Prof. Ralph Negrine asked that I share this with the Culture Digitally community. Certainly a relevant announcement for this audience.
The Department of Journalism Studies at the University of Sheffield, England, is looking to appoint a Chair in Digital and Social Media. This post is an opportunity for a candidate with an outstanding reputation for research and academic leadership in the field of digital and social media. The senior member of staff appointed will be encouraged to develop a range of new research and teaching activities that explore contemporary developments in digital and social media and journalism. She/he will be expected to lead and develop this work within the department’s thriving academic and professional practice journalism programmes. The successful candidate will have an established national and international reputation in their field, an exceptional publications portfolio, a strong track record of attracting external research funding and proven ability to deliver excellent and innovative teaching to both undergraduate and postgraduate students.
Further information is available at the University of Sheffield job site: choose the “current vacancies” tab.
-Contributed by Culture Digitally, With the generous support from the National Science Foundation-
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Alix Johnson, a PhD student in cultural anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, will be going to Iceland to study the practices and discourses of data centers. She studies information infrastructures in capitalist economies and postcolonial politics, and researches these questions in Iceland where they take strange and fascinating forms.
Adam Fish: What makes Iceland important for information activism?
Since Iceland’s pretty spectacular financial crash, and the subsequent protests that kicked the government out of office, information technology and politics have cropped up in many projects of reform. In a lot of ways the crisis was framed as a problem of secrecy – too much secrecy had allowed for massive banking risks and backroomban deals, and this was a problem more public information could solve. The politics of information freedom, then, have been appealing and are taken up in a range of ways: for example, the so-called “crowdsourced constitution,” Iceland’s ongoing connections with WikiLeaks, and most recently the election of three Pirate Party MPs – the first Pirates elected to a national parliament.
But the part of this turn that interests me most – and the piece that my research aims to address – is the way that information is used to carve Iceland out a new niche. In recent years Iceland has been pitched as an “information haven”: an attractive place to store the data of the world. The idea is that data stored in Iceland is subject to Icelandic laws – so by passing “information friendly” legislation (favoring free speech, online privacy, and intermediary liability protection), and building data centers where information can live (an easy sell in Iceland thanks to the cool climate and inexpensive geothermal power), Iceland can change the rules of the game. In my research I ask how these efforts reconfigure the internet and re-imagine the nation, by following the “information haven” as it’s materially made.
AF: Cloud computing companies are the quintessential black box, difficult to access the people who work inside and once inside difficult to understand. How have you overcome these difficulties?
Honestly I’ve had to structure my approach to work around them. But I’ve mostly come to terms with these limitations, as I’m less interested in data centers’ inner workings, and more concerned with their impact on and role within the communities where they “live”. That is, while I do spend time with data center developers, I hope to spend more time interviewing locals – who more often see these new structures as big buildings that block ocean views, capital-intensive construction projects that redirect municipal funds, or concrete tributes to transnational connection. From this perspective, secrecy can make an interesting starting point. That said, I also read the trade publications, and look forward to my very few allotted trips inside!
AF: You are going for a year, what are you going to do? With which companies will you work?
My aim is to trace the social and material networks that make up the Icelandic “information haven,” so I’ll position myself to follow these shifting collaborations. I plan to spend half my time Reykjavík and half my time in Hafnarfjördur, a port town south of the capitol on Iceland’s south-west coast. In Reykjavík I’ll work with information activists at the International Modern Media Institute, tech sector entrepreneurs at the cloud storage start-up GreenQloud, and government liaisons at Invest in Iceland, the agency tasked with attracting data center development. These unlikely allies (with only partially overlapping interests, stakes, and aims) work together to frame Iceland as information’s natural home. From Reykjavík I’ll head to Hafnarfjördur, the site of a new data center built by Advania THOR. Here I’ll talk with data center developers, employees, and local residents, to learn how information infrastructure is shifting the town’s natural, social and political terrain. Basically I’ll be following the information infrastructure, learning how it works and getting a sense of how it may be shifting Icelandic identity and sense of place.
AF: Anthropologists have studied tech companies and infrastructure but I can’t recall anyone studying the convergence of the two. Whose research inspires you methodologically and theoretically and why?
I’ve been inspired by a wide range of work on infrastructure in relation to politics and power – Thomas Hughes on electrification, Paul Edwards on computers and the Cold War, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun on fiber-optics, and Akhil Anand on water “pressure” in Mumbai. But lately I’m especially excited by literature that takes up infrastructures’ affective potential – I’m thinking of Brian Larkin’s ethnography and cogent review, Rudolf Mrázek’s Engineers and Political Dreams, and Gaston Gordillo’s beautiful writing on ruins, all of which have really opened up my approach. I’ve also been thinking with William Mazzarella’s work on mediation, as a lens on what we think the internet is and can do.
AF: What common misconceptions of the internet might your research dispel?
I sure hope it’s apparent by now that the internet is material and the internet is political – my work starts from these propositions and argues the two are intertwined. Information infrastructure in Iceland shows it matters where “the cloud” touches ground – data centers reconfigure local landscapes, while concretizing specific vectors of transnational connection. In doing to they shift senses of identity, space and place, allowing, for example, a relatively marginal North Atlantic island to reposition itself as the center of a new world. So far from a smooth space of frictionless flows, the internet is striated and uneven terrain. Digital anthropologists have shown this to be true in social spaces (i.e. who participates in online communities and how), but I think questions of difference and power are equally visible and equally interesting in the internet’s very physical presence, as a network of cables, chemicals and machines.
