Materiality Matters at the Association of Internet Researchers Conference

In October I attended the 13th annual Association of Internet Researchers conference (AoIR or IR13) which was held in Salford, England at the University of Salford in the heart of the new home of the BBC, Media City UK. As a conference, AoIR has always been at the cutting edge scholarship on internet research and digital cultures. This year, the presence of Conference Chair Lori Kendall – author of Hanging Out in a Virtual Pub, one of the very first ethnographies of online communities — significantly shaped conversation by productively highlighting issues of gender and the changing relationship between various dichotomies (real/virtual, online/offline) emerging in everyday practice.

While I was not able to attend all of the sessions (there were up to seven simultaneous tracks on October 19th and 20th!! See the programme), a few key themes emerged that are worth sharing with the Material World community. The first was the centrality of ‘materiality’ as a concept for understanding digital media and technology. From Mary L. Gray’s discussion gay youth in rural America and the politics of visibility to Larissa Hjorth’s metaphor of the caravan as a way to rethink and move away from domestication theory to Susanna Paasonen’s analytical paper focused upon defining the ‘object’ of study in internet studies in an age of networked technologies, there was a concerted effort to understand the relationship between the qualities, properties and affordances of new media as they emerge through use. Subsequent talks by Daniel Miller, Zizi Papacharissi and an impassioned talk by Theresa M. Senft further highlighted how materiality matters in current debates in Internet studies.

Throughout the conference it became evident that part of the reason why materiality is so consequential to researchers at AoIR  revolves around the fact that what we previously understood as ‘internet research’ is changing. The dilemma of the object of inquiry in Internet research is no longer only about whether to study “online” or “offline” (although there are still important arguments for taking these perspectives and positions – see the recently released book Ethnography and Virtual Worlds). Rather, the various sessions and papers focusing upon mobile phones, mobile media, locative media (e.g. Jason Farman’s Mobile Interface Theory: Embodied Space and Locative Media won the annual book prize), mobile internet, mobile markets, mobile apps and so on (over 200 mentions of “mobiles” in the conference program) highlighted how ‘the Internet’ and digital media generally have become intertwined in everyday practice. How we understand, move between and relate to the various apps on our phones, what significance the places that are created through mobile phones, webcams, social network sites or virtual worlds mean for our varied relationships and sense of being human, and how the platforms, apps, data plans, regulatory environments and so on we use to access our friends, colleagues and acquaintances mediate our publics and politics – these all demand attention to the materiality of the various objects, tools and relationships we develop and maintain.

As someone who sees their work embedded within material culture studies, the focus upon materiality was an unexpected but welcome addition to the study of internet and digital media at AoIR this year. Indeed, there is a growing sense of revitalisation and excitement around our understanding of materiality, immateriality and material culture across a range of disciplines. These include the emergence of Platform and Software Studies, conversations around infrastructure in Ubiquitous Computing by scholars such as Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell, media and digital anthropology (e.g. the AAS Conference entitled “Culture and Contest in a Material World”), Cultural Studies (CSAA’s forthcoming conference “Materialities: Economies, Empiricism and Things”), to name but a few recent events, books and conversations. What was quite clear at an interdisciplinary conference like AoIR, however,  was that the concept of ‘materiality’ in play embodied a diverse set of debates and histories from Actor Network Theory, Critical Studies, Material Culture Studies and elsewhere. These debates and histories, of course, define how we approach the study of materiality, what the relationship between materiality and immateriality might be for digital media and the internet (and whether this dichotomy, as Tom Boellstorff suggested in the plenary discussion at AoIR, should persist at all) and the consequences of focusing upon ‘materiality’ for our practice. One hopes such a conversation might begin here.

Note: Next year’s conference, chaired by Lynn Schofield Clark (who has done fabulous work on media, religion and families), will be held in Denver in October 2012.