Professor Jeanette Hofman: Democratic self-determination in the digital age

Author: Thomas Davidson 
Busy week: Anni Rowland-Campbell, W3C UKI Launch and Professor Jeanette Hoffman
Busy week: Anni Rowland-Campbell, W3C UKI Launch, and Professor Jeanette Hofman/ Digichamps ©2016

Friday, 14 October was a busy day to round of a busy week for the Southampton Web Science Institute. On Tuesday, the institute held the first distinguished lecture of the week, welcoming Anni Rowland-Campbell who spoke about social machines in a talk I have been told was very interesting but unfortunately was unable to attend myself. You can see some DigiChamp pictures of the event here. There were also two big events on Friday.

The first I was again unfortunately unable to attend (compulsory labs getting in the way!) but it paved the way for many more exciting developments in the future. It was of course the unveiling of Southampton as a base for the W3C’s UK and Ireland offices. I am reliably informed that this too was a great event, and one that cemented Southampton as at the forefront of Web Science on a global scale. If you wish to find out more about this, keep your eye out for some write-ups and have a look at the hashtag #w3CatSoton.

However, the event that I thankfully was able to attend came later that same day. It was a fantastically interesting talk from Professor Jeanette Hofman entitled “Democratic self-determination in the digital age”. There were a huge number of people in eager attendance, and the talk definitely threw up some interesting questions. As was clear from the title, Professor Hofman focused on the politicisation of the web. She drew on recent examples of apparent censor from Facebook (see the story here if you have not already)  to explain how the web is shaped by the way we use it, and how who controls the web represents a blurring between the private and public spheres. Drawing on other research (specifically Dave Clark’s Paper on the “Contingent Internet”, Professor Hofman explaining how we could see the web changing democracy right now, today. She suggested that democracy could become not seeing your MP, but instead leaving a dent in the terms of service agreement of multi-national digital companies such as Facebook. She cited the example of the “Free the Nipple” protest and the various “sub-sub-sub clauses that remain as a legacy from that in Facebook’s terms of service. She also said this could be termed “human rights in the private sector”.  Hofman concluded with a number of “preliminary conclusions” she had encountered from her research thus far. She concluded the talk by then suggesting that a “modest, liberal” approach was best to stop the internet “from going down the rain”.

The conceptual nature of the talk led to a lot of questions from the interested audience. Some asked about specific points made in the talk and others asked Professor Hofman on her hopes for the future. One questioner was quick to suggest that Hofman had been too optimistic in her talk, to which Hofman suggested she hadn’t been optimistic at all!


It was a fantastic talk to close the fantastic week for Southampton Web Science Institute. As a Web Science undergraduate student, it is fantastic to be able to attend important events such as these, and to hear people speak who are leading the way with what you are studying. Everyone at the Institute on every occasion I have been involved with them has been massively welcoming, and I very much look forward to the next event.

To view a Storify of the event, please click here.


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