AF: With networked authoritarianism, mass domestic surveillance, draconian sentences for information activists, the exploitation of “free” social media labour, etc. one could make the claim that the present internet is broken. One thing that inspires me about the discourse around the internet in Iceland is the idea that another internet is possible, materially and politically. Is another internet possible or necessary and can the practices in Iceland bring it about?
I absolutely agree that big change is in order, and I would say Icelandic efforts chart a promising path. But “another internet” may miss the mark in this case. For one thing, I want to be careful not to oversell – the system Iceland’s building is still relatively untested, and I’ve found opinions to be split between believers in the power and possibility of data sovereignty, and those who think the NSA will go where it wants to go. But the idea of “another internet” might also obscure the nature of Iceland’s actual innovations. While some internet activists are indeed experimenting with alternatives (for example the Hackerspace Global Grid), most people I know in Iceland are making clever changes to what we have, modifying and customizing already-existing systems – whether through legal “hacks” like the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI), or by building more publically accessible tools for encryption. Anthropologists and STS scholars have long talked about infrastructures as complex co-productions between official ambitions, aesthetic ideals, everyday encounters, and material things. Many Icelandic information activists share this view, and use it to take apart and tweak what most of us take for granted – and I think that possibility is just as exciting as building something new.
AF: So the “information haven” discourse is a post-collapse response. Is the technology sector framed in Iceland as one key component of developing more robust and stable economic endeavors capable of staving off the risks of globalization?
It is, and this is a pretty interesting strategy: essentially Iceland is tapping into what’s seen as the quintessential vehicle of globalization and putting it to work in the service of national distinction.
AF: I like how you said, “information is used to carve Iceland out a new niche,” it supposes some actors framing information as an asset for generating economic and political capital mobilized to resituate the island post-collapse and rebirth as an insurgent infrastructural player, or what you graphically call “concrete tributes to transnational connection”. Would this run against or with the larger political goals of the IMMI or the new three Icelandic Pirate Party MPs? Briggita Jonisdottir, one of the elected and collaborators with Wikileaks, seems opposed to informational neoliberalism. There is an ideology of transparency in the Wikileaks associated internet freedom activists in Iceland but “privacy” (secrecy for the individual) is central to the business proposition of the data centers you’ll investigate. My question is: while the data centers and the progressive politicians may appear to share a platform isn’t it contradictory to frame Iceland’s future to be about both radical transparency and pragmatic privacy? Seeing that Iceland is trying to present itself as a data haven for both camps, how will these contradictions be ameliorated?
Absolutely – the project brings together collaborators with very different ideas about what information is and does. Activists who’ve long campaigned for online rights and information freedom are suddenly finding their ideas more marketable; data center developers can now link promises of profit to national dreams. So while there are definitely tensions between their positions (with state agencies, tech sector startups, and foreign investors also implicated, in other ways), they also depend on one another. Part of my research will be investigating the day-to-day work through which conflicts and contradictions between them get resolved.
AF: I am sure job creation is a concern for the locals. Do data centers produce alot or few jobs? What kind of jobs are created by data centers? Who takes them? If not jobs, how are the data centers “sold” to the locals?
Data centers themselves offer little employment – a handful of people can run a huge operation, and the work is increasingly automated and handled by machines. There are some pockets of employment that crop up around them – for example, the firms handling the client side of cloud storage, and some secondary markets like restaurants and hotels – but mainly these projects are pitched in other ways. In Iceland they’re major sources of foreign direct investment, which is seen as “real” money pumped directly into the economy (and much appreciated in the wake of the crash). I think they’re also linked to particular vision of Iceland’s future, as a cosmopolitan, connected, powerful place – itself a project that’s contested and under construction.
AF: Sounds like a fascinating and visually evocative documentary–the semi-automated data centers whirring alone in with Icelandic tundra–with major implications. Do you consider incorporating a visual anthropological or filmic methodology to your research?
It’s definitely a possibility, but I worry that that scene is the only one I’d be allowed to film! Several colleagues in my department though have started working with sound, – as ethnographic data, object of inquiry, and mode of presentation, and this is an avenue I’d love to explore.
AF: What do you make of the discourse of “internet freedom”? On the one hand you have people like Morozov say it is pure ideology obscuring information imperialism, on the other hand you have information activists like Robert McChesney and Free Press using the term to galvanize anti-SOPA activism and the like.
“Information freedom” is a useful catch-all that can work as a kind of boundary object for people working in different directions. In Iceland the polysemy of the term “information” has linked journalists, hackers, and transparency activists in pretty powerful ways. But it’s also often used to describe liberal and neoliberal projects, with their own sets of issues and exclusions. I do believe mobilizing against schemes like SOPA matters, but to my mind it’s always important to get specific, asking what exactly information is and how it’s being freed. This is where some of Morozov’s writing falls short for me, though I do agree with the point he ultimately makes: the internet isn’t an inherently liberating force, and it doesn’t work to “add technology and stir.” Instead we need take seriously its political and cultural context, and I would add its material form. To me that makes an excellent entry point for anthropology.
AF: Thank you, Alix!
