COMMUNEcation: a rhizomatic tale ...
798 new media & society 12(5) Introduction The concept of ���cultural technologies��� as ���assemblages of technology, content, context, power relations, and social knowledge��� (Flew, 2005: 26) encompasses the symbiotic relationship between technology and culture. Technologies ���facilitate communication through which culture is constructed��� (Green, 2001: 23). Construction of such cultures across time and space has been well documented by scholars (see, for example, Kreiner and Schultz, 1995 Nelson-Marsh, 2007 Rheingold, 2003). Yet not as much attention has been paid to how cultural technologies can help reconfigure colonialist notions of space into hybrid spheres of interaction, where the real and the virtual cohabit to build ���inter- local��� (Simpson, 2008) linkages that nurture local identities and co-construct syncretic identities and alternative global partnerships. As cultural studies scholars such as Beck and Lau (2005) argue, the new age of Web 2.0 blurs global/local boundaries and it is in the blurring of the boundaries that we can see a ���meshing of technology, society, and culture��� (Flew, 2005: 28) and a potential nurturing of reflexivity ���at the interface of the social and the technical��� (Lash, 2003: 55). In this article, we focus our attention on a hybrid sphere of interaction ��� a virtual confer- ence and community of scholars based in five different continents and with diverse disci- plinary backgrounds. Moving away from a colonialist mindset of territorial boundaries emphasized by the obsession with cartography and visions of the world from privileged vantage points (Shohat and Stam, 1996), we examine this hybrid space from a postcolonial perspective. Such a postcolonial approach, Shohat and Stam argue, resists constructed notions of national borders, ���stresses deterritorialization��� and ���addresses complex, multi- layered identities ��� generated by the geographical displacements characteristic of the post- independence era��� (Shohat and Stam, 1996: 38, 41). Drawing on these commitments and concepts of cosmopedia and the architecture of deterritorialization from Pierre L��vy (1997), we reconceptualize what it means to act ���locally��� and yet simultaneously be part of a ���profes- sional community��� through the interweaving of real-life associations and individually crafted material texts, on the one hand, and online conversations among scholars with no prior connections and co-constructed texts, on the other. We use as a case study, our experi- ences of COMMUNEcation, a virtual conference organized as an experimental virtual net- work to demonstrate how physically co-located and online/virtual conferencing practices acting in tandem provide a greater opportunity for the inclusion of both diverse perspectives and participants rather than just participating in one form or the other. COMMUNEcation also demonstrates the degree to which structuring practices can be flexed in order to negoti- ate and value diversity, legitimacy, authority and knowledge at the same time. In the sections that follow, we examine, using insights from postcolonial theory and the L��vy���s work on collective intelligence, the social, ecological and corporate contours of aca- demic conferences, specifically the ways in which the communicative structuring of schol- arly conferencing act to restrain and constrain diversity and community within the academic diaspora. We then present our experiences in organizing and participating in COMMUNEcation, an international online academic conference and community using the participatory tech- nologies of Web 2.0, and discuss its potential for reclaiming some diversity in the espoused goals of scholarly and professional conferencing and community. Finally, we provide theo- retical and empirical insights and reflections on the social dynamics of conferencing in both at University of Westminster on August 11, 2010 nms.sagepub.com Downloaded from
Broadfoot et al. 799 online and offline spaces to demonstrate how online conferencing can expand the directions taken in pursuit of new collective knowledge. To put this hybrid space in context, let us first look at the spatial, and consequentially political, cultural and ideological boundaries around traditional face-to-face professional conferences. Problematizing the privileged culture of conferencing As scholars and professionals, we aim to advance knowledge about human interaction in organizational settings. We ask questions, conduct research, theoretically interpret find- ings and make claims about how people interact, why they interact as they do and what significant implications such interaction might have. To challenge and advance knowl- edge of human interaction, we enlist and engage other scholars in dialogue about our research, and use conferences as forums for these meta-dialogues. Yet, surprisingly, we do not often question or critique the taken-for-granted assumptions about the nature, structure and prefecture of these conferences and their practices. Why do scholars and other professionals conference? What do they accomplish through such practices? How do they conference and how can this activity be done differently to not just include mul- tiple geographically dispersed and economically disadvantaged others, but to facilitate a fluid, non-hierarchical, dimension of multiplicity? Traditional face-to-face conferencing is a privileged activity. It is a practice requiring funding, travel and time away from home. Its current restrictive structures involving issues of time, place and cost, and constrictive processes such as scheduling, formats of panels and respondents demarcate who can and cannot be present. These current restric- tive structures and constrictive processes act as exclusionary mechanisms to reduce diversity in conferencing content, practices, presences and voices. The consequence of such