Never one to say no to a free conference (and certainly not one to say no to a free conference that is also being held in my own backyard over at CUNY), this weekend I attended the conference Theorizing the Web – the 2013 edition. A chance to consider questions like “is the internet a separate reality?” and “does the web reproduce or topple those in power?” alongside classmates and other really smart people can’t really spell a bad weekend at all.
Opening night on March 2 popped off with a massively inspiring firehose attempt to take apart the idea of who “free speech” protects and why. The title of the opening plenary was Theorizing the Web: Free Speech for Whom? and sought to face down some of the discussions that are missing about race and class when theorizing about social surveillance and digital diplomacy. The panel – Jessie Daniels, danah boyd, Adrian Chen and Zeynep Tufekci offered examples as diverse as #muslimrage – a meme that tenuously vacillates between irony and, well rage – and efforts to expose ViolentAcrez – a creepy racist perv troll on Reddit. A favorite example of mine was ways in which 4chan users pwned Oprah’s chokehold on our attention economy by releasing false stories about known pedophile groups.
The conference, now in its third year, seeks to examine power, inequality and domination on the web – and the opening night delivered in this regard. What part of acting under the cloak of anonymity allows bad behavior online? What is it about our need to hold individual users accountable… and then lets the community itself be blameless? Do we out everyone online – not just the pervs and racists, but the sloppy and the mean who can’t hold themselves back from posting? The panel urged the audience to stop blaming the technology, and to pull the power back into the hands of every day people that have the responsibility to model better behavior, both online and offline. Are WE all responsible? In this case, there was an academic we in the room, and the air felt real heavy for a millisecond.
Many of us couldn’t help but feel blown away by danah boyd as she spoke out against the apathy in ripping teens who say stupid things on the internet, about bullying in general, and how we are all implicated if we sit back and don’t do anything to elevate the conversation higher. Confession here that I think I’ve held an academic crush on her since her 2002 study on Facebook and Myspace – at a time I was managing teen programs in a contemporary art museum in Boston. Class lines bifurcated along who was using Facebook to promote our events, who was using Myspace, and why they were reaching such separate – dare I say segregated, teen audiences. I think she has consistently spoken on behalf of young people in ways that matter, and often when they cannot.
So for a moment, the answer was a resounding yes about the blame game; we are all implicated whether we liked it or not. Chen posited that old addage that you can behave any way you like online “cos it’s private” might actually be left over “from a really ancient time when the internet was run by all white guys.” Duh. So does that mean we blame ourselves? danah spoke particularly eloquently about why we all must adopt a “professorial” role to educate beyond the immediate, limited social circles we reach via our Twitter followers. She gestured to us, sitting in the audience, that there was too much brain power in the room to ignore our potential to expand our reach.
After last night’s panel, it became clear to me that there aren’t many places of resistance at CUNY against teaching, learning and theorizing why we can’t all contribute to make the internet just be a little bit better, together.
Today was Saturday afternoon, and so I had to run up to the library stacks over the break – as today also surfaced a new running list of what can only be tagged with <what am I not reading now, but really should be>, followed by a head smack. I never go into those stacks, and today I did in earnest. With special thanks to someone at #TtW13 for posting this – as clearly I wasn’t the only one hopeful to capture this screenshot:
I hit the streets outside CUNY last night ready to kick an edupunk signpost – stoked that I live in New York City, that I can sit and watch the discomfort of academics as we remind ourselves where we hit gaping caverns between what we think and write about, and what the heck else the rest of the world is actually doing in their everyday lives.
I then felt the weight of so much more responsibility as I walked the stacks this afternoon, in the midst of the Theorizing the Web conference. The HD-live stream and our comfy auditorium chairs are a privileged place to sit and contemplate our work, at any moment. Such conversations can feel rather disconnected. The IRL actions of academics are only just beginning to index some of the more practical applications in urban education, yet operates separately from the systems of learning that actually might go down in cities. And especially in a city like this one.
For a Friday night, and for all the nights I’ve tried to get home, late and exhausted, running between my full time job and my full time doctoral studies — last night, I was ready to fist pump the air. Hells, yea, CUNY. I get it, you’ve always had a radical history. But thank you for bringing the BADA$$ES together this weekend. We all needed this level of thoughtfulness and discussion led by a call to action to make new moves. There is plenty more work to be done, and it needs to be done by all of us.