-Contributed by Adam Fish, Sociology Department at Lancaster University-
June 18-20, 2014 – University of Amsterdam, Netherlands (funded by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Science)
Organizers: José van Dijck & Thomas Poell
Confirmed keynote speakers: Lance Bennett, Tarleton Gillespie, Alfred Hermida, Hallvard Moe
Discussants: C.W. Anderson, Marcel Broersma, Jean Burgess, Irene Costera Meijer, Mark Deuze, Marlies Glasius, Eggo Müller, Bernhard Rieder, and Michael Schudson
The quick rise of social platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn, is fundamentally affecting the balance between personal (private) space, community (public) space, and corporate (commercial) space. These platforms allow, on the one hand, for mass participation in public discourse, providing users with new means of expressions and connection. In this light, it has been argued that social media bring about a democratization of public life: facilitating novel forms of political contestation, more participatory types of journalism, and direct interaction between citizens and political and cultural elites. On the other hand, social media, through their technological architectures, steer how users interact with each other. They penetrate the dynamics of everyday life, reshaping people’s informal personal interactions, but also affecting institutional structures and professional routines. In this process, both public and private communication becomes entangled with social media’s commercial mechanisms, transforming the political economy of the media landscape. In combination, these developments force all societal actors—including the mass media, civil society organizations, and state institutions—to reconsider and recalibrate their position in public space.
This conference explores the potentially contradictory cultural and techno-commercial mechanisms introduced by the rise of social media platforms. The organizers invite research from different perspectives and traditions to reflect on this issue. First, we invite work that interrogates how both formal institutions (news, public broadcasting, law and order, etc) and informal organizations (activists, communities) adopt and adjust to social media. What new cultural and political practices are articulated in these processes? Second, we encourage technological perspectives: presentations of scholarship examining which mechanisms of selection and which logics of knowledge production are embedded in the platforms’ technologies. Third, the conference solicits economic and political perspectives: how do social media affect the operations and economies of media production? And how do these technologies affect power relations between different social actors?
The main question driving this conference is how social media, looked at from different angles and scholarly approaches, are transforming concepts of public space or “publicness”. More particularly, we will ask how social media are involved in the transformation of particular domains, including news production, public broadcasting, activism, and law and order. Examples of possible topics follow below.
- Social media and new practices of identity and citizenship
- Social platforms and shifting norms and logics of knowledge
- Fluctuating dynamics of public debate
- Redistribution of political, economic, and cultural power through social media
- Facebook and the reconceptualization of publicness
- Crowdsourcing journalism
- Algorithmic selection and circulation of news
- User-generated content as news source
- Business models for online news
- Social media and data journalism
- YouTube’s role in public broadcasting
- Twitter as a real-time rating service
- The participation paradigm in television
- PSB ‘public’ values and the use of social media
- “Social TV”: the integration of social media and television.
- Leadership and the online organization of protest
- Connective processes of mobilization
- Social technologies and changing repertoires of contention
- Viral protest videos
- Real-time protest communication
- Twitter and alternative journalism
Law and order
- Challenges of viral mobilization
- Security and surveillance versus accountability
- Data collection and new methods of surveillance
- “Policing” social media platforms
- Crowdsourcing civilian prosecutors
Submit an Abstract
- Presentations of original research will be 10-15 minutes long and will be held in panels; panels have 4 speakers max. and will last an hour and a half. We invite 400-word abstracts, and select presentations on the basis of their quality. Each proposal should contain a 100-word bio of the presenter.
- Proposals for full panels of four speakers are also welcome; they should include a description of the panel in approximately 400 words, and short (100 word) abstracts and bios for each speaker. A proposal for a full panel ideally also includes a moderator.
- Papers: We aim to publish a selection of the best papers on the theme of the conference in a special issue of a peer-reviewed journal or as a book collection. Papers should be max 7,500 words (including references). Full papers are due after the conference. Please indicate in the abstract of your presentation or panel whether you plan to submit a full paper!
- Proposals for presentations or full panels should be sent in a PDF or Word format as email attachments to firstname.lastname@example.org no later than Friday, March 7, 2014. We will evaluate submissions on a rolling basis and will respond to every proposal.
- The fee for registration will be 50 euro to cover all conference documentation, refreshments, lunches and administration costs. Registration will open in March 2014.
-Contributed by Culture Digitally, With the generous support from the National Science Foundation-
At the end of 2013, a flare-up involving the work of Daniel Miller and his colleagues revealed a complex set of tensions regarding how digital culture scholars, journalists, and others in the technology sector address public engagement, prediction, and ethnographic methods. In this essay I use these tensions to investigate a widespread discourse where public engagement is linked to predicting success and failure. This discourse overlaps with longstanding debates over ethnographic methods but also with obsessions in the technology sector over the future (particularly with regard to profitability). This has implications for digital culture research and suggests there may be value in bolstering genres of public engagement cast in terms alongside those of success, failure, and prediction.
Daniel Miller, a well-known anthropologist of internet culture leading a multi-sited team studying social network sites,[i] published on November 24, 2013 the blogpost “What Will We Learn from the Fall of Facebook?,” summarizing research in progress on 16- to 18-year-olds in the United Kingdom. He touched briefly on predicting possible futures based on his data: “I don’t expect Facebook to necessarily disappear altogether. Rather it is finally finding its appropriate niche where it will remain. But I think it’s finished for the young in the UK and I suspect other countries will follow.” However, the bulk of his analysis addressed the present, as illuminated by ethnographic data: “For this group Facebook is not just falling, it is basically dead, finished, kaput, over. It is about the least cool thing you could be associated with on the planet.” Nearly one month later (on December 20), another version of this blogpost, rewritten by a journalist with Miller’s approval, appeared in another online forum. Entitled “Facebook’s So Uncool, but It’s Morphing Into a Different Beast,” this version included the phrase “What we’ve learned from working with 16-18 year olds in the UK is that Facebook is not just on the slide, it is basically dead and buried.”
