ICWSM-13, run by Emre Kiciman

I’m pleased to announce that the CFP for ICWSM-13 is now live.

In late October, it was announced that Ethan Zuckerman and I were running the conference. Due to communication failures and organizational disagreements, we stepped down in mid-November. The wonderful and talented Emre Kiciman from Microsoft Research will be running ICWSM-13 in Boston, Massachusetts. I have nothing but confidence in his ability to run this conference and I look forward to seeing where he takes it. So I hope you submit your awesome work and attend the event!

Given some of the organizational confusion, I want to take a moment to explain why I stepped down from running the event. It was not because I don’t believe in ICWSM – I think that ICWSM is a phenomenal conference. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that I’m the right person to be running the conference in the direction it’s being pushed to go.

Every year that I attended ICWSM, there has been a community meeting where people talk about what they love about the conference and what they’d like to see change. Each year, someone raises the issue about diversifying the conference. ICWSM is one of the few places where computer scientists and social scientists actively listen to one another. It is precisely that combination that makes my heart melt. But it’s also run as a computer science conference which is inaccessible to most social scientists. Each year, when the issue comes up, two sticking points are regularly raised: 1) the computer science publishing model doesn’t work for social scientists; and 2) the cost of computer science conferences is inaccessible for the vast majority of social scientists. Attendees propose numerous ways of addressing each of these issues, but they go unaddressed and the conversation repeats each year.

Last summer, Ethan Zuckerman and I were asked if we wanted to co-host ICWSM. Ethan was very open to the idea and I said that I’d only do it under two conditions: 1) I could put in place special issues for journals to entice social scientists who don’t normally attend computer science conferences; and 2) I could work with Ethan to drastically reduce the cost of the conference to make it viable for social scientists and for those who didn’t have large grants. From the getgo, I stated that I wanted to see the cost get down to $400 for industry attendees; $200 for faculty attendees; $100 for students. This is a pretty radical proposal for a computer science conference, even though its still higher than most social science conferences of similar size.

The steering committee told me that this would be viable if I could get a journal to agree and if I could figure out how to reduce the event costs enough to make that pricing scheme viable. I decided to put my time where my mouth was and do everything I could to build a conference that could fully integrate computer scientists and social scientists from diverse fields to have a shared conversation.

Ethan and I began the process of choosing dates with AAAI, the computer science organization that backed the conference. This ended up taking months, causing consternation on all sides. As soon as the dates were chosen, it was announced that Ethan and I were running the conference, even before I was aware that the decision had been made or what the terms would be. While trying to deal with a hurricane in my city, I raced around to build a conference committee, confirm special issues with the journals that I approached, and put together a CFP so that we could get the call out. I sent the proposed call to the representative at AAAI. That’s when all hell broke out.

Unbeknownst to me, the steering committee never cleared my requirements with AAAI. AAAI was violently opposed to having other publishers involved with ICWSM in any formal way. They made it very clear that not only could I not use special issues to entice attendees, but I could not advertise specific journals or otherwise make any promises of publishing with other venues. The best that they could do would be to allow people to only publish an extended abstract in AAAI so that the social scientists could then submit their papers elsewhere.

I was stunned, especially given that I had clearly stated this as a requirement when I began this process. I wrote to the steering committee and was told that we could keep negotiating after the CFP came out. I started to realize that there were massive communication failures going on. I said that in order to move forward, I needed a commitment on the registration costs. I was told that it wasn’t possible to do this yet and that I should just keep going forward. I said that it was unfair to ask me to let go of the prerequisites I gave for running the conference. AAAI, seemingly unaware of these conversations, came back with a proposal that made it clear that no matter how much I reduced the costs of the conference on my end, there was no way to reduce the fees enough to make the conference broadly accessible.

In the end, I found that there was such extensive miscommunication that the gulf between what I had stated upfront as being key to me running the conference was miles away from what AAAI would find acceptable. Both of us felt as though we were contorting ourselves to make this work and it left both of us very bitter and unable to work with one another. I decided that I could not run a conference that wasn’t accessible to many of the core parts of my research community just to please other parts of the research community. I felt trapped and realized that it would be better to walk away than to let go of my principles.

Because I believe deeply in ICWSM, I did not want to leave the conference in a lurch. In walking away, I recommended that the steering committee turn the conference over to Emre Kiciman, a collaborator and friend who I greatly admire. He’s deeply committed to engaging social scientists, but is also comfortable running a conference that is structured as a computer science conference. He’s a phenomenal scholar and a truly gentle human being. Plus he’s deeply passionate about ICWSM and the ICWSM community. And what he’s looking to achieve with the conference is far less radical than what I had proposed.

I still love ICWSM and I still believe in it as a conference. I think that it’s a fabulous place for computer scientists to be exposed to computational social science. And I think that it’s fantastic for social scientists who are willing to take risks and who have the resources to engage with computer scientists. I still hope that the conference will become a core site for meaningful interdisciplinary dialogue. Unfortunately, what I learned is that there are serious organizational impediments to making the conference truly accessible at this time. Perhaps in the future. But for now, it’s going to be a computer science conference where social scientists are welcome.

I’m confident in Emre and I think that the conference committee brings a lot of knowledge from different disciplines and will do a fantastic job of making sure that interdisciplinary scholarship is cherished. I also love the broader community that submits fascinating work and I hope that they/you will continue to do so. I just couldn’t, in good conscience, run the conference in the way that I was expected to run it. My only hope is that my efforts to move the dial may help down the line.

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5 thoughts on “ICWSM-13, run by Emre Kiciman

  1. Alex Halavais

    Had always wanted to go to ICWSM, but my budget never allowed it. I understand the costs involved, but it’s a shame in some ways. I know you want to support it, and I am glad it exists (some good work has come out of the conference). But it makes me wonder about alternatives… If not AoIR (and of course, I would like to see more of this at AoIR, but as several have pointed out, it’s hard to get CS people to come for a number of reasons), maybe the iConf… Ideally, it seems like–given the topic–a very lightweight unconference might work.

  2. Jofish

    Hear hear on all of the problems you identified. As I think you know, I completely agree with bringing the costs down to something that actually allows interdisciplinary attendance – and we could talk at length about how high prices can really screw folks in developing countries as well. Sorry it didn’t work out, but I’m glad that the discussion is becoming more clear and more public.


  3. el don

    have always wanted to attend these types of conferences – but financially unable. even if they are in local area and not the US as usual, the cost is always going to exclude those not being supported by wealthy institutions. thanks for you work in trying to get more access for social researchers, danah. much appreciated. also enjoy reading about the politics behind the scenes – having been involved in conference organising committees previously.

  4. Alex

    In complete agreement with the sentiments, and had been on a long email chain trying to find a way to lower the cost after the conference in 2011. I met some great contacts but I’m still paying off the credit card for the AAAI registration and plane ticket to Barcelona, and a poster coming from the conference doesn’t mean disciplinarily for a sociology graduate student.

  5. Bernie Hogan

    Thanks for clarifying this for everyone danah, and thanks for all your work thus far.

    For those curious, through danah, Ethan and Emre we have been making baby steps in the right direction. For example, as noted above this year there is a social science track that allows for work to not be published but still presented. I think even this small step in the interdisciplinary direction wouldn’t have been possible without danah’s perseverance.

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