It’s a curious thing, going to a conference. A healthy chunk of the presenters are people I know and talk with all the time, so I’m often familiar with their topics and sometimes even with their approaches. And yet, the experience of going, sitting, and attending sessions back to back, hour after hour, day after day is still enlightening. It’s not so much that I learned new facts (though there was a little of that, too). No, it’s that when you sit through that many sessions, themes emerge from the periphery, gather form and substance, and finally strut around in all their splendor.
The theme that emerged most strongly for me at this conference was ethnography. Previous conferences have trumpeted tools, change, and stories, but this is the first time that I saw a collective desire to understand what it means to inhabit this online world.
Rather than lead us on tours of tools and services, more than one presenter echoed Cliff Landis’ statement that it’s not enough to have an account any more, you have to participate. Over and over we heard about presenting ourselves as humans online, not as institutions. Sometimes this means presenting yourself as a professional (Elizabeth Edwards’ session on an ethnography of Facebook made this point),* but even professionals have personality, and personality is as important online as off. danah boyd spoke compellingly about how an online profile is our digital body that we adorn as if we were getting dressed in the morning.** And both Greg and I spoke about online identity.
Not only are we finally taking a closer look at what it means to inhabit these online spaces, but the online spaces are becoming more integrated with our off-line spaces. As the two worlds come closer together, as the process of switching from one to the other becomes less and less of an action that requires thought and decision, and as computing becomes more and more ubiquitous, these issues of social norms and interpersonal interactions are bubbling to the surface and commanding our attention. How refreshing! This was the first conference in a long while that didn’t rely primarily on listing Tools You Should Know and instead concentrated on interacting with people online.