IIRC: Reflections on IRC16
The first edition of the Internet Researchers' Conference (IRC) series was held on February 26-28, 2016. It was hosted by the Centre for Political Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and was supported by the CSCS Digitial Innovation Fund. Here we share our reflections on the Conference, albeit rather delayed, and lessons towards the next edition to be held in March 2017.
Note: IIRC stands for 'if I remember correctly' in ancient internet acronym culture. Thanks to Sebastian for the inspiration.
For several months, we have been trying to organise our thoughts, as well as post-conference documentation efforts, emerging from the Internet Researchers' Conference 2016. We have not been very successful in either till now. And like most unsuccessful ventures, it has been a robust learning experience. We are working on giving the IRC16 Reader a final shape, before it becomes more of an academic legend. We hope to launch the beta version of the Reader in mid-September. Here, let me quickly share my reflections on IRC16, at least what I remember of it.
A Game of Selections
The Conference departed from most other academic conferences in two obvious ways: 1) the sessions were not selected by a programme committee but through votes cast by all the teams that proposed a session, and 2) the Conference programme consisted of both panel discussions and workshop sessions, and there was no requirement for the panel discussions to be structured around papers (though some sessions did involve presentation of papers). At the feedback session of the Conference, and also in conversations afterwards, it was pointed out that this manner of session selection (not based on paper abstracts, and through voting by peers) is perhaps “too democratic / too wiki-like,” which undermines the ability to curate the Conference effectively. Several participants also presented the opposite viewpoint – that a more peer-driven selection of sessions better reflects the immediate interests and priorities of the community of internet researchers who are gathering at the Conference. As one participant articulated: “we must have faith in our ignorance.”
We at CIS are still confident about this mode of selection but at the same time we do recognise three key concerns in conducting the selection process:
- Anonymity: The anonymous selection process breaks down since we expect the potential participants of the Conference to share early ideas about their potential sessions, and scout for potential session team members, through the mailing list (and elsewhere) before actually submitting the panel proposal. We still prefer that participants discuss the session before proposing it, so perhaps we will have to live with the incomplete anonymity when it comes to the session selection process. Perhaps we can make the votes non-anonymous too to keep parity – that is, all the proposed sessions would be published with the names of their proposers, and all the teams will publicly indicate which other sessions they are voting for.
- Disciplinary capture: While peer-based voting works very well when it comes to reflecting the interests of the community, it might quite easily break down if there is a concentration of teams coming from a specific disciplinary background. How we approach research objects and questions, and hence how we appreciate how exciting a research object or question is, can be quite intimately shaped by our disciplinary locations. A dominance of a specific discipline among the peer-group (that is among all the teams that have proposed sessions) can potentially lead to a 'capture' of the Conference by research objects and questions of interest to specific disciplines. This is something we have to be more aware of when casting our votes.
- Peer-review before peer-votes: The process followed last year only allowed a session team to vote on the sessions proposed by other teams, but not to review and comment on those proposals. This review process is not only useful to infuse the session proposals with ideas and concerns coming from other disciplinary and methodological locations, but also to support the teams to revisit their articulation and structuring of the session before their peers start to cast votes. This is something we must aspire to do during the selection process for IRC17.
A Clash of Disciplines
Continuing from the “disciplinary capture” point above, the presence of researchers and practitioners from various fields and disciplines was, according to me, the most exciting part of the IRC16, and also the part that led to significant frustration. I felt that we were able to gather people from various disciplinary backgrounds – academic and otherwise – but could not provide sufficient space or time for the inter-disciplinary conversations to a take more fuller form. We saw clear disagreements emerging between researchers coming from different disciplinary locations, though most of them did not have the opportunity to be developed into a detailed discussion.
This is quite a high ambition for a conference of this kind; that is given the conference was not focused narrowly on a set of topics. Nonetheless, this remains one of the key objectives of the IRC series, and we need to understand how better to create opportunities for participants to communicate their disciplinary concerns and create inter-disciplinary discussions.
One possible way to create context for more inter-disciplinary conversations is by requesting all the sessions’ teams to include members from different disciplines. Also, we can try to keep more open discussion space (but that means less selected sessions) to provide time for the discussions spilling over from the sessions. Thirdly, we can think of including “inter-disciplinary conversations” as one of the key themes for potential sessions of IRC17.
Further, though we experienced several clashes of disciplines, methods, and approaches, these were all limited to a completely anglophone intellectual environment. We failed substantially, as was pointed out by a participant at the feedback session, to create space at the Conference for Indic language practices and concerns – both for researchers and practitioners working in these languages, and the criticisms of anglophone academic framings and practices coming from such researchers and practitioners. This is something we must address proactively during the future editions of the Conference.
