Theorizing the Web, according to its site, is “a new space that values theory, specifically theories that view technology as always rooted in society, culture and history, and that deal directly with power, domination, resistance and justice.” The conference is four years old, and I’ve had the pleasure of attending the most recent two in NYC. Last year’s conference focused mainly on the topic of surveillance—highly pertinent to my interests at the time, both as someone who deeply dislikes the idea of online data-gathering & surveillance tools and as someone who worked with clients that promoted & sold online data-gathering & surveillance tools. It’s fitting that, as I’m between gigs at the moment, this year’s conference was also more amorphous and wide-ranging in scope.
The organizers of TtW14 wanted to break out of the “academic conference” mold, going for something both more accessible to a general audience and more fun for their presenters. The industrial warehouse in Brooklyn they ended up using had its drawbacks, however: the bathrooms were a fetid mess by the middle of the first day, and the WiFi was spotty (since there were various video feeds for livestreaming, and participants were encouraged to livetweet comments and questions during each panel, this was a very big problem). As someone who fits the “general audience” category that TtW14 wants to reach out to, I’d have preferred a venue that could accommodate the needs (virtual and otherwise) of all the attendees.
But those were my only major beefs—I enjoyed the panels that I attended immensely. The first one, Small Data: Big Trends in the Little Ns, had some technical snafus so the presentations were somewhat hurried. While the discussions concerning online suicide notes and studies on how teens express grief on Facebook were popular with the crowd, I was more intrigued by Lesley Gourlay’s too-brief panel on Open Education, digital critique and utopian fantasy.
The second panel, Meetspace: Rethinking Public Spheres provided much food for thought. Highlights included Dara Byrne’s panel on digilante culture (using online tools & methods to fight cybercriminal activity), specifically how racist imagery is used to attack “Nigerian scammers” when the majority of those scams aren’t based anywhere near Nigeria, and Willow Brugh & J. Nathan Matias’ snazzy Prezi presentation on hackathons and their misrepresentation in the media (to the detriment of the community-building that lies at the heart of the concept).
Next came Consensual Hallucination: Fantasy in Public Life, which made up for its lack of psychedelia with tons of info regarding creative misuse and/or reconstruction of real-life interactions, situations and events. Lauren Burr’s panel on Netprov and Twitter bots (mostly bears, but a rather creepy Tofu bot was also referenced) was fascinating, as was Iskandar Zulkarnain’s discourse on “Nusantara Online” and how a popular RPG tweaks with the concepts of Indonesian nationalism and identity. I loved Amy Papaelias & Aaron Knochel’s talk on how they used art theory/history and interactive design to help their students make sense of—and fight back against—racial incidents on campus. Finally, Molly Sauter’s discussion of Civic Fiction, using the “Gay Girl in Damascus” mess as an example (and adorable cats throughout her slideshow), was a massive hit with the crowd.
I skipped out on the two evening plenary discussions. The first one revolved around online sex work, a topic I have absolutely zero interest in, and by the time the Big Data panel rolled around I was having some Consensual Hallucinations of my own at some dive bar in Williamsburg with a live band, a super-annoying hypergentrifier couple, and the guy they were trying to negotiate a threesome with by means of an apartment rental. (“It’s cheap rent—if you’re nice to us!”) Thank fuck I’m not in my twenties having to navigate today’s NYC; being young & poor around here is just brutal.
At this point I should note that TtW14 worked on a “pay-what-you-can” model, which allowed for a diverse range of folks (such as myself) to attend.
