This is the fourth panel spotlight for the upcoming Theorizing the Web conference on April 9th. I’ll have the pleasure of presiding over a panel that focuses on how mobile web platforms are augmenting the world of bricks and flesh. Much more than an ethnography of Foursquare, this panel will explore our changing relationships to space and place, and the new ways public and private spaces are opening up as a result of this new augmented reality.

Presider: david a. banks

PJ and Nathan have done an excellent job on this blog of  articulating social media’s role in times of revolution, but this panel seeks to understand social media’s roll in a variety of instances. We will explore the cultural contexts that Social Networking Services (SNS) operate within, and what this does for old and new associations with (and within) place and society. From San Francisco hipsters to Chinese political activists, and from your local Starbucks, to the Second Life, social media is changing how we interact with our cities and our fellow citizens.

If anything unites these four panelists, it is their balanced perspective on the roll of digital media. Its easy to essentialize mobile computing platforms, or mistake computer mediated communication as anti-social. Without essentializing the technology, or romanticizing the past, these authors provide a balanced critique of what is happening in our cities and online. Read the four abstracts after the break  to learn more:


Daniel Susser: “From Telephones to Smellophones: The Role of Place in Electronically Mediated Communication”

Panelist: David Susser

Video chat, Second Life, and other “immersive” or quasi-immersive electronically mediated communications technologies suggest to us a future in which communicating subjects are physically distanced from one another, yet arestill present to one another by virtue of some sort of virtual replica.  But what is the nature of such virtual presence?  How is it accomplished?  In this paper, I argue that what designers and technologists are trying to reconstruct in digital form is the sense of place that’s largely been lost in electronically mediated communication.  That the goal of building technologies which involve richer communicative experiences is to reconstruct the situated contexts that provide the ground for producing shared meanings.  I look to the work of philosophers of technology, such as Hubert Dreyfus, and theorists of place, such as Ed Casey, to explain (1) why being situated apart from our interlocutors is both a philosophical and technological problem, and (2) how philosophy can help those who design and build these technologies make them more effective.


Kent Xili Deng: “The Walls to Breach: Between Online and Offline Worlds in China”

Panelist: Kent Xili Deng

The whole world has been taken aback by the Jasmine Revolution in the Middle East, not only because of the swift implosion of seemingly impregnable regimes, but, more importantly, the transformation of political energy from online interactions to offline revolutions.  In the light of these cases, the assertion that the events happened online are nothing but virtual has to be modify, if not completely rewritten.

Considering China’s gigantic population, the number of its Internet users is equally whopping.  The latest biannual report published by China Internet network Information Centre, a governmental Internet monitoring body, puts the figure at 457 million, two times of the population of the US.  Half of the netizens are at the same time SNS users.  The demographics, in theory, should possess immeasurably great transformative power.  So when real-time developments in the Middle East were relayed to them through international and domestic SNS, there were indeed abundant political imaginations about possible storms in China among the SNS users nationwide.  Interestingly, history doesn’t repeat itself there, notwithstanding that China today shares similar social problems with those Arab countries.  Why does the ‘Tunisian Formula’ lose its magic in China?  Can civil actions online be translated into offline events in China?

The questions set above may be a bit ambitious for a conference presentation of 15 minutes.  Besides, the contexts in China are so different from those in the West, which may not necessarily be familiar to the audience.  Therefore, it is perhaps more advisable and practical to explore the answers through the real stories of ordinary Chinese netizens, instead of aiming to construct a grand narrative that covers every aspects of the SNS development in this most populous country with cultural, economic, sexual and social diversities.

The schema of my argument is nonlinear and reflexive.  I argue NOT the Internet and its infrastructures will fundamentally change China’s society and politics, or vice versa.  Instead, by depicting the two ‘walls’ that Chinese netizens have to traverse, namely the Great Firewall of China which separate China and the democratic West, and the Great Firewall of Mind which disconnect the inter-transformation between the social practices on- and offline, with illustrations from the life story of Liu, I intend to argue that nation-state, politics, power, class and sexuality are not peripheral but central to our theorisation of the SNS and the Internet at large.  The online world is neither a parallel universe utterly different from the physical one nor does it divorce from the modern times qualitatively and quantitatively.  Subsequently, internet studies or the theorisation of the web, by no means, should recede to discipline-bounded games that only interest in the web per se, but taking the cyber-ecology of specific regions into the schemas.

This conference paper is part of a broader ethnographic project which investigates the contexts and mechanisms that Chinese SNS users, primary the ones with university education, construct their imagined societies through SNS.  This paper presents the ethnographic data gathered in preliminary research and analyses the uniqueness of cyber-ecology in China today.  More data are to be collected, analyse and interpreted for theorisation in my future research.


