Organized by the popular blog Spreeblick and the association Netzpolitik the topics at re:publica revolve around net-related politics and net-related business. Typical aspects of netculture, such as memes, celebrity bloggers and popular Twitterians and net-related prominent members from public administration to business add some glamour [sic] to the event. With over 4.000 attendees and 270 speakers from 30 countries re:publica has grown to a major convention on all kind of net-related topics. There were special tracks for design, eHealth, crowdfunding, activism, the public sphere and politics. I attended to many presentations but will only point out a few that can be seen as representative for the diverse range of issues covered at re:publica.
The opinion leader role of re:publica as a forum for net-related issues has not only been acknowledged by the big German media, which almost all covered the convention, but also by big EU politics. Commissioner Neelie Kroes gave a programmatic talk on the role of civil society online.
Kroes was clearly flattering the crowd and hearten their activism concerning controversial policies: “Many of you at re:publica already campaign for Internet freedom. Don't stop! The Internet is the new frontier of freedom, in Western democracies but also around the world.” To the surprise of many, Commissioner Kroes then said that is is now likely that the heavily disputed laws ACTA and SOPA won't be implemented. Not long ago, Kroes stood firmly behind ACTA. While the crowd applauded it went mostly unnoticed that Kroes probably won't push for a more open Internet. As Kai Biermann pointed out correctly, Kroes uses the same verbiage that is also used to lobby for more control and against anonymity online.
Kroes emphasized that the net must not be a “lawless wild west”, that it would be important to know who is who online and that people must feel safe when they use the internet. I am afraid that the attempts of politicians to achieve these objectives, will actually lead to less safety, a decline of creative production and a limitation of freedom of expression.
The threats to our civil liberties were then discussed in front of a much smaller audience than the star politician from Brussels could attract. Jacob Appelbaum and Dmytri Kleiner are distinguished activists. As a promoter of the TOR project, a representative for Wikileaks, and an indefatigable advocate for free speech Appelbaum has been subsequently been targeted by US authorities. Dmytri Kleiner is an artist who develops “utopian software”. As an activist he raises attention for media literacy and the need to develop a sustainable critical attitude in using media technologies. In their statements, both showed how privacy and civil liberties are threatened by state authorities which hope for more cost-effective control through automatized and widely increased surveillance. Policy makers are still careless in granting police and other security authorities far-reaching rights and dangerous tools. Another jeopardy comes from the commercial sector were data customer data became a new raw material for business models. Both speakers were highly critical about data collecting and data mining 'social media' corporations. Kleiner wrote a read-worthy summary of their panel discussion.
However, following their talk, Katie Jacobs Stanton of Twitter gave a standard corporate propaganda talk which was rewarded by the enthusiastic applause of a less concerned audience.
Social Media and Social Change
A valuable input for re:publica were the few scholarly talks discussion socio-political aspects of technology use. The role of technology during the so-called Arab Spring has been addressed by Zeynep Tufceki and Fadi Salem. With many data on demographics, wealth distribution and media use Salem tried to counter the simplistic view of the Arab Spring being solely iniotiated by so-called social media (see also his Arab Social Media Report).
Tufceki's generally overly positive framing of social media as agents of change served as a counter point that was not picked up by the audience for discussion. However, the valid and intriguing question why we called it Arab Spring although the kingdoms and dictatorships on the Arab Peninsula remain firmly in power and are either unaffected from uprisings or crushing them swiftly, remained unanswered by the speakers. There was also no answer to the qualitative differences between the Arab countries in North Africa, where social unrest lead to political change and those Arab countries where it was not possible to challenge the authorities.
The media culture in the occupy movement was the topic of a great talk by Sasha Constanza-Chock of MIT's Civic Media Lab and Christine Schweidler of the DataCenter. The two organisations teamed up to map in an impressive effort the many ways media were used in the occupy movement, to cover the representation of the movement in the media. Data were collected in a crowdsourced way of conducting research by sending questionnaires and instructions to local occupy initiatives. There volunteers -often trained online in ways to conduct interviews first- started collecting data and sent them back to DataCenter. The results cover many interesting demographics concerning the participants, many information on how people would participate and how they would communicate occupy activities through social media.
