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May 16, 2006 |

It has been a few weeks since the Networked Publics conference that we convened at the Annenberg Center. It has taken me a while to dig out from the backlog after the conference and to gather some of my thoughts about it.


Just for starters, I love this photo posted by Jonathan McIntosh that you can see in the Flickr NetworkedPublics tag stream. It exemplifies what was so great about the gathering for me, getting folks across boundaries of academia, activism, and creative practice together like in this photo: Jonathan McIntosh of ad remix fame, uber autonomist Marxist political theorist Harry Cleaver, and our own netpublics fellow Merlyna Lim and very talented graduate students and activists Sasha Costanza-Chock, Aram Sinreich, and Richard Hodkinson. As John Tomasic has blogged with more insightful humor than I can muster, the event was characterized by a series of confusing disconnects. But doesn’t everyone look like they are having a good time?

As one of the organizers of the event, my mantra throughout was that this was “experimental.” And indeed it was. We had really no idea what to expect by throwing this mix of folks together–theorists, media artists, fans, makers, bloggers, activists. The underlying concept at least was that the new networked ecologies of media distribution are creating new forms of cultural and knowledge production that require new kinds of creative, practical, and theoretical conversations between groups of people who aren’t normally in touch with one another. I wanted to see what would happen if we brought some cut of those involved in creating, writing about and theorizing about networked and remix cultures together for a few days to see if there was any common ground or some interesting arguments to be had.

I would like to declare this experiment a success, not in the particulars of whether every presentation and conversation worked or cohered, but more in the overall sense of curiosity, confusion, and occasional unexpected recognitions that it provoked. No one person or perspective dominated the action, and there was a lot of productive discomfort in getting a very diverse set of stakeholders and viewpoints together. At the same time, I felt there was enough of a sense of recognition that we were all mostly involved and interested in a shared set of technological, cultural and social shifts that we have been trying to capture under the monikers of “networked publics” and “DIY culture.” I think those of us crowded into the living room of the Annenberg Center for those two days felt we were each nibbling at the edges of some dimension of a phenomenon that others were seeing or participating in in radically different ways.

At the same time, there was a lot we could have done better and I am already starting to incubate plans for a round two that is quite different from what we did this year but builds on some aspects of our netpublics effort. I wish we had found better ways to integrate the academic agendas with the agendas of the makers. I wish we had more representation from industry players. I wish we had a stronger stream of practical and theoretical conversations about IP and other legal issues. I wish we had some extra time for hands-on and more deep geeking sessions on technology and tools. I’d love to hear what was on the wish list for others who participated in the event so we can try to do it better next time.

On a more personal note, some of my own learning at the event: I had a great time hanging out with Nert and zalas who are helping keep me honest when writing about anime fan communities. For me, creating a shared conversation space for academics and fan practitioners was a fabulous first. For those of us studying networked culture and communities the boundaries between writers/theorists and practioners is artificial, and yet those divisions are there. Being part of the networked culture I am writing about is not only an exercise in good ethnographic practice, but is part of my own politics of engagement and activism.

I’m hoping that I can do more work in fostering research conversations that work not only to build theory and knowledge, but work towards practical change in the communities we are involved in. In the case of peer-based and viral cultural production and distribution, a lot of the success is because it relies on highly distributed and below-the-radar kind of practices. But the weakness is that it is difficult to organize coherent social movements or advocacy for change in things like IP policy, technology infrastructure, and the like. Established corporate and political interests can lobby for particular kinds of policies and technologies. One big question for this emerging networked era is how non-institutionalized and distributed social interests can gain a voice and visibility. I am hoping that my own academic work can become one small part of advocating for the interests of youth and subcultural groups like anime fandom, but this can only happen if people are willing to leave their comfort zone and cross over to join different conversations and communities. I have the greatest appreciation for all the makers, shakers, and thinkers who took a leap of faith to participate in our netpublics conference 1.0.