I am about to leave Lansing, Michigan, where I have attended the 3rd International Conference on Communities & Technologies. I also attended the first edition in Amsterdam in 2003, and the second conference in Milan in 2005. C & T 2007 was a very successful event, with up to 200 people attending, about two thirds from the US, the rest mainly from Europe. Unfortunately, not many people from the South, as far as that is concerned the CIRN conferences in Prato and Cape Town have been much more balanced.
It kind of comes with the nature of both conferences, I guess: C & T is much more about the (academic/industry view on) community technologies, CIRN more about the "soft" socio/political/process side of community development. In that sense, both conferences nicely complement one another. It would be advisable for both communities to have stronger links, though, as they could really learn from and feed into one another. For example, people are thinking of starting an e-journal on communities & technologies. A great initiative, but I think it should be aligned with the existing Journal of Community Informatics to make sure both journals complement, rather than compete. Only a few people attending the Prato conferences were here, that number should go up in the future (and vice versa, of course)! To get an idea of what you missed, check out the conference program. Also, the full proceedings of the 2003 and 2005 conferences are available online, to be followed by the 2007 proceedings.
It is impossible for me to summarize the content of the papers presented, rich and diverse as they were. However, a running theme was that Web 2.0 technologies are finally breaking through in the mainstream: Facebook, Last.Fm, avatars, social accounting, visualizations, implicit online communities, communication, collective action through Web 2.0 technologies, and so on. Refreshing of this conference was that the contributions and discussion went beyond the surface-level Web 2.0 hype, instead focusing on the deep questions, issues, and technologies, and methods for mixing and matching all of these. We even used a, still rather quirky, but quite effective Web 2.0 tool by IntroNetworks to get to know each other before the conference.
One particular intriguing idea was proposed by Marc Smith from Microsoft Research, who proposed the concept of the "thread-o-sphere", in analogy with the "blogosphere". Marc claims that this overall conversational web on the Internet is orders of magnitude bigger than the blogosphere, but has so far been understudied. I tend to agree.
There seems to an intriguing paradox developing in our field: although the number of tools, web services and so on seems to explode, at the same time the medium or tool itself seems to matter less and less: it's all about much more permanent processes, structures, and networks weaving themselves on top of the tools-of-the day. All the more reason to keep working on socio-technical systems research that goes beyond the technologies themselves, instead looking at the bigger picture of how systems of tools can be used in the context of their specific communities of use.