Hackers and Trackers and Slackers, Oh My!: Adventures at MIT’s “Media in Transition” Conference

New trends now start not from exhibitions or publications but from conferences. It was, after all, the 1966 conference at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, ‘The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man’, attended by [Jacques] Derrida and other Parisian savants, that first put the ideas of poststructuralism into circulation in America, where they were developed, institutionalized, and ultimately re-exported to Europe and the rest of the academic world.

(David Lodge, “Through The ‘No Entry’ Sign: Deconstruction and Architecture”)

The start of May is usually the start of my academic conference season, and as my previous post indicated, I recently spent a few days in the Boston area. I went there to attend MiT8, the “Media in Transition” conference that happens every two years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The conference is sponsored by MIT’s Communications Forum and the wonderful MIT Comparative Media Studies (CMS) program.

You might wonder how or why someone who works in a school of business administration ended up at a conference that has presentations on topics like slash fiction, snark websites, Farmville, sexting, and reality television. Back in 2007, Sam Ford, at the time a CMS graduate student, was teaching a course about professional wrestling, and he invited me to visit his class to talk about my academic research on that subject. Sam casually mentioned that CMS was sponsoring a conference the weekend after my visit, and that I was welcome to attend it.

Although I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, I figured that since I was making the trip to Boston anyway, I might as well stay a few extra days and check it out. The conference turned out to be one of the most interesting and thought-provoking conferences I’d ever attended – it had an incredible range of diverse subjects, and some excellent discussions and presentations –  and I’ve gone to every one since then. Yes, some of what’s discussed is outside my discipline and my areas of expertise, but a lot of it is related to organizations and work. And it’s never a bad thing to push yourself intellectually and to get a sense of what’s happening in areas of research other than your own.

As the “Media in Transition” name suggests, each version of the MiT conference has a theme related to developments in types and uses of media. This year’s theme was “public media, private media“, and presenters were encouraged to discuss issues around how different forms of media and communication challenge notions of what is “private” and what is “public”. And it was a truly international conference, with more than 100 participants from all around the world. (If you’d like to see the research paper that I co-presented at the conference, you can find it here.)

One of the things that I really like about the MiT conference is that it’s very egalitarian. Thanks to the sponsors, there’s no registration fee, which makes the conference very accessible – especially at a time when conference registration fees can be several hundred dollars. The conference nametags only list people’s names, not their institutional affiliations or positions; in my view, this really helps reduce the nasty hierarchical behaviour at academic conferences that can be highly unpleasant. The research presented at the conference is often quite non-traditional and non-mainstream, and researchers doing this kind of work can often feel marginalized, but the tone of the conference is very welcoming and inclusive. Maybe I don’t notice hierarchical behaviour at this particular conference because I don’t know where to look or who to watch out for – but all I can say is, I was wandering around in a pinstriped black suit, other participants were wearing very casual or very edgy outfits, we all talked about very different things, and everyone fit right in.

There's way more going on with this image than just a smart-ass caption. (credit: http://www.quickmeme.com/boromir)

There’s way more going on with this image than just a smart-ass caption. (credit: http://www.quickmeme.com/boromir)

So, as suggested by the quote at the start of this post, here are some of the new ideas that I was introduced to at this conference.

  • Traditional definitions of privacy are being strongly challenged by new forms of media, particularly social media. But this isn’t only because people’s personal information is being distributed against their will; it’s also because the ease of access and communication in social media may encourage people to reveal more personal information than they ever would have before. There was a very interesting panel discussion about “oversharing”: who gets to define how much information is too much information, and how the boundaries of what’s acceptable to share are rapidly changing, and sometimes not for the better.
  • Copyright, as a form of control over media product, continues to be a contentious issue, especially with technology now facilitating “remix” cultural products like Internet memes. At the first MiT conference I attended, the discussions of copyright were focused on how traditional ideas of copyright could apply in a social-media world. At this conference, the discussions were more about what authorship and ownership mean when technology allows anyone to take a cultural product and pretty much do whatever they like with it.
  • Spreadable media” and “sticky media” are becoming important ideas. While you can put a message out through any kind of media, that message has to be redistributed by others and/or retained for it to have any kind of impact. These two concepts are extremely useful for understanding how value and meaning are assigned to information in a high-speed multi-media world.
  • I was also pleased to see that there were several excellent discussions of ethical issues related to media usage. The editors of this online journal gave a fascinating presentation about ethical issues in studying fan culture – particularly in fan communities where participants use online or authorial pseudonyms – and respecting the norms of those communities while also respecting the traditions of accurate citation of source material. There were also discussions of data and usage tracking, online vigilanteeism, online piracy, surveillance, and other ways to use media that have the potential to be unethical, immoral, or illegal.

I still have concerns about Twitter use discouraging in-person discussions at conferences – and I was definitely not impressed that in some sessions, some presenters were rude enough to Tweet about unrelated issues while other presenters were speaking. But I must admit that I laughed very hard at one of MIT’s projectors, a speaker’s podium, and a session facilitator’s laptop getting their own Twitter accounts to complain about being misused or ignored.

The entire MiT8 program is available online, along with the abstracts and full texts of many of the papers that were presented. I encourage you to take a look at this very diverse range of ideas and opinions – because if every conference I go to this year is as good as this one, it’s going to be a good conference season.

RELATED POST: Spreadable Media at MiT8

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