The initial question is – why call something digital anthropology in the first place? People probably wouldn’t associate the discipline of anthropology with the studies of the digital, but if you think about it, anthropology was always a subject dedicated to the study of people around the world and whatever the people around the world do. Therefore, we want to be studying it. For us, in a way, it’s a fairly obvious advance that we simply acknowledge that there have been developments in the digital field in so many different ways. I’m going to be talking particularly about work on social media and digital communications, but there’s a lot to be said about data, or infrastructure, or the digitization of museum archives. It’s hard to think of anything that isn’t actually affected by the process of digitization.
For anthropologists, it’s a natural progression in anthropology, they follow what happens in the world, if the world goes digital, we go digital. But I do think there’s an additional point here, because in contemporary anthropology we’re also in some ways arguing against certain quite old assumptions, if you like, stereotypes about the discipline as a whole. Because originally anthropology was associated with the study of tribal groups and ethnic groups differentiated from sociology, which was seen as more the study of kind of urban societies. Actually, that’s a very old image of anthropology. Today we can say that it just studies societies whoever they may be, wherever they may be.
The idea that anthropology is now going to have a specialist arena concentrating on this area is a challenge. The goal of this article is to demonstrate why anthropology is, actually, the very best way of understanding the digital in as much as when we talk about the study of the digital clearly we’ve got to be interested in the consequences it has on people. That’s really why this is the right domain for anthropology, because it doesn’t have to study the technology or even understand the technology, but it really has to understand the consequences all these changes have on populations. It believes that in order to do so you need the kind of approaches that they represent.
Anthropology has always been interested in the way people socialize, sort of networking together. Psychologists would study people as individuals, but anthropology studies people as kind of social networking sites and we think of kinship. Another reason why you recognize that social media is something that has got a huge presence is the way newspapers and magazines every day make quite strange claims about the consequences of social media. They tell you: “oh, young people today, they don’t have a proper attention span, and it’s because of social media” or “young people today, they don’t really understand the meaning of a proper friend, and that’s because of social media”. Anthropologists felt that there has been a responsibility, somebody needs to go out there and do a different kind of scholarship to actually establish what are the genuine consequences of the developments of these social media.
In doing that they didn’t want to compromise the way that they traditionally study. Although they are studying very new phenomena, they’re using a method that has been established for a very long time. There has been funding from the European Research Council and other institutions to study this new reality. This is very important to understand the way not just social media but the Internet is being studied. Because most people studying these phenomena, they tend to focus on things like the technology and the platforms as causative.
“Because of the nature of Twitter, short messages, that’s why people use it in this way”. It was found something very different: the form of communication shifts very easily. One day it’s on Facebook, then your mother comes on Facebook, so you want to get off Facebook. So you go on Twitter. But you’re doing the same thing. If the same kind of communication can travel between Twitter, and Facebook, and Snapchat, and whatever, it can’t be the technology that is causative. It means actually you have to look at these underlying cultural issues to explain why a particular platform is “occupied”.
We have now a lot of material produced. Anthropologists have their own definition of social media. They call it “a scalable sociality”, which means that now you’ve gone from having the gulf between public broadcasting and private communication. Broadcasting has gone down to smaller sites, where you broadcast to smaller groups of people. Whereas things like chat platforms have moved up or things like Telegram and WhatsApp to bigger groups. Now, in a sense you can scale your sociality, you could have more private, less private, bigger groups, smaller groups, and this is a big change. Many big changes. The way, for example, that as well as all written communication, we now have a visual, things like Snapchat where you send images of your face all day long, but it’s like a conversation. So, a new kind of visual communication is out there.
But in terms of the impact – politics, education, etc. – a lot of simplistic things have been said. Usually we find that social media exacerbates things that were there before. It’s both bad for education (you know, a distraction), good for education (you can find a lot of stuff out). It raises issues for political radicals, because they can be identified by the state. It is good for political radicals, because they can get together and use social media. So the simple statements made are far too simplistic. Obviously, a lot of material.
It is still too soon to predict the impact this will have on society, but it’s safe to say that we will never the same that we were before the internet and social media.
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