How I Would Use Twitter To Take Over Anthropology, If That Was What I Wanted To Do

I am not a huge fan of Twitter but I do have a presence (I’m r3x0r (with a three and a zero, not an O) if you want to follow me) and I try to be interested in the technology even if I am a late adopter. However about two seconds ago I realized how I could use Twitter to become powerful and influential in anthropology, then decided that that wasn’t something that I really wanted to do, and then decided I hadn’t blogged anything lately so I might as well blog this even — especially! — because I wasn’t going to do it. Maybe someone has already written a paper about this (or a similar strategy in a different content space) would work. In which case this is an obvious idea and you can feel free to harangue me in the comments.

Some of my most retweeted posts are links to articles and books that I like. I tweet about them because I see Twitter, like a lot of the Internet, as a place to discover new scholarly material which has been vetted and filtered by people whose taste I trust. Why, for instance, should I page through old tables of contents of Leonarda when I can just get a recommendation directly from Jenny Cool? In particular, I tweet as a way to remind myself (who I follow and archive) of articles from newly published journals that I would be interested in reading. Of course, I’m also interested in letting my friends know what I am reading, building scholarly community, and so forth.

If you increased volume a lot — but not to the level of some gossip twitterers — and adopted a more cynical attitude to posting it would be relatively easy to become a definitive maker of public opinion just by sustained gumption. All of the key features of academic faddism are accentuated by Twitter: the focus on speed, the ability to dredge up and lionize obscure sources and, best of all, a media cycle so short that people tweet articles rather than actually read them. In a world of no competition, cynically tweeting the newest latest slowly starts creating a definitive voice in the public sphere — indeed, the public sphere itself — just because there is no one else. In a world of heavy competition other factors would lead to dominance, including outlasting other tweeters, ‘platform’ (already being famous), and of course the quality of your ability to filter content down to the choice nuggets.

After a while I think it would be possible to start streaming tweets about new and hip content based purely on reading tables of contents rather than the articles themselves — since after all no one is reading the whole articles anyway. The result would be something like that Stanislaw Lem short story where the the guy dresses up as a robot to investigate the world of evil robots only to find out that it is populated entirely by people dressed up as robots trying to hide that fact from each other: one would have the constant sense that there was a consensus about what was new and important that everyone else was reading or invested in. If this was the mining industry — where accurate fast news and analysis sell at a premium — we could pursue a ‘premium pricing strategy’ and sell subscriptions to an email alerting system that would send you up-to-the-minute lists of articles that everyone but you already knew about.

The sad thing about this strategy is that anthropology feels itself to be so fractured that I think people — especially non-tenured people — are desperate for some sort of shared common ground that they could latch on to as ‘what anthropologists actually know and talk about’. So much of contemporary work these days consists of pieces so short and without a ‘boring’ literature review that you must carefully read between the lines to understand what went on in the room where the conference on global assemblages was held. Or… perhaps this is not a new thing?

If you can find a way to turn this cynical plan for self aggrandizement into a way of knitting the diverse communities of anthropology into a coherence whole with a well-defined, democratically defined canon please let me know in the comments below.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

8 thoughts on “How I Would Use Twitter To Take Over Anthropology, If That Was What I Wanted To Do

  1. “The result would be something like that Stanislaw Lem short story where the the guy dresses up as a robot to investigate the world of evil robots only to find out that it is populated entirely by people dressed up as robots trying to hide that fact from each other: one would have the constant sense that there was a consensus about what was new and important that everyone else was reading or invested in.”

    This is actually what’s been happening in the DC-pundit Twittersphere for some time: everyone quickly comes up with a “take” on the latest development in the news cycle, even as they claim that they’re not slaves to the news cycle. The “takes” from those with the largest audiences, of course, are most influential. Conventional wisdom builds itself in real time.

    I actually wrote about this (in particular, the power asymmetries you hit on in this post) last year, in the wake of the fake Habermas Twitter account: http://wunderkammermag.com/politics-and-society/real-jhabermas-twitter-scandal#comments

  2. sorry I’m r3x0r (I corrected the post).

    @Dara you head it here first — I was the last to think of it! Great post on Habermas btw.

  3. Oh Lord…Rex, I love your experimental and impulsive posts and for this reason I love your ridiculous cynicism here. Come on, you’ve read everything so I’ll just remind you of Stu Hall’s work on resistant and oppositional readings and R. Williams work on emergent phenomena. Twitter is an insurgent media that impacts the collective media ecology but is rarely citable or serious in situ. We are more critical of 140 characters today then we are Olbermann and O’Reilly yesterday. Give your anthro-audience credit, we aren’t doped by techno-fanaticism.

  4. “So much of contemporary work these days consists of pieces so short and without a ‘boring’ literature review that you must carefully read between the lines to understand what went on in the room where the conference on global assemblages was held.”

    Hmmm. I don’t know. Is there any reason to assume that a long, drawn-out text is necessarily better than a shorter work? Not really. Just as there’s no reason to assume that someone who finds some value in using twitter has suddenly lost regard for books like Europe and the People Without History (or insert other lengthy anthropological/ethnographic text).

    There are always going to be fads and technofiles, but as Adam F argues above, I don’t think things are quite this bleak. Besides, my guess is that the reaction to twitter is going to be a trend of mega-ethnographies.

  5. I’m no apologist for Twitter, but I’ll take the optimistic side and say that the twitter-blog sphere can open new possibilities for general anthropological commentary and intervention in public debate. My limited peering into the anthropology Twitter feed (I’m not on, although I’ve recently been encouraged to join) reveals an already-occupied space as well as some familiar faces from anthro blogs, so that it would be difficult for one person to dominate, even the mighty Rex. Many feeds are linked to blogs, which in turn point to other ensembles of work, even written material. It may already be that getting plugged or panned on a blog is of bigger consequence than a traditional book review, but I’m not sure this has to limit the field nor does it seem to allow one individual or group to dominate.

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