Kirsten Forkert and Jerome Turner attended the International Association for Media and Communication Research conference in Dublin, which took place 25-29 June at Dublin City University. The theme was ‘Crises, “Creative Destruction” and the Global Power and Communication Orders’. Kirsten presented her paper Creativity, flexibility and and austerity, while Jerome presented with Creative Citizens colleague Andy Williams on UK community news and the public interest.
This was the first time for both of us attending the IAMCR. It was a very big conference with more than 1,400 delegates and four plenary sessions. We found it very engaging as the plenary speeches raised provocative questions about the current moment. The inclusion of speakers such as Jodi Dean, Hu Zhenrong and John Bellamy Foster—who are not strictly speaking communications scholars—helped set the tone in terms of situating communications research in the context of wider debates about the current phase of capitalism.
Natalie Fenton and Gavan Titley’s presentation also raised an important question about the purpose of communications research: by equating participation on online platforms with participation in democracy, are we implying that liberalism is the best political philosophy—and in the current neoliberal moment should we be actually directing our energy and skills towards other alternatives?
The conference overall involved some important criticisms of the techno-optimism around social media that we’ve seen over the past few years. For example, some presentations challenged the assumption that social media is inherently progressive or non-hierarchical (such as Eugenia Siapera’s and Gavan Titley’s presentations on the far right’s use of social media). Jodi Dean’s plenary on communicative capitalism also raised questions about whether we use social media to distract ourselves or whinge rather than work concretely to create change. However, her presentation also tended to create a hierarchy of the street over the internet, when the actual situation might in fact be more complex; the street is not an entirely unmediated space, particularly as mobile media use becomes more common, and there are those who cannot always be in the street (disabled activist group Armchair Army comes to mind). Eugenia Siapera’s application of Lefebvre’s concept of ‘social space’—of space as socially constructed, and including both online and offline space— could be useful here. Also, it can be tempting to counter naïve-techno-optimism with totalising forms of pessimism that write all social media use off as simply stuffing the pockets of internet giants, disregarding how social media can be a genuinely useful tool within activist practices. Hopefully we’ll see some more nuanced perspectives at future conferences.
For those of us who sometimes look to inspiration outside of their usual frame of reference, the programme aided the discovery of some very interesting work. For example, papers in the Audiences theme included work on the analysis of Gangnam Style Youtube parody videos, Japanese vocaloid music and the multi-layered motivations of MMORG players; the Community Communication theme offered studies of the Colombian Misak community’s use of the internet, Interactive failings of Zimbabwean newspapers online, Cypriot student self-reflection through oral history, Brazilian religious pirate radio and Italian political yarnbombing; the Journalism Research and Education strand included a study of audience participation in alternative journalism via fan theory, and a number of papers on use of Twitter in journalism.
The conference happened in the aftermath of the Edward Snowden leak and the revelations about GCHQ spying so questions of privacy and the use of meta-data were at the back of our minds, as well as more general questions about the role of giant internet corporations and the state. This was discussed in Annabelle Sreberny’s plenary and the launch Beyond WikiLeaks: Implications for the Future of Communications, Journalism and Society by Benedetta Brevini, Arne Hintz and Patrick McCurdy. Differences between Google and Twitter’s approaches to privacy were discussed, as well as the problems of applying Eurocentric perspectives to social media use, especially when studying regions such as Egypt.
One common criticism of the conference was that the programme was very difficult to navigate as sessions were organised by theme rather than by time slot, with no overview of panels and room numbers at particular time slots. With thirty themes to choose from, unless you were very certain of only being interested in one specific focus, this required flicking through the entire catalogue for each time slot.
Another issue was that some of the presentations seemed to be trying to cover an entire research project or PhD thesis in 15 minutes, and followed a rigid format of literature review-methodology-findings—which meant it was difficult at times to understand what the argument was, and also meant there was little space for analysis, theorisation or even reflection on research findings. This raises questions about why people feel pressured to follow these sorts of rigid conventions in presenting their work, and, given the issues, an inverted format might be more effective, starting with findings and details of the study, and foregrounding the argument.
Some of the sessions involved reflections on the associations and future conferences. IAMCR is an international association, with delegates from all over the world. However, there were fewer delegates from the global South than there could have been. The high cost of conference fees, travel costs from regions outside of Europe and the lack of translation services for non-English presentations were all raised as issues. The casualisation of academia also came up, in terms of the difficulty for people to afford conference fees and the future survival of academic organisations such as IAMCR. The uses of Skype and other platforms was suggested as one possible response, as was actually employed in the opening plenary session this year; hopefully these important issues will be engaged with by the association. The 2014 IAMCR conference will take place in Hyderabad, India. It will be interesting to see how these debates will continue there.
Further details of other sessions attended by Jerome can be found here and on Kirsten’s twitter feed using the #iamcr13 tag). In fact Twitter became a very useful way to follow proceedings, with not only the main #iamcr13 tag in use, but tags for each section, e.g. #iamcr13coc for Community Communication. Some successful tweeting on our part even drew people into presentations.
This is a co-written report by Interactive Cultures members Kirsten Forkert and Jerome Turner.