Ethnographic Vignettes From ICA 2016

ICA welcome banner at Fukuoka airport, photography by S. Rodgers
Large 21st century conferences, such as ICA 2016 in Fukuoka, evoke the impressive growth and diversification of academia within, between, and across disciplines. Yet their "poison", if you will, is that they are so very large and up-scaled: potentially alienating; and clearly struggling with logistical complexity.

The long line of delegates, waiting to access the lunch buffet, is like the latest world record attempt at toppling dominos. Thinking myself to be clever, I promptly arrived at 12pm, only to then track backwards along this twisting line, through various spaces and lobbies at the Fukuoka Sea Hawk hotel, until finally joining its end. Now, one hour later, feeling no closer to lunch, I watch other conference delegates make the same snaking journey. Most have expressions of bemusement or disbelief; one walks along the line with her arms suspended into the air, statuesque. I pull out my mobile device, attempting to distract myself. But the conference Wi-Fi is overloaded and patchy. Eventually, I leave to seek lunch elsewhere.

This sort of scene indicates the pharmakon (for Derrida, both the cure and poison) of large 21st century conferences, such as this 2016 event hosted by the International Communication Association (ICA) in Fukuoka, Japan. It evokes the impressive growth and diversification of academia within, between, and across disciplines, in this case media and communication studies. For readers of this journal, the ICA conference is of clear interest since, in recent years, it has been an important venue for interdisciplinary research and critical discussions on media, cities and space. However, the “poison” of the conference, if you will, is that it is so very large and up-scaled. It is not only potentially alienating, but also clearly contending with its own logistical complexities.

The ICA conference is a machine-like undertaking. In 2016, it welcomed around 3,000 presenting delegates. The event’s big enough that, even in a city as large as Fukuoka, it merited its own welcoming banner at airport arrivals. For some, the ICA annual conference is too big. For others, it’s not big enough, at least in some respects. In the lead-up to the 2016 meeting, social media was once again alit with both celebrations of paper acceptances, and commiserations about rejections. If you plan to attend ICA, unless you are on an organized panel, you need to submit a full paper into a tough peer review process. Not just tough in terms of the grading regime. Tough because, owing to time and space constraints, highly graded, good papers also often get refused. Added to this are concerns about equity between subject divisions. There is a complex chain of associations between paper slots, room allocations and division membership size. Subject divisions such as Philosophy, Theory and Critique (my main anchor onto ICA), which have well-attended, interdisciplinary sessions, nevertheless get a small allocation of paper slots due to their comparatively small membership.


Communication studies represent!

The ICA’s main program covers an impressive range of topics, concerns, subjects, and disciplines, complemented by often-superb pre- and postconferences. This year, I attended a preconference titled “Big Data: Critiques and Alternatives.” Afterwards, I’m waiting with a couple of fellow attendees, outside the doors of the conference’s opening reception (full disclosure; we missed the still-underway opening plenary, opting instead for a visit to the nearby beach). One, a well-known German professor, speaks with an early-career French academic, who recently joined one of Britain’s best-known media studies departments. He’s attending his first ICA, and the professor is providing a rundown of the nearby publisher’s hall. The early career academic listens intently – he’s writing a book in need of a publisher. “All the main publishers are here,” the professor says, “it’s a good opportunity to speak to them in person.” I stand by, listening in and nodding silently; I did the same a few conferences back.

In these and other ways, the ICA is an opportunely large conference. This is partly because it encompasses more than “media studies” narrowly conceived. The subtly non-plural “Communication” in the association’s name is (so I think) a gesture at the fact that the Association not only includes a highly diversified focus on mediated communication, but also communicative interaction such as rhetoric and organizational communication. This said, media studies of a humanities bent is less well-represented. But there are clearly reasons to be here beyond your 15-20 minute paper slot, and perhaps enough to justify your flight’s CO2 footprint. The Anglo-American powerhouses of communication studies (e.g. the Annenberg School(s), Rutgers, London School of Economics) are well represented, quantitatively in terms of delegates, and also symbolically through hosted receptions (i.e. parties). One of the big advantages of ICA, in other words, is that it is a site to encounter and access the main moving parts of globalized (if still American-centered) communication studies.


