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.

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