A Networked Anthropology

Students capturing media in Baltimore for their Networked Anthropology
Students capturing media in Baltimore for their Networked Anthropology

A Networked Anthropology

“Networked Anthropology” is suspended between a theoretical and methodological program, on the one hand, and a critique and engagement with the network society we’re enmeshed within, on the other.  How can we possibly justify using social media in our applied anthropology?  And how can we afford not to?  Our book, “Networked Anthropology,” lays out the the premises of this ongoing inquiry, contextualizing it within a public, media anthropology.  But the promise and the problems of a networked anthropology hardly end there; each new wrinkle in our socially networked lives suggests new problems for anthropology–and for any scholarly inquiry that purports to engage communities of people.

(Over the next four weeks Sam Collins and Matthew Durington will post blogs related to social media, mobile applications in anthropological research and the idea of a Networked Anthropology…post 1 of 4  below is an excerpt from their recent book.)

Who wouldn’t find social media compelling?  For anthropologists interested in “everyday life and typical behavior,” it’s wonderful and amazing to look at the record of ordinary (and extraordinary) lives that are documented in different ways on social media.  And while food blogging is not anthropology, we still believe that the multitudes of ethno-documentarians uploading their quotidian and extraordinary lives display an anthropological sensibility.  Moreover, people value these self-presentations in a way that is qualitatively different than they did decades ago.  While our interlocutors might have asked for a copy of a photograph of a film two decades ago, now they ask when they can post media up on their Facebook for their networked relations to see.  We would suggest that this means more than just a technological update, a matter of degree.  People realize that their online “selves” can (and should) be regularly maintained and augmented with additional media, and they apologize when they haven’t updated their facebooks or blogs.  They feel an obligation to emote their lives through media platforms, a sentiment shared by non-profits and organizations around the world, who have all—regardless of their primary missions—become media producers, precisely in order to effectively manage their identities on social media that have become steadily more important to their fund-raising.

So shouldn’t anthropologists be part of this?  It is ripe ground for incredible possibilities in research but also represents a minefield of ethical and moral dilemmas.  These manifestations of a networked anthropology could be new incarnations of the kind of hermeneutic violence that anthropology has perpetuated for many decades. Just because social media documenting people’s’ everyday lives is readily available doesn’t mean that those lives should be transparent to anthropologists.  In other words, just because we can “pitch our tent” in Facebook doesn’t mean that we should parasitically lurk there.  This challenge to privacy is a concern to many people, including civil liberties groups.  For anthropology, social media could be just another weapon for us to slot the Other into “savage” categories, one that would allow the unscrupulous to “scrape” data off of media and tell stories about people and their lives without any input from people themselves.  In this dystopian vision, we would become cultural spies on par with the National Security Agency, tracking people’s movements through their posts and spying on the worlds they construct.

But that is not the only possibility for anthropology in the age of the network.  It is also possible that we utilize the global fascination with social media to build more collaboration with communities and to help those communities share their concerns on media platforms.  And it offers the possibility that anthropologists might enjoin new communities—collaborators that are generated through the networks of media content we form.  While there has always been the call for wider access of anthropological research to collaborators and extended communities, the majority of anthropologists show little inclination to do so having already moved on to another segment of research or a new project once a manuscript is published or ethnographically intended media created.  What results of the ethnographic research encounter becomes a static representation of an engagement frozen in time, or, perhaps worse, the anthropologist becomes an advocate for a position or community that has already moved on or been decimated by the processes the anthropologist documents in the first place. Nevertheless, the immediacy of social media, and its rapid propagation, means that we have the potential to make measurable interventions with our collaborative partners.  Unlike academic publishing, or even newspaper editorials, social media can be rapidly disseminated to a strategically selected public.  As a collaborative tool, we believe the “network” is the appropriate metaphor for what we hope to do: creative effective connections between different groups—including anthropologists, interlocutors, students and an emergent “public”—in  order to collaborate on the production of meaning.

These evolving efforts constitute what we believe to be an emerging, networked anthropology.  Over the past 5 years, we have developed a working definition:

“An anthropology undertaken in the age of multimedia social networks, one in which all of the stakeholders—ethnographers, interlocutors, community, audience—are all networked together in various (albeit powerful and unequal) ways.  Networked anthropology generates ethnographic data in multiple media.  Here it overlaps with similar advances in different subdisciplines, including visual anthropology, public anthropology and action research.  The difference is that a networked anthropology produces data that is simultaneously media to be appropriated and utilized by the communities with whom anthropologists work in order to connect to others (other communities, potential grantors, friends and family).  And the opposite is also true—anthropologists are only generating data for their research in the space of their commitments to communities to assist in their efforts to network to different audiences.”

What we’re calling networked anthropology has 7 central components.

