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Catching up with the SDP alumni

Published on
17 Feb 2014
Written by
Victoria Nash

It’s one of the perks of convening the OII Summer Doctoral Programme that I get to keep in touch with the programme’s alumni as they complete their theses, apply for their first academic positions, and generally go on to achieve great things. When recently looking up what’s been published lately by the ex-SDPers, I was firstly struck by the tremendous range of research areas being covered; everything from organizational practice, to child protection, to networked protest, to smart cities.

The second thing was that the Internet has moved on so much – and so quickly – that many of the topics being researched today were unimaginable when the programme was launched back in 2003. As just one example of this, Cesar Albarran Torres (University of Sydney; SDP 2013) recently published an analysis of the emergence of mobile social gambling — a new form of media and cultural practice opened up by mobile platforms and social networking sites, that fuses social gambling and gaming (and of course raises policy challenges in terms of increased availability of gambling products to minors, and the merging of the gambling and mobile gaming industries and markets.) In other cases, our alumni have made significant contributions on topics which have persistent academic and policy relevance, such as the recent book by Elizabeth Staksrud (University of Oslo; SDP 2008) on children in the online world: risk, regulation, rights (Ashgate). Based on her PhD thesis, this important book examines whether contemporary regulation of online risk for children and teens is always legitimate and whether it results in the sacrifice of certain fundamental human rights.

Our SDP discussions have certainly tracked the many changes in the field over the years. Nick Zhang Yin (Chinese University of Hong Kong; SDP 2012) has just published a review of social networking service scholarship from 2006 to 2011, providing not only an overview of ongoing research trends but also challenges for the field and insights for future work. Jeremy Hunsinger (Wilfrid Laurier University; SDP 2004) provided a fascinating overview of how the field of Internet-related research has changed over the past decade at the recent SDP Anniversary Conference, examining how debates about disciplinarity (and multi-disciplinarity) have played out in the context of institutional battles within universities. He just also co-edited the excellent Social Media Handbook (Routledge), with Terri Senft.

Jeremy Hunsinger is just one of many alumni who we’ve been very pleased to welcome back to the OII over the years, as visitors, speakers — and even SDP tutors. Last week Gregory Asmolov (LSE; SDP 2012) presented his work on crowdsourcing and development of activity systems: the case of emergency response (webcast), as part of the OII’s ongoing ICT4D seminar series. He has recently published two chapters in the book Bits and Atoms: Information and Communication Technology in Areas of Limited Statehood (OUP), which explores the governance potential found in the explosive growth of digital technology in areas of limited statehood. Shawn Walker (University of Washington; SDP 2012) is another familiar face, having presented a prize-winning paper at our last Internet, Politics and Policy (IPP2012) conference. His latest article (with Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg) on peer production in large-scale networked protests examines the organizational processes of crowd-enabled connective action (think Arab Spring, 15-M in Spain, and Occupy Wall Street) to understand how crowd-enabled networks are activated, structured, and maintained. New modes of organisation afforded by the Internet is also examined by Osama Mansour (Linnaeus University; SDP 2012) in his analysis of the role of Wikis in organising practice, that is, how social media have introduced novel possibilities for work and interaction in organisations, particularly in terms of facilitating the creation and sharing of organizational knowledge within communities.

One of the key challenges in undertaking Internet-related research is that it can be difficult to answer a particular research question using tools, concepts and methods from a single discipline. Laura Forlano (Illinois Institute of Technology; SDP 2004) has drawn on theories from communications, science and technology studies, as well as more specialized fields such as urban informatics for her article on urban technology and the co-production of place, which examines the promise of digital technologies to make cities more efficient, productive, innovative and attractive (aka ‘smart’). Even if you have a fantastic disciplinary project, it can be really valuable to get an alternative perspective, and to share your views and ideas with others who may have a similar interest but from a very different background. We also know that many students studying the Internet within a single-discipline department may just not have much contact with other researchers studying this topic — it can be very exciting to be exposed to 25 or 30 other students with similar research interests.

Given that achieving a “critical mass” or network of peers is one of the aims (and great strengths) of the programme it’s always great to see collaborations between SDP alumni; whether or not they met through a specific year. Laura Forlano (SDP2004) recently co-edited a book with Marcus Foth (QUT; SDP 2004) on Urban Informatics, Social Media, Ubiquitous Computing, and Mobile Technology to Support Citizen Engagement (MIT Press). Nic Suzor (SDP 2005) and Darryl Woodford (SDP 2012) have recently published an article on resolution of disputes in online environments, whilst Darryl collaborated with another of his SDP 2012 peers, Shawn Walker in a conference presentation and paper on slicing big data at AOIR 2013.

There are now over 300 alumni of our Summer Doctoral Programme, representing a huge range of topics and research questions and a vast contribution to academic understanding of life online. From those in the very first cohort, many of whom now occupy influential academic positions (not least Urs Gasser, Director of the Berkman Center) to those in the past couple of years who are only just completing their PhDs (congratulations most recently to Daiana Beitler, Karen Smith, Nick Z.Y and Mark Bilandzic) we’re proud to have worked with such great young academics, and hope that through them, we’ve had an impact on the field.

Thinking back to that first year, I had no idea at the time how the programme would turn out — I spent the first months of 2003 panicking that no one would apply. But there was a great response, and we haven’t looked back since. We’re of course very lucky at the OII to have some really loyal and trusted academic partners — notably the Creative Industries Faculty at QUT, the Annenberg School at USC and the Berkman Center at Harvard. Together with our amazing alumni (and of course stellar tutors) we’re so proud to be part of the awesome “SDP family”.