Old Web City

Old Web City

Over the next four weeks Sam Collins and Matthew Durington are posting a series of writings that are theoretical and activity extensions based on their recently published book Networked Anthropology (Routledge).

Just like his colleague Sam Collins in Seoul walking the New App City, Durington meanders the streets of downtown Baltimore and downloads the Baltimore Heritage app in the neighborhood of Marble Hill.  It is across the street from the neighborhood of Bolton Hill and the street Eutaw Place is a symbolic and literal dividing line of race and gentrification in Charm City.  Baltimore Heritage is an organization that attempts to tell stories about Baltimore’s past through buildings and key sites throughout the city.  Their app is a replica of the organization’s website and after geolocating himself through the menu on the app, a marker appears on the screen and once clicked an historical tidbit about an individual named Howard Atwood Kelly is accessible.  Information about this historical figure who lived on the street where Durington is standing appears on his dated iphone.  Hmmmm.  Dr. Kelly was the first professor of gynecology and obstetrics at Johns Hopkins University, the ‘wizard of the operating room’ for his innovative surgical techniques.  He was also renown for his groundbreaking use of radium to treat cancer. The urban anthropologist now knows something about the past of this neighborhood in Baltimore before white flight.  What about the fact that the zip code where this historical location is marked is now also noted for a different phenomenon by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene as a neighborhood with one of the fastest ascending rates of new HIV infections in the United States?  The app provides a connectivity to the past, but not necessarily to the present…that is the continuing project of the researcher.  The app facilitates historical information, but not engagement in the now.  It would be interesting to see what someone living there now thinks about this dilemma.  Could an app oriented toward an applied and engaged anthropology provide it?


For such an under recognized city, Baltimore is tragically overrepresented.  Alongside many other small cities in the United States, it has suffered from the throes of post World War II deindustrialization and the loss of a manufacturing economy while watching a segment of its urban population disappear to the suburbs, exurbs and Sun Belt.  Jobs go away, the tax base erodes, education becomes underfunded, services disappear when needed most, and a demographic shift occurs as white flight reshapes the racialized perception of the city.  As the formal economy dissipates, the informal economy that undergirds all capital flows rises in prominence, as it is one of the few ways in which many are able to literally survive.  One of many consequences of the informal economy related to illicit drug distribution (now being formalized in many sites within the US as a legitimate industry) is a public health problem as addiction creates further strains for social services and is one factor leading to a rise in a particular type of crime.  The concomitant rise in crime from these economic and public health issues creates an over leveraged attention to a particular population resulting in biased incarceration rates and perceived criminality.  All of these factors inform a view of the city as a dangerous space and become the fodder for what we call the ‘representational burden’ of Baltimore in popular culture as seen in shows such as Homicide, The Corner, and the now famous landmark series The Wire.

While many have used The Wire in academia as a quasi-ethnographic treatment of urban life in the United States, we have taken the slant that it represents an overwrought representation of one aspect of a diverse Baltimore…and that it is the best show ever produced for television.  Our National Science Foundation project Anthropology by the Wire has attempted to create alternative representations of Baltimore and its population through collaborative media produced between students, researchers and various groups and entities throughout the city.  After four years we have a substantial media archive of somewhat aesthetically challenged media representing our efforts.  We produce media in the visual anthropology tradition with our collaborators, but quickly became more interested in how media in the project began to be utilized. How was our media linked and shared vis-à-vis social networking sites? This provided a window into reception enabled by the analytics of applications within this burgeoning technology.  As Sam Collins has detailed, the majority of these applications are accessed through smartphones creating a series of networks in the ‘Latent City’.  As our students and collaborators walk the city as of late, they are not necessarily viewing the city itself or its citizens first hand, but are nose down in their smartphone apps immersed in their networks.  Still in the city, but engaging it differently.

Another way to engage a city is through a walking tour.  It can be discovery through commands of others in apps like Dérive or the use of apps like the ones our colleagues at Baltimore Heritage have designed.  We love urban walking tours.  But, there is something about walking around as a sore thumb in a sea of deindustrialization that lends itself to a voyeuristic touristic experience.  We don’t show up in an emblazoned bus as a group, but once we start walking around like a suburban amoeba a dynamic is inevitably created.  Still, walking tours provide our students and us with a sensory ethnographic experience that enhances a textual understanding of the urban.  We also love our partners at Baltimore Heritage who have tried to usurp some of these dynamics by following a participatory ethos in creating walking tours of Baltimore that highlight alternative tropes of the city and its citizens.  In fact, we have provided data for these tours.  These are not the same as tourist-based ventures such as ghost tours and star-spangled banner guided expeditions highlighting historical landmarks and an image of the city frozen in a past time.  Yet, the representation of Baltimore on the Baltimore Heritage website is an ‘Old Web City’.  It’s a reference point that provides a map and context, but not necessarily engagement.  Durington’s stroll around Marble Hill has only a few markers to contend with.  Navigating the green markers on the website and clicking on one connects a series of historical landmarks with various details.  It doesn’t necessarily provide context for getting lost down an alley or stumbling into a mosque representative of the changing demographics of the neighborhood in the last few decades.  The app is a facsimile of the same functionality of the website albeit with the ability to be geolocated to start finding those sites connected to the multitude of green markers.  But, it’s just a starting point for anthropologists and an opportunity to think of the creative misuse of apps even more.

