Report from Personal Democracy Forum

I am still exhausted from two great days at Personal Democracy Forum. There was a lot to absorb – over 30 keynotes on the main stage and over 20 break-out sessions. I kept my laptop closed for most of it so I could concentrate on what was being said. Here were some of the highlights for me:

There were a lot of discussion of the implications of activism and social life in the quasi-public sphere, platforms on which we can all participate, but which are privately owned. Good presentations on this topic included Susan Morgan (video) of the Global Network Initiative, danah boyd on the privacy hacks of teenagers, Marietje Sschaake (video) on the role of European communications firms in international freedom of expression and privacy, and Eben Moglen (video) announcing FreedomBox.

Other great ideas came from Zeynep Tufekci (video), who presented a number of theories of global digital activism, Rebecca MacKinnon (video), on the role of the network in the evolution of political power, Lisa Gansky (video) on the “meshy” new sharing economy, and Jay Rosen’s (video) report card on pro-am journalism in the digital age.

There were a lot of emotional keynotes too, from funny (Dan Sinker – video, Omoyele Sowore – video, Marko Rakar – video) to heart-felt (Jim Gilliam – video) to righteously outraged (Larry Lessig – video)

I hosted a break-out session on the second day with Zeynep Tufekci and Alix Dunn. I started out by describing our knowledge of digital activism as best symbolized by a ping-pong ball (thanks Patrick), between the paddles of cyber-optimism and cyber-pessimism.

Our “knowledge” of digital activism is highly dependant on the outcome of the most recent revolution. We were pessimistic about digital activism after the 2009 revolution in Iran and feel very optimistic now after Egypt and Tunisa, but we could move back to pessimism depending on the outcomes in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain. Needless to say, this is not empirical. In fact, it is little more than a form of representation bias.

Next Zeynep Tufekci mentioned some methodological challenges of studying digital activism, such as the inability to do experiments. However, she did express hope in the value of “digital footprints” (so much more is recorded and available for analysis in the digital age) and in cross-country comparisons like the Global Digital Activism Data Set. Alix Dunn briefly described the data she collected with her research partner, Christopher Wilson, about the Egyptian Revolutions, called the Tahrir Data Project, which includes survey results, tweets, and in-depth interviews about media use.

I also briefly presented the GDADS infographics (see below)

It was a great time with lots of smart people and excellent ideas. I look forward to returning next year.

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