Last weekend, I attended Theorizing the Web (h/t Andrew) in Brooklyn, NY. There were many amazing talks throughout the conference, many of which I’ve been processing and ruminating on over the past week. True to their description, Theorizing the Web had an interesting mix of pure theory and applicable lessons from the web.
During each session roughly four speakers presented for fifteen minutes, which was a great idea. As much as I love learning about and listening to theory, it can be hard to stay that focused for more than fifteen minutes at a time. Miss a word, and you can miss the point.
Of all the talks I attended, there were a few that really stuck with me. In particular, Selfie Love: Exploring Notions of Self and Ethnicity on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram was one of my favorites, by @AprylW. In her studies, Apryl Williams interviewed participants about the practice of taking selfies. Over the years, the selfie has evolved from the disdained MySpace photo to higher quality images on phones with front facing cameras for this purpose. In my overgeneralized summary of Williams’ fascinating work, she found that while everyone considers selfies as an act of narcissism, others consider selfies an empowering act. Her work focused specifically on perceptions of the selfie within different ethnic groups and how the selfie can act as a form of resistance to racism.
And, ironically, someone took a picture of me taking a picture during her talk.
In the same panel, @mollycrabapple presented Tweeting from Amongst the Corpses, a look at the role of selfies and social media in war. I’m a huge fan of Molly Crabapple’s artwork, and I was very much anticipating seeing her at TtW. In her talk, she looked at what can be called the “underbelly” of social media and selfies. With a focus on Syria in particular, Crabapple displayed examples of young jihadis using their social media accounts to champion their cause and to brag about the human cost of their actions, contrasted by the efforts of one town’s handcrafted banners, filled with humanitarian messages of hope, with the intent to go viral. You can see her full article on this topic at Newsweek.
"People in war zones take selfies...to assert their existence in a world that would deny it." #TtW14—
Erica Varlese (@ericavarlese) April 26, 2014
The panel, Casual Encounters: Sex, Sexuality, and Intimacy was full of some really interesting talks, particularly @MsMaggieMayhem’s #NotYourRescueProjects: The Red Light District Speaks and @kevgeyer’s Doing Digital Gender: A Multi-Level Analysis of Gendered Behavior and Masculinities in Virtual Space. Maggie Mayhem walked us through the ways in which it’s difficult to organize sex workers online due to laws, regulations, and restrictions on the types of content many social networking sites allow.
Overall, one of the things I walked away with most from this conference is that, in many ways, the web wasn’t what we were promised it would be. In Ref(user): Movements of Resistance, @fredrikaaa touched on early perspectives of the internet and the hope that it would be an oppression-free frontier where we could live and express ourselves beyond the labels we’ve been ascribed throughout history.
However, as our experiences and the studies presented at TtW show, the internet is a replica of our current social structures. In many cases, the internet highlights the negative aspects of these institutional oppressions — sexism, racism, trans- and homophobia. In others, the internet brings us together to form communities that wouldn’t exist otherwise, i.e. the radical feminist community of Tumblr.
It was a great conference, and I’d love to go back next year. On a more personal level, it was great to see the intersection of my studies, Anthropology, and my work come together in such a unique and intelligent way.
If you’re interested in learning more about Theorizing the Web, they’ll be posting all of the videos from the panels on their YouTube account.