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.

Tank Man Tango

Participatory performance/memorial by artist Deborah Kelly, performed by flash mob dancers in Sydney to commemorate the 20th Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in China. http://www.babelgum.com/html/clip.php?clipId=3020413