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Oxford explorations

The Oxford Internet Institute Summer Doctoral Programme has been the highlight of my academic career so far! I got back two weeks ago today and, desperate to hold on to the experience, I’m going back through my extensive notes on ideas, inspirations and excellent references for further exploration. In a compromise between brevity and depth I’m going to describe, in some detail, my ‘highlight’ of each day - most often the provocative planting of a ‘seed’.

Sunday 10th

Floated into Oxford in a haze of jet lag and settled into student digs at the Potter-esque ‘Lady Margaret Hall’. Met some of the 29 other PHD student participants for welcome drinks at the local ‘Rose and Crown’. Saw Thom Yorke (of Radiohead) squirreled in a corner scribbling in a battered notebook. We were all too decorous to interrupt his creative musings... Played a ‘getting to know you’ game that was reminiscent of a Digital Storytelling circle - ‘tell a funny story about your name’ - slightly uncomfortable as it was, it nevertheless proved an excellent means for lodging identities in foggy brain.

Monday 11th

Straight into it with Sandra Gonzalez-Bailon on ‘Online Communities, Political Engagement and Public Opinion Formation’. G-B offered a quick overview of internet research over the last 10 years or so...

...and argued that most of these authors wrote about technologies potential rather than actual use, based upon actual data. From this emerges the central question of the presentation: what are the mechanisms mediating internet use and political engagement? “Internet technologies have been said to change democratic politics for five interrelated reasons: first, they provide easy and universal access to information; second, they democratize the process of agenda setting; third, they encourage political participation; fourth, they improve the quality of deliberation; and fifth, they facilitate the organisation of collective action.” (Sandra Gonzalez-Baillon)

Sandra proceeded to highlight some of the questions that complicate these claims - for example who uses online political spaces and for how long? These questions were illustrated with graphs from Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project (2008). Related to the second point: are we returning to ‘coffee house’ notions of public sphere in that, while blogs often canvass news issues later than mainstream outlets, discussion of issues frequently lasts longer. On the third point (they encourage political participation) many online networks are simply reproducing same dynamics as face to face interactions, i.e. core discussions are held between intimates and users who receive feedback stay engaged for longer etc (among others G-B cited Lazarsfeld’s ‘Personal Influence’. On the fourth point (improved quality of deliberation) G-B set up the debate as polarized between Matthew Hindman’s ‘The Myth of Digital Democracy’ and Stephen Coleman et al. In ‘The Internet and Democratic Citizenship’. G-B made the points that most networks are hierarchical with core users over-represented in discussions and that often self-organized communities don’t endure thereby diminishing the optimism of ‘digital democracy’. In “The Structure of Political Discussion Networks: A Model for the Analysis of Online Deliberation” (Gonzalez-Bailon, S., Kaltenbrunner, A., & Banchs, R. E. 2010) the authors attempted to measure the width and depth of deliberation empirically.

On the fifth and final point G-B cited Bakshy, E., Hofman, J.M., Mason, W.A., & Watts, D.J. 2011. “Everyone’s an Influencer: Quantifying Influence on Twitter” to illustrate that the processes of facilitating collective action are not new, but faster. A small fraction of tweets ‘cascade’ to a wider audience and most influential users are already famous or mainstream news outlets. What circumstances are hospitable to information cascades - the user (tweeter) or content (tweet) or unrelated historical/social circumstances? We need more research to answer these questions?

G-B’s work was based on two observational case studies: political discussions in Usenet (1999-2005) and BBC World News Forum (2005-2009). The methodological approach was quantitative and frequently represented in some intriguing graphs measuring everything from survival probabilities to the emotional content of discussions (which tended to get unhappier and angrier over time). It was acknowledged that political engagement was by a self-selecting community (people already interested in politics) and that political consequences of discussions cannot be predicted - evidenced by unsuccessful attempts by marketers to harness viral mechanisms in order to influence opinion. Benedict Anderson’s ‘Imagined Communities’ (1983, 2006) was cited for it’s usefulness in understanding how collective identities evolve and may also be facilitated by online communication.

Sandra’s session was an excellent start to the fortnight - partly because it was pertinent to my work (albeit coming from a completely different methodological and analytical paradigm) and partly because it set the pace... Breakneck. Already, after an hour and a half, I had a better understanding of internet research history and current debate and a head buzzing with questions and references to chase up. One of these kept reoccurring: the work of Alberto Melucci, in particular, ‘Challenging Codes: collective action int he information age’.

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