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Notes on the 5th digital ethnography reading session (Murray 2008)

November 11, 2015

By Julian Waters-Lynch
PhD candidate
RMIT University, Melbourne

See other posts on the digital ethnography reading group

The November session of the Digital Ethnography Reading Group took place on Wed, 11 November, from 12:00 to 13:30 in 013.01.002 (Building 13, Level 1, Room 2), RMIT city campus, Melbourne.

This time discussed Susan Murray’s study of the image hosting/sharing site Flickr:

Murray, S. (2008). Digital Images, Photo-Sharing, and Our Shifting Notions of Everyday Aesthetics. Journal of Visual Culture, 7(2), 147–163. doi:10.1177/1470412908091935


In this article, the author argues that the social use of digital photography, as represented on Flickr, signals a shift in the engagement with the everyday image, as it has become less about the special or rarefied moments of domestic living and more about an immediate, rather fleeting, display and collection of one’s discovery and framing of the small and mundane. In this way, photography is no longer just the embalmer of time that André Bazin once spoke of, but rather a more alive, immediate, and often transitory practice/form. In addition, the everyday image becomes something that even the amateur can create and comment on with relative authority and ease, which works to break down the traditional bifurcation of amateur versus professional categories in image-making.

This text was suggested by one of the DERC visiting scholars, Maria Schreiber (University of Vienna), whose PhD research focusses on the smartphone sharing practices of digital photos and the politics of different platforms. 

Our discussion began with an observation on the date of the article – the publication date is officially 2008, which in some disciplinary fields  might be considered a recent article but in the world of digital ethnography it feels like a previous epoch. Participants noted (again) how much has changed in the past 7 years: ‘flickr seems dead now’. However we queried when the actual research began, some suspecting a few years prior to publication, perhaps 2005. This curiosity was stimulated partly by an absence of discussion around other contemporary digital platforms on which content is shared, such as Myspace and Facebook. Flickr seemed to be discussed as a unique case, rather than as part of constellation of sharing platforms. 

There was general agreement that Murray’s primary focus was on the background literature and theoretical formulation of the social role of photography in everyday life, especially in light of the significant changes in production and access afforded through the transition form analog to digital photography. The article contained some empirical examples of practices in the form of screen shots to illustrate examples in support of her argument, but there was a noted absence on the voices of flickr uses, the meaning of the photographic practices for participants or how these practices might have changed over time. We asked ourselves how this article could be furnished with a richer ethnographic account. We also acknowledged that this may not have been the purpose of the article, and we might be overlaying an ethnographic expectation on the article that differs from the author’s intention. Perhaps this discrepancy could have been clarified if Murray had outlined the purpose and procedural dimension of her data gathering, and its relationship to her broader argument about photography. We were left wondering for example:  

– how long did she observe flickr for? 

– whom did she observe and why did she select them? 

– did she employ an analytical method (such as coding themes) in examining her data?

– did she participate in photo sharing and commenting or merely observe?

 This provoked a brief discussion on different disciplinary expectations around the relationship between empirical data and theoretical claims (cultural studies was noted as an example that accepts theoretical claims with little relationship to empirical evidence). We (appeared to) agree that just like theoretical physics in the natural sciences, pure theoretical construction is a legitimate practice in social sciences, indeed this is largely what the discipline of philosophy is about. However in this article we were a little unclear what relationship the empirical data had in the theoretical formulation, especially considering some of the claims that were made about actors experiences visible in quotes like this: 

“Flickr has become a collaborative experience: a shared display of memory, taste, history, signifiers of identity, collection, daily life and judgement through which amateur and professional photographers collectively articulate a novel, digitized (and decentralized) aesthetics of the everyday.” (Murray 2008:149) 

We then discussed how diverse the focus of digital ethnographic research can or should be – for example should researchers focus on the particular affordances within single platforms or the transferability and alteration of practices (such as ‘self-portraits’) across platforms. If we focus on a single platform, we should articulate the particular technical affordances and the cultural norms that users create (which differ from the technical constraints). In fact we noted that in reality ‘platforms’ operate as a dynamic assemblage of the two whose investigation can reveal subtle dynamics of the power structures behind platform design and iteration. On the other hand, if we follow user practices across platforms we may reveal the contextual relationships between these digital environments, and which practices diffuse easily and which are localised and ’sticky’.

