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An Emerging Research Agenda on Internet and Society

I’m in Berlin for the opening of the new (Google-sponsored) Institute for Internet and Society, a very exciting new research initiative which was launched today. The launch itself is accompanied by the three-day Berlin Symposium, which will map out some of the research agenda of the Institute, and the Symposium opens with a few statements of intent by the founding directors.

Jeanette Hofmann begins by highlighting her research interests – including issues of privacy, and broader online regulation (including co-regulation with users and operators, beyond state regulation itself – what Jeanette calls ‘online ordering’). Other key areas include intellectual property, of course, and collaborative online content creation. There’s also a need for further interdisciplinary education of participating online actors: content, technical, and legal fields have yet to speak to one another more effectively and more frequently.

Recognising the Blind Spots in Technology Innovation

The final keynote at AoIR 2011 is by Richard Harper, who is the recipient of AoIR’s inaugural book award. He begins with a personal story: some twenty years ago, Richard was researching knowledge work across distances; the task was to engineer technologies which could connect dispersed workers in collaborative spaces. To trial this, individual offices within the same company were treated as distant places, connected through shared, collaborative editing technologies (along the lines of what we now know as PiratePad or Google Docs). At the time, simple conventions for coordinating activities were also necessary, in order to avoid edit conflicts.

Such technologies seemed incredibly boring at the time, though – as simple steps towards something more interesting. The shared whiteboards developed by the project were used, but for unintended purposes: for chitchat, even for romance – a kind of tribalism at work.

Challenges of Universal Broadband Access in the U.S.

The next speaker in this session at AoIR 2011 is Susan Kretchmer, whose focus is on the continuing digital divide. The U.S. ranks surprisingly lowly on broadband Internet adoption; some 14 million Americans do not have access to broadband, and 100 million could have access but don’t use it because they can’t afford it or don’t realise the advantages. Rates are especially low amongst the most disadvantaged groups.

This is being addressed through the development of a National Broadband Plan by the FCC, under instructions by the Obama administration. This envisages the U.S. as a 21st century information society, realising the social and economic benefits of broadband access. This builds on the language of a social contract for the development of greater access. Susan argues that this project must serve the public interest, and needs a clear nuanced understanding of the shifting demographics of diversity, and the ability to harness the lessons of past attempts and failures to achieve universal access.

Rethinking the Overlay of the Online and Offline

The Wednesday keynote at AoIR 2011 is by the abundantly energetic Tom Boellstorff, whose provocation to us is to rethink the digital. This is about both online and offline, and is interested in exploring emergent research areas. After all, what do we mean by digital: just the things we plug in, or the things which are online – or is there more to it? Part of the point here is also to reconnect the digital to indexicality – to return to the roots of the term ‘digit’.

Tom’s early work has been focussing on research into gay and lesbian culture in Indonesia – how are these concepts positioning themselves in contrast to, or adapting ideas from, Western gay and lesbian culture? Additionally, he’s also worked on Second Life; he’s been interested how a space like this transforms existing theory and practice. His current interests tend towards questions of methods, fieldsites, and ethics.

Information Filtering in Social Networks

OK, I walked in a little late to the first AoIR 2011 presentation this morning, by Michele Willson, whose focus is on information filtering. There are different approaches to such filtering: at the user or at the service end, initiated by users or by the system, cognitive or social filtering, and based on knowledge about the user’s interests which may be acquired through a range of different mechanisms.

Different stakeholders in the process, and in developing these processes, will have a range of different agendas and interests – developers have specific algorithms they may wish to explore, funding bodies and sources have specific commercial or other imperatives, users and their friends are interested in particular forms of online activity (content sharing, phatic communication, etc.), and the social network providers overall are interested in increasing participant numbers and boost the stickiness of the platform.

Performing Citizenship through Creative Intervention

The next speaker in this AoIR 2011 session is Ashley Hinck, whose focus is specifically on the 2011 Wisconsin Protests against the eradication of collective bargaining rights. These protests involved conventional in-person protests and demonstrations, calls and letter-writing, but also a range of online activities from simple expressions of sympathy to more sophisticated forms of organising; this may impact institutions, but may also simply be an expression of personal identity – but yet it’s also more than these two basic forms of citizenship.

What’s necessary, then, is to consider citizenship beyond these conventional definitions – to consider how citizenship is performed: the modalities of citizenship. Voting out of a sense of duty to a candidate, or voting to prevent the election of another candidate, are two very different actions, for example.

How MoveOn-Style Advocacy Works

The next speaker at AoIR 2011 is Dave Karpf, examining the MoveOn effect. There are two robust findings around Internet politics in the U.S.: the idea of organising without organisations is well established, and the re-emergence of political elites in mass activities online. A third level which has been largely ignored, however, is the organisational level of politics: organising with different organisations.

The labour protests in Wisconsin provide an interesting example for this. What happened here was a rapid cooperation by Net-root organisations, from MoveOn through political blogs and fundraising sites to community Websites. All of them are Internet organisations, and different from legacy advocacy organisations. Three ideal types exist here: a hub-and-spokes model (like MoveOn, orchestrated by a small central staff), a neo-federated model (coordinating strong affiliate groups around the country), and online communities of interest (with an online membership coming together through the site itself).

Communication Technology and Economic Growth

The next AoIR 2011 session starts with Alex Farivar, whose interest is in mobile phone diffusion; such diffusion has also been an important driver of economic development and democratisation in a number of countries, it has been claimed. Alex’s project examined some 122 countries for the years 1946 through to 2009, studying economic growth patterns and examining (in more recent years) the role of Internet and mobile diffusion. Similarities in economic positioning, geographic context, and other factors were also considered.

Does mobile and Internet diffusion predict economic growth; does socioeconomic instability or democratic instability hinder such growth? Variables here included world system positioning (core, semi-peripheral, peripheral), income, democratic development, mobile and Internet diffusion, sociopolitical instability, urbanisation, population, and time and region.

Creating and Marketing Transmedia Stories

The first keynote at AoIR 2011 is by Mike Monello (who was also the producer of the Blair Witch Project). He begins by noting the importance of team collaboration, and says that Blair Witch emerged as a completely organic process involving its principal creators. The filmmakers wanted the dialogue to be completely improvised, and so created a deep mythology for the Blair Witch story; some of the (very realistic) clips recorded for the film were then broadcast on TV, and audiences were encouraged to go to the online community Split Screen to discuss whether what they’d seen was real.

The massive success of this online discussion then led to the setting-up of the Blair Witch Project Website, which contained the underlying mythology – fans speculated on the message boards and developed theories of what was going on, and the filmmakers themselves almost accidentally became involved in the story as filmmakers, therefore. While there was nothing on the site to identify the story as fiction, there was never any intention to mislead – and the site linked to information about the production process, too.

Databases and Witnessing: The Case of Harvey Matusow

The next session at AoIR 2011 starts with Caroline Bassett. Her focus is on Harvey Matusow and the Anti-Computing League (in the 1950s), as an example of political activism. How were groups turned on or off from nascent media technologies; how did they come to see potential uses of such technology?

The Anti-Computing League emerged at a time when personal computers didn’t yet exist; computers weren’t yet viewed as media, and counterculture was driven by Oz Magazine which presented print with television aesthetics. The ACL in England had some 5000 members in the late 1960s (roughly matching the number of computers in the country at the time), and envisaged a war against computing and data processing (e.g. by poking extra holes in their punchcards); it had a certain surrealist element, and aimed to disrupt computers.


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