Reflecting back on this summer’s online conference series from May to August 2020, I realise that my conference participation has allowed me to build a stronger connection with the community that I have joined both as a participant and as an ethnographer over the last three years.
For my doctoral research I have conducted fieldwork at multiple sites where researchers who study contemplative practices gather, including contemplative studies conferences. These conferences are a combination of academic panels and meditation retreat where academic community building is promoted to create a foundation for conversations and collaborations across disciplinary divides.
Since the COVID-19 lockdown, contemplative studies conferences have moved to digital environments. I expected that this would be detrimental to both my ethnographic research and my sense of community because digital environments do not allow for serendipitous encounters in hallways, chats in-between sessions, and informal meetings over dinner – the very activities that give rise to collaboration and academic socialisation.
One month after this year’s summer conference period, however, I find myself involved in the co-creation of a panel for the next contemplative research conference, I have become part of a solidarity group in which we send each other voice messages about our daily meditation practices, and I have established a regular digital letter exchange with another conference participant.
These unexpected developments induced me to have a closer look at how academic community building is shaped by digital environments. Instead of considering my deepened connections with the contemplative studies community as an effect of the digital conference format, I explore their contingency on three dynamics:
(1) digital environments mediate inclusion and exclusion;
(2) digital environments afford and level hierarchies;
(3) digital environments depend on care work to foster academic community building.
I reflect on these dynamics based on auto-ethnographic research at three contemplative studies conferences realised online in 2020: the Varela Symposium, the International Conference on Mindfulness (ICM), and the Mind & Life European Summer Research Institute (ESRI).
In developing these reflections, I intend to bring an important insight from the social studies of technology to conference research. Connecting people with people and technology is shaped by the affordances of technology and by the ways in which people orient to the technology. Keeping this insight in mind helps design and engage with digital environments in a way that promotes what Black and her colleagues (2020) call “confer-ring” (p. 115): a more intimate, inclusive, and inviting version of academic conferencing.
(1) Digital environments mediate inclusion and exclusion
Online conferences appear to be a more inclusive alternative to in-person events because they allow a range of groups to participate for whom traditional conference formats are unaffordable, discomforting, or physically inaccessible (see other Conference Inference posts on the topic).
The Varela Symposium is usually limited to about 100 participants who meet at the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In 2020, however, the participant numbers fluctuated from 700 to 1200. Another reason for the inclusive nature of online conferences concerns the way the digital environment “mediates” participants’ relations to others (Bats 2019; Verbeek 2016). As an early-career researcher, I often feel insecure about speaking up at conferences (for a similar experience, see Mansuy’s Conference Inference post). Participating in the Varela Symposium on the Zoom conference platform, however, reduced my awareness of the audience. Under the impression that I was talking to the speakers only, I was less inhibited to raise questions and felt more included in conference discussions.
While these examples suggest that digital conferences promote inclusive community building, the digital environment and its users also co-produce exclusionary dynamics. To facilitate community building at ESRI, conference organisers opened a Slack workspace, a digital communication platform including persistent chat rooms (“channels”) organised per topic, private groups, and personal messaging.
The ESRI Slack workspace consisted in a range of channels in which participants could introduce themselves, discuss their conference posters, chat with speakers and fellow participants, and share their thoughts on the conference days. Among the 112 registered users in the Slack “community” channel, 48 introduced themselves in a video or commentary.
Those who did not introduce themselves in the channel were less present in my perception of the community. Whereas some participants actively appropriated the Slack workspace to establish connections through videos, images, and writing, others remained rather absent. They may have experienced difficulties in handling the interactive technology or felt nauseous after sitting several hours in front of a computer screen.
(2) Digital environments afford and level hierarchies
Whether and how conference participants interact in digital environments depends on the possibilities offered by the environment.
“Affordances” (Gaver 1996) embellish a digital environment with ‘furniture’ that enables and constrains interactions between users (Bucher and Helmond 2018; Comunello, Mulargia, and Parisi 2016; Lorés 2019). Pieces of furniture in ESRI’s Slack workspace were ‘likes’, ‘applauses’, ‘smiley faces’, ‘hearts’, and other icons that could be used to comment on someone’s post. I caught myself checking which videos attracted most responses. Some videos were so ‘popular’ that they resulted in offers from senior scholars directed at early-career researchers to collaborate on funding applications for PhD positions.
