The Future of the Forum: Internet Communities and the Public Interest (Symposium 5 Dec 09; CFP Deadline 5 Oct 09)

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Berkeley Center for New Media at the University of California, Berkeley
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Berkeley Center for New Media (BCNM) Symposium

The Future of the Forum: Internet Communities and the Public Interest

Saturday, December 5, 2009 at the University of California, Berkeley

Keynote Speakers:
Jim Buckmaster, CEO of craigslist
Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikipedia

Jürgen Habermas' treatise on "the public sphere" locates the seeds of the French Revolution in the 18th century rise of new media, such as newspapers and journals, coffee houses and reading clubs, that facilitated the rapid exchange of ideas among educated citizens outside the state's control. In contrast, Søren Kierkegaard attributed the inertia of the mid-19th century to the public's superficial engagement with media: "[T]he public comes into existence because all its participants become third parties….[T]his public gallery seeks some distraction, and soon gives itself over to the idea that everything which someone does, or achieves, has been done to provide the public something to gossip about…."

Internet forums – participatory and collaboratively authored online communities, discussion boards, blogs, and social networking sites – are rapidly changing the modes and norms of public communication. Is our new media age a revolutionary one, similar to that analyzed by Habermas? Or is it a period of widespread passivity, as Kierkegaard lamented of his own time?

This one-day symposium will explore the question, How are Internet communities re-configuring and re-constituting common conceptions of the public, the public good, the public interest, and civic responsibility? What new forms of dialogue are emerging with our new media? When do the pleasures of interacting with digital technologies coincide with, and facilitate, progressive social action?

Are the protocols of Internet affinity groups fragmenting the public into increasingly narrower niches, creating insularity and "echo-chambers" of opinion, thus undermining opportunities for productive debates amongst individuals with diverse worldviews? Or are contemporary Web users more often than not forging alliances and finding overlaps with strangers who are radically different from them in the "real world?"

The symposium will be presented by the Berkeley Center for New Media (BCNM), and will take place at the University of California, Berkeley. As a public university that has itself served as a medium for the emergence of new forms of public activism, UC Berkeley will provide an ideal setting for scholars to present pioneering research on new media and the public interest.

The symposium organizers invite proposals for papers addressing novel aspects of online participation, the formation of new publics, and the public good. Papers may be specific, focusing on case studies of particular Internet groups, or more theoretical and general in their approach.

Paper topics may include, but are not limited to, the following:

• Historical analyses of how earlier forms of "new" media impacted the public sphere and the public interest (e.g., the printing press, the telephone, the radio, the cinema, 'zine culture).

• The impact of political blogs, "Tweets," YouTube vids,, candidate fan sites, "smart mob" technologies (Howard Rheingold), and other attempts to use new media for political organization, and their effects on "real-world" politics (e.g., the 2008 U.S. presidential elections, the 2009 "green revolution" in Iran).

• "Participatory cultures" (Henry Jenkins) such as Internet fan communities, Wikipedia pages, and YouTube, which lower the barriers to entering – thereby presumably democratizing – the field of cultural production.

• The concepts of "free" and/or "open" applying to a vast array of contemporary collectives/initiatives, not just to software development (e.g., open access journals, Christopher Kelty's theory of "recursive publics" – self-governing communities that constantly make/modify/maintain their own infrastructure).

• Citizen journalism, participatory journalism, and other models for publishing news online that have eroded or re-invented traditional print news publishing models (e.g., Drudge Report, local community blogs, ad-free news Web sites).

• The establishment of alternate economies on the Internet, including reputation economies and "cycles of credit" (Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar), gift economies, and the attention economy. The intersection of these economies and issues of labor and leisure (e.g., creating popular online content for fame/praise rather than for compensation, eBay and sellers' reputation linked to their income), and the question of whether the Internet is altering the structure of capitalism.

• Issues of reputation and representation. The importance of authorship, authority, and identity in Internet communities, the uncertainties of ascertaining who is "speaking" online, and whether open dialogue and trust between strangers is possible on the Internet (e.g., the anonymity of participation permitting flaming and censorship in Internet exchanges, plagiarism from online sources).

• Isolation, passivity, apathy, and disengagement amongst new media users. Do virtual relationships replace or displace face-to-face relationships? Is online activism a poor substitute for "real-world" activism? Are people more or less invested in social and political issues in an age of interactive and narrowcast media than they were in the era of print and broadcast media?

• Mobility and the public interest. How mobile and handheld devices, and mobile-specific applications, alter and shape users' interfaces with civic life (e.g., mass transit, traffic, schools, non-profits, elections). How space, place, geography, and mapping change or are changed by new media, and how digital locatability relates to the public good.

• New forms of public personae, public performance, and public broadcasting being founded via new media, and whether or how they provide the kind of entertainment-based "social glue" that mass broadcast media used to offer (e.g., "best-of-craigslist" posts, Yelp recommendations, Perez Hilton,

Please send 300-word abstracts and a one-page C.V. to Professor Abigail De Kosnik at by October 5, 2009.

The Berkeley Center for New Media (BCNM), located at the center of design and information technology, is based in a public research university known for alternative thinking. Our mission is to critically analyze and help shape developments in new media from cross-disciplinary and global perspectives that emphasize humanities and the public interest. BCNM serves as a focal point for unconventional historical and contemporary thinking from a diverse community of over 120 affiliated faculty, advisors, and scholars from over 35 UC Berkeley departments, including Architecture, Philosophy, Film Studies, Art History, Performance Studies, the Schools of Engineering, Information, Journalism, Law, and the Berkeley Art Museum.