 (A screenshot of the Baltimore Heritage Website)



(Screenshot of the Baltimore Heritage App from a smartphone)


As Collins detailed in our previous post, we are exploring apps as ethnographic speculation and the creation of apps themselves for anthropological research.  We continue to ponder why anthropologists appear to be hesitant to engage this technology that theoretically provides a means of organizing data, arranging space and the possibility of engagement through geolocating capacities.  As one colleague noted on a twitter exchange from our last post, perhaps it is because of the inability of some communities we work with to have access to that technology.  Our sense is that the ‘digital divide’ is eroding quickly.  Moreover, we contend that apps are more accessible than the academic alternatives: articles, books and ethnographic film, all of which present formidable obstacles to publishing, distribution and (paywalled) consumption.  For that reason, we challenged students in Anthropology by the Wire in 2014 to use the Baltimore Heritage app to explore the city.  Through dialogue and analysis of their various self-guided tours they enjoyed the aspect of ‘stumbling upon’ historic sites, but when asked about how they would use it for contextual anthropological research around those sites, they were stumped.  It provides markers, but not the capacity to necessarily go beyond that.  So, how to design an urban anthropology app that does?

We are using an app wireframing tool called Prototyping on Paper, or POP, to start the process of designing an app.  As the POP website and introductory video portends the tool is for entrepreneurs, ad agencies, designers and students “to gain a more solid understanding of UI + UX design”.  Why not anthropologists too?  This tool is tragically simple.  One thinks of an app idea, you draw or ‘wireframe’ what each screen will look like in the app, take pictures of those drawings with a smartphone or tablet and then upload them to the POP design tool in your device.  Once uploaded a variety of functions allow you to highlight different portions of each drawing that is now a screen and create connectivity between pages within the design.  While it does not take the prototype to programming and implementation of an app, it starts the process of how to translate an idea like designing an urban anthropology app to the design phase…in one class.  It literally took about 15 minutes for our fledgling ethnographers to grasp the idea of designing an app that would emulate what we do in Anthropology by the Wire.  How does one design an app that collects information such as notes, photos and videos while also providing contextual information about spaces and places engaged in fieldwork?  And, even more so, provide a means of engagement for the users of the app and collaborators?  Check how one of our students imagined it below:

(Shot/Link of POP Prototype for Anthropology by the Wire)



Play around on the POP prototype for Anthropology by the Wire above via the link.  In addition to a note taking function, mapping capacity, links to social media such as Tumblr and Flickr that we use, and community groups we work with our student included the ubiquitous ‘contact us’ prompt in their imagined Anthropology by the Wire app design.  The scenario we want to create in our anthropological mobile app has the fledgling fieldworker geolocated in a place where they ‘check in’ to do research and the ‘contact us’ function really becomes contact in real time.  The app would enable contact with interlocutors and collaborators who may be available to speak with researchers at any given moment.  This wouldn’t be nuisance anthropology like A Man Called Bee, or bothersome survey takers pounding on a door.  An anthropological collaborator would only be available if they are on the app platform themselves and have checked in ready for dialogue.  Sound a bit like foursquare but not quite?  Well, we were inspired not by personal usage but what we saw happening with geolocating apps like Tinder and Grindr being used for not so anthropological reasons.

 So, why not creatively misuse geolocating apps?  We don’t imagine an ethnographic foursquare review, we imagine an anthropological hook-up in the most platonic sense of the word.  (Disclaimer: we are not advocating the use of Tinder and Grindr for students enrolled in anthropology courses in case you were wondering that).  We want our students to connect with members of the community we are all working with.  We have realized, as many others have, that it is difficult for students to initiate ethnography in the course of a semester.  Our research design for Anthropology by the Wire is based on established rapport and our app would be grounded in that same mode moved to a digital environment beyond social media tools we already employ.  Dare we dream of an app that connects our students and anthropologists with potential collaborators and stakeholders in real time?  Why not?  Could you imagine the applied capacities?  We are.  The possibilities are endless and as we begin to program this app and bring it to beta testing with our computer science friends and community collaborators we will see how it goes.  In the meantime, our next prototyping exercise will connect Sam’s students in South Korea and Matthew’s students in Baltimore in the next few weeks.

Our next post #HanyangTowson will detail that collaborative activity for a networked anthropology and some further speculations.


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