Raz Schwartz, “I’m the Mayor here! Place Attachment and the Personalized Physical Place”

“@IAmAru: “I feel like I’m betraying my @foursquare mayorship by going to the other Starbucks.

Panelist: Raz Schwartz

For @IAmAru, being the mayor of a specific Starbucks carries special meanings. Although all other Starbucks have the same décor, same menu and same background music, he continuously chooses to go to this particular one just to maintain his virtual Mayor title. But @IAmAru emotional tweet is hardly a rare example; it portrays a growing tendency in which location-based services users interact with the physical places they visit. What are the elements, therefore, that virtually connect someone to a certain physical place? Why do people feel an intimate attachment to a specific place after using these applications? And how do location-based services promote users to virtually chronicle their everyday endeavors?

Drawing on an interdisciplinary theoretical concept called ‘Place Attachment’ that was conceived during the late 1980s, following by an analysis of twenty interviews I conducted with users, I examine how the use of location-based services such as Foursquare, SCVNGR etc. establishes a personalized relation to a physical place. By applying the ‘Place Attachment’ theoretical framework to the study of location-based technology, I offer a new lens through which we can articulate the implications these services have over local connections between people and places.

The term ‘Place Attachment’ represents an interdisciplinary research field originating from different studies in anthropology, architecture, family and consumer studies, folklore, psychology, sociology and urban planning. It is the symbolic relationship created by people who give culturally shared emotional meanings to a particular place that provides the basis for the individual’s and group’s understanding of and relation to their surroundings. Thus, place attachment is more than an emotional and cognitive experience, it also includes cultural beliefs and actions that link people to place.

Studying emerging virtual-local relationships of people and places in light of concepts of ‘Place Attachment’ enables us to better understand users actions, and explore how, in turn, these practices strengthen users connection to a physical place, promote the assimilation and participation of users in their local community, enhance relations with other users and fortify the existence of a virtual-local identity.


Sang-Hyoun Pahk: “Pahk Restaurant 2.0: bringing online sociality to the streets”

“What is the impact of the internet on social relationships? As recently as a decade ago, internet use was primarily instrumental; for most users in most places, email was the dominant online activity. Thus it was reasonable for scholars such as Wellman, Castells and others to conceptualize the internet as primarily an advanced communications medium. Against both the utopian hopes and dystopian fears of various pundits, studies including Hampton and Wellman’s groundbreaking 2003 Neighboring in Netville found that the true effect of the internet was to enhance and facilitate social relationships, rather than fundamentally transform them. Since then the social media of Web 2.0 have come to dominate the online landscape (at least for a significant and growing number of users), and made instrumentalist conceptions of the internet largely obsolete. In addition to communication and commerce, the internet has increasingly become a site for work and play as well. In a series of papers, George Ritzer and others have usefully used the concept of “prosumption” to track some of these changes, identifying important trends in the production of identity among users (e.g. on online profiles) and even the emergence of a new economic logic based on abundance rather than scarcity. This paradigm shift reopens the question of the impact of the internet on social relationships, and suggests strongly that the answers this time should be different. Here, I present a case study of a community formed around cultural, social and even economic sensibilities previously identified only on the Web.

This study, based on interviews, participant observation, and publicly available online sources, focuses on the dramatic growth of street food in the Mission District of San Francisco in 2008-2009. During that time, what had previously been the near-exclusive domain of working-class Hispanics selling tacos and hotdogs exploded into a scene of tech-savvy middle-class hipsters selling an enormous variety of different foods from make-shift carts. Instead of establishing predictable locations and operating hours, the new vendors congregated in impromptu fairs, appeared and moved sporadically throughout the neighborhood, and used Twitter to keep their similarly-connected customers abreast of their activities. The vendors created a new organizational form that can be interpreted as a “hacking” of the restaurant industry. Local blogs and Twitter were instrumental in facilitating the rise in popularity of new street food, and they were also a primary site for debating and articulating the meaning of new street food for its participants. This meaning-making work signaled the emergence of a community of vendors and customers that had deep affinities with the culture and sensibilities of Web 2.0. These affinities included a broad commitment to an “ideology of freedom” (Castells 2001), born partially from the original hacker culture, which can be characterized by respect for technical expertise and disdain for regulatory or bureaucratic barriers. This also included economic sensibilities that resemble the “logic of abundance” (Ritzer and Jurgenson 2010), approximated offline by low barriers to entry to the food cart field. Finally, the street food scene also showed evidence of a troubling offline reproduction of the so-called “digital divide,” as evidenced by the demographic and cultural characteristics of its most enthusiastic participants. ”