Blog Post

Grants Available for the Study of Online Discourse


In the 1960s the renowned prankster and visionary Stewart Brand started a button campaign asking, "Why haven't we seen an image of the whole earth yet?" Brand wanted to help the world develop a better understanding of itself as a whole. He mailed materials to every visionary he could think of, every influential leader, scientist, and engineer.

He received only one response.

"Dear boy, how can I help you?"

Just as Buckminister Fuller through the above words asked Brand how he might contribute to Brand's cause, Duke University has started the Online Discourse Project ( in order to ask you to contribute to our understanding of the world of internet communication. In the spirit of the internet era, we'd like to proceed collaboratively. We are offering to aide you in assisting us to develop a fuller understanding of internet discourse. The Duke Online Discourse Project has made grants available and is now asking for your best proposals. (For the full request for proposals, see

By now you've probably gotten the message that the internet has changed just about every aspect of life. In fact I'm fairly confident you've received this message via the internet. For most of us, communicating via the internet has become so intertwined with our momentary experiences that it has become an embodied practice. Speak in person with anyone describing his or her online activities, tweeting or blogging or posting on Facebook or editing photographs for Flickr, and often enough that person will begin making hand gestures mimicking the tactile control of a keyboard, mouse, or touchpad. Through this embodiment it forges social bonds, oftentimes bonds that were simply not possible before. The internet society is not merely part of our society, it is society, as Communications scholar Manuel Castells recently wrote.  We are the internet.

The phenomenon of distributed digital communications is global and its manifestations are ubiquitous. Everywhere these technologies comprise the ways we inhabit our world and interact with one another. From complicated financial data transaction systems gliding into instant global credit crunches to resulting gas crises stirring up bloggers into demanding from their government sweeping environmental policy changes, to human-flesh search engines in China arising from BBSs circumventing Chinese government rule in order to form vigilante groups for justice, to engineers working through collaborative web environments in order to crowdsource novel technical platforms in order to solve a myriad of technical problems such as improved prosthetics or safer cellular devices, the internet has indeed become our society. Just as the previous sentence its ways are endless.

The Duke Online Discourse Project has arisen out of the need to take a step back, if such a thing is possible, and take stock of the internet in terms not only of traditional humanist concerns but also of posthuman considerations that only the blistering pace of technological change can generate. We seek to better understand how our new society affected free speech, human rights, and notions of decency. What issues along the lines of civility, free speech, and accountability must we begin to grapple with in the coming months and years as the internet increases in complexity and contact? What do we already know and what do we need to learn?

We hope that you can help us understand our online world and the way we communicate through it. We can help you to help us. We are looking for pretty much anyone with a rich or unique perspective on the myriad issues surrounding internet discourse to write a grant proposal. Scholars from sociology, law, politics and policy, linguistics, languages, media and journalism, literature, business, cultural studies and visual studies are encouraged, as are professionals from private enterprise, government, independent policy institutes, and advocacy groups. Even independent netizens are welcomed and encouraged.

Please submit a proposal to us by April 2nd and we can help each other begin to develop a greater understanding of online discourse. We look forward to your response.



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