May/June 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 5

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UMD Graduate Students
Go Beyond the Traditional in a Conference on Theorizing the Web

Nathan Jurgenson and PJ Rey, University of Maryland

Theorizing the web is not a new project, but critical theories of the web and of new technologies have been too few and under-represented at academic conferences. So we (two sociology graduate students at the University of Maryland) with the assistance of a small committee decided to throw a conference of our own.

Conference Co-Chairs Nathan Jurgenson and PJ Rey deliver opening remarks

Conference Co-Chairs Nathan Jurgenson and
PJ Rey deliver opening remarks

The graduate-student-organized "Theorizing the Web 2011" conference took place April 9 on the University of Maryland campus. The program consisted of 14 panels, two workshops, two symposia (one on social media’s role in the Arab revolutions, the other, a conversation with Martin Irvine, Director of the Irvine Contemporary Gallery, on social media and street art), two plenaries (by Saskia Sassen on "Digital Formations of the Powerful and the Powerless" and George Ritzer on "Why the Web Needs Post-Modern Theory"), and a keynote by Danah Boyd, Microsoft Research, on "Privacy, Publicity Intertwined." Presenters travelled from around the world (including Hong Kong and New Zealand). The day-long conference pushed the capacity limits of the venue with more than 200 people in attendance throughout the day.  Events ran from registration at 8 am and ended with an after-party that wound down after 11 pm. The program was packed with as many as five concurrent panels.

According to attendees, this conference differed from traditional academic gatherings, which tend to be discipline-specific, promote the presentation of data instead of critical interpretation, and debate over what has already been observed; moreover,  they tend to feature panels that are organized around themes that are too loose to foster more than superficial discussion between panelists. In contrast, we put this conference together with the idea that theoretical insights, even at their most difficult and complex, can be made publicly accessible and comprehensible. Moreover, we integrated art and multimedia; registration was pay-what-you-want; we kicked things off at a gallery and concluded with a band. The event was interdisciplinary, and even non-disciplinary given the presence of non-academic attendees interested in the topic. What we built the conference around is the question what should public gatherings to exchange ideas look like? Theorizing the Web was our first attempt as graduate students to shape the academic climate we will be moving into.

In addition to a unique model for an academic conference, what emerged were many interesting new theoretical perspectives on new technologies.

Most important was the discussion of the relationship between the physical and the digital. Internet research in the 20th Century was defined by an assumption of digital dualism—that is, the view that the physical and the digital were separate and distinct spheres of life (think of the movie The Matrix). The physical was something "real" and the digital was "virtual." Developments in the 21st Century, however, have forced us to reconsider this dualism and, instead, look at how the digital is increasingly embodied, located and thus "real," and how the physical world offline is increasingly influenced by the digital. The physical and the digital have imploded, atoms and bits have blurred into an "augmented reality"—what we believe is the new and proper unit of analysis. This concept of augmented reality and the cyborg subjects that inhabit it became a predominant theme of the conference (though, certainly, there continue be significant semantic debates). A relative consensus emerged that future research ought to be informed by the assumption that the online and offline world are connected one another.

Indeed, the conference itself became an example of our augmented reality because of the physical and digital layers of discussion during the day. Roughly 2,000 tweets using the #ttw2011 hashtag augmented the face-to-face meeting. The digital and physical conversations influenced each other, creating an augmented conference experience for attendees.

In the end, we tried to organize a conference that we would want to attend. And all those in attendance that day helped to create an atmosphere of exciting, fun, smart and important theorizing about new social realities. We would like to thank everyone who attended, presented and helped us organize this event (special thanks to our organizing committee, Tyler Crabb, Sarah Wanenchak, William Yagatich, Dave Strohecker, Ned Drummond, and Sean Gray). We look forward to continuing to engage in this ongoing task of innovating how critical theories about society can be disseminated publicly.

An archive of the conference can be found at www.cyborgology.org/theorizingtheweb/

Finally, the conversations about the "enmeshment" of society and technology that started at the conference continue on the Cyborgology blog: thesocietypages.com/cyborgology.

Nathan Jurgenson and PJ Rey are graduate students in sociology working with George Ritzer at the University of Maryland

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