In particular this second version of Miller’s post gained a fair share of incredulous media attention. An indicative example was “Facebook: Not Dead, Not Buried.” In this article, published on December 30, the journalist Rory Cellan-Jones stated “the man who sold, perhaps oversold, the story turns out to be Professor Miller.” Noting “I’ve seen plenty such stories over the years,” Cellan-Jones focused on method, asking “do interviews with some 16 to 18 year olds in one small area really tell us that young people are leaving Facebook ‘in their droves’ and herald a ‘sustained decline’? That seems quite a stretch—the plural of anecdote is not data, as the man said.” (Note that the phrase “sustained decline,” which implies prediction and was here seized on by Cellan-Jones, never appeared in Miller’s original post.)
On the same day of Cellan-Jones’s article, Miller posted a response to the coverage titled “Scholarship, Integrity, and Going Viral.” He emphasized “My blog post on ‘The Fall of Facebook’ was not so much about the decline of Facebook amongst schoolchildren as trying to understand what we can learn from this.” He added the journalist’s version of the blogpost “perhaps over-simplified the original.”
Full disclosure: as will be obvious, I am a longstanding admirer of Daniel Miller’s work, including the research under discussion. But while I think Miller is correct and Cellan-Jones incorrect (to the limited extent such a blunt assessment is meaningful), I also think that what is going on is not just oversimplification. The matter is more complex and the stakes far higher. Rather than seek to determine whose claims are true, let us identify the discursive field shared by all parties to the debate—a discursive field in which all digital culture scholars are implicated, including myself. This discursive field makes it possible to have these debates over truth and falsity in the first place: it allows digital culture to be, in Foucault’s terms, “constituted as a problem of truth.” What I find to be of particular concern is that within this discursive field we find commingled two ideas: first, that the popular value of digital culture research is effectively (even ideally) expressed in a language of predicting success and failure; and second, that ethnographic methods are doomed to failure because anecdotal.
So observing that Miller’s postings did (as he noted) “go viral,” the question should be: what precisely went viral? Why did these postings garner such attention? Clearly, the virality of the postings was linked to assessments of shifting popularity—despite the fact that this was not the focus of Miller’s posts! An analysis that emphasized the present was recast in a language of futurity. As noted above, Miller’s blogpost was originally titled “What Will We Learn from the Fall of Facebook?”, appearing as “Facebook’s So Uncool, but It’s Morphing Into a Different Beast” in its rewritten version. The key phrases seized on by others included statements that Facebook is basically dead, finished, kaput, over.
Predicting the future with regard to popularity is an obsession in entrepreneurial worlds and particularly the technology sector, where “trending” is a verb and corporations pay consultancy firms handsomely to foretell what will come. Indeed, oftentimes the most important consequences of such “predictions” is in regard to the present-day share values of companies like Facebook itself. Miller reflected on the place of prediction in his response: “looking back on my career as an academic I have rarely made predictions, partly because when I have, they have almost always turned out to be wrong”—yet in this case predicted his own prediction “will prove correct.” He added “I have another six months to continue this research, expanding on these findings but also exploring in much more detail why these trends develop and what we can learn from them.”
This is the discursive shift: the formerly entrepreneurial goal of prediction can now represent at least part of one’s goals as an ethnographer. While exploring a trend is obviously not Miller’s only (or even primary) research goal, as stated here it is something from which we are to learn. Analysis takes the form of prophecy, but prophecy of a specific kind: assessments of something’s popularity rising or falling in a linear fashion, often cast in a language of life and death (even burial). Now, all parties to the debate provided more nuanced analysis than these tropes suggest. Miller, for instance, emphasized he was talking about a decline specific to teens and also that these teens might keep their Facebook accounts for communicating with family members. Yet the framing by journalists worked against this nuance because it cast change in terms of growth or decline, once again paralleling languages of entrepreneurship. It may be worthwhile to ask how the salience of “youth” as a topic of study is informed by these temporal frameworks.
Miller observed that he rarely made predictions earlier in his career “partly because… they have almost always turned out to be wrong.” But as Miller noted, this is only a partial explanation. There is a broader context in play: his former aversion to prediction is intelligible from a historical point of view. The past of anthropology provides an effective summary of this history, but the history is interdisciplinary and influences all domains of digital culture scholarship. In addition, it affects the corporate and popular perspectives that increasingly reframe scholarly observations on the present-day characteristics of digital culture as predictions of future success and failure.
As the discipline took form in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, dominant anthropological paradigms emphasized understanding contemporary lifeworlds and the integration of various aspects of everyday existence into such lifeworlds. The primary disagreement was with evolutionary approaches that were in some cases explicitly linked to Social Darwinism and eugenics, but also positivist approaches seeking predictive laws. For instance, Malinowski and other “functionalists” asserted any element of culture serves to meet some need. This challenged, for instance, the earlier evolutionary paradigm of E. B. Tylor, who examined cultural “survivals” (like a child’s bow and arrow) that might not serve a function but could reveal cultural evolution.
In the United States and beyond, Franz Boas played a pivotal role in challenging evolutionary paradigms. In his classic discussion of Boas’s thought, George Stocking emphasized how Boas questioned these paradigms because they treated aspects of culture in isolation, like trying to understand the evolution of flutes without knowledge of the other orchestral instruments with which they are played, and the character of the music itself. More broadly, Boas (like many other intellectuals of the time) challenged the idea that discovering predictive laws was the only legitimate scholarly goal:
“Boas distinguished two different conceptions of the nature of scientific inquiry. Both had the same starting point: ‘the establishment of facts.’ Both had the same ultimate end: ‘to find the eternal truth.’ But their relationship to facts and their approach to truth were quite different. The difference was that between the ‘physical’ and the ‘historical’ methods. ‘The physicist compares a series of similar facts, from which he isolates the general phenomenon which is common to all of them. Henceforth the single facts become less important to him, as he lays stress on the general law alone.’ The historian, on the other hand, denied that the ‘deduction of laws from phenomena’ was the only approach to ‘eternal truth.’ There was also the method of ‘understanding,’ and for those who chose this route, the attitude toward the individual fact or event was quite different from the physicist’s: ‘Its mere existence entitles it to a full share of our attention; and the knowledge of its existence and evolution in space and time fully satisfies the student, without regard to the laws which it corroborates or which may be deduced from it’.”
