In a comment on my last post Alexandre wrote:

Despite the fact that online communication can be as rich if not richer than face-to-face communication, many anthros favour the latter over the former…

Now Alexandre, a fellow linguistic anthropologist, has some interesting things to say about why anthropologists might prefer face-to-face communication, but I don’t want to discuss those here. Instead, I want to suggest that the whole face-to-face vs. online binary opposition needs to be rethunk.

Let me just discuss shopping – something I do both online and face-to-face. Just the other day we went to the local hardware store. While getting balloons for a party we overheard discussions about the proper way to lay poison for carpenter ants, what the best kind of drill was for a certain task, and we even got advice on which color ribbons would be best to use. We also learned intangible things about life here from people’s body language, their manner of speech, etc. And, at the most basic level, we had an experience that we value – interacting with our fellow human beings.

Now, I think we would all agree that something would have been lost from an online purchase. True, Amazon does offer recommendations, and there are plenty of services that offer all kinds of meta-data that might simulate, or even improve upon the kinds of overheard conversations we might hear in the hardware store, but even after all that we feel that something we value, contact with our fellow human beings, has been lost. Not to mention all that rich ethnographic data we pick up consciously or unconsciously, whether we are trained to do so or not.

But lets look at another shopping experience. Not the village hardware store, but Target. I had at least two face-to-face interactions at Target: asking where to locate an item, and checking out. Both were brief, purely informational, and completely unmemorable. True, they didn’t need to be this way. I’ve seen people go out of their way to make service encounters more personal. I’m just not that type.

Similarly, while the local store might give you interaction with the shopkeeper, you still have no interaction with the producer. The internet now allows you to buy certain items directly from the producer, without a middleman. I haven’t used these services, but I can imagine situations where one might have meaningful interaction with a farmer or craftsman not possible at either a large chain shop or the village store. So while something has been lost from the face-to-face experience of the village store, a whole new type of relationship between consumer and producer has been created.

And, finally, another example from a very different realm. Tonight I’m going to engage in a political protest with people I’ve mostly never met. I’m going to do that right outside the village store I just spoke about. But I didn’t find out about this protest at the village store. I found out about it by putting my zip code into an online form. Here the internet is facilitating new forms of face-to-face communication. It is easy to think of some other examples – like flash mobs, but my favorite is blogging. I’ve already met a lot of real world friends through blogging. And I hope to meet some of my fellow anthropology bloggers at this year’s AAA in Washington, DC.

So, while I think everyone agrees that there is something we value about face-to-face communication which we miss online, there are two things to remember: First, different types of real-world institutions facilitate very different kinds of face-to-face interactions, not all of them positive. And, secondly, in addition to offering alternative modes of interaction (for better or for worse), the internet is also an important tool for facilitating real-world face-to-face interaction.

20 thoughts on “Face-to-Face

  1. Pingback: sblog
  2. “Here the internet is facilitating new forms of face-to-face communication”

    That is the case for many counter or sub cultures as well. The internet makes it easier for prospective members of these communities to “get acquainted” in a way that can either remain virtual or lead to live meetings and this is of particular value in communities that consist of people who are usually marginalised in “mainstream” society.

    I have a very interesting article that elaborates on an anthropological perspective on cyber sex that touches on how many people explore various sexual interests online in order to gain confidence in “real” life. In a roundabout way, I think this relates to Kerim’s comment above as well. I will dig up the reference if anyone is interested.

  3. While I do agree that the line between face to face communication and online communication is a lot more blurry than some would argue, I do not think that blogs are a pure form of communication. In blogs one person or group of persons is in direct control of communication whereas in other forms of online communication (list servs, message boards, etc.) everyone has the ability to start a conversation (i.e. open communications). It still amazes me that there isn’t any message board or forum that is widely read by anthropologists. I would love to be able have sucah a place where I could share my thoughts about and easily ask questions about books or specific authors. At present I can only do so through the limited pool of professors and grad students at my current institution. It would be great to be able to have a larger pool to draw from on the internet. (The few anthro list servs or forums I have found either have very few posts or are flooded with arguments about race and intelligence between a very small number of posters).

  4. Have you looked at anthrocommons.org? I hate the GUI, but it seems to be the kind of thing you are talking about. Unfortunately, I think because the interface is so lousy very few people are actually using it. In fact, right now I get an error message when I click on “browse”! I wish they had stuck with some nice open source solutions like PHPBB…

  5. “It still amazes me that there isn’t any message board or forum that is widely read by anthropologists. I would love to be able have sucah a place where I could share my thoughts about and easily ask questions about books or specific authors.”

