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The Emancipatory Potential of Tech Activism

The final speaker in this first AoIR 2013 plenary is Christina Dunbar-Hester, whose focus is on activist technical projects - such as micropower radio stations or community wifi networks. The activists describe such activities with the Amish term of barnraising, highlighting the community empowerment and self-sufficiency aspects of such initiatives. The hope is to demystify technology and generate political engagement through further hands-on knowledge sharing.

There is a big difference in this in how technical expertise is seen as empowering (through sharing) rather than disempowering (through the emergence of knowledge elites). But there remains a strong white middle-class basis to this - such sharing continues to speak largely to a male white addressee, and the involvement of women or minorities in these initiatives remains rare.

Radical Refusal as Couchsurfing Goes Commercial

The final speaker at this AoIR 2012 session is Zeena Feldman, whose focus is on the Couchsurfing Website. She begins by suggesting that the Net has always been a space of competing discourses, a hybrid space, and the same is true for social media as well. Social media have been seen as technologies of resistance as well as of repression, and the case of Couchsurfing illustrates this.

New Presentations and Publications on Twitter and Blog Research

Time for another quick news roundup. Following on from the ANZDMC 2012 conference in Brisbane, where Jean Burgess and I presented our research into the use of Twitter during the 2010/11 Christchurch earthquakes, there were another few follow-up presentations of our research on social media and crisis communication.

First, I flew down to Melbourne to run a workshop on social media and disaster resilience together with Chris Fisher from the Queensland state Department for Community Safety, as part of the Disaster Resilient Communities conference. I’ve now published my two presentations from the workshop (slides + audio); they’re both online here.

Understanding Patterns of Online Discussion

The next speaker at DHA2012 is Sora Park, whose interest is in the processes of online discussion participation, initially especially in the context of the 100 days of political protest in South Korea in 2008. Different online discussion platforms have different affordances, of course – some will list only the most recent or most popular (or most recently popular) posts, for example, thus directing users’ attention towards specific contributions.

Developing an Online Support Community for Breast Cancer

The first paper session at the Digital Humanities Australasia conference starts with a paper presented by Cynthia Witney, and deals with the differences between social networks and online communities. This is part of an ARC Linkage project which develops guidelines for an online community for breast cancer survivors, also sponsored by the Steel Blue boot company’s ‘purple boots’ philanthropic campaign.

Part of the aim here was also to move the campaign into a Web 2.0 space by developing a ‘purple boot brigade’ social network site; an early version of this network (based on Ning) attracted some 880 supporters. This early attempt at social networking successfully managed to spread awareness about the campaign and its cause; the site became a method for interactive social education.

Towards Open Statecraft

The second keynote at the Berlin Symposium this morning is by Philipp Müller, who will argue for the idea of ‘open statecraft’ in a networked world. He suggests that our world has become ‘unfiltered’ through the move from mass to networked and social media; the appropriate description for this is not simply many-to-many or few-to-few media, but n-to-n media, where all sorts of power games in pursuit of communicative impact, visibility, and success take place.

There are also some cognitive lags here – we’re missing a framework that allows each of us to work in these worlds, much as we once learnt, slowly and with difficulty, to live in the industrialised and mass media worlds. Historical analogies are 1386 – where lances as a military technology were first used to undermine warfare based on mediaeval knights, and in the process undermined the knighthood system overall; 1518, when Martin Luther became the first blogger, using the new technology of the printing press, and a church door, to initiate some 150 years of governance crisis; and 1927, when Bertolt Brecht pursued ‘radio theory’ and considered the development of audience-driven backchannels to radio as well as theatre plays.

Further Critical Questions about Crowdsourcing

The second speaker in this (really productive) session on crowdsourcing at the Berlin Symposium is Malte Ziewitz, whose interest is in the application of crowd wisdom to regulatory problems. Crowdsourcing itself isn’t actually all that new – there have been questions about the wisdom or folly of crowds for a very long time already, and ‘the crowd’ has been positioned as a problem (the uninformed mob) as much as as a solution (drawing on folk knowledge and commonsense).

Current thinking on crowd wisdom comes variously from management science, computer science, and economics (painting crowdsourcing as an engineering challenge, focussing on generating ‘useful’ information, and worrying about bias, abuse, and manipulation) and from political science, sociology, and regulation studies (focussing on the solicitation of lay views, concerns over knowledge gaps and expertise in regulatory decision-making, and questions of technology and regulation). These combine into a view of crowd wisdom as a techno-scientific solution to regulatory problems – through terms like ‘wiki government’, ‘infotopia’, ‘peer production’, and ‘civic technologies’.

Understanding Crowdsourcing Processes

The next session at the Berlin Symposium is on crowdsourcing, involving two speakers (there’s also a lot of discussion, which I’m not blogging here.) We begin with Katarina Stanoevska-Slabeva, who begins by introducing the range of related concepts which describe the broad field of crowdsourcing. The Net is diminishing transactional costs for communication, collaboration and coordination; this facilitates collaboration amongst disparate stakeholders and provides more opportunities for individuals to participate. As a result, innovation has been democratised – indeed, users are becoming ever more important as innovators.

Internet-enabled innovation can be used as an umbrella term for these processes; within this field, there are a number of specific formations, however: these include lead user innovation (users taking part in the value creation process on their own account, innovating largely in offline contexts); open innovation (initiated and coordinated by companies and other organisations, both in on- and offline contexts); user innovation communities (enabled and facilitated through Internet platforms and technologies, connecting users and companies); open source communities (as a specific, user-driven form of user innovation communities); and crowdsourcing (similar to user innovation communities spreading across users and companies, and online).


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