Nearly a century later, Clifford Geertz echoed these sentiments when discussing how ethnographic analysis is scientific not in a positivist sense of discovering predictive laws, but in a modality of “clinical inference”:
“Rather than beginning with a set of observations and attempting to subsume them under a governing law, such inference begins with a set of (presumptive) signifiers and attempts to place them within an intelligible frame. [Such a mode of analysis] is not, at least in the strict meaning of the term, predictive. The diagnostician doesn’t predict measles; he decides that someone has them, or at the very most anticipates that someone is rather likely shortly to get them. But this limitation, which is real enough, has commonly been both misunderstood and exaggerated, because it has been taken to mean that cultural interpretation is merely post facto: that, like the peasant in the old story, we first shoot the holes in the fence and then paint the bull’s-eyes around them. It is hardly to be denied that there is a good deal of that sort of thing around, some of it in prominent places. It is to be denied, however, that it is the inevitable outcome of a clinical approach to the use of theory.”
The debate in late 2013 regarding the research of Daniel Miller and his colleagues illustrates a discursive shift in which temporality reenters and transforms ethnography (and other methods for digital culture scholarship). But unlike the functionalist (or in a very different way, structuralist) interventions that challenged evolutionary paradigms by focusing on the present, or the historicist interventions of Boas, Geertz, and others that reframed evolutionary paradigms by focusing on the past, the new interventions focus on the future. Note that as in the case discussed here, the scholars in question may not even be focusing on the future. The discursive field in question is not limited to anthropology or even social science research: it clearly more hegemonic in the technology sector itself, sometimes leading commentators to misinterpret scholarly claims about the present (or primarily about the present) as being wholly about future success or failure.
Rather than explain our past or interpret our present, this is a vision of scholarship (and, I cannot overemphasize, technology entrepreneurship) that takes trends as an object of analysis and the future as an analytical goal. It is an uncertain future: you never know when some company will invent another iPhone or Twitter, or when a formerly cutting-edge technology like MySpace or BlackBerry will go into decline, even vanish. When the goal of ethnography becomes at least in part to predict success or failure, digital culture scholars find themselves in an epistemic territory radically different from the canonical frameworks of Malinowski and Boas, or the evolutionary frameworks they challenged. There may be stronger affinities with some contemporary modes of evolutionary analysis that embrace contingency, used in some human sciences but also with regard to topics like climate change.
There have long been ways that ethnographic practice has employed prediction, and it certainly behooves digital culture scholars to consider how temporal arguments can productively shape public engagement as well as the research process. However, I do have concerns regarding prediction and particularly the prediction of success and failure. One concern is that predictions of success and failure could become seen as the sexiest and most fundable forms of scholarly engagement. What would this do to the kinds of questions asked, the methods used to address those questions, and the ways research is communicated to various publics? What has the emphasis on prediction already done in this regard?
As noted earlier, a second concern is that this discursive field, like all discursive fields, moves between and links ostensibly disparate cultural domains. Ethnography itself is one such domain, and it is striking to see how conceptual framing that characterizes both scholarly and youth assessments of Facebook’s future appears as well in debates over ethnographic methods. When Cellan-Jones claimed “the plural of anecdote is not data, as the man said,” that generic “man” who equates ethnography with anecdote could stand in for a number of digital culture scholars who approach ethnography via the same discursive field UK teenagers apparently use in understanding Facebook. For instance, in his posting “How Online Communities and Flawed Reasoning Sound a Death Knell for Qualitative Methods,” the economist Robert Bloomfield drew the following conclusion from a 2009 discussion with myself and several colleagues:
“Enterprising young scholars who are interested in cultural anthropology and are also trained in statistical methods are going to draw out testable predictions from the body of existing qualitative work, and test those predictions by applying experimental or econometric methods to data extracted from virtual worlds and social media. They will garner funding and publicity in the areas where they compete head to head with qualitative researchers, and the latter will be forced to defend their methods and conclusions…. Qualitative methods will either be relegated to less-prestigious schools and special-interest journals in cultural anthropology, or else cultural anthropology will decline in influence relative to other departments (like psychology) that embrace quantitative methods to study similar questions.”
Note the pivotal double role of prediction. First, Bloomfield asserts that testable predictions are the only valid approach for digital culture scholarship (and in so doing, assumes that qualitative and quantitative scholars “compete head to head” rather than collaborate). But second, Bloomfield redeploys this exact same language of prediction onto the domain of ethnographic methods. And it is specifically the prediction of success or failure (in this case, failure), the a language of a “death knell.” This is the same discursive field in which one can predict Facebook’s future as “dead and buried.”
I could multiply examples but the overall point should be clear.[i] I worry that like the UK teens discussed by Miller or so many technology “evangelists,” digital culture scholars might decide that particular phenomena like Facebook are the least cool thing we could be associated with on the planet. And in framing the phenomena in question as basically dead, finished, kaput, over, there is a risk that digital culture scholars (including myself) might reinforce a discursive field, strongly shaped by the technology sector, that emphasizes trends over analysis and context. Even when the diagnosis of success or failure is accurate, participation in this discursive field limits what can be said.