Following such ‘practice trails’ may also reveal how the meaning of particular platforms change for participants over time and in the advent of new competitive arrivals. We noted for example how Facebook can cannibalise other platforms and promote its convenience as ‘a one stop shop’ – the single place to share photos, videos and content updates. This strategy appears aggressively pursued by Facebook, visible in the alacrity of its imitation of innovations from other sites (twitter, foursquare etc), even if not all such new updates are widely adopted (such as  ‘location check ins’).

At the same time these population movements where users congregate may strengthen the identities for those that remain on ‘older platforms’ like Flickr. Maria noted that as the growth of Instagram (founded in 2010) absorbed the ‘democratic’ photographic practices of quick snaps and shares and the ‘micro-celebrity’ practices of constructed spontaneity; those loyalist users that remained on Flickr have appeared to strengthen their identities as ‘professional-amateur’ practitioners. They now have a mainstream ‘other’ from which to contrast their own identities.    

Perhaps in part to correct any unfair criticism levelled at the article, we noted some strengths, such as how the observation that the ‘disposability’ of digital images affords a kind of post-modern photographic aesthetic:  “It seems to speak to a new aesthetic and function – one dedicated to the exploration of the urban eye and its relation to decay, alienation, kitsch, and its ability to locate beauty in the mundane” (Murray 2008:155). Whilst from the smartphone saturated vantage of 2015 this might appear like yesterday’s news, from the perspective of the mid 2000s this could be considered an insightful observation on contemporary ‘judgements of taste’.

However we did challenge the claim that the deluge of digital images leads to their ephemerality. John noted the collection of these fleeting moments (images and tweets) can all add up to a larger narrative, at least in collective, geographically and historically situated contexts like his research on the politics of Los Indignados in Spain. We wondered how these dynamics might be different for the personalised, biographical constructions of individual narratives through the temporal trail of ‘digital moments’.

Digital photography, especially the (almost) zero marginal cost of their reproduction, were observed to create challenges for the tight link between the photographic object and the context of meaning in which it is situated. The ability for a single image to be reproduced in a hall of mirrors of pastiche and parody was noted to create hermeneutic challenges for researchers. However this point was also acknowledged as (perhaps) an exacerbated rather than novel challenge. In ethnography we have to accept that we can’t capture everything (all data, all contexts) and that sometimes gathering more ‘noise’ in the form of more data might not help distill the ‘signal’ of meaning that we are seeking. (Perhaps this is where the NSA errs in its strategy). 

We had some final reflection on when photography is taboo – from the traditional idea that photos steal one’s soul common in many indigenous cultures, to new contemporary sites of theatres, art galleries, music concerts and change rooms. We also noted the well established ethnographic power in revealing the gap between what people say and what people do and how the participant dimension of ethnographic work can help elucidate this gap (such as the experience of becoming an ‘explorer’ on Flickr and the realisation that this is an achievement for which one should feel proud but remain silent)

Our final meeting on Wed 16 December 2015 (venue TBC) will review the Introduction to the new book Pink, S., H. Horst, J. Postill, L. Hjorth, T. Lewis and J. Tacchi. 2015. Digital Ethnography: Principles and Practice. London: Sage. Please join us if you’re interested in the field.