Just like any academic conference, ESRI and other contemplative studies conferences create spaces where potential collaborators meet and job recruitment takes place. The Slack community channel, however, made these dynamics visible. Fellow participants could easily be ranked as more or less successful competitors for attention from senior academics. I do not suggest that ESRI participants indeed perceived each other as competitors. Rather, I point out that the Slack environment and its technological features afforded the creation of popularity hierarchies (see Reynolds’ Conference Inference post on social media and Gershon’s analysis of facebook).
While the Slack workspace afforded the creation of hierarchies, the Zoom conference platform afforded their levelling. “Online, everybody appears equal” (p. 25), Bats (2019) writes in his analysis of social interactions in digital environments. In the absence of status indicators like clothing and physical appearance, social hierarchies may be reduced. Perceiving other conference participants, speakers, and conference organisers as talking heads on screens while peeking into their living rooms created a sense of informality. Moreover, Zoom’s gallery function allowed me to place a conference speaker in the middle of a Zoom window mosaic. The speaker became one among many equally shaped mosaic pieces (Figure 2), instead of being elevated on a stage where he or she would usually be positioned at on-site conferences. The technological affordances of the digital conference platform helped deconstruct perceived hierarchies related to people’s status or function in the conference.
(3) Digital environments depend on care work to foster academic community building
At the end of the ESRI conference, a keynote speaker reflected on the outcomes of what the conference organisers had called ESRI’s “experiment” in digital community building (see ESRI description).
He concluded that it took a lot of “care work” to connect people with people and with technology (see also Portwood-Stacer 2014). The Slack workspace, for instance, was carefully managed. The community channel became filled with in total 207 posts (23.08.20; two subsequent posts by the same person were counted as one). While most of the channel users – conference participants, speakers, and organisers – added between 1 and 5 posts, a member of ESRI’s “hosting team” posted 50 comments that animated further posts from other users. Moreover, activities like co-creating word clouds and images were included in the conference programme as ways “to open up, create trust, and build a sense of community” (Figure 3).
During ICM, participants and organisers engaged in joint care work. The digital conference was structured according to an hourly rhythm starting at 8am in the morning and ending at 8pm in the evening. Every hour there was a 15 min presentation, 15 min Q&A session, 15 min meditation, and 15 min break. At the end of the day, however, a presenter did not join the Zoom platform in time. The rupture in the programme opened up a space for conference participants to interact with one another. While most participants had remained muted and invisible throughout the day, some turned their cameras and microphones on to participate in a sharing circle about researching and practicing meditation in online groups. I noticed how my sense of involvement shifted; I stopped being a silent spectator and suddenly became drawn into a communal space.
These reflections expand Black and her colleagues’ view that online confer-ring can open up a space “where collaborative conversation, kinship, writing differently, and collective research is generated” (p. 123). I emphasise that confer-ring requires care work and depends on the technological affordances of digital environments as well as their appropriation by users. Recognising that a tool like Slack may promote competitive behaviour allows us to re-evaluate whether it is suitable for academic community building in contemplative studies. Paying attention to how technologies are appropriated by users can guide organisers in refining digital conference designs; for example, opening virtual conference rooms alongside the main programme where participants can meet for coffee or tea. Meeting up in online spaces for tea is one way in which I have continued confer-ring with fellow ESRI participants, that is engaging with technologies in ways that care for companionship and relational knowledge production.
I wish to thank Mind & Life Europe for supporting this research and Jonas Mago for reflecting on our experiences of ESRI 2020 together. I am also grateful for the feedback given by Cyrus Mody, Cornelius Borck, Alexandra Supper, and Tobias Meierdierks on earlier drafts of this guest post.
Mareike Smolka is a PhD candidate in Science & Technology Studies at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Her research is a multi-sited ethnography that traces conceptions and practices of ‘responsibility’ in neuroscientific meditation research. For this project, she has been awarded with scholarships from the German Academic Scholarship Foundation and the Centre for Cultural Research Lübeck. She is also one of the holders of the Mind & Life Europe Francisco J. Varela award. Next to her PhD research, Mareike has served as an editorial assistant for the Journal of Responsible Innovation. She has also worked as a teaching fellow at University College Maastricht and at CODE University of Applied Sciences in Berlin. You’ll find her on Twitter as @MareikeSmolka