    I think Anthro-L fits that bill (see anthrogeeks.com for subscribing info), although I think it might be what you are referring to when you say they are “flooded with arguments about race and intelligence between a very small number of posters”. While that’s true of Anthro-L, it is also true that there are some fine anthropological minds on the list, and discussions about fieldwork, theory, pedagogy, and ethics are quite frequent. Also, there are something over 300 lurkers on the list, just waiting to be drawn out with a post on their own area of expertise.

    I should point out also that there is a “books annex” to Anthro-L, at http://www.anthrogeeks.com/booklist.html, which another listmember and I formed a few months back for the discussion of works by canonical and sub-canonical authors — next month we’ll be discussing Mauss, for isntance. The list is open to anyone, not just Anthro-L members, but has yet to reach the “critical mass” new lists need to become self-sustaining.

  6. There is some kind of Metraux retrospective at the Smithsonian this fall — is that why Alfred got slotted in for November 2005? Pretty excellent timing, either way. Thanks for letting us know about this — Mr. September (Mauss) and Mr. November (Metraux) promise to be exciting! Mr. October (Victor Turner) is not really my cup of tea, but, to each her own. And kudos for getting some women in the list for the first year. When will 2006 be posted?

  7. Ozma,

    This is the first I’d heard of the Metraux retrospective, so I guess that’s just lucky timing on my part. Basically, I collected names of anthropologists that people on Anthro-L thought were important — my full results are at http://www.anthrogeeks.com/anthrolist.html — and put together a short-list, trying to give some consideration to people who aren’t talked about as much as well as some of the bigger names. I did make an effort to get some women in the list, although unfortunately, being close to the start-up (and in a summer month, no less) gave Michelle Rosaldo a bit of short shrift.

    If we can get the group going, then next year, pr’y in February, we’ll start compiling a new roster. We’ll ask the group for nominations — the idea is to reflect things that people are interested in and wouldn’t otherwise take time to read. I mean, anyone who’s been through an anthropology program has probably read a healthy dose of Boas, and probably discussed his work ad nauseum, so few people feel deficient in their understanding of Boas’ work. Metraux, Fried, Mauss — these are people who we’ve probably been exposed to, butlargely in passing. I’ve never read Metraux, never read Fried, and only read “The Gift” by Mauss, and I think a lot of people are in the same boat. We want to group to reflect the interests of its members, not any pre-conceived or personal notion of who is and isn’t important. And, of course, anyone can just “pass” on a month when they’re not all that interested.

  8. Blogging as Anthro Grad Student says has a definite structure to it. Primarily face to face is rooted in the moment so people can directly talk to each other without a lot of time flowing between the speech acts. Text poorly reproduces facial expression. So blogging can’t very well reproduce those features of face to face speech acts, i.e. in the moment, and showing the face.

    Vlogging (video logging) can do that depending upon how much bandwidth is available to whomever. But the distinction between immediate exchange and stored information is important and profoundly shapes world culture. The timelessness of text gives the impression of the importance of a single speech act. Everyday face to face conversation seems ephemeral. That is miss leading though. Human beings form stable understandings of the world. But those common every day ideas are generally formed jointly. So text doesn’t give much of a clue about how joint attention is formed (for those curious – Joint Attention Theory is a child development theory of how language is learned in infants).

  9. Anthrocommons is pretty much dead (no posts in months) as is the other link to the aes (last post in in April). I think I was a member of anthro-L once or at least read an archive on a website. I remeber it being dominated by racists arguing for the inferiority of certain races and those arguing against them. I can find very active message boards on large numbers of adequate messageboards about obscure hobbies but none on anthro. All it would take is a good board with 20 or 30 posters. I’m suprised the AAA hasn’t set something up.

  10. I personally hate listserves. I was excited about them back in the early 90s, but I think as more and more people are overwhelmed by e-mail very few people with anything actually interesting to say are willing to participate. What I do is have Anthro-L go to a GMail account where I have it filtered into its own folder. That way I can easily do a full text search of the archives, or if I start my own thread I can follow that “conversation” since Gmail does a good job of grouping all related threads together. In fact, all my e-mail lists now go to the same Gmail account so that they don’t flood my normal inbox. This works really well for me – mostly because I can be subscribed to a lot of lists without having to worry about them unless I want to. For instance, I can search H-Asia for job postings. The best, however, is the Linguist List which actually offers RSS feeds, sorted by topic no less! Overall, however, I’ve noticed less and less interesting conversations on most of the lists I’ve been subscribed too over the years. I really think most people have tuned out, looking elsewhere for information.

