Friction and the Newsing of Anthropology

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.

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.

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.

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.

10 thoughts on “Friction and the Newsing of Anthropology

  1. I think Ed has done a great job as ED and I applaud the AAA for doing AMAs on reddit and stuff. But “why SM and twitter and not the AAA?” is pretty clearly “Because for the past 10 years SM and twitter have been producing great content and great conversations, while the AAA has not.” I’m sure if SM began running one-sided click bait by extremists in the name of ‘balance’ we wouldn’t get eyeballs either.

  2. Yeah, it is especially weird for a piece like this to come out right when I’ve been thinking “The AAA is really getting the web.” They’ve been using social media better than ever before, and helping journals go OA, etc. That’s a big reason why it was so disappointing to see them publish something like this…

  3. To be fair, back when Oneman was writing for us one-sided extremist clickbait was out stock in trade cough

    In the long run, any scholarly society would lose eyeballs with the rise of social media. There’s more to look at. But it didn’t help that the AAA spend a decade hemorrhaging credibility at exactly the moment momentous new forms of publicness were being invented. I hope the AAA spends its time climbing out of that hole, not digging it deeper.

  4. Interesting post! (So was Alex’s.) It’s probably not quite the same thing, but I’ve tried commenting a few times on different AAA sponsored section blogs and they never go through, despite the fact that I’m a long time member. I’ve asked questions that never get answered. So the people who are supposed to be approving comments to let them through are not doing their jobs … or something. And I don’t take the time to comment anymore.

  5. “Clearly Liebow feels that there is nothing wrong with such a scenario, but I think many people following the discussion would disagree.” – eh, I am not sure we can say for sure what Ed is thinking. I have talked with Ed about such things as Open Access- he was nice to me after I wrote several blog posts ripping into AAA over OA. From my talks I would say Ed does not believe that but that goes back to not actually knowing what he believes. I do know as an employee of AAA he is bound to defend board decisions regardless of … well lets just say he is an employee of AAA. I guess I feel that statement is a bit harsh…

  6. I am really glad to see my query taken seriously (Why Twitter? Why SM? Why not AN?), and although I know some of your readers are skeptical, I look closely at most of what I see, and appreciate much of what I hear. Based on the responses to my query, I remain convinced that Twitter at its best can resemble haiku, but more frequently takes the form of friendly shout-outs, curated news clippings, or, occasionally, snark and vitriol. When the subject calls for nuance and qualification, there are better channels for advancing argument, and SM is consistently among my favorites. As I have said on a number of occasions, I appreciate it when our feet are held to the fire, and I take it as a sign of passionate commitment to the field that you care so much about the publicly accessible exchange of opinions and scholarship. Oh, and I learned a new word this morning, clickbait. Based on that oh-so-authoritative Wikipedia definition, I question its applicability in the case of AN.

  7. The editors of PopAnth are now debating what sorts of book reviews to post on the site. Some favor strong take-downs of popular works that anthropologists find lacking. Not surprisingly, names like Jared Diamond and Stephen Pinker come up. Personally, I find it a waste of time to read even well-intentioned but purely critical reviews. Especially when the debate has already spilled over into the wider blogosphere, yet another condemnation just seems like piling on. I offered to my fellow editors a proposition I repeat here. If we want to make anthropology more popular, our business is demonstrating that “This is so cool” not “This is such crap.”

    Personally, what I most like to read are pieces like Kerim’s review of Baumann and Briggs Voices of Modernity. I might have critical thoughts about the book in question, but I would never have heard about or been moved to read it without Kerim’s making it sound so interesting. I’d like to see more reviews like that one, reviews that point me to important work I’ve never heard of and make me feel “Yes, I really want to read that.”

  8. Hey John:

    “If we want to make anthropology more popular, our business is demonstrating that “This is so cool” not “This is such crap.”

    I think our business is a bit of a combination of this, mixing “this is so cool” stuff with “this is such crap” stuff–but the latter is more powerful if it’s followed up by something along the lines of “this is what we can do” or “here’s something better.”

    I think the critical element is vital, but it can’t be the only card we pull. All too often, that’s the case. Graeber is particularly good because he moves from “this is crap” to “this is better” in a way that makes many of us think (hey, this is cool). If someone can take a subject like bureaucracy and make it interesting, we’re definitely onto something.

  9. Ryan, I agree completely that the mix is necessary, but what that mix should be is precisely the issue I wish to raise. The case for criticism is strongest in a professional context. By pointing out lapses and weeding out errors we improve scholarship—that, at least, is the rationale I was taught. Whether that rationale is correct in a neoliberal world of junkyard-dog competition has become increasingly debatable. I see lots of criticism but very little improvement.

    But, putting that aside, the problem at hand is how we communicate with people outside the profession, whose interest, respect and support we require to ensure the profession’s survival. If most of what people read, in class or out, is condemnation of what some of us think that others of us have done wrong, what kind of impression do we make?

    To ask this question is not to argue that we should adopt Reagan’s rule for Republicans, i.e., that one Republican should never speak ill of another. It is instead to suggest that a better strategy than what we do now might be to focus attention on work that we like and tell people why we find it so interesting. Increase the proportion of “this is so cool” and reduce the proportion of “this is such crap.” No question about it, “this is such crap” instantly commands more attention. What it doesn’t do is nurture the soil that the field needs to grow.

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