exclusions, we argue, is a seriously limited scholarly and professional understand- ing and experience of the wider community as well as contemporary social relations. Although conferences are beneficial in that they serve as spaces for scholarly and professional exchange, traditional conferences are at best platforms for what Deleuze and Guattari (2004: 36) might call ���arborescent multiplicities���. Such platforms, diverse as they may be in a variety of senses, are characterized by an ���organization of territorial- ity��� and a ���one-way hierarchy��� (Deleuze and Guattari, 2004: 37). The communicative and organizing processes involved in such an ���organization of territoriality��� can often lead to scholarly disenchantment, as discussed below by a junior professional in our own discipline: While the respondent for a panel I presented on at the ��� [conference] this year was quite good and offered very useful feedback, in general respondents ��� are not that helpful, from what I witnessed in other panels. Respondents make a lot of ���fluffy��� comments rather than blend the right amount of face-saving praise with sharp, constructive criticism. [The Association] seems, based on my first experience, to be light on the whole ���developing scholarship��� thing and heavy on the greasy, political networking stuff. As an academic conference, it feels like a fraternity mixer ��� I do recognize the value of all the many lines of communication scholarship coming together, and I suppose [the Association] is the venue for that. But the expense for a monstrous conference is ridiculous. I propose a remedy for this: a virtual conference. (Posting in a listserv, 2006) at University of Westminster on August 11, 2010 nms.sagepub.com Downloaded from
800 new media & society 12(5) Recognizing the existence of such frustrations among community members, a recent sur- vey of conference participants at a large communication conference asked scholars why they conference ��� to keep up with recent research, meet and socialize with colleagues and friends and improve their academic record. But as the posting cited above suggests, these goals are not always met and even when they are met, it is only for a particular few. Indeed, the assump- tion that professional conferencing is necessary for both the pursuit of knowledge and career advancement has directly contributed to growing numbers in professional association mem- bership and conference attendance in the past. One would think that the large number of participants would contribute to a greater diversity in conference participation. However, this does not appear to be the case. In fact, with the increase in the size of conferences comes a variety of problems that actually threaten to decrease the diversity of voices that contribute to the conversation and knowledge production about human interaction. One central problem involves the cost of attending multi-day conferences. Major aca- demic conventions like other professional conferences, are economically, socially and politically restrictive for diverse participants. Contractual obligations that professional organizations enter into with participating venues and hotels constrain participants in their choices of accommodation and travel. Individuals with care commitments also find it difficult to participate in conferences due to the multi-day format. Many international participants face the additional burden of organizing visas, which are especially tedious, time-consuming and emotionally debilitating for those from countries that are seen to be on the ���other��� side of geopolitical divides. The issue of time is no less important. Dates chosen to suit the academic calendar in the USA, for example, are not necessarily conve- nient for scholars based in other parts of the world. These issues prompt us to problematize professional conferencing in three ways. First, we propose that it is problematic to argue that only one form of embodied participation counts in professional dialogue and community. If we conceptualize ���presence��� as a form of professional collaboration or kinship that transcends boundaries of time, space and, more importantly, narrowly defined codes of practice, we can radically alter the nature of and need for ���conferences��� as we currently understand them as geographically and temporally bounded entities. Indeed, ���conferencing��� in the definitional sense already occurs through various taken-for-granted means enabling interconnection and perpetuating interdependence among nationally and internationally distributed colleagues. Scholars and professionals distributed across various spans of space and time collaborate as they prepare to submit, present and participate in formalized, geographically and temporally bounded ���conferences���. This raises an interesting question: If we are already ���conferencing��� across time and space before the ���conference���, why do participants actually need to meet face to face at a physically located ���conference���? Conferencing is, of course, essential to what Wenger (1999: 237) calls ���com- munities of practice���, providing an infrastructure of engagement that helps individuals learn as they participate in the activities of a social or professional group. Moreover, shared identi- ties emerge from these engaged community relationships through the ���physical (and virtual) spaces interactive technologies and communication facilities that extend mutual access in time and space��� (Wenger, 1999: 237). It seems possible, therefore, to reproduce various conferencing patterns of practice such as participating in panels, commenting and question- ing content without being physically present while simultaneously affirming the symbolic assumption that participating in this dialogue enhances knowledge about life-worlds. Such at University of Westminster on August 11, 2010 nms.sagepub.com Downloaded from