  1. It’s about process.  The point behind a networked anthropology is to articulate your work through the network, and that means posting up data, ideas and theories that are still in motion.  The moment the book is printed, or the article published, then that process stops, and your work has been ossified—reified—into a singular, static text.  Instead, networked anthropology takes a sometimes terrifying step into revealing ideas that are not fully formed.
  2. It’s connected.  What does it mean to be connected?  It means more than just putting something up online.  And it means more than your video going “viral”.  In other words, being connected is entirely different than the 20th century media paradigm of either a) no one seeing your work; or b) everyone seeing your work.  Instead, “connected” refers to the deliberate formation of a network of followers and sites you follow.  It refers to the tagging and creation of metadata you use to delineate and interpret your content for search engines and to attract new nodes and new connections.   Mass media measures “audience” by demographic blocks; a networked audience is never undifferentiated, even if the number of page views scales into the millions.  Each node delineates a particular quality of connection in a connected cluster of similar nodes.
  3. It’s cross-platform.  One of the biggest antecedents to networked anthropology is multimedia anthropology.  A networked anthropology, however, is more nomadic, with the same material being used and re-used across different platforms, restlessly re-mixed and re-posted in different configurations. By crossing multiple platforms, meaning inevitably changes, and a networked anthropology seeks to take advantage of that while still admitting the shortcomings (and biases) of commercial platforms.
  4. It’s collaborative.  Once you’ve decided on a networked anthropology, then you’ve given up some control and autonomy over your work.  Your immediate collaborators (which include co-researchers, interlocutors and mentors), together with future collaborators (people who have connected to your work in some way through the networks you’ve formed) have measurable impacts on your work.
  5. It’s recursive.  What do you gain from a networked anthropology?  One of the most important benefits is immediate feedback, which is not to say that people are necessarily commenting on content you’ve uploaded.  But they are giving you feedback, even if it’s just in the form of site analytics.  In return, that is data you need to incorporate into your research—it’s part of an emergent interpretation of your networked anthropology.
  6. It’s about the long-term.  Given the ephemerality of web content, the insistence on the long term seems disingenuous, but this is exactly the difference between viral media that makes the rounds of social networks over the course of a week and disappears (KONY 2012 anyone?) and the anthropology we’re advocating.  A networked anthropology establishes long-term connections for the benefit of everyone in the network.  Premised on reciprocity, collaboration and recursivity, it only works if connections have an opportunity to develop over time.
  7. It’s Not for Everyone.  And this may be the most important point. It would be absurd to say that we expect (or even hope) for people to all start practicing networked anthropology.  We can think of many, many field sites where these methods would be entirely inappropriate.  We’re working in some of them right now, and there would be hell to pay if the data we’re collecting for those non-networked projects made it on to Facebook or Youtube.

Some central questions for networked anthropology.

  1. Networked ecologies   How are people networked already?  Who are the collaborators?  Is the social media platform you plan on using appropriate for that community?  Networked anthropologists need to elicit people’s networks—both online and offline—before they develop a networked anthropology with that community.  Doing this reveals structures of networks and the gaps in those networks that socially networked media might redress.
  2. How do anthropologist enjoin existing networks?  When we plan interventions, we do so in a crowded field of social media and representation, some of which will be familiar to our collaborators.  And some of which might be objectionable for numerous reasons.  People are already uploading videos, photos, and recordings of themselves and their neighbors.  It’s important that we not only acknowledge these other efforts, but also incorporate both the media and the intent behind the media into our work.  This is similar to the concerns all of us bring to fieldwork, but with a difference: not just when do we take out a camera, but when and where does that media get uploaded?
  3. Networked publics.  Who are the publics for networked media?  What are the connections?  The disconnections?  Anthropologists and their interlocutors need to ask themselves who is supposed to see media content, and how they are supposed to respond?  Will it be people from the neighborhood?  Will it be potential grantors?  Government agencies in a position to provide services?
  4. Networked media.  What kinds of media do we make?  How is that serving diverse publics?  Various media may be tagged differently and may move through social media in different ways.
  5. How do networked media change over time?  Media change as they’re networked.  YouTube videos collect comments, views, subscribers, cross-posters who embed the videos on their blogs.  How do we incorporate those features of social media?  Ultimately, how do we treat social media as social and protean rather than fixed texts?  And how can we use those characteristics to the advantage of the communities with whom we work?
  6. Networked ethics.  What are the ethical considerations?  Undertaking a networked anthropology imbricates the fieldworker in ethical dilemmas that are unique to social media.  What kinds of ethnographic data can be shared?  Under what circumstances?  How should you incorporate data from networked collaborations (e.g., posted comments)?  How do ethical challenges arise or change over the course of a social media project?  What restrictions need to be placed on networked data?  If creative commons licenses are used, what limits should be placed on these?  Can people change content for their own purposes?  Can they sell it?

Next Steps

Part of the pleasure (and the danger) of networked anthropology is that each new connection opens up new directions and new dilemmas.  In the weeks since we finished the manuscript for Networked Anthropology, we’ve been alternately excited and concerned over different developments in social networks.  But we would argue that each new connection changes the meaning of the whole, and even now we find ourselves linking with different constellations of social media practice.

Our next three posts will outline some of those directions, beginning with the world of app design and gamification, with special emphasis on our continued work in both Seoul and Baltimore theorizing the utility of mobile apps in anthropological research in posts that follow.

Hit us up on twitter: @mdurington @samuelcollins43 @networkedanthro