Day 2 of TtW14 started bright and early with All Watched Over by Memes of Loving Grace. I missed part of Patrick Sharbaugh’s talk on meme culture in Vietnam, but caught enough to get the gist of how innocuous imagery can empower people to enter into civic engagement despite adverse circumstances. Joel Penney’s discourse on real-life protest vs. online “clicktivism” and the persuasive power of web-based political actions was the highlight for me; every time he mentioned “meme warriors” I heard Dokken in my head (George Lynch’s hair could be a meme in its own right—considering he hacked it from the singer of Kajagoogoo and turned it up to 11…)
San Francisco was in the house for Streetview: Space, Place and Geography. Tim Hwang looked at Frisco’s urban geography with an eye towards its tech infrastructure and the social inequality the tech boom is engendering. I found it rather ominous when he said SF was a test case of sorts, and as the tech industry moves to other cities it will refer back to what is and isn’t working there. Surely every city is different—what works in Frisco ain’t gonna work in Detroit! He also said NYC wasn’t really a test case because the already-entrenched financial and media industries compete strongly for resources. Mathias Crawford blew my mind when he showed how social networking is rooted in post-WW2 community networking based around parks & recreation—moving people “out of the house”, away from their previous forms of interactions towards a more socially approved/controlled form of interaction via recreation centers. Update this to the 21st Century, and our rec centers are now Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, etc. Finally, Jay Springett tore the roof off the sucker with a discussion on how nation-states and corporation behave in the same ways, both seeing the Internet as territory to be conquered, commodified and utilized for their own profit.
That was a tough act to follow; sadly Ref(user): Movements of Resistance wasn’t up to the task. The talk on feminism and subversive online identities showed great promise, but lost me completely by insisting that Tumblr (owned by Yahoo, a major corporation) was a “safe space” for feminist worldbuilding. I was fucking gobsmacked, as that’s not my experience with Tumblr! I don’t engage with Tumblr in a way that puts too much of myself or my work out there because it’s owned by a major corporation, and therefore ISN’T a safe space for my thoughts OR my photographic copyright!
I tweeted that feminists shouldn’t settle for “free” space provided by corporations, and instead shell out for their own online space and servers for full control of their message & online reach, but that suggestion…was not terribly well-recieved. One of the responses was “Should the government provide server space for every citizen, since access to information is a right?” The sender probably went to a different session and missed Jay Springett’s dicussion on nation-states and corporations. I wasn’t comfortable with the shitting-in-the-punchbowl vibe and really didn’t want to argue with anyone; when a brief discussion of the Livejournal exodus took place, I was grateful for the distraction and bowed out of the conversation.
Due to the anti-productivity of multitasking, I missed the rest of the session. It seems the other speakers had their detractors as well (especially the one who discussed the gamification of charity websites as a positive goal), to the point where the hashtag moderator mentioned the “antsy backchatter” on the livetweets and complained via Twitter that “nobody wanted to bring these questions into the room”. Perhaps it was more that no-one wanted to insult the panelists to their face, since getting a presentation together requires so much hard work and bravery; when it all goes pear-shaped, an incredulous “ARE YOU SERIOUS???” from the crowd is as useless to the speakers as “antsy backchatter” on a Twitter hashtag. Actually, they might get more out of the Twitter critiques, due to being written down and therefore easier to reference at a later date.
The last panel I attended was a symposium on drones, and it rocked. References were made to the Murmuration Festival, My Little Droney, the emergence of the Internet from militaristic roots, and a refusal to distinguish military-style drones from hobby drones—as they both compile algorithimcally processed data and both are used for purposes of surveillance. I was pleased to notice some “antsy backchatter” on the Twitter hashtag between members of the panel and a pro-drone lawyer…
The keynote session revolved around Race and Social Media, and many powerful points were made (not least of which was “Feminists shouldn’t trust Yahoo/Tumblr/other social platforms with their content archives!” Which, you know, I said earlier in the day…). Since my phone and I were wiped out at that point, and the WiFi was borked, I have no notes; I’ll leave the Youtube version here for your edification & viewing pleasure.
I’m glad I attended TtW14; it’s given me a great deal to think about regarding both how the Internet affects my life, and the agency I have in controlling and directing its use and influence. I already own my own website space, and utilize it (somewhat) regularly with my work, thoughts and ideas. I’m proficient in using social media to an extent (one has to be in this day and age), but I don’t particularly enjoy it. It’s more fun to work on my own space—and I control the writing, the coding, and the uploading. This weekend confirmed that I’m heading in the right direction digitally.