See other posts on the digital ethnography reading group

25. Digital rights activists vs. Trans-Pacific Partnership: a field-theoretical analysis

November 11, 2015

This is the 25th post in the freedom technologists series

Keynote to the conference
“Media, culture and change across the Pacific:
perspectives from Asia, Oceania and the Americas”
Pontificia Universidad Católica del Peru (PUCP)

Lima, Peru
16-17 November 2015

Dr John Postill
RMIT University, Melbourne


On 5 October 2015, following 7 years of negotiations, twelve states around the Pacific Rim (Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam) signed a trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). With its member states accounting for 40% of the global economy, if ratified the TPP would be the largest regional trade deal in history. The agreement, conducted in secrecy, has proved highly controversial among health professionals, environmentalists, trade unionists, digital rights activists and other political actors, who regard it as furthering the interests of transnational corporations and the US government at the expense of the peoples of the region and their environment. In this keynote address I use a dynamic, diachronic, post-Bourdieuan field theoretical approach (Postill 2011, 2015; Fligstein and McAdam 2012) to examine the ongoing struggle of digital rights activists, or ‘freedom technologists’ (Postill 2014), against the TPP. I understand TPP advocates and their opponents as operating within two highly distinct, antagonistic ‘fields of strategic action’ (FSA) with their own sites of governance, everyday ‘stations’, media repertoires and internal conflicts. Of particular significance is the almost total absence so far of Turnerian (1974) ‘arenas’ of public contention, i.e. sites where TPP field agents would have no choice but to defend themselves in public from accusations of secrecy, lack of accountability, abusive copyright policies, etc. This, however, could be about to change as the struggle enters a new phase of protest and greater media visibility in the US and other member states.


Fligstein, N., & McAdam, D. (2012) A Theory of Fields. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Postill, J. 2014. Freedom technologists and the new protest movements: a theory of protest formulas. Convergence 20 (3), 402-418.

Postill, J. 2015. Fields: Dynamic configurations of practices, games, and socialities. In V. Amit (ed.) Thinking Through Sociality: An Anthropological Interrogation of Key Concepts. Oxford: Berghahn, pp. 47-68.

Turner, V.W. 1974. Dramas, Fields and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

5th digital ethnography reading session (Murray 2008)

November 10, 2015

By Will Balmford
Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC)
RMIT University, Melbourne

The November session of the Digital Ethnography Reading Group will take place on Wed, 11 November, from 12:00 to 13:30 in 013.01.002 (Building 13, Level 1, Room 2), RMIT city campus, Melbourne.

This time we will be discussing Susan Murray’s study of the image hosting/sharing site Flickr:

Murray, S. (2008). Digital Images, Photo-Sharing, and Our Shifting Notions of Everyday Aesthetics. Journal of Visual Culture, 7(2), 147–163. doi:10.1177/1470412908091935

In her article Murray discusses shifts in the “social use” of photography based on her analysis of Flickr. While the image sharing field has grown/expanded since 2008 (what’s Flickr you ask?), the article has salience.

Points of interest to facilitate the discussion:

  • What do we think of the approach to the article?
  • What do we learn / not learn about the research Murray has conducted?
  • How does analysing the ‘social network software’ of Flickr relate to digital ethnography (distributed agency, affordances)?
  • How is visual data embedded/analysed/discussed in the article?
  • How does ‘aesthetics’ come into play?
  • How can seeing through theoretical lenses be complicating/helpful?
  • How to find balance?

Thanks to our DERC visiting PhD candidate from the University of Vienna, Maria Schreiber, for her reading recommendation and discussion points.

Notes on the workshop “Theorising Media and Conflict”

November 9, 2015

blackboard 2 - sites of mediated conflict

Figure 1. Thinking aloud about the volume Theorising Media and Conflict.
Photo courtesy of Philipp Budka.

Media Anthropology Network
European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA)
Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology
University of Vienna
23-24 October 2015

Notes prepared by John Postill (RMIT) (see PDF)
EASA Media Anthropology Network e-seminar 54

10-24 November 2015

These notes are intended as a first step towards continuing online with the rest of the EASA Media Anthropology Network the conversation that a group of us began offline at the workshop “Theorising Media and Conflict” held in Vienna on 23-24 October 2015. To provide some context, I start with the original Call for Abstracts (CFA) and the final programme. I then provide brief summaries of the various sessions we held over the two-day meeting, with apologies in advance for any misreported information. (NB. I am grateful to Eva Kössner for sharing her notes on three of the sessions and to Philipp Budka for the photographs).