The role of social media has been analysed through looking at a cache of millions stored tweets containing the hashtag #Occupy. In two hackathons organized by Constanza-Chock and his team, various researchers from around the globe contributed to making sense of this huge amount of data, but were also developing a new form of ad-hoc collaboration. The Utrecht New Media & Digital Culture group participated in one of these hackathons.
A great visualization of the analysis of mainstream media is provided by Constanza-Chock's team in the Frontpage newspaper analysis. The appearance of issues concerning the occupy movement were followed in the mainstream over time and media coverage then related to events such as arrests and evictions.
In his impressive 'Silicon Savannah' talk Mark Kaigwa showed how technology transforms business and society in Africa and how make-do attitude and ingenuity creates a breeding ground for innovation in information technologies and services: the mapping service Ushahidi is widely known, and with its software Crowdmap it allows for an even easier way to set up a map representing all kinds of developments. Other innovative examples were apps for mobiles such as iCow and Mfarm help farmers to receive current pricing information for their products, information on how to improve their business and to find buyers as well as best priced and nearest resupplies. Kopo Kopo is a mobile payment provider whose app does not only allow to accept and conduct payments but also to keep track of financial transactions.
An entire track has been devoted to crowdfunding at this year's re:publica. From presenting best practises to exchanging experiences about the challenges practitioners struggle with when crowdfunding a project, various panels provided insights into the status of this widely hyped practise. A panel with Claudia Pelzer, Ela Kagel, Clas Beese and David Röthler tried to forecast various trends and possibilities for the European crowdfunding scene. Interesting was Beese's notion that actually none of the existing European platforms was generating noteworthy revenues and that the popular platform Kickstarter still is the unmatched role model. However, there are many examples where funds are generated and distributed in a crowdfunding manner. Several are initiated in collaboration with public administrations. The Netherlands were then mentioned as a positive example with their wide and diverse range of platforms.
However, all speakers were quite uncritical about the connotation and rhetoric accompanying crowdfunding, which lends itself perfectly to the neo-liberal trend of political administrations to abandon their liabilities to preserve cultural heritage, stimulate cultural production and education and to reallocate unevenely distributed wealth. Crwodfunding gives them often an easy excuse to delegate those obligations to a vague and idealized market. Apart from that, it would be helpful for the discussion on crowdfunding to develop a better historic understanding instead of reinventing the wheel over and over again. Crowdfunding has become a mere buzz word concealing the long history of practises that are in fact crowdfunding and crowdsourcing, from the stock market to the simple bucket chain. A more educated position concerning those practises could those who like to develop crowdfunding further to be more precise in their concepts, more clear concerning their objectives and above all would allow them to abandon the confusing and hyped terminology.
Shaping the public sphere online?
Re:publica is an example the transforming political landscape. While politicians have neglected the online sphere for a long time, popular events as re:publica now receive their attention. The politicians speaking at re:publica were well aware of dealing with people who are -often self-acclaimed- opinion leaders of web politics issues. While politicians were a bit neglectful of understanding the profound impact the web would make culturally and socio-politically they are now more than eager to regain control. The crowd that flocks at re:publica should be more than sceptical about those advances. Even when they appear friendly and flattering they are motivated by political realism. However, this critical attitude was not so much visible at re:publica. The large and very much heterogeneous audience was mostly unified in the more entertaining speaking slots, such as the in my opinion awful Twitter advertising talk and the stand-up comedy by German web celebrity Sascha Lobo. It would have been desirable to discuss more the state of the transforming public sphere and the role of European civil society in discussing the regulation of information technologies and online culture. The direction of action for concerned netizens must be the intrusion of traditional politics as Cory Doctorow has pointed out recently. It might be the only way to prevent netculture to become annexed, incorporated, crippled and be trimmed to a harmless asset for corporations and politics.