AAA Executive Director, Ed Liebow, recently posted an Anthropology News editorial on the controversy which flaired up after they posted Peter Wood’s Anthropology News piece “Ferguson and the Decline in Anthropology.” In his editorial Liebow asks why the discussion about this piece has occured on Social Media and Blogs, not in the comments on Anthropology News itself:
Alex Golub presented a thoughtful counter-argument to Wood’s post on Savage Minds, pointing out why Wood is fundamentally misguided. I think he appropriately recognized a teachable moment, and effectively countered Wood’s assertion about the absence of evidence concerning structural racism. What I want to know is why Twitter? Why Savage Minds? Why not comment in Anthropology News?
While I can’t speak for Alex, I’d like to try to answer this question.
Let me start by showing how the first sentence of this paragraph would have looked if it had been posted on an anthropology blog:
Alex Golub presented a thoughtful counter-argument to Wood’s post on Savage Minds, pointing out why Wood is fundamentally misguided.
Rather than trying to centralize all discussion under our own banner in order to empire-build, Savage Minds and other blogs generously link back to to other publishing venues in order to promote a vibrant publishing ecosystem. I am now in the process of interviewing candidates for our new Around the Web intern whose job is precisely to promote work happening elswhere on the anthro blogosphere. Anthropology News doesn’t even link to its own content, making it hard to follow the conversation.
Earlier in the piece Liebow writes:
This material remains in open circulation for about four months, and then is archived on AnthroSource. The archives are freely available to members and those with authorized access via institutional subscribers.
Liebow’s own piece appeared more than one month after the intial piece. If he writes a reply to this blog post it will, at the earliest, appear two months after the initial piece by Wood was posted. If the discussion continues for much longer than that, the very pieces being discussed will no longer be available to anyone accept members and institutional subscribers. Clearly Liebow feels that there is nothing wrong with such a scenario, but I think many people following the discussion would disagree.
Here we might benefit from a discussion of Anna Tsing’s concept of friction. It is true that debt-laden adjunct professors might be able to get Anthropology News via their university library, or that my Taiwanese graduate students might be able to afford an AAA membership (which is deeply discounted for international members), but the need to pay a membership fee, or access the article via a library archive adds a lot of friction to the process. I think the free exchange of ideas is hindered by that friction. More importantly, people have a choice. If you already have a Facebook or Twitter account, you can join the conversation immediately, and your contribution will not be paywalled in four months. Even better yet, your friends who are scholars in other disciplines will be able to follow and contribute to the discussion.
— Michael Oman-Reagan (@OmanReagan) February 23, 2015
Sure, you could make a good argument for the importance of paying for AAA membership to support the editorial work done by Anthropology News, but the fact is that people vote with their feet, and they are running to blogs and social media because they want their contributions to the conversation to be open and free of the kind of friction Anthropology News feels (mistakenly, I believe) is so necessary for their long-term survival.
@DonnaLanclos This would seem to be very definition what makes anthro great–meeting subjects where they are at, not other way around
— Aries Dela Cruz (@subliminaries) February 24, 2015
The friction of paywalling Anthropology News content might be justified if the dues were essential for producing the content in the first place. Many newspapers, for instance, have paywalls because of the costs associated with providing original reporting. But, as Ed Liebow makes clear, “the core of AN is its circle of volunteer contributing editors.” Which is not to say that there isn’t important labor that goes into making Anthropology News. I’m sure there is. I’m just not convinced that the costs of this labor justify paywalling the site after four months, limiting comments to AAA members, and other sources of friction which limit the usefulness of the content produced by volutneer editors. I think many AAA members would like to see their dues put to reducing friction, not adding more.
But I think that this is about more than just friction. It is also about the editorial decision making process itself.
Frustrations include: I'm not satisfied with an institutional newsletter suggesting the only editorial oversight is membership fees in AAA
— Sarah Shulist (@sarahshulist) February 24, 2015
Liebow seems to want to have it both ways. On the one hand he says “We felt it was appropriate to bring this voice and its harsh assessment of current directions in anthropology to the attention of our members.” The use of “we” here implies a collective decision making process, but then he says that content “remains editorially independent of the AAA’s Executive Board. In fact, it remains editorially independent of our Executive Director (me)” (although he conceeds that he might be ‘alerted’ from time to time). I have to say that Liebow’s defense of Amy Goldenberg seems somewhat half-hearted, simlutaneously defending the decision and denying responsibility for it at the same time.
I don’t envy Amy Goldenberg’s job. I know from my own “volunteer work” behind the scenes at Savage Minds how hard it is “to keep the content flowing.” Having one assistant is certainly not enough when you have a monthly schedule to keep. But it seems to me that we’ve come full circle, having added friction to justify charging for content, now the content has to be kept flowing in order to justify the friction. Maybe removing the friction would improve the quality of the content?
Finally, I’d like to return to the paragraph quoted at the beginning and focus on Liebow’s commentn that Alex “appropriately recognized a teachable moment.” If Alex’s post was a “teachable moment” what exactly was learned, and by whom? For one thing, saying that this is a “teachable moment” is yet another way of denying responsibility for posting a piece that should never have been posted in the first place. What it says is that anything, no matter how outrageous, is worth saying because we can learn from the discussion that follows. This is the the kind of logic that Jon Stewart tried to criticique when he said that CNN’s Crossfire was “hurting America”:
The problem with Wood’s piece wasn’t that it was critical, or that it said things people didn’t want to here, it was that it was a bad piece. It was poorly reasoned, ill thought out, and didn’t deserve to be republished in the first place. The purpose of a publication like Anthropology News should be to teach the teachable moments, not create them.