    Finally, there is one forum I forgot to mention! Not much discussion there, but I encourage people to give it a try!

  11. On mailing-lists and Anthro-L…
    [Can’t comments have titles, like in say Slashdot?]

    No, no. This isn’t meant as a comparison between blogs and mailing-lists. Just a knee-jerk reaction to Kerim’s disinclination for mailing-lists.
    Kerim, you’re allowed to dislike MLs but here are some things I noticed about MLs.

    Been quite involved in dozens of mailing-lists since 1993. Including Anthro-L. About anything, from homebrewing to software, with mailing-lists for French-speakers around the world and several academic ones. Mailing-lists vary widely in signal-to-noise ratio, membership numbers, traffic, etc. But they do have several advantages over blogs. One is that, as AGSG says, “in blogs one person or group of persons is in direct control of communication” while mailing-lists and others are much more oriented toward conversations. Am always surprised when people talk about blogs as favouring conversations with multiple participants. Many a blog is still clearly dominated by the authoritative voice of the blog’s main Author with comments being conversations between that author and her reader. As a group blog, SM is more “communal” but it’s still not meant to be as “inclusive” as a mailing-list with open subscription.
    Sure, sure, bloggers use blogrolls, trackbacks, pingbacks, etc. to contact each other. But the “blogosphere” still seems to be mainly limited to those who are “actual bloggers,” who have their own blog.
    Anything on the ‘Net can encourage face-to-face interactions. Friends on French-speaking IRC channels had local meetings in restaurants (only to notice that the age average was 14 years-old). Web forums are often tied to conferences and other occasions to meet. And some people on the French-speaking mailing-list Causerie have traveled from Quebec to Australia and from France to Indiana so they could meet. Several intimate relationships have started on that list (as contacts depend on deep personal issues instead of appearances).
    In fact, the capacity for blogs to “build communities” is comparatively limited. Apart from a few exceptions, readers of a given blog don’t necessarily constitute a very clear group with a sense of belonging. In fact, the very emphasis on aggregating blogs implies that people mix and match “sources of information” without any specific allegiance to one or the other. Aggregation is perfectly possible with mailing-lists (using separate filters and folders in a mailreader or on Gmail.com) but the emphasis is on “membership.” Unsubscribing to a mailing-list can be a very emotional act, noted by the list admin and other list members. Bloggers often have no idea who stops reading their blog entries.
    Members of a mailing-list may have a very strong identity and may identify themselves through mailing-list membership. Even if subscription is open and those members are mostly lurkers. Sorry Kerim. Mailing-lists can be very cool. 😉

    Now, Anthro-L. Subscribed for a while in ’93-’95 or so. Forged few long-lasting relationships but had interesting discussions. The signal-to-noise ratio is low and it’s not representative of the type of community-building mailing-lists I mentioned. But, FWIW, Anthro-L may be fairly representative of a group of people who are interested in anthropology. Yes, including the cyclical discussions on race. For better or worse, it’s open to anyone who wants to join. Which means that anyone can start a new thread. There’s an awkward dynamic in the group, especially when it comes to some specific issues (ethnicity, race, socio-biology, religion…). But the occasional poster may have some very interesting things to say which generate a lot of “private” discussions over email. Some of these discussions are off-topic. Some establish shared opinions. Some are ways to cool off public flame wars. Some are in fact private flame wars. And, through some, conference panels may be organized. That’s not specific to Anthro-L but makes Anthro-L more appealing than one would think by looking at most messages.
    Only resubscribed to Anthro-L recently, in need of advice for course material. Also wanted to discuss “Open Source Textbooks” (an idée fixe of mine). Got interesting replies on- and off-list. Including from fellow SM readers. Never generated as much traffic as the “top posters” but got nice interactions with some lurkers and occasional posters. May unsubscribe to Anthro-L because of the low signal-to-noise ratio (though it should be better during the academic year) but am glad to have subscribed again.
    One thing that’s interesting is that frequent posters generate their own list identity progressively. When they come in, older listmembers may not know that they’ll become frequent posters. Some of them may be shy at first and only warm up when they receive positive replies. The list owner is almost absent apart from purely administrative actions. No sense of moderation. And, surprisingly enough, none of the type of message associated with the brand name for a pork-based pseudo-food. Fascinating.

