About the International Summer School of Dresden, piratenpad.de and (online) revolutions!

By Shaimaa El Naggar

This year I was invited to participate in the International Summer School held in Dresden on ‘the impact of digitization on society’. With scholars from various disciplines, the school has many themes including social networks and political communication, data mining, and the use of digitization in education.

There are many things one can talk about here; in this blog post, I will focus on one online platform we used in lectures and workshops in Dresden, i.e.https://www.piratenpad.de/

As an online platform, piratenpad, https://www.piratenpad.de/ allows you to put down your notes online, in a similar way to writing your notes on a page. There are some differences, however: first, what you write is highlighted in a particular colour, which makes you distinguish between what you have written and what others have. Second, you can choose to be anonymous or not, writing freely your thoughts, comments, after-thoughts, and share links with other participants attending the event. For instance, in the lecture, Nishand Shah was critical of the assumption that media has become a centre of social reality (also see Kellner 2003).  One of us (attending the event) shared a link to Guy DeBord’s theory of the society of the spectacle:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Society_of_the_Spectacle. While in the ‘usual’ circumstances, you will wait till the end of the lecture and explore references later on, you can now explore them on the spot and share your findings with others, accelerating the process of the acquisition of knowledge.

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Fig 1. Links and comments posted on the pirate(n) pad.

One other thing I like (d) about ‘piratepad’ is that it allows you to interact with other users; for instance, you can add to the notes others have written down or ask them questions; for instance, see the above picture.

One question, however, that emerges here is: if piratenpad.de can go beyond being an online platform for noting down information towards creating an online community; one characterized by interactivity and sustained membership over time (see Jones 1997)?

It is perhaps important to say here that the question of what features can designate an online community has been given attention in studies on computer-mediated communication (e.g. Jones 1997; Baym 2003 and Herring 2004; Androutsopoulos 2006); scholars, however, seem to differ as to what characteristics constitute online communities. Herring (2004:346), for instance, argues that ‘not all online groups constitute virtual communities’; and that a virtual community is operationalized on dimensions, including the emergence of roles, rituals and hierarchies; self-awareness of the group as an entity that is distinct from other groups; evidence of shared history, culture and value; solidarity and support as manifest in humor and politeness.

Looking into the pads we have produced, they have some features that can characterize an ‘online community’, for instance, the use of humor yet –if one sticks to Herrings’ definition stated above- they lack evidence of shared history, culture and value. In fact, I argue here that much attention has been given to exploring online communities (e.g. Jones 1997; Baym 2003 and Herring 2004) and what seems to have been taken for granted is one basic characteristic feature of online platforms, i.e. sharing information. For instance, it is only when FB helped mobilize masses in Tunisia and Egypt that the ‘revolutionary’ aspect of sharing information seems to have been given scholarly and media attention.

Moving from politics to education, I would argue that there is still more room for making more use of online platforms such as piratenpad.de; if only one may (can) make a revolution!


Androutsopoulos, J. (2006) ‘Introduction: Sociolinguistics and computer-  mediated  communication’. Journal of Sociolinguistics 10, 4, 419–438.

Baym, N. K. (2003) ‘Communication in online communities’. In K. Christiansen          and  David          Levinson (eds.) Encyclopedia of Community (Volume 3).          Thousand Oaks, California: Sage. pp. 1015–1017.

Herring, S. C. (2004). ‘Computer-mediated discourse analysis: An approach to

researching online communities’. In Sasha A. Barab, Rob Kling and         James H. Gray (eds.) Designing for Virtual Communities in the Service of        Learning. Cambridge, U.K. and New York: Cambridge University Press.     pp. 338–376.

Jones, Q. (1997). ‘Virtual communities, virtual settlements and cyber-      archaeology’. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 3(3),          n.pag.   

Kellner, D. (2003) Media Spectacle London and New York: Routledge

How digitalization changes the way we communicate – Part One

This post is the first of a series, which will concentrate on several cases and examples about changing communicational behavior as a result of digitization. I want to start with the observation I made during the panel discussion today.

Photo: Katrin Etzrodt

“What we do with digitization and what it does to us” Guido Westkamp, Sven Guckes, Wolfgang Donsbach, Thomas Wolf, Daniel Riebe (left to right)

But let me start with a short introduction of the discussion. Four people from very different backgrounds, namely Guido Westkamp (Professor for Intellectual Property and Comparative Law), Sven Guckes (arguing from the point of view of creative commons rights), Thomas Wolf (the chief of the online ressort of DD+V Mediagroup) and  Daniel Riebe (member of the german pirate party) where brought together to discuss the issue “What we do with digitization and what it does with us”. Moderated by Prof. Wolfgang Donsbach from the Institute of Media and Communication.

I will not summarize the content of the discussion in a way that you may expect at this very moment. Instead I will talk about a phenomenon that occurred during the real time event. So what I observed was a communication situation, which took place on three channels I noticed. Number one was the so called face-to-face communication. The four discussants as well as the moderator talked about phenomenons on different dimensions related to digitization. The audience – which mainly consisted of the summer school participants and some other interested people as well – was invited to ask questions and did used this opportunity. To this point you may say, this was a pretty usual event with a pretty usual way of conversation.

Parallel digital discussion on Twitter?

Panel Discussion – Digital Audience

But since we are all digital citicens – or at least most of us – of course we tweeted about main phrases and quoted interesting answers or questions. There is a list for the summer school, which contains mainly all tweeting participants. Although somehow there wasn’t going to be a discussion going beyond quotations and phrases from the podium on this medium – at least for this panel. Well, you may say, what’s the big deal with it? That’s old news for us! And you may be right.

So what was different?

At the beginning of the panel the organizers gave us another medium: a piratepad. At first I did not realize the purpose, but after a while I was enlightened: Another way of simultaneously communicating. I got curious and followed the link. And then a real constructive conversation – at least for me – arose. Four people were joining the pad. Did the others not recognize it? Was it too less understandable? Weren’t the curious? Whatever the answer may be, the result of the pad was a third channel where not only a discussion, but also a structuring and conservation of the thoughts and arguments of the other two channels. I will not analyze this phenomenon in detail now (I/we will come back on that in another post). instead of interpreting it for you I will give you the whole content, so you can see for yourself. (I did not leave out some text, just some empty lines).

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What does this say?

At the moment it does tell me, that there are many different ways of communicating at an event like this. The usual assumption parallel conversation happens on social network sites may not always do justice to reality and mislead our research focus. Sometimes it may occur on social collaborating sites, too. And it made me wonder, if a medium to write or structure text collaboratively, which at the same time serves as a chat-like medium, suits better to situations such as this panel discussion.

It made me also wonder about the dominance we willingly give to social network sites as users, instead of benefitting from the variety and richness of the social media universe. And it makes me wonder to what extend and what impact we can alter the origin use of a social medium. If you, e.g., have a look at the piratepad pictures, you will soon recognize that we did not just note and structure important facts, arguments and thoughts of the panel, but also had our own conversations there, too.

To conclude this observation with a statement to the discussion’s topic:

Digitization enables us to find and create additional channels to a face-to-face event. At the same time we are altering these digitalized solutions to our own needs and purposes, in ways that might not have been the intention of the creator. Therefore the process of change can be – once again – seen as a reciprocal process.