The dangers of this discursive field are methodological as well as rhetorical. Indeed, they link up to broader concerns regarding what David Karpf has termed “internet time”—the fear that “In the time it takes to formulate, fund, conduct, revise, and publish a significant research question, we all are left to worry that changes in the media environment will render our work obsolete.”[ii] Framing one’s research goal in terms of prediction—and particularly in terms of predicting success or failure—might seem to be a way to forge anticipatory relevance, but it comes at a price. The future of ethnographic methods is not exterior to such a framing. Consider, for instance, George Marcus’s discussion of the “unbearable slowness” of ethnography in the contemporary period, recalling Karpf’s analysis of internet time.[iii] Given my own work on questions of method, it should not be surprising that I frequently end up advising graduate students from a range of institutions and disciplines who wish to engage in ethnographic studies online.[iv] What has shocked me is how often queries that begin “how can I do ethnographic research with this online community” become “how can I do ethnographic research in two months because I only have funding support for that long.”
The design of graduate programs is certainly germane to this sense of unbearable slowness, particularly as communications and media studies departments turn toward the digital. These departments often do not have an institutional history of providing for a year or more of ethnographic fieldwork. Other approaches predominate in those disciplines, so that ethnographic methods are misunderstood (most commonly by conflating them with interviews in isolation, thereby missing the central role of participant observation). But the misunderstanding has to do with temporality as well as institutional structures. Ethnographic methods are about learning a culture by making oneself vulnerable to being transformed by it. And “not unlike learning another language, [ethnographic] inquiry requires time and patience. There are no shortcuts.”[v]
Learning a language (or a culture) is not the same thing as predicting a language, and you cannot learn Japanese or Portuguese in a month—no software package can efface this reality. There is a world of difference between using Google Translate to translate another language, and speaking that language. It is a question of meaning, of understanding ways of living, not of prediction. As Miller noted in his response, ethnographic research “also means the countless informal encounters with people who live in the area. Of particular importance is direct observation and participation, so you know what people are doing and you don’t just rely on what they say they are doing.” Thus, “even as ethnography changes its modus operandi and its identity, there is nothing that suggests that the valuing of a patient, deliberate norm of temporality will not continue to be necessary.”[vi] The fact that Miller’s team has insisted on fifteen-month periods of coordinated ethnographic research is exemplary, when so often in the digital field we find notions of “ethnography lite” or “rapid ethnography.” But is the value of such sustained research recognized in the era of big data?
Such engagements are valuable because gaining cultural “fluency” is central to ethnographic inquiry: such inquiry gains its strength from building social relations with the persons and contexts studied. This permits collaborations and deeper connections that allow researchers to learn about forms of tacit knowledge that may never be explicitly discussed. This might be because the topics are taboo or sensitive, but more often it is that they are taken for granted. Language again illustrates this well: most speakers of any language cannot consciously describe they grammars they employ. For instance, most English speakers could not explain why they make an “s” sound for the plural “cats” but a “z” sound for the plural “dogs,” because they do not consciously know the distinction between voiced and unvoiced plosives and the phonological rule of assimilation in English that specifies the plural follows the voicing of the plosive that precedes it. Many aspects of culture—often the most significant ones—are similarly implicit, “unspoken” even when used in everyday interaction. One of the greatest contributions of ethnographic methods is to illuminate such tacit knowledges, which can be accessed in to a very limited degree (if at all) by interviews and focus groups that rely on explicit statements, or by “big data” methods that rely on the algorithmic discovery of patterns not shared beliefs. These tacit knowledges, the core of culture, are in the everyday present—not the future.
The discursive field I have discussed in this essay, framing truth in terms of predicting success or failure, contributes mightily to these dynamics. The question of genre is crucial here. Part of the response of digital culture scholars (including but beyond the ethnographic and anthropological traditions I focus on here) will involve asserting the validity of multiple genres of presenting research results. Critically, this means resisting attempts to conflate more informal presentations of work-in-progress with predictions of the future—a conflation shaped by the discursive field under discussion. Indeed, this essay is an example of the kind of informal scholarship that can ideally build engagements in multiple spheres, from academia to advocacy to industry, but only if the reality and value of multiple genres is kept in mind.
As Miller noted, “given the interest in our topic, [my research team keeps] a blog of interim findings and stories. We would prefer our final reports to go viral rather than our blog posts (there was no press release), but we now appreciate we have no control over this.” The discursive field I have discussed helps shape this sense of a lack of control, as well as the sense that public engagement best takes the form of predicting success or failure. It is this discursive field that contributes to the increasing pressure graduate student ethnographers (as well as more senior researchers like Miller) feel to publish before fieldwork is completed—despite the fact that historically this was the norm only in more laboratory-based disciplines. And it is this discursive field that threatens to drastically curtail the ask-able questions of ethnographic inquiry and its imaginable place in the study of digital culture.
In this essay I have sought to identify a discursive field that conflates analysis with predicting success or failure. This discursive field overemphasizes unknowable futures and treats the search for predictive laws as the most valuable mode of inquiry. It resonates disturbingly not just with popular cultural and tech entrepreneurial obsessions with assigning value to the novel, but also with claims that ethnographic methods themselves are dead, finished, kaput, over.