    Other academic mailing-lists can be very different from Anthro-L. One of the most impressive is Linguist. Not only is it fully moderated but the practice is to post summaries of replies to queries. Lots of very useful announcements. Almost anyone involved in language sciences subscribes so it’s great at “networking.” Never a flame war. Extremely high signal-to-noise ratio. But very little discussion. People reply to queries off-list. Posters are often “representatives” of larger entities. Opinions are rarely if ever voiced. Nothing ever goes on a tangent. Almost the opposite of the CreoList which, according to some, has been the site of intense personal conflicts with associated name-calling and threats. 8-|

  12. Face-to-face vs. Online

    Ok, that’s this entry’s main point and warrants some attention. There are, of course, many different types of personal interactions, including many forms of face-to-face interactions. In some cases, online interactions resemble F2F interactions more than, say, epistolary interactions.
    Some of these interaction types are “culture-specific.” A French friend living in Indianapolis had difficulty with the fact that Hoosiers don’t normally have personal conversations at the grocery store. In some parts of France, you almost have to “seduce” the butcher to receive the piece of meat that you want. Isn’t it Henrietta Cedergren who wrote on market interactions in France and California?

    Interactions with some netizens can be much facilitated by happening online (hence the “as rich if not richer” above). But many people limit their online interactions to the Target style, a bit similar to Hymes’ “report” mode of communication. Those of us who live online are a minority not only overall but even in the discipline.

    There might a mystique over F2F interactions but, for ethnographers, it’s often advantageous to accept people’s attitudes toward interaction styles. Again, many of the people with whom we work may prefer some type of F2F contact for some interaction types. A friend from Montreal had to go to Mali to meet with master hunters to be allowed to undertake a project which was indirectly related to the hunter association. Didn’t witness the discussion itself but it likely lasted about two minutes after twenty minutes of greetings. Frequently had to undergo similar procedures. In many ways, F2F presence is less effective than online contacts, but that may be what people want.

    In case you wonder, this is from someone who proposed over email. Her answer was something like “why not?”… 😉

  13. I did my fieldwork in Taiwan, where cell phones outnumber people, and my Aborigine informants spend more time in chat rooms than I do (the only thing I hate more than listserves is IRC!!!). So, in part, I am reflecting my own ethnographic bias.

    I think there are other issues here as well. When I wrote my article encouraging anthropologists to blog, I was really trying to encourage anthropologists to be public intellectuals in the United States. There have been very few anthropologists willing to take such a role in America, and I think the barriers have more to do with the institutional structure of Anthropology as a discipline than it does with reluctance to live life online. My desire to get anthropologists to publish in Open Access formats derives from a similar political desire. Anthropologists speak a lot about sharing knowledge – but seem quite unwilling to take steps to actually do so.

    In highlighting the similarities (as opposed to the differences) between online and F2F communication, I am trying to move the conversation away from technology (which we all too easily fetishize) to the institutions in which we live.

  14. Let me just followup with one additional comment regarding listservs v. blogs: It is precisely because listservs are so conversation based that they are not so suitable for “public” discourse. Sure, some lists have archives that are searchable by Google, but it is very hard to reconstruct the conversations. Blog posts, although they can be equally full of jargon and insider knowledge, are generally oriented more towards a general audience.

  15. Personally, I think message boards are even better for public discourse (as compared to blogs or listervs). You can reconstruct past conversations very easily, ignore conversations that didn’t interest and contribute your own topics. Now they are not without their faults. Anyone who has ever used a message board knows that there is the potential for trolls to show up but a good moderator or moderators can fix this problem. An even worse problem with message boards can be the ratio of lurkers to actual posters. If there are only a few posters and a lot of lurkers then very little conversation can occur. That being said, I do think a well done anthropology message board (that promotes itself and has a large enough critical mass of posters) could be very valuable to the anthropology community and “getting the word out” to the public.

  16. I agree, I like good forums – but they do require good moderators, unless it is a small group. I’ve found that they work great for teaching, and I’ve always relied upon them for tech-support. I’ve been amazed at how helpful people can be on some of the tech support forums I rely upon. I’ve had entire programs written for me in response to a simple question! And I also agree that there is a need for a well run Anthropology forum.

    I have some ideas about how the AAA could do this. It isn’t rocket science – just what I feel makes for a good forum:

    *Use solid, open-source, software like PunBB or PHPBB. (Something with RSS support!)
    *Allow the site to grow according to how people use it, rather than trying to dictate all the discussion areas from the beginning.
    *Recruit and properly train moderators. Promote the most active users to moderators as well.
    *I would also like to see it open to non-AAA members, but I don’t know if they would go for that.

    That’s about it. The only hard part is getting some good moderators. If it wasn’t for that I’d set the whole thing up myself.