Original CFA

In a recent survey of the interdisciplinary literature on media and conflict, Schoemaker and Stremlau (2014) found that most existing studies display Western-centric biases, normative assumptions and unsubstantiated claims about the impact of media in conflict situations. With their ethnographic methods and ground-up theorising, anthropologists are therefore well placed to make a strong contribution to the advancement of this area of scholarship. Although a growing number of anthropologists have studied media in conflict and post-conflict contexts – working on diverse topics such as media representations, cyberwar, internet activism, social protest, video-making, or radio dramas – so far they have done so in relative isolation from one another. The result is a fragmentation of the field and a dissipation of efforts.

The aim of this workshop is to remedy this situation by bringing together media anthropologists and other media and communication scholars working on the complex relationship between media and conflict.

Having presented and discussed their own research (Day 1), workshop participants will then ask the following collective questions (Day 2):

  1. What is the present state of anthropological and interdisciplinary knowledge on media and conflict?
  2. What are the main questions in need of urgent research and writing?
  3. How can media anthropologists and others contribute to the interdisciplinary effort of theorising the elusive relationship between media and conflict?
  4. What topics and themes should an edited volume arising from the workshop focus on?

In addition to its networking function, the workshop will lead to an edited volume provisionally titled Theorising Media and Conflict. This will be the third in the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) Media Anthropology Network’s series of theoretical volumes published by Berghahn. The first volume came out in 2010 as Theorising Media and Practice (Bräuchler & Postill, eds), and the second volume, Theorising Media and Change (Postill, Ardevol & Tenhunen, eds) is forthcoming. The aim of the series is to place media anthropology at the forefront of theoretical advances in both anthropology and media and communication studies.

Read more…

New book – Digital Ethnography: Principles and Practice

November 4, 2015

Digital Ethnography

Digital Ethnography: Principles and Practice

See free Introduction here

This sharp, innovative book champions the rising significance of ethnographic research on the use of digital resources around the world. It contextualises digital and pre-digital ethnographic research and demonstrates how the methodological, practical and theoretical dimensions are increasingly intertwined.

Digital ethnography is central to our understanding of the social world; it can shape methodology and methods, and provides the technological tools needed to research society. The authoritative team of authors clearly set out how to research localities, objects and events as well as providing insights into exploring individuals’ or communities’ lived experiences, practices and relationships.

The book:

  • Defines a series of central concepts in this new branch of social and cultural research
  • Challenges existing conceptual and analytical categories
  • Showcases new and innovative methods
  • Theorises the digital world in new ways
  • Encourages us to rethink pre-digital practices, media and environments

This is the ideal introduction for anyone intending to conduct ethnographic research in today’s digital society.

See free Introduction

More information…

Notes on the 4th digital ethnography reading (Gehl 2014)

October 30, 2015

by Katya Tokareva
PhD Candidate
RMIT University, Melbourne

See other posts on the digital ethnography reading group (DERG)

In the fourth session of the monthly Digital Ethnography Reading Group at RMIT we discussed the article by Robert Gehl, 2014, ‘Power/freedom on the dark web: A digital ethnography of the Dark Web Social Network, New Media & Society, pp.1-17. Here’s the abstract:

This essay is an early ethnographic exploration of the Dark Web Social Network (DWSN), a social networking site only accessible to Web browsers equipped with The Onion Router. The central claim of this essay is that the DWSN is an experiment in power/freedom, an attempt to simultaneously trace, deploy, and overcome the historical conditions in which it finds itself: the generic constraints and affordances of social networking as they have been developed over the past decade by Facebook and Twitter, and the ideological constraints and affordances of public perceptions of the dark web, which hold that the dark web is useful for both taboo activities and freedom from state oppression. I trace the DWSN’s experiment with power/freedom through three practices: anonymous/social networking, the banning of child pornography, and the productive aspects of techno-elitism. I then use these practices to specify particular forms of power/freedom on the DWSN.

