Back from the International Communication Association’s 2013 Annual Conference in London. These things can be hit and miss, with thousands of researchers presenting papers in a multitude of parallel sessions, but this one was a hit for me. I had a very good conference, catching up with colleagues and hearing some interesting presentations on changes in political communication, innovations in journalism, and the increasing importance of various forms of algorithms in shaping our information environment.
So, far too many good things to properly summarize or name-check here, so instead I’ll zoom in on a continuing concern for me that the conference did nothing to dispel—namely the concern that most theoretical and empirical work on the implications of the rise of new digital technologies for how we communicate (and by extension for democracy, social relations, etc) focus on the intersection between spectacular cases and early adopters.
Basically, we have many more studies of how digitally savvy and highly wired elites and of cases like Andy Carvin’s coverage of the Arab spring, of Kony 2012, of the Obama campaigns, etc than we have of how the wider population and ordinary activists, journalists, and politicians engage with and connect in part through digital media.
We need more studies of ordinary people, we need more studies of ordinary organizations, we need more studies of ordinary campaigns. And we need more studies of failures. Not because early adopters and spectacularly successful campaigns do not matter. They do. But because they are not representative of the general experience, and because they are not necessarily forerunners for where everyone else will eventually find themselves. They are outliers on very skewed distributions, low-probability events with high visibility and sometimes high impact. They rarely represent the future modal outcomes.
I know studying the role of the internet in your local newspaper or local community activists’ daily work, or amongst working class folks in a suburban community isn’t as sexy as studying the Guardian/Wikileaks collaboration, the Gezi park mobilization, or whatnot. But we need such studies too to understand what is actually going on, and what will actually be going on in the coming years. So here’s for a repeat of the sadly deceased Susan Leigh Star’s call that we study (seemingly) boring things.