This is part of a series of posts highlighting the Theorizing the Web conference, April 14th, 2012 at the University of Maryland (inside the D.C. beltway). See the conference website for information as well as event registration.

As Theorizing the Web 2012 approaches, I think it’s worthwhile to consider what the conference itself really means. I mean, yes, clearly it means awesome panels and a fabulous keynote and free pizza, as well as a chance for us to hang out with cool people who we really like. But I think TtW, in both its current incarnation and in the ideals that originally drove its creation, says some important things about conferences as spaces for the production and examination of knowledge.

PJ Rey and Nathan Jurgenson, our intrepid chairs, originally characterized Theorizing the Web as “the conference that we would all ideally want to attend”; clearly, then, there are some things about the conferences that we often find ourselves attending that we wanted to avoid. Last year David Banks highlighted some of these points in his piece on TtW2011’s reflexive nature;

Personally, I am tired of visiting a corporate hotel, adding another tote bag to my collection, and rushing from tablecloth-clad conference rooms to bad catered dinners, so I can make it to a plenary talk about the politics of the discipline. That needs to be over, or academia will stagnate in a pool of its own hypocrisy. Its time for the academic conference to take a reflexive turn. We need to practice what we preach.

What I see driving TtW is more than just putting together a conference that’s fun for all of us. It’s about opening up spaces for the production of knowledge. It’s about making all of this stuff more accessible by being more reflexive about both design and content.

With the recent debates around open-access journals, there has been a fair amount of discussion about academia as a space for the production and dissemination of knowledge, and most of us seem to be in agreement on most important levels: things often feel too closed-off, too insular, too much about rote performance and The Same Stuff As Always. I think the degree to which this matters depends at least somewhat on the specific discipline, but I also think that when one is focusing on the social sciences, it matters a great deal. We study society –  we study problems and ask questions that are (or should be) intensely relevant to more people than those within our little corner of the discipline. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that we have a responsibility to make our discussions accessible to the people we’re discussing. Especially when those very people often have a history of being left out of discussions about them.

Sociology as an institution at last pays lip service to this. There’s been a lot of talk at the last few ASA annual meetings about “public sociology”. But we need to do more than talk. And in order to move beyond talking, we need to interrogate our literal and figurative spaces of knowledge production. Conferences cannot be left out of this interrogation; conferences are both.

In his essay on the relevance of academia, Jurgenson highlights two primary ways in which academics can make their work more accessible: by design, and by availability. TtW addresses both of these: though our pay-what-you-want registration format, through our less formal tone, through our active attempts to engage with a variety of fields and disciplines and to encourage those fields and disciplines to engage with each other, and through the ways in which we’ve tried to make this space a lively, active, open place for the discussion of an extremely broad range of different ideas from a diversity of voices. And again – perhaps most importantly – through being reflexive about what we’re doing, how we do it, and why it matters.

Not that, as Jurgenson points out, there can’t or shouldn’t be a place for a more formal, rigorous, jargon-heavy space for knowledge production. But what TtW offers – or aims to offer – is one alternative vision of how things might be done.

This is appropriate especially given that TtW focuses on the social meaning of technology. At its best, communications technology opens up, liberates, and facilitates the free exchange of ideas  and information. It encourages connection and collaboration. Where knowledge is concerned, it has the capacity to be wildly, radically democratic. This weekend will hopefully be a celebration of that as well as an examination of it.

But TtW is still a work in progress. We encourage your feedback: What worked? What didn’t? What can we do better? What can we do differently? How can we shape this space into something exciting, relevant, and powerful?

We’re looking forward to seeing you on Saturday!