We started with how Gehl constructs the article. The author has done ethnography on the Dark Web Social Network, observing users’ interactions and conducting online interviews with anonymous social network admins. To analyse the ethnographic work he uses power/freedom ‘categorical lenses’. The choice of the lenses is influenced by the works of Michel Foucault and Wendy Chun and also by the prevalent media discourse of the Dark Web. Drawing on the digital ethnography literature Gehl seeks to find localized manifestations of power/freedom in this particular site.

Whilst some group members enjoyed the style of the article, which uses simple language to broach complex matters, others were concerned with the theoretical foundations of the study. Notions of freedom and power are not explained in detail and at times it seems that the article has only a light touch of theory.

We then focused on methods and discussed how ethnography is used in the study. It was noted that the author does not give much information about the time spent on the Dark Web Social Network or about the approximate number of participants he observed and talked to. This lack of transparency about the methods makes it hard to evaluate how robust and systematic the analysis of the data was.

That brought us to the similarities and differences between ethnography and journalism. Does an ethnographer need to be concerned too much with numbers? What about the robustness of the analysis? Would numbers add anything to this study? And if ethnographers don’t need to, or are unable to talk to, a large number for participants and adhere to robust analysis procedures, how then is ethnography different from investigative journalism? Can ethnography be described as theoretically informed journalism?

We discussed further the relationships between the article and journalism which seem complicated. The author uses a journalistic narrative of the Dark Web (as a space of illegal activities) as a departure point and seeks to disrupt it by bringing in the data from the field. Yet,the new narrative Gehl constructs is somewhat too smooth, excluding any contradictions among participants, admins and the ideology of the site that, we assume, occur.

We then turned to what we actually learned about social networking on the Dark Web from the article and how this relates to our prior readings within the group. We discussed the censorship rules established by admins (no child pornography, no commercial activities, no sharing of any private data that can identify social network users in offline world). We agreed on the hypothesis that DWSN admins are likely to be techno-libertarians not dissimilar to some members of Anonymous studied by Gabriella Coleman (2014). Yet, the participants of the network seem to be more diverse than the admins.

This led us to the theme of techno-elitism and potential gentrification of the Dark Web. Whilst a certain degree of technological proficiency is needed to join DWSN, the fact that academics and journalists have started to write about these phenomena signifies that the Dark Web is becoming more accessible and gentrification of the space is inevitable. The questions for us are: How do we document and analyse this process as researchers? What kind of theories would we draw on to understand these phenomena?

Next reading (11 November 2015, 12 to 13.30 pm, all welcome):

Murray, S. (2008). Digital Images, Photo-Sharing, and Our Shifting Notions of Everyday Aesthetics. Journal of Visual Culture7(2), 147–163. doi:10.1177/1470412908091935


Gehl, RW. (2014), ‘Power/freedom on the dark web: A digital ethnography of the Dark Web Social Network, New Media & Society, pp.1-17.

Coleman, G. (2014). Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy: The many faces of anonymous. Verso Books.

DERC seminar: Social media and West Papua by Usman Hamid

October 19, 2015
Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC)
RMIT University, Melbourne
Wed 21 October 2015, 3-4:30pm
City campus, Building 13, Room 7, Level 4


Usman Hamid is an MPhil candidate in the Department of Political and Social Change at the Australian National University. In 1998, Usman was a student activist when four students were shot dead at a demonstration, which triggered a nationwide protest that toppled the Suharto regime. He subsequently became the coordinator of KontraS, the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence. In 2004 Usman was appointed a member of the Presidential Fact-Finding Team that investigated the murder of prominent human rights defender Munir Said Thalib. He also served as an expert adviser to the International Center for Transitional Justice, Jakarta office, from 2010 until 2012. In 2011 Usman was appointed to the Presidential Working Unit for the Supervision and Management of Development, where he reviewed the policy on Indonesia’s Human Rights National Plan of Action for 2011–2014. In 2012 Usman co-founded the Public Virtue Institute and the Indonesian Branch of, the world’s largest online petition platform. He has been a visiting scholar at University of Columbia (2003) and held a fellowship at Nottingham University (2009). He will be exploring the role of social media in West Papua in this talk, building out of work conducted for his thesis.


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