#ica16 and the extended conference

Like many contemporary conferences, however, where and when the ICA meeting takes place is not straightforwardly corporeal. As my German and French colleagues discuss academic publishing, I absentmindedly look at the ICA conference app on my mobile phone. The app has a Twitter plugin showing the voluminous tweets using the #ica16 hashtag. ICA takes place not just in dispersed face-to-face encounters, but through networked interactions. Here, ICA, its subject divisions, and its tweeting conference delegates trade observations, tips, links, and images: on sessions, on events, on restaurants and bars, on local attractions, and on all manner of curious and often humorous ephemera.

The tendency to label these sorts of communications “conference backchannels” belies what might more accurately be described as an environmental extension of the corporeal conference. This is a point I elaborate on in the first essay I wrote for this journal’s recent roundtable on small-gauge scholarship. Twitter as technology and technique provides new forms of hypermediation for academic gatherings, interweaving physical and networked environments in real time. This interweaving is however not only a spatial extension, but a temporal extension as well. If you look at tweets using #ica16, you will note substantial contributions not only during the conference itself, but also in its lead-up, as well as its aftermath. I myself partook in this extended time-space. For example, here I combine a note about procrastinating on my paper submission with anticipatory comments about the conference location:

No Title

Being generous to myself, I’m going to say looking at images of Fukuoka with still unfinished paper is motivation not procrastination #ica16

The conceptual upshot of this extended environment via Twitter seems to be an ICA conference space in which its future is made present, its present is augmented, and its past can be presently retrieved. The more practical upshot is simply that, if using or even just reading Twitter is your thing, experiencing the ICA conference can, and indeed does, exceed the face-to-face encounters you might end up having. It’s certainly something the Association recognizes: in previous years, for example, delegate badges listed Twitter usernames (yet curiously, didn’t in 2016). And plans are afoot for other networked augmentations – apparently, some kind of mobile gamification – at ICA 2017 in San Diego.


The centrality of the social periphery

This being Japan, I’m expecting that a bar called Android, tucked away in a nondescript basement in central Fukuoka, will be themed along the lines of AI or robotics. It’s unfortunately not. Yet at this early outing, following the opening reception, I sit happily with likeminded souls amidst cocktails, talking about research on media, cities and space, and other things besides. Looking back at ICA three months on, my recollections center as much on baseball games, yatai stalls, and obscure bars as they do on plenaries, hotel buffets, and receptions. I expect readers will not be surprised: this social periphery is in some ways the center – it is the main, if often under-acknowledged, reason academics visit conferences.

Like any good conference, beyond the sessions ICA offers many opportunities for socializing and local experiences (leaving to one side the important question about how authentically “local” such experiences might be). Sure, it helps to know people, and this is my third ICA, so I know a few. But it’s also a conference with a remarkably open vibe. With some effort, you’ll make great contacts and even friends. And for whatever it’s worth, if you happen to go in a year I’m there, then you’re not alone. Feel free to get in touch with me, and I’ll do my best to acquaint you with the people, places, and networks making up the ICA conference.

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  1. Scott,
    Great article, and one that really accurately delves into the interplay we constantly struggle with to make sure ICA is big enough to encompass everything it needs to but not so big that it alienates. We work hard to keep our acceptance rate competitive but not souls-crushing (this year it was about 46%). Fukuoka actually had 2600 attendees (not quite 3000) and you’ll be pleased, i know, to know that at the January 2016 board meeting, the ICA board of directors voted to change the “complex chain of events” (i.e., the paper allocation formula), so that from now on, a division’s allocated papers is no longer correlated with the size of its membership or anything else other than a simple percentage of the papers submitted. So, if your division received 10% of the total submissions for the conference, then your division will be allocated 10% of the total slots available for presentations (that, as always, is based on how many meeting rooms we have to go around). Hopefully this will eliminate some of the heartburn about scrambling for membership numbers as a means of “competing” for paper slots. Thanks for this insighftful commentary, again. We’ll look into the twitter handle on the badges again–the more you put on there, the smaller everythgin gets, so there’s a balance, but if it’s useful we can certainly bring it back. thanks, L

  2. Thank you so much Laura for not only reading my account of ICA 2016, but responding to it. One thing I could not quite fit into the account is that ICA as an association in general does communication quite well, not just as its main academic focus, but in terms of the way in fosters dialogues within and across the membership. Taking the time to write a response is one more example of that orientation.

    On the small matter of Twitter handles, my comment was not nessarily a request for their return! I certainly found it useful, but as is often rightly said nowadays, Twitter is not the world. So I can also understand if it’s not seen as the most important information to include in limited space.

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