One month ago, I started the OIISDP – the summer doctoral programme of the Oxford Internet Institute (http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/). The OIISDP brings together a range of Ph.D. students from all over the world dedicated to the investigation of the Internet. The students meet for two weeks, present and discuss their research and listen to sessions by outstanding scholars in the field. The OIISDP normally takes place in Oxford but every three years it is at a guest university abroad (in 2009, for example, it was at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane and in 2007 at the Berkman center of Harvard University). This year, the University of Toronto had the honor to host the programme. And I can tell: it did an amazing job and the programme was a wonderful experience.
For the guest lectures, the OII brought together a diverse selection of Internet researchers (an overview can be found here: http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/teaching/sdp/Y2013.cfm) – most of them from the University of Toronto or Ryerson. I especially enjoyed the talks by Barry Wellman, Leslie Regan Shade, Rhonda McEwen, Anabel Quan-Haase, Jeffrey Boase, and Jason Nolan. All of them highlighted different aspects of the web and showed how heterogenous but at the same time enlightening and awesome Internet studies can be.
Barry Wellman’s keynote on the first day set the pace for the things to come. He explained the theory of “networked individualism” and showed how the triple revolution (networks, mobile, and the personalized Internet) shapes people’s life in modern societies. Wellman’s homo iunctus – the connected individual – is not embedded in tightly-knit groups anymore but in sparsely-knit networks. With ease, s/he moves from one social circle to the next, making use of the affordances of modern ICTs, especially mobile phones.
Jeffrey Boase’s talk showed how research can use mobile logs to analyze tie strength and human relationships. He uses a smartphone app that traces – in anonymized form – how individuals relate to each other with their mobile devices. Cool stuff!
Rhonda McEwen’s research impressively demonstrated that tablets – when applied appropriately – can help children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) improve their learning. She also demonstrated how important it is to consider the effects of technology in the long run. The beneficial effects of tablets for ASD children turned out to “take off” only after a latency period. Had she not been patient and believed in the research design, the positive effects would not have been revealed.
While McEwen’s, Wellman’s and Boase’s talks mainly focused on the opportunities of the Internet and mobile technologies, other presentations mentioned downsides. Leslie Regan Shade pointed to the importance of digital policy literacy – and the necessity of educating young people in such regards. Knowledge about online privacy, net neutrality, filtering, copyright regulations, and other issues on the web is unevenly distributed and there is a need for more (accessible) education.
Anabel Quan-Haase talked about online privacy and showed that institutional privacy concerns are less prevalent than social privacy concerns. At the same time, she explained why privacy is a problematic concept and why it makes sens to reconsider it.
Finally, Jason Nolan criticized current, one-sided conceptions of the Internet (e.g. danah boyd’s portrayal of SNS as autistic social software: http://www.danah.org/papers/Supernova2004.html). He showed how different socialities operate in technologies and their uses where we might not expect them. He also pointed to the necessity of giving a voice to the researched instead of imposing them the researcher’s point of view. When working with children, for example, researchers should ask how the children’s lifeworlds and their needs can be adequately represented. Thus, children should be able to state their interests.
All of these talks (and many others) were COOL and I learned a ton. But I learned at least as much from my peers’ presentations, i.e. from the fellow Ph.D. students visiting the OIISDP. That’s next up!