little to no fact-checking of online material. There’s also a division between how those working for the online editions of traditional news sources and those working for online-only news sources (particularly ones like Gawker) identify: many working for the latter prefer not to identify as journalists, defining their roles differently (such as ‘bloggers’ or ‘someone who does what I love and shares it’).

Andrew Herman‘s work draws on a range of theorists, some of whom I’m familiar with (such as Benedict Anderson) while others were new to me (including Siegfried Zielinksi and Margaret Morse). I was particularly interested in his discussions of ‘consuming’ news as an embodied experience: how does reading the news online, and particularly on mobile devices, change the experience of the news? And what is a useful methodology for understanding how we use mobile devices to read the news now in the context of the history of media (and different media platforms)?

Holly Kruse‘s ‘Blogging horse racing’ looked at women’s involvement in sports writing about horse racing. While the specifics of the area are quite foreign to me (I don’t think I’ve ever watched a horse race), it brought up some great questions about the structures of journalism (sports reporting is the most male-dominated area of journalism) and the ways in which these can be subverted (blogging provides an avenue for women to become involved in reporting on horse-racing). There’s a lot of fascinating work to unpack here.  For example, Cruse noted that while many popular blogs written by men look specifically at betting, none of the blogs written by women do – they tend to look more at the horses themselves.

Tama‘s News and trolls: Olympic games coverage in the twenty-first century provided a useful reminder about the need to distinguish between trolling as it was defined in early Internet research (and practice) and the way the term is used today. While trolling used to refer primarily to anonymous or pseudonymous attempts to create disruption for disruption’s sake, today it’s used much more broadly to refer even to activities which are goal-directed (as most of the complaints about the Olympic coverage were).

Finally, Lucy Morieson used the case of Catherine Deveny’s dismissal to look at the changing relationship between consumers and producers of news media, arguing that it demonstrated a model in which the audience has increasing power, albeit a populist power shaped by market forces.

My apologies if I’ve misrepresented anyone’s work – I’m afraid I’m still quite jetlagged. Do feel free to comment and correct me!

Upcoming travels…

For the next couple of weeks I’ll be travelling in Europe for a few conferences and workshops:

The Internet Research Conference 13.0 Conference in Salford, UK, which has an excellent line-up of of plenary speakers and a great program. Tim and I will be presenting in the session on ‘Politics and Civic Engagement’, which also includes talks on Twitter and Australian politics, ‘YouTube and Civic Engagement’, and ‘Resource Sharing in Occupy Twitter Networks’. I’ve been drawing on the work of quite a few of the researchers presenting, and I’m looking forward to hearing them talk.

After that, I’ll be stopping in at the Anarchism Today workshop at Goldsmith’s College, London, “a day long workshop that will explore the meaning and significance of anarchism today in the humanities and social sciences, as well its relevance to contemporary struggles and movements such as Occupy and the Arab Spring.

Finally, I’ll be going to the FoME Symposium, From Online Activism to Offline Action: Digital Media and the Democratic Sphere. This articulates well with my work on the digital liberties movement, and hopefully will also contribute to important debates around the uses of the Internet in activism.

If you’re going to any of these, please feel free to say hi in the comments or on Twitter.