​“Building Digital Publics,” the opening panel for the “Keeping the Public Sphere Open” NULab conference, introduced a set of really important challenges shaping the current state and possible futures of digital publics. Brooke Foucault Welles’ presentation on the practices of online activist counterpublics demonstrated the ways web technologies, particularly the hashtag, provide alternative modes for framing the social justice efforts of networked activist communities. Welles’ study of the #BaltimoreRiots and #BaltimoreUprising showed how hashtag activism can effectively form and inform communities to social issues as they forward critiques that counter the cultural and media mainstream.

Sarah Shugars and Nick Beauchamp (slides) presented on a new collaborative research project they are just getting underway on with Jing Li and Lu Wang that is hoping to better identify instances of “productive political dialogue” through Twitter. Their data set includes around 1 million twitter conversations that have 3 or more @ replies between discussants. Assessing both sentiment and dialogue patterns, they are looking to establish a model for locating scenarios where users’ language reflects shifts in initial attitude toward political debate topic and where the conversation models something we might conceive as a public sphere discourse.

Liz Polcha and Nicole Keller (slides) discussed an ongoing collaborative project they helped initiate at Northeastern University to establish a feminist public around learning to code. They underscored both the opportunity and need for forming a digital feminist commons as well as the challenges of ensuring that the labor involved in building and sustaining such communities didn’t reproduce the structural hierarchies and institutional dependencies it intended to unsettle. Élika Ortega’s presentation on “Distributed Media Architectures in Print-Digital Literature” (slides) examined the ways literature that combines print and digital formats can introduce transformative textual environments and interpretive pathways for publics to examine the technologies of texts and poetics.