So this is my attempt to re-boost my adventure in the academic blogosphere. I really am having a hard time maintaining my personal blog this year despite my aspiration to do so due to several interrupting life events. Now that I have relieved myself from most of my commitments as a grad student (it’s about time!) and that life is less stressful at the moment, I figure I need to start revamping this blog again as a space for my personal ramblings and musings about media technologies.
So as my first post-hiatus post I choose to write about my experience attending the latest Theorizing the Web (TtW) conference in Brooklyn, NY, last April. I’ve heard about this conference for a while during my involvement as HASTAC Scholar so I was excited when the organizers of TtW accepted my presentation abstract on videogames and nationalism in Indonesia. This is the kind of conference that I really want to go to learn about critical perspectives about the internet and/or digital media cultures both from academics and tech journalists/insiders. Plus, it’s a “pay-what-you-can” conference, so no worries about those steep conference registration and membership fees. And I can’t say I’m not glad that I finally participated in it. It was a really enriching two-day experience.
In this conference, I presented my paper in a really cool panel titled “Consensual Hallucination: Fantasy in a Public Life.” But I’m not going to talk solely about my panel in this post. Rather, I’m going to highlight several presentations that caught my attention during the conference. On the first day I had to move back and forth in between “Tales from the Script: Infrastructures and Design” and “World Wide Web(s): Theorizing the Non-Western Web” panels. This is always my problem whenever I attend conferences and I’m sure I’m not the only one. There are always interesting panels that happen at the same time!
From the “Tales from the Script” panel I learned about the idea of end-users as networks in Karen Levy’s presentation The Myth of the End User. In the presentation, Levy reminded us that rather than thinking of end-users as individuals we have to start to think of them as a constellation of power relations and institutional entanglements, mediated through technologies. With this framework, we will be able to see and think about the role of technological infrastructures and social motivations (like mistrust, gossips, etc) in the promotion/distribution of not only technological products but also things like Nexafed and fertilizers. I missed seeing David Peter Simon’s The Do-Gooder Industrial Complex presentation, but still enjoyed Jason Q. Ng’s, Tolu Odumosu’s, and Dalia Othman’s presentations in the “World Wide Web(s)” panel that look at various aspects of digital cultures in China, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Middle East. They discussed topics like censorship, infrastructure, and activism in non-western contexts, which I think is really important to talk about to avoid the tendency of western-centric attitude in talking about new media technologies.
In the next session, I sat on the “Screenplay: Nation, Ideologies, and the Games They Play” panel. This is the panel right before mine and it’s about video games, so I sat through the whole thing. There were three presenters in this panel, Cameron Kunzelman, Daniel Joseph, and Catherine Goodfellow. They all brought up interesting arguments about videogame cultures, but the one that’s more memorable to me was Goodfellow’s presentation about Russian gaming cultures and its relation to videogame ideology in Eastern Europe. To certain extent, I felt like we should’ve been in the same panel since we’re talking about videogames and national identities.
In my panel, Lauren Burr presented a paper on the creative misuse of social media with examples like @TheoryBear twitter bot account (which I also follow by the way!) and the #OccupyMLA “netprov” movement. There was also Amy Papaelias and Aaron Knochel who gave a presentation on a collaborative project they’re doing together to explore the notion of “transformative play,” especially on the issue of race. The last one was Molly Sauter who talked about the concepts of “civic fiction” and “bridge blogger” along with their complexities, giving an example of the elaborative hoax of Tom MacMaster with his fictional “A Gay Girl in Damascus” weblog that has caused quite a backlash after gaining mainstream media attention. Despite my wish to be in a videogame panel, I think the TtW organizer did a great job putting us in the same panel.
There we two plenary sessions on the first day of TtW: “Sex Work and the Web” and “Theorizing Big Data,” but the highlight of my first day was the second one with Zeynep Tufecki, Kate Crawford, Janet Vertesi, and Winter Mason as the panelists. Tufecki talked about the limits of big data analysis that relies too much on algorithmic method and data visualization. For her, which I totally agree, we should resist looking at only one method of big data and start to closely read it. With this kind of approach we could see where culture comes in big data analysis, or in her words this is when big data turns into “ground data.” She uses the example of twitter feed activity during Gezi Park protests in Turkey, where people just drop hashtag because the topic is so dominant. Meanwhile, Crawford discussed about the affects of big data, talking things like the Squeaky Dolphin surveillance program and the surveillance anxiety, where anxiety affects not only those being surveiled but also those who surveil. Her talk reminded me of Foucault’s elaboration of Bentham’s panopticon concept and disciplinary society. Vertesi’s presentation is similar to that of Crawford’s but with a more concrete and personal case, i.e. her own experience. She talked about how it was so hard for her to hide her pregnancy from the eyes of big data both online and offline and pointed out how pregnant women are actually incredible values for marketers. You could also read her post-conference interview here. Mason’s talk was actually the most controversial in the plenary session since he represented the side of big data, or Facebook to be exact. His presentation on targeted advertising drew quite a stir among the audience, both offline and online. I could observe how some if not many people among the audience (myself included!) criticized his take on big data and this was also apparent during the Q&A session. Despite my disagreement with his take, I have to admit that Mason’s presence in the panel was necessary to create a dialogue (however intense) between big data industries and people like me who are concerned with issues like surveillance and targeted marketing strategies and I applaud the TtW organizers for the decision. I also can’t imagine how the audience would react to his talk had they already been aware about Facebook’s emotional contagion experiment at that time.
On the second day, I regretted that I did not get to see Patrick Sharbaugh’s presentation on meme culture and civic engagement in Vietnam at the first panel on internet memes, “Gone Viral: All Watched Over by Memes of Loving Grace” because I woke up late. I was also late to see Joel Penney’s presentation on memes and the persuasive political power of the web. The only full presentation I saw in this panel was Robert Horning’s talk on the idea of the “viral self” and “post-authentic” culture, which was quite intriguing for me.
The second panel I went to was “Streetview: Space, Place, and Geography,” which was pretty interesting. The highlights of this panel include Mathias Crawford’s elaboration on the concept of “procedural communities,” which I love to learn more since in his presentation he juxtaposed it against Anderson’s “imagined communities” and Jay Springett’s exploration of the “stacks” and “stacktivism” as geopolitically dominant power.
I had to skip the next two sessions because I had to meet my friends from Indonesia who I have not seen for years. But I was glad I was not late for the last keynote session, “Race and Social Media.” I was excited to see Lisa Nakamura, André Brock, Jenna Wortham, Latoya Peterson, and Ayesha Siddiqi presenting various cases, from personal to general, around the issues of race and social media such as the #NotYourAsianSidekick on Twitter. Nakamura’s astute statement in this panel that algorithm is ideology in executable form became my fave quote from this conference. I think it really hits the spot and represents the spirit of TtW (IMHO) as one of the venues where we try to disentangle the somewhat mystifying operation of this executable ideology.
P.S. Most of my reports of the panels here are based on my scribbles during the conference. So do excuse me of glossing over. I also learned that the TtW organizers have uploaded the complete video archive of the conference panels on Youtube, so I do encourage you to watch them through this link here so that you get to see the whole conference panels (I’m actually going to watch all the panels I have missed!).