So I’m here in Nairobi, Kenya for the 2012 Global Voices Citizen Media Summit. The wrinkle this year is that a group of about 30 academics has been invited to hold a partially parallel conference and to talk about things — ontologies, assemblages, performativity — that will either make you want to impale yourself on an elephant tusk or get you running to the computer to download the latest issue of Journal of Theoretical Politics. But it’s actually a big, gift-wrapped piece of dream candy for MAP – the opportunity for activists and reporters to share information, perspectives and ideas with the academics who study them, and vise versa.
It’s also exciting to be here after just finishing Rebecca MacKinnon’s Consent of the Networked, and to see so many of the issues related to Internet freedom and justice taken up here at this conference. In one of the Global Voices organizational meetings that we attended today, there was a serious debate about whether the organization as a whole should start taking positions about particular laws or policies in particular places, in other words signing on to a kind of Internet freedom agenda and then advocating for it. The pushback against this kind of advocacy felt quite overwhelming from the crowd. A few GV translators stood up to say that they don’t necessarily buy into any particular philosophy of censorship or openness. As one speaker said eloquently, “Right now we’ve been witnesses, we’ve tried to advocate for people, get the message out. If we’re talking about leading something, we’re getting into a position that’s going to get us compromised.” Still others noted the difficulty of obtaining consensus in favor of particular policies or positions that might be adopted by the organization. The word “organization” is of particular interest here, since tomorrow the group will take up the question of whether GV is an organization or a network.
In the separate academic meeting, we mostly raised questions that we hope to answer over the next several days. Some of the questions that I thought were particularly intriguing included those about the relationship between the design choices of particular platforms and the kinds of publics they create. Dave Parry notes that “design decisions are based in moral philosophy. The group spent some time on this question of how structures impact the way people use technology. Tapan Parikh asked, “Are there affordances or features that lead to certain social structures as opposed to others? Is it empirically helpful to have the technology make some of these decisions for us?” danah boyd insists about Facebook that “Zuckerberg is very explicit about that he is designing that network with intended outcomes.” She also claims that struggles over what can be monetized versus what is “right” are central problems in organizations like Facebook and Google.
Other conversations revolved around the perceived role of social media in uprisings and revolution. I remarked that social change is about so much more than “regime change” and yet journalists keep telling us that this is the central struggle for social media. Zeynep Tufekci argued that arguments against the utility and efficacy of social media have been overdrawn. Or as she puts it, ” anti-determinism has swung too far.” Ramesh Srinivasan observed “We criticize Gladwell and Morozov, but they get lots of traction because they use those stories to make larger claims. Can we isolate a set of things that really matters in our own research and our own inquiries?”
Long tail argument also got some time, as we asked how democratic these publics are, how open they can be to new actors and new voices. Dean Freelon observed, “You assume there’s heterogeneity in the people that initiate things in the fringes. There seems to be a lot of homogeneity among the journalists. Are those superstars heterogeneous enough?” In other words, do the networks accommodate new voices, or merely super-impose a new hierarchy over the old one?
I could go on, but jet lag has the best of me here. I’ll put up another post tomorrow, with more updates from GV deliberations, academic nerdery and more.