Work of Professor Robert Latham subject of symposium in Beijing

Robert Latham

A symposium in Beijing, running June 12 and 13, will highlight the work of York University political science Professor Robert Latham and his seminal book Digital Formations: IT and New Architectures in the Global Realm, co-edited with Columbia University Professor Saskia Sassen.

The “Symposium on Digital Formations and Chinese Experiences: Creation, Appropriation, and Circulation” is organized by the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania in collaboration with the Department of Communication Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison and the College of Media and International Culture, Zhejiang University. It is sponsored by the journal Communication and the Public.

A man wearing glasses stands at a podium
Robert Latham

“It is fascinating to see how relevant our effort was to get people to think about the major transformations in social and political life brought about in the digital realm,” said Latham.

Digital Formations: IT and New Architectures in the Global Realm outlines a new agenda for studying novel social forms and formations which are largely constituted in digital space and networks. They list examples such as global electronic markets, Internet-based large-scale conversations, knowledge spaces arising out of networks of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and early conflict warning systems.

When their book was published in 2005, important new digital forms and formations were already appearing in China. Over a decade has now passed. It is no exaggeration to say that institutions and practices associated with Chinese digital networks have created numerous cultural, social, political, and commercial forms and formations. Some examples are: online communities, WeChat groups, Weibo Big V’s, internet memes, “new media events,” cyber-nationalism, internet literature, emojis, duanzi jokes, internet rumors, “the fifty-cent party,” “404,” virtual red packets,” virtual wallets, WeChat rewards, various kinds of apps, the Alibaba commercial empire, and more.

While a large proportion of the Chinese population is still left out, these various digital forms and formations have become more and more pervasive in contemporary society, introducing new vocabularies, practices, habits, and disruptions to everyday life and existing institutional arrangements. They are often appropriated for different purposes by different social actors. As such, emojis may be weaponized by cyber-nationalists as well as used by advertising agencies. Rumors may be circulated in the forms of gripping narratives to mobilize public protest or to serve as clickbait. State propaganda agencies may use duanzi or short videos to spread political messages packaged as entertainment.

Invited authors are encouraged to identify and analyze one or more digital forms or formations in the history of the development of the internet and other information and communication technologies in China. We welcome conceptual and theoretical work as well as historical and empirical studies.

For more on the symposium, visit