Calls for digital culture scholars to engage with the public are increasingly being made in the language of this discursive field. This is dangerous because it limits what will be seen as a valid research finding and what genres will be acceptable for discussing research findings. It is also dangerous because this same discursive field has been used to delegitimate ethnographic inquiry by predicting its own failure. However, I am emphatically not saying that prediction is always problematic. It can be a valuable aspect of many research agendas, including those of ethnographers. To mention just one personal example, in my work on HIV/AIDS prevention in Indonesia epidemiological analysis was critical, and one component of such analysis was the prediction of future trends, which had consequences for program design. The problem is when this discursive field of predicting success or failure is construed as both the ideal mode of public engagement and the ideal mode of analytic significance.
As a case study to illustrate these issues I have summarized a debate over the work of my colleague Daniel Miller regarding social media, youth, and the future. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, I do not see Miller or anyone else discussed in this essay as incorrect, wrong, trapped in a discourse, or the like. Instead, I see all digital culture scholars (including myself) as shaped by this discursive field that frames truthmaking in terms of predicting success or failure. To do so is not necessarily incorrect or ineffective—rather, it is tricky and not the only valid path to knowledge.
The question, then, is “what does the future hold for ethnographic methods and their relevance”—or better, what kind of futurity do we seek?
-Tom Boellstorff is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. His current research is supported in part by the Intel Science & Technology Center for Social Computing.
I would like to thank Bill Maurer and Daniel Miller for their thoughtful comments on a draft of this essay. Their insights helped me refine my argument, underscoring the value of peer review even in more informal genres.
[i] Another example of such thinking is when the economist Edward Castronova advocated for the use of virtual worlds as experimental models by asserting that “the results are not based on the researcher’s impression after having spent 12 months living with a small subset of one of the populations… [this] mode of study is at least as reliable, and quite probably more so, than those that precede it . . . That being the case, a major realignment of social science research methods would seem to be in order” (Edward Castronova, “On the Research Value of Large Games: Natural experiments in Norrath and Camelot.” Games and Culture 1(2):163–86, 2006.)
[ii] David Karpf,” Social Science Research Methods in Internet Time.” Information, Communication, and Society 15(5):639–661, 2012.
[iii] George Marcus, “On the Unbearable Slowness of Being an Anthropologist Now: Notes on a Contemporary Anxiety in the Making of Ethnography.” XCP: Cross-cultural Poetics 12:7–20, 2003.
[iv] See Tom Boellstorff, Bonnie Nardi, Celia Pearce, and T.L. Taylor, Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).
[v] Renato Rosaldo, Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985), p. 25.
[vi] Marcus, “On the Unbearable Slowness of Being an Anthropologist Now,” pp. 16–17.
-Contributed by Tom Boellstorff, -
The following post is excerpted from my recently published book Remake, Remodel: Women’s Magazines in the Digital Age with permission from the University of Illinois Press. Drawing upon in-depth interviews with leading magazine editors, publishers, and digital strategists, this book shows how magazine workers are adapting to the rhetoric and realities of digitization, audience interactivity, branded content, and the individualization of creative labor.
In what follows, I contend that despite renewed academic interest in the cultures and practices of media work, much of this scholarship overlooks the significance of gendered relations and subjectivities. By studying the production culture of the women’s magazine industry amidst sweeping transformations in the technologies, economies, and logics of media, I hope to make a critical intervention into debates about social hierarchies of gender within digital creative environments.
Professional and Gender Identities of Media Workers
Over the last few years, a great deal of ink has been spilled by researchers seeking to understand the implications of transformed circuits of production and consumption for professional media creators. In addressing the so-called blurring of roles between producers and audiences, many of these studies engage with questions of professionalization and expertise…
In many creative sectors, the contours of professional identity began to shift in the last decades of the twentieth century, shaped by policies and ideologies associated with globalization, neoliberalism, and post-Fordism. Since then, creative work in the so-called “new economy” has been characterized as deskilled, flexible, temporary, and underpaid.[i] With the rise of digital media, these trends have become more firmly ingrained in the cultures and conditions of media work as content creators are expected to channel their energies into a variety of digital technologies and platforms. Ethnographies of convergent newsrooms, for example, reveal how production routines increasingly demand flexible laborers who are able to create content for print, online, and mobile simultaneously. This emergent logic necessitates a reconfiguration of news workers’ professional identities [...including] technological training and formalized attempts to indoctrinate professionals in the content strategies and styles of other platforms.[ii]
The ostensible intrusion of audiences into media production processes is an additional challenge to professional identity constructs. As noted earlier, one of the central tropes in discourses of convergence is the blurred boundary between media producers and audiences, and scholars continue to debate whether user-generated content has empowered audiences or, alternatively, whether these initiatives are thinly veiled efforts to offload productive labor activities onto unwitting consumers.[iii]
In either case, producers qua producers must compete for eyeballs in the aptly named attention economy. Examples abound of nonprofessional content creators whose audience base rivals that of the leading media voices. Of course, some media producers face a more substantial danger than the loss of audiences, namely the potential for unemployment as work gets outsourced to these (mostly) unpaid laborers. Why buy the cow when you can get the content for free?
Although professional identity is a construct deeply entangled with social identity markers—gender, race, class, age, and more—scholars of media convergence have tended to sidestep these categories. [iv] Gender, in particular, plays a pivotal role in the organization, processes, and products of media industries—in much the same way that it serves as “a mechanism that structures material and symbolic worlds and our experiences of them.” [v]
Conversations about the role of women in media organizations have been taking place for more than a century, but the rise of second-wave feminism in the 1960s crystallized concerns about gender inequity. [vi] In fact, feminist critiques of organizational forms of male power were considered integral to women’s liberation, and consequently, feminists sought out non-bureaucratic forms of assemblage for their own social movements. [vii] Their concerns stemmed from a general sense of apprehension about the patriarchal structure of the labor market as well as from the narrower construction of media production as a “masculine” enterprise.
