Unlike Us: Adjacent Communities and the Adjacent Possible

Last week I attended Unlike Us, a conference exploring alternatives to social media monopolies. Held in Amsterdam and hosted by the Institute of Network Cultures, it brought together communities of academics, artists, designers, educators, and activists, who share an interest in developing alternative code and cultures around social media. The event proved identity affirming for me, as it brought together the disparate elements of my work practice, around subject matter I’m really interested in. I witnessed some excellent debates about the politics of centralization and decentralization; the politics of assuming different identities in social media networks; and, the problems with defining relationships in code.

Unsurprisingly, Facebook received a lot of attention. Anne Helmond’s and Carolin Gerlitz’s ‘Reworking the Fabric of the web: The Like Economy’ was a stand out presentation, as was Harry Halpin’s ‘Hidden History of the Like Button’. PhD researcher Frederick Borgesius also gave a fascinating talk about behavioral targeting and how advertisers are buying audiences through data profiles.

It wasn’t a huge surprise that Unlike Us appealed to me. I have always really enjoyed events that bring together different groups that are adjacent in proximity but have few opportunities to cross-pollinate. I like these opportunities as they give me a glimpse of what Stuart Kaufmann calls the adjacent possible: “a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.”

The adjacent possibilities that emerged from the gathering of these adjacent communities, involved new thinking, new software platforms, new ways of organising and new modes of coalition building. The different approaches people were taking to advance critical thinking and practices around social media alternatives – from software protocol development to digital literacy education to network theory – revealed a need in my mind to be involved in more initiatives that facilitate collaboration between adjacent communities.

Fieldwork Update

IMG_3192 Last week I sat in on CuriousWorks' strategic planning meeting, and what an exciting three days it was. The crew did all sorts of workshopping around current states of play, while looking towards what sort of operation they would like to be in the future. Elias and I held a session on using a logical framework matrix for project planning and evaluation, and I presented some of my research findings which included a proposal to create some resources the company could use. Thankfully they all seemed to like my plan, which I will expand on at a later stage.

My network-broking hypothesis

I have been using the term ‘network broker’ to describe what I consider a new role for community media arts practitioners. This role involves mediating communities that are connected through computer and mobile networks. I am proposing that they situate themselves within these networks as a broker – developing and disseminating information, techniques and tools. As a router in a packet data network, brokers the relationship between data and its path, community media artists might find new ways to bring about social change by routing and rerouting ideas and resources through digital networks. The concept of the ‘network broker’ was gestating while I was working as a community manager at ABC Pool – an online community of media arts practice managed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. There were no precedents at the ABC for this type of online community manager role, which meant the small team I worked with were constantly evaluating our activities. After a while it struck me that the community manager role felt quite similar to the role of a community artist – they both helped shape creative projects and provided technical and moral support to a community of practice.

Online community management is a growing and developing role. It can be thought of as the web 2.0 version of the ‘online moderator’ – a role that emerged in the early days of bulletin board systems (BBS). The term community management is beginning to supersede moderator, as social networking tools enable the formation of online communities facilitated by key individuals who encourage a collective vision, create and manage relationships and manage collaborative processes (Anklam 2007). Jono Bacon’s (2009) The Art of Community, describes frameworks for planning, supporting and maintaining online communities. The strategies he advocates emerged from his experience as the community manager of one of the largest FOSS projects, Ubuntu . Topics range from ‘Building Buzz’ and ‘Communicating Clearly’ to ‘Handling Conflict’.

Although community media artists are using computer and mobile networks, I believe there is more scope for them to incorporate new modes of networked facilitation and mentoring in to their practices. My PhD inquiry subsequently offers the ‘network broker’ framework, as a way of situating these new roles and responsibilities. The ‘network broker’ proposition involves the community media artist developing tools, documents, routines, vocabulary and symbols to build and sustain networks of creative practice. Network brokers utilize the openness and flexibility of distributed communications networks to create a reflexive, dialogic connection with people they are trying to help. This is in contrast to the traditional ‘parachute in’ community arts model, where artists run preconceived projects ‘in the community’. Network brokers work with beta-testers, as opposed to participants. The beta-tester framework encourages dialogue, and explicitly situates everyone involved in a feedback loop. Beta-testers have the opportunity to change the version on offer if they are dissatisfied. Adjustments could come in the form of suggestions or direct changes to methods or materials.

My inquiry will explore the notion that when the beta-tester forms an ‘agile’ relationship with the network broker, dynamic flows of information are enabled that develop networks of practice. The notion of agile development has its roots in software culture and was a response against heavily regulated, micro-managed, sequential models of development. In agile development environments, requirements and solutions evolve as a result of self-organised collaboration. I am interested in agile methodologies as they create a wider scope for emergent behaviours, and the possibility of developing networks that encourage amateur subversions.

It remains to be seen whether my network-broking hypothesis has legs. I'll keep you posted once I get in to the swing of my fieldwork.

Free Technology Academy

The Free Technology Academy offers online courses in ... free technology. Such as:

  • Network Technologies
    • Configure and manage networking services in Free Software environments
    • Configure and manage services and advanced networking protocols such as wireless networks, broadcast systems, voice over IP, real-time applications, ad-hoc networks and sensor networks

    Free course materials included! http://ftacademy.org/materials/fsm/3#1

    THATCamp Melbourne: March 2011

    Melbourne THATCamp is around the corner. It will be awesome.

    THATCamp is a user-generated “unconference” on digital humanities developed by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University in the US. THATCamp Melbourne is hosted and sponsored by the Victorian eResearch Strategic Initiative (VeRSI) and partners, the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, the University Library, and the Public Record Office Victoria.