  17. We’re agreed that issues aren’t purely technological. After all, apart from those who almost only live online, people don’t define F2F interactions with technological issues. But there clearly is a diversity in the ways people approach those different modes of interaction (village hardware store, chat room, family reunion, message board, Wal-Mart, SMS…).

    Getting intrigued by Kerim’s mission to “encourage anthropologists to be public intellectuals in the United States.” Isn’t it possible that many scholars in the US shy away from taking this role because of issues with discourse and debate in that country? France and, to an extent, Quebec set very different stages for involved debates with scholarly components and it’s possible that there are proportionally more “public intellectuals” on such stages. Not that the quality of the debates is necessarily good in all those cases or that “celebrity intellectuals” don’t exist in the US. Just that the division of labour among “academic workers” varies from one context to the next.

    It might be a good idea to open an anthro forum independent of the AAA. As a central body, the AAA does have an influence on how debates are situated among anthropologists and even between anthropologists and the rest of the US population. Not to criticize the institution but reading the American Anthropological Association’s Anthropology Newsletter, one gets a specific picture of the discipline in the US.

  18. Kerim said, I want to suggest that the whole face-to-face vs. online binary opposition needs to be rethunk.

    I agree. It`s conceptualization, based on the binary opposition of real vs. virtual, fortunately already is questioned by a variety of approaches that indicate movement towards a paradigmatical shift at least within cyberanthropology.
    Regarding communication I ve always prefered conceptualizations that speak in terms of across the net instead of positioning it on the net.

    So, while I think everyone agrees that there is something we value about face-to-face communication which we miss online, there are two things to remember: First, different types of real-world institutions facilitate very different kinds of face-to-face interactions (…)

    This is quite interesting yet before talking about different kinds of face-to-face interaction.. what kind of institutions do you think of?

    And, secondly, in addition to offering alternative modes of interaction (…), the internet is also an important tool for facilitating real-world face-to-face interaction.

    I agree. Just.. thinking in alternative modes of interaction contributes to the binary opposition of face-to-face vs. online. I noticed the use of this term also in Brigt Dale`s interview at antropologi. info–without aiming to question that concept.
    I rather tend to think in terms of additionality here, but am not sure about this perspective`s validity to be generalized.

  19. Hi all,
    Alexandre writes,
    Isn’t it possible that many scholars in the US shy away from taking this role because of issues with discourse and debate in that country? France and, to an extent, Quebec set very different stages for involved debates with scholarly components and it’s possible that there are proportionally more “public intellectuals” on such stages.

    A public intellectual or an academic worker have some national differences no doubt, but in most cases brainwork is globalized. Given the context of face to face work (f2f as someone above writes) the discussion seems to me is about the ways in which online tools can supplant f2f methods to do brainwork. The debate above tends to focus upon is the content conversational or more like f2f or not. A public intellectual, perhaps in the U.S. Edmund Wilson, might be an example doesn’t face peer review. Nor do lurking, flaming or conversation resemble peer review.

    What peer review tries to do is manage emotion structure in the making of text based brainwork. Text is a one way process of communications compared to f2f though as some above make the point ‘lists’ can be conversational comparatively.

    There is an old idea in Anglo British philosophy, set theory that applies. When one regards text, classification of what is or is not a member of set, text is very static. f2f implies real time changes in the how each participant thinks. That classificatin process is poorly served by peer review. Given the need to rapidly make judgments it seems to me that text will give way to google like classification schemas that allow us to ‘feel’ how our opinion joins in the communal mind. That’s the current weakness of academic work online is it’s lack of real time abilities to exchange information in a classificatory way.
    Doyle Saylor

  20. Just read the Jerry Graff interview linked from Rex’s last post, and I liked this quote:

    I think there has been a failure to recognize and exploit the potential that technology offers for improving and transforming day-to-day instruction.

    Let me give one example.

    I have long thought that there is something infantilizing about the standard classroom situation, where the very face-to-face intimacy that is so valued actually encourages sloppy and imprecise habits of communication. That is, the intimate classroom is very different from–and therefore poor training for–the most powerful kinds of real-world communication, where we are constantly trying to reach and influence audiences we do not know and will probably never meet. We should be using online technologies to go beyond the cozy pseudo-intimacy of the classroom, to put students in situations that force them to communicate at a distance and therefore learn the more demanding rhetorical habits of constructing and reaching an anonymous audience. We have begun to do this to some extent, but our habit of idealizing presence and “being there,” the face-to-face encounter between teachers and students, blinds us to the educational advantages of the very impersonality and distancing of online communication. Indeed, online communication makes it possible for schools and colleges to create real intellectual communities rather than the fragmented and disconnected simulation of such communities that “the classroom” produces.

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