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.