This is not to say that women were fully excluded from the circuit of production; as I discuss more in a later chapter, women have historically been granted access to those media and cultural industries that considered it necessary to understand womanhood and femininity for commercial purposes. Cultural historian Kathy Peiss makes the case that throughout the twentieth century, women were employed by—and at times held a significant degree of power in—the women’s press, advertising, cosmetics, and fashion industries. Yet in describing women’s employment in these sectors as “a state of being, not a will to action,” Peiss makes it clear that female admittance into these field was not politically motivated, but instead substantiated the economic exploitation of femininity. [viii] Put simply, the mentality was that women were the best ones to sell products and services to other women.
Despite this, numerous feminist scholars have sought to benchmark the role of women in media organizations by quantifying their contributions to the production of news, television, magazines, films, and more. The consensus is that there are far more male than female executives in almost every mass media industry. And while recent years have seen an upsurge in women entering print and broadcast media organizations, men continue to hold the lion’s share of power. Several recent studies have gone beyond workplace gender composition to draw out the correlation between the diversity of media professionals and the diversity of media content. Reflecting upon this critical turn, Marjan de Bruin writes:
“Counting men and women, identifying positions and mapping employment patterns is regarded as necessary and useful baseline data but it is also seen as only scratching the surface of the realities of media organizations. In order to learn more about what is actually taking place on the workfloor, it is necessary to go beyond the ‘body count’ and to start looking at specific social practices, embodied in conventions and rules, formally and informally, based on history and tradition, sustained by people working in the media organizations.”[ix]
Going “beyond the body count,” then, makes clear how female media workers also confront masculine work cultures (the so-called “boys club”), the potential for sexual harassment, and the normalization of gendered work practices.[x]
Meanwhile, the rise of computing and the movement to post-Fordist working practices in the early 2000s seemed to coincide with new assumptions about gender relations in the media sector. [xi] Yet the role of female producers was often addressed through blanket assertions about “flexible work practices,” which failed to make significant inroads into gender inequality. Moreover, a number of analyses have problematized this assumption with data about continuing gender imbalances in the new media sector. [xii] These conclusions urge a critical reexamination of the interrelationships between gender, professional identities, and cultural production in the contemporary media moment.
As a project in media industry studies, Remake/Remodel draws upon political economy, cultural studies, sociology, and feminist studies of the media to explore the changing nature of production within the women’s magazine industry. Like other scholars who work within the broadly conceived framework of cultural production, I take a mezzo-level approach that foregrounds the processes of media production rather than macro-level structures and regulations or micro-level issues of reception. However, I also depart from contemporary perspectives on media industries in two significant ways. First, I do not agree that we should abandon traditional assumptions about distinctive media industries in favor of an all-encompassing view of media production. Secondly, and as I make clear throughout the book, I do not believe that new tools and technologies for audience communication are as revolutionary as techno-utopian discourses suggest.
The decision to enter into these theoretical and methodological conversations from the context of the magazine industry is in no way inadvertent. In part, this decision is based on the tendency of convergence scholars to overlook the consumer magazine industry as a rich site for analysis. [xiii] Such neglect is indicative of a larger gap in the media field where academics tend to make normative distinctions that privilege the production of hard news within a public-service orientation. Magazine historian David Abrahamson made the woeful claim at the 2008 State of Magazine Research conference, “Magazines remain second-class citizens in the journalism academy.” [xiv] The alleged dismissiveness toward magazines is quite unfortunate, especially given the role of the industry in laying a solid groundwork for the mass media that emerged over the course of the twentieth century. Described by journalism scholar Carolyn Kitch as “the first truly mass medium in the United States,” magazines provided guidelines for creating entertainment and informational content, appealing to advertisers, and commodifying niche audiences—trends that were later copied or expanded upon by other media organizations. [xv]
A caveat of sorts must be added to clarify the positioning of women’s magazines within the academy. Although this genre, too, tends to reside on the margins of “journalism studies,” teens’ and women’s glossies have occupied a central place in feminist media thought and empiricism since the 1970s. I trace the simultaneous and intertwined evolutions of feminism and magazine studies in a subsequent chapter; however, it is important to acknowledge at the outset that the women of women’s magazines are critical to the arguments and findings of this book. After all, women’s magazines constitute a genre that is gendered in content and context—embedding both producers and audiences within a feminized space. As identity politics lay at the heart of recent transformations in media technology and culture, this project aims to advance our understanding of media production and gender in an unfolding digital economy.
More broadly, this book aims to spark conversation and propel forward debates about the shape-shifting nature of creative labor and media power. It seems too convenient to merely assert that “boundaries are collapsing” in an era of convergent media systems and practices. Instead, I show how producers are both allowing some boundaries to crumble and establishing new ones to preserve certain aspects of their identities. I use these findings to push back against the claims of collapsed hierarchies, consumer empowerment, and democratic participation that tend to configure convergence discourse. I also suggest some aspects of the creative industries that have been curiously overlooked and should be critically analyzed before the dust settles. Indeed, I believe there is much to be gained by bringing feminist media studies into dialogue with production-oriented research on digital cultural industries. This could entail interventions into male-dominated work cultures and grounded studies of creative labor that take seriously issues of identity politics. Again, let me be clear: I do not mean to suggest that the demographic composition of a workplace is akin to female empowerment. Rather, female production roles are merely the most visible benchmark of women’s social positioning within a rapidly evolving media landscape.
-Contributed by Brooke Erin Duffy, Temple University's School of Media and Communication-← Older posts | Newer posts →