IR13: notes from a conference

This is part conference report and part therapy. For the inadequacy of the former I give you my apologies, for the erratic gushing of the latter I offer none.

I cannot really blog the explosion of experience that is the Internet Research conference. It’s a gathering of the creative intelligentsia of my tribe. You cannot swing a cat without hitting someone attempting to debunk, reinterpret, explore, tease out, affect or simply study an amazing little feature that is technology and life. Some of these are pointed out by the newbies in a hushed tone using the honorific “the”, as in isn’t that The so-and-so. But this quickly changes and the fans are seamlessly made into friends and friends form this tribe and shape this conference.

Code is the invisible omission of the gathering. It’s always there but seldom mentioned, and sometimes, I fear, a bit misunderstood. But Susanna Paasonen captured the true nature of worlds created by codes: In a world of code, gaps and omissions can become knots of anxiety. Pure poetry.

It’s not a code conference. Mary L Gray put it well, she no longer wants to do toaster studies. When we become so immersed in technology then technology itself should not be the focus. Studying another toaster will not achieve much. It’s a people conference with a core of intelligent strong women. Usually I don’t care about the gender of a panel but when a conference begins with a panel of female power researchers – you notice.

The scholarship is first class – expect nothing less! But what sets IR apart is the passion of the delivery. Passion was set by the first speakers and absolutely lifted to a next level when Terri Senft gave her talk. Picture it: we were in a darkened theatre, she spoke without slides, capturing the audience by segments until she had us all. You could have heard a pin drop! Or to be more clear: we were mesmerized and stopped twittering bon mots and pithy phrases. Thank you Terri you made my conference with that passion and by demanding we shift attention from meaning to mattering.

The idea of IR is to capture the elusive meaning of technology this also was set forth in the beginning when in reply to a question about listening to users experiences with technologies replied: Sometimes a boring-ass story about a phone isn’t really about a phone.

From this the all too brief days become an intense mix of ideas, conversations, papers, discussion, disagreements, arguments and support. And it has a twitter channel that equals to a presidential debate (well, in tweets per capita). You may have guessed by now its about the conversation. Anybody can create a conference where we present papers – creating a forum for discussion is differnet. In many conferences the words “I disagree” are usually hidden underneath another phrase but here if you have the ideas you push them: titles, publication lists and other academic merits be damned – here they talk.

This is where a true conference blog becomes pointless. This crowd has history reflected in memes and traditions – some more obscure than others. There is Senft’s hair, Zizi’s hats and, of course, the sing star (or Kylie’s passion). Where there is culture there is counterculture (what else could the short lived Kruse Klang hair appreciation society be?)

Highlights for me were – and of course I will miss many:

Tim Hutchings mix of religion and technology “of course there is an app for that” and understanding surviellance through scripture. Hey Zuck! God was the original source of radical transparency! Lorie Kendall’s look at personal archiving and geneologi basically turned serveral concepts upside down – the family is not about togetherness but a legitimacy for the individual. Joseph Regal’s infocide: the fascinating study of people in open content movements who decide to leave their online life sometimes removing all traces sometimes removing just themselves.

Activism turned out to be a major theme. Most of these academics are, or present like, activists but the tracks that contain activism and activism studies also shows that internet is a crucial infrastructure for social movements. We knew this but the studies show how, who, why and concerns about the future.

The best new term I learned came from an audience comment: asphal: the Indonesian term for a thing that isn’t authentic but works anyway. Imagine this as a part of a piracy, plagiarism or trademark discourse?

The social events are social. Meeting new people and old friends. Looking for real ale in Manchester with the Culture & Communications people from Drexell was a highlight.

This rambling will stop here. This is my second time at IR and I highly recommend it to all who are interested in Internet Research.

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