[iDC] New Network Theory Post-Conference Thoughts

lilly nguyen lillynguyen at ucla.edu
Fri Jul 6 16:35:28 EDT 2007

So Trebor asked me to put together a short overview of the New  
Network Theory Conference that just took place in Amsterdam. Overall,  
it was an incredibly stimulating experience with lots of interesting  
ideas floated around and so this email will discuss reoccuring themes  
that struck me.
You can go to the liveblog for a more detailed overview of all the  
panels: http://mastersofmedia.hum.uva.nl/. Also you can see the  
program here: http://www.networkcultures.org/networktheory/

[Be warned: email is office friendly but rather long… ;)]

First, there were some really interesting critiques of web 2.0 and  
social software more broadly.
There were overall skeptics of the promise of “openness” in open  
source production, Warren Sack specifically mentioned his work  
looking at the python development community and the hierarchal  
structures involved, and wikipedia was also mentioned in the same  
way. Several individuals questioned the novelty of notions of “user- 
generated-content”, which I wholly agree with and would personally  
argue for a reconceptualization of UGC as part of a longer tradition  
of cultural evolution, engagement, and, creativity, creation, and  
innovation. Additionally, the notion of UGC brings about a new  
subjectivity of users as such, which I think is an interesting idea  
that requires some more serious consideration. The role of private  
business in this larger web 2.0 framework was raised several times  
and Tiziana Terranova had some really interesting points about the  
new forms of capital in an internet economy. One of her main points  
was that we now see a shift where social relations and linking are  
the currency and capital in a net economy, where the capture of  
attention, memory, desires, and beliefs becomes a fundamental part of  
forming networks. Over the course of the conference, it became  
increasingly clear to me that the role of business in structuring and  
shaping the internet and represents a new economic logic that defines  
web 2.0, in spite of the rhetoric that is put forth about it. User  
practices and engagement may not be new, but the face there is now a  
business incentive to facilitate and harness this that is, in fact, new.

Metaphors of performance and performativity came up quite a bit  
during the conference, however often in passing. Oftentimes, there  
was a conflation of the two and people used these terms to describe  
the things that people do in networks. However, it is important to  
understand them as separate, where one represents (performance) and  
the other articulates and enacts (performative). Given the mediated  
dimensions of networks, btn people and digital artifacts, I think  
there are some interesting questions of network engagement through  
the prism of the performance-performative distinction. In this way,  
network maps or online network don’t just represent our clusters of  
relations but that they also enact, embody, and entail them as well.

Related to this idea, is the critique that came up of how oftentimes  
we also conflate the network as a diagram-representation of social  
phenomena and social phenomena itself. This kind of reflexive  
critique was part of a larger interest in the ways in which we  
imagine and perceive networks and how this, in turn, shapes how we  
engage in/with them.

Additionally, there were a lot of concerns regarding surveillance and  
we can clearly see how our perceptions of surveillance (from  
government agencies, to google, to parents and kids on myspace) might  
contour our understanding of network spaces and the types of actions  
we may taken within them. Alan Liu very elegantly discussed the  
dialectic between surveilling/authoritive policing versus knowledge/ 
creativity and asked “Where should authority be placed in the data  
architecture of web 2.0?”

An interesting set of questions that came up relate to notions of  
time, memory, and history in networks. During one session (I forgot  
who), someone asked if networks grow and evolve, do networks ever  
finish? This continued in other panels with questions regarding  
history: do networks, in fact, have a history or histories? Does  
history exist in the nodes of networks or in the links of networks?  
Wendy Chun briefly mentioned the idea of the enduring ephemeral in  
networks and the role of memory in networks which she provocatively  
described as repetition and regeneration of storage.

Those were my key takeaways, definitely lots of fodder and I hope  
that this helped to stimulate more questions and discussions. If  
other conference attendees are on the list it'd be great to get your  
insight and comments as well!


Lilly Nguyen
PhD Student, Dept. of Information Studies
lillynguyen at ucla.edu

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