A Storm of Sessions
One of the often heard criticisms of the conference was regarding the decision to have parallel sessions. While the decision was taken purely to accommodate as many sessions as possible, this of course imposed an undesirable burden upon the participants to choose between two rather desirable sessions. We as organisers of IRC16 faced the same tough decision of choosing between sessions that should both be part of the Conference agenda, and conveniently decided to let the participants choose (instead of us choosing for them). It is quite likely that we would do this again, or at least would like to do this again – that is, we expect that for IRC17 too we would receive a lot of wonderful sessions and decide against a fully single-track conference.
The question of sessions, however, is not only one of tracks. It is also about formats. In the feedback session, there was a clear recognition of the value of “workshop” sessions – that is sessions that involved all the participants doing something – in a conference like this, which is explicitly interested in the conceptual and technical challenges of digital media research. There was also a demand that we have more workshop sessions in IRC17, as opposed to “discussion” sessions that involved paper presentations. While the original plan was that all the participants will primarily be learning or doing something at a workshop session, and will not be talking, as the discussion sessions were primarily meant for talking, the actual sessions in the Conference differed from each other essentially in terms of whether papers were presented or not.
Thus, it perhaps makes sense, for the IRC17 call for sessions, to not to separate out these session types in terms of workshop/discussion but in terms of paper-driven/non-paper-driven. Maybe this separation itself is avoidable and all that we need to say is that the Conference is fundamentally interested in sessions that drive conversations, both intra- and inter-disciplinary. While presentation of papers can surely drive conversations, they are not necessary at all.
A Feast for Researchers and Practitioners
A key objective, if not the key objective, of IRC16 was to build a temporary space for researchers and practitioners studying internet and society in India (though not necessarily from or located in India) to gather and share thoughts. While we felt that the conference has been quite effective in doing that, we have been rather clueless when it comes to sustaining the momentum of interactions that was achieved at the Conference, or documenting the various kinds and threads of conversations taking place there.
The first problem, we may say, is not something that CIS (as the organiser of the conference series) should be concerned with too much, since our aim and responsibility is to make possible this temporary space and not to host all conversations and collaborations coming out of it. In fact, we should not be interested in hosting and/or facilitating all such initiatives. The second problem, however, is a serious one for us. Since the Conference is not organised around pre-written papers, we will have to depend on the efforts by the participants either during, or after (or both) the Conference to produce an output that documents, narrates, and/or reflects on the conversations that took place. Such an approach, thus, is fundamentally based upon the trust that the participants will prepare and share these materials after the Conference. On a lighter note, we also hope that social embarrassment and pressure will also play a role here (but that only works when the majority of the participants are actually sharing).
There are two connected points here:
- While the majority of the documentation happens either at the Conference or after that, what kind of pre-Conference efforts (by the participants) would be useful in ensuring productive sessions?
- Who all contribute to this post-Conference Reader? Should it be restricted to teams/people whose sessions were selected, or all who proposed a session, and/or took part in the Conference?
A recommendation at the feedback session of IRC16 touched upon the first question, while the second question is derived from a critical question posed at the same session. The recommendation was that the teams whose sessions get selected for the Conference should share a more detailed session agenda note before the Conference to better inform the participants about the content and approach of the same. The critical question mentioned earlier was regarding the imagination of the community of researchers and practitioners being gathered at the Conference, and if it is only limited to the people whose sessions got selected. In our minds it is clear that everyone gathering at these conferences, and those who proposed sessions but could not attend, are all part of this imagined community, and thus should also contribute to the post-Conference Reader.
A Dance with Sustainability
IRC16 was supported very generously by the Centre for Political Studies at JNU (as part of an ongoing project titled UPE2 Project: Politics on Social Media), the CSCS Digital Innovation Fund, and CIS. The first provided us with the conference venue and accommodation, the second provided financial support towards food and travel expenses (and bit of accommodation too), and the third picked up all the remaining expenses and efforts. While we will keep doing what it takes to organise the next editions of IRC, we are dependent on academic and other institutes that are willing to host the event and accommodate the participants, and on various sources of funding that may be available to cover the miscellaneous expenses.
When we started planning for IRC16, we decided not to conceptualise this as part of an ongoing or future project – that is, the conference series should not itself become a deliverable under a project at CIS. While this gives us intellectual and functional independence, it entails serious financial limitations. We are of course open to the conference series becoming a site for developing or communicating a deliverable under an ongoing project at CIS or any other involved actor (especially the host and funding agencies) but such matters, we feel, are best discussed in a case-to-case basis. The bottom line remains that we need financial and human support to take this conference series forward. This is definitely something to be discussed further at IRC17.