Europe’s digital festival
The entire net community looks forward to re:publica Berlin every year – and not just in Germany. The conference’s curator, Geraldine de Bastion, talks about re:publica’s history, its importance abroad, and how Germans are talking about digital issues.
By Sarah Klein
In 2007, re:publica opened its doors for the first time as a conference for Web 2.0-related topics. For the first few years, it was held in Berlin’s Kalkscheune, a relatively small venue in Berlin-Mitte and was more of a niche event for geeks and nerds interested in all things digital. Sascha Lobo was probably the only speaker a wider audience might have recognized at the time. Today though, re:publica has gone mainstream and attracts thousands of visitors every year to Station Berlin, a former post office railway station where the conference is now held. And you’d be hard pressed to find anyone involved with internet, social media, blogs or communication who isn’t aware of the internet and digital society conference.
Geraldine de Bastion has been involved in organising re:publica from the very beginning and is jointly responsible for programming and moderating individual sessions. In recent years, she has helped shape new formats and accompanied the international expansion of re:publica. In an interview, she talked about how the conference has changed over time.
Something for everyone: from Web 2.0 and the blogosphere to social criticism, the re:publica program covers a broad thematic spectrum. | Photo: ©re:publica/Gregor Fischer (CC BY-SA 2.0) How did re:publica start and how has it developed over the years?
The idea for re:publica emerged when online media like blogs became relevant in Germany and a digital public developed. Re:publica was conceived of as a meeting point for everyone involved in these new media and processes, and especially for those personally involved in designing them. Today re:publica is Europe’s digital festival. In 2018, almost 20,000 people attended re:publica, up from just 700 in 2007.
What part does re:publica play in the debate around digital issues in Germany?
Re:publica has contributed to shaping digital discourse in Germany. It provides a space for encounters that don’t take place anywhere else – among politicians, net-policy activists, experts and scientists from all over the world as well as representatives from the digital economy, media, culture, research and academia. We have shown it is possible to organise an event where just as many women as men speak - this alone has contributed to a cultural shift in the German digital scene.
Once a niche conference for geeks and nerds, re:publica has gone mainstream to become the largest internet and digital society conference that features prominent figures from the media landscape. These include the Mouse from the children’s show “Die Sendung mit der Maus” (The Show with the Mouse), a beloved selfie partner. | Photo: ©re:publica/Jan Michalko (CC BY-SA 2.0) Why has re:publica expanded into other countries? Were there no similar conferences abroad?
Berlin will always be the home base, but it is important for us to find out how the core issues addressed at re:publica are being discussed in other countries and regions. We do this in part by inviting international speakers, but also by organizing re:publica events in other countries. We focus on working with local partners to develop and implement the concept. Experience has shown that our format fills a gap: re:publica is a community festival designed to be participative. The different formats offer space for learning and exchange as well as publicity and entertainment.
Is the debate around digital issues in Germany different from that in other countries?
There are lot of differences and a lot of similarities too. Some of the issues raised through the call for participation in Ghana are just as relevant here, especially those linked to data and feminism. Other topics, like eWaste, are not our top priority. In general, people in other countries are more open to the digital shift, as there is less fear of change in places with fewer established structures.
What do you see as the highlights of the upcoming re:publica 2019?
I'm a big fan of the "tl:dr" motto and can’t wait to see how it will be implemented in design and on stage. "Tl:dr" stands for "too long; didn't read" and is in part an allusion to the flood of information and the complexity of our society. I look forward to the opening keynote given by my friend Nanjira Sambuli, an outstanding digital activist from Kenya, and Nanjala Nyabola, author of the book Digital Democracy and Analogue Politics. Both spoke in Accra as well. Their talks will establish a link between the Berlin program and re:publica Ghana. I am also looking forward to astronaut Alexander Gerst and author and journalist Cory Doctorow.
One final song for the road: every year organizers and the audience raise their voices in a rousing version of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” to kick-off the closing party. | Photo: ©re:publica/Gregor Fischer (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Re:publica is a specialist conference on the internet and digital society held every year at the beginning of May in Berlin on the grounds of the Station Berlin, a historical landmark and exhibition space in the former Kreuzberg Postbahnhof. For three days, visitors enjoy a mix of lectures and interactive workshops in maker spaces and exhibition stands. Anyone who can't make it to Berlin can also follow the sessions via video or audio stream on the internet.