I’m on my way home from the 2004 ACM CSCW (computer-supported collaborative work) conference in Chicago, where my M2M and misbehaving.net co-conspirator danah boyd invited me to participate on a panel entitled “The Use of Digital Backchannels in Shared Physical Spaces“—a topic near and dear to my heart (more on the panel, and the backchannel, in a later post). This was my first time at a CSCW conference, though I’ve read work by many of the people who are active in the organization, and remembered others from early days as a doctoral student studying communication and information studies. One of the things I noticed immediately was that many of the topics on the program had a familiar ring to them—because I’d seen similar titles and topics at my first Emerging Tech conference (ETCon) last spring.
This gave me a chance to compare and contrast the experience of a new participant at each of these conferences. In both cases I was there as a presenter, and while I’d never been to the conference before, I was aided by pre-existing strong ties to people who had been there. (I should note that in both cases, the strong ties were almost entirely a function of connections I’d made through my personal weblog mamamusings, not through traditional academic or business channels.)
Both conferences had ubiquitous wifi, and an officially promoted IRC channel. Both had a large number of technical sophisticated users (many CSCW attendees work in CS departments). Both were held in a similar format—several rooms with panels of speakers, and middling-large (50-200 people) audiences, and provided projection facilities for presenter’s computers.
The selection process for presenters at ETCon is a central review by the organizing company (O’Reilly) and the program chairs it appoints, whereas the process for CSCW is traditional academic peer review. Presentations at ETCon are grouped into specific tracks, and topics within a track aren’t generally scheduled at the same time—in contrast, CSCW presentations have less of a sense of coordinated interest tracks. Another difference between the two conferences had to do with keynote/plenary speakers. At ETCon, the keynote speakers tend to be members of the community who are involved with other parts of the conference as well. At CSCW, the plenary speakers both came from outside of the conference community (Mitch Kapor opened, and I’m missing Larry Lessig’s closing right now).
Both conferences encouraged questions from the audience after speakers were done, and implemented this by having questioners line up at a microphone in the center aisle. While this works for people with a lot of self-confidence, it can be quite intimidating to place oneself in that line. And I suspect that I violated some conference norms by getting in line and asking questions at two different presentations on Tuesday—when I introduced myself later in the evening to a reknowned scholar I’d always admired, she remarked with slightly raised eyebrows “Oh, yes, you made a lot of comments today.” (If she’d been southern, I’d have half expected her to add “bless your heart…” at the end.)
It came as no surprise to me that many people who weren’t willing to place themselves in that public line instead asked questions and made comments in the backchannel. The backchannel at this conference was somewhat different from the ones I’ve seen at technical conferences. There were relatively few people at the conference who had used IRC during a conference before, and as a result many seemed reluctant to participate directly. Only when someone with prior conference IRC experience modeled social norms in the channel by posting questions and annotations did the conversation begin to pick up—catalysts were necessary to spark successful interaction.
It was clear that there was a lot of work being presented at CSCW that echoed the kinds of topics that had been discussed at ETCon—from location-based computing tools to social presence information. In many ways it felt a bit like being in a mirror world, where people were talking about the same things from a slightly different angle, but were seemed unaware that parallel conversations were taking place in the other space.
After one excellent presentation, I urged the researcher to make his materials available online—not just in an ACM journal—so that they’d get wider readership. His response was that he didn’t know how to write for that “other” audience, and would need help from a professional journalist.
That, to me, sums up a lot of the disjoint. The two communities—developers at ETCon and academic researchers as CSCW—are interested in very much the same things, but they’re both quite sure that the “other” group either won’t understand them or won’t care about their views. So they operate in parallel with few points of intersection, duplicating efforts and losing valuable inputs into their work.
Even more importantly, the bulk of the presenters (and attendees) at ETCon and similar conferences have weblogs, and use those weblogs to disseminate their current work. They understand that weblogs aren’t only personal diaries—that they’re also powerful tools for information sharing, knowledge management, and social/professional network development. In contrast, almost nobody at CSCW appears to have a blog, and most of them seem quite dismissive (even contemptuous) about them. Their mental image of a blog is summed up well by one of the only presentations about blogs at the conference, “Blogging As Social Activity, or, Would You Let 900 Million People Read Your Diary?” (It occurred to me that if that title instead read “Blogging As Professional Activity, or, Would You Let 900 Million People Read About Your Research?” the response might be quite different.)
So here’s my unsolicited advice to the developer community (the people who go to ETCon and similar conferences, many of whom read this blog)—invite some academics to your conferences and gatherings. Consider publishing some of your interesting work to journals that academics read (Communications of the ACM, or ACM Queue, for example). Make an effort to follow the work of academics in the field—many of them have valuable insights into the problems you face every day.
And to the academic community—don’t assume that your work needs to be “dumbed down” for the technical audience; most of them are fully capable of understanding big words and reading statistical tables. Make your research available outside of the expensive academic presses. ACM gives authors permission to make a copy of their articles available on their own web site—please do this! Consider reading the blogs of people int he technical community doing work in areas related to your research—and even better, think about blogging your own research so that people know what you’re working on and can connect with you for more information and collaborative opportunities. Investigate partnerships with developers building the tools for CSCW and social computing—and focus more research on existing and developing tools rather than simulations and prototypes.
There are precious few of us who have feet in both camps. The people in industry labs (at Microsoft, IBM, FX/PAL, Intel, etc) are pretty good at bridging the divide, as are a handful of academics, and we all need to work at cross-pollinating between these groups. Microsoft made a real effort at this in the Social Computing symposium last spring, but there have been few other venues that have attempted to deliberately bring the two groups together.
As for myself, I’ll keep going to both kinds of conferences (to the extent that I can afford to, which is always an issue), and probably violating the norms at both in subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways in the process. But if, as a result, a few more collaborations begin to happen between members of these communities I’ll consider it a risk well-taken.