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Public anthropology in times of media hybridity and global upheaval

June 19, 2013

Postill, J. forthcoming. Public anthropology in times of media hybridity and global upheaval. In S. Abram and S. Pink (eds.) Media, Anthropology and Public Engagement. Oxford: Berghahn.



The growing popularity of new social and participatory media at a time of global turbulence raises challenging questions for anthropologists wishing to engage with publics beyond academia. In this chapter I draw from my experience as a media anthropologist researching activism and social protest to explore some of these challenges. I argue that an updated public anthropology is required if we are to reach out beyond the mass media channels familiar from previous decades. The new digital media environment is a ‘hybrid’ system made up of old and new technologies, actors and practices interacting in contingent ways (Chadwick 2011) as well as a domain of cultural production mired in a deep political and economic crisis. This situation demands open-ended, idiosyncratic, and collaborative approaches to public engagement that take into account both the unique affordances of today’s digital technologies and the aftereffects of the 2011 and 2013 waves of social protest around the globe. I exemplify this argument through my experience with four distinct platforms, namely a mailing list, a research blog, Twitter and Facebook, in a range of public contexts.


Like other professionals, anthropologists work in a public environment that has undergone profound technological changes over the past 10 years. New forms of publicness have arisen out of three converging global trends, namely the rise of ‘viral media’ such as Facebook, YouTube or Twitter, the mainstreaming of ‘nerd politics’ epitomised by Wikileaks and Anonymous, and the digitisation of public spaces. I will now consider each of these trends in turn.

First, with the proliferation of new social and mobile media around the world, millions of citizens now have in their hands the ability to decide how and with whom to ‘share’ digital information and commentary (Postill in press). There is nothing new, of course, about forwarding messages through electronic means. What is novel is the sheer scale, routinisation and sophistication of the new culture of ‘sharism’ (Mao 2008), with the ubiquitous ‘Likes’ and ‘tweets’ of social media indexing the shift. If 10 or 20 years ago internet users could readily forward emails with hyperlinks to their contacts, today the very architectures and business models of social media and smartphones are built on ‘sharing’ digital contents. While early cyberspace scholars announced the coming of an age of ‘virtual reality’ (Turkle 1984), what we have seen over the past five years is rather the rise of what I call ‘viral reality’, i.e. the accelerated co-production of news and opinion by media professionals and amateurs through social and mobile (or ‘viral’) media (Postill in press). This is a flattened informational terrain that the mainstream media must now share with alternative media outlets and millions of digitally savvy citizens. While the mainstream media have retained the ability to set the day-to-day current affairs agenda (Chadwick 2011), they must also contend with the ability of ordinary citizens not only to reach the scene of a media event before reporters, but also with their new power to ‘Like’ a potentially viral item of news or opinion (Shirky 2008). The study of virality is still in its infancy, but given the participatory nature of their research anthropologists can play an important part in its development (Postill 2012).

A second shift currently underway is the mainstreaming of ‘nerd politics’ (pace Doctorow 2012), epitomised by formations such as Wikileaks, Anonymous, Spain’s Indignados or the global Occupy movement. This is a novel phenomenon whereby geeks, hackers, bloggers, copyleft lawyers and other ‘information activists’ (Brooke 2011) have learned to take their once niche internet struggles to the heart of the political process by linking them to broader popular demands. A spectacular instance of this trend was the release in November 2010 by Wikileaks via mainstream news media organisations (including the New York Times, the Guardian, and El Pais) of over 200,000 US State Department cables. Less well known are the earlier activities of Julian Assange and fellow information activists which eventually led to significant changes to Icelandic legislation protecting the country’s freedom of information, or the strong ties forged between information activists and grassroots protesters during the Arab uprisings and among the Indignados and Occupy movements. But the crucial point is that it is not only ‘tech nerds’ who co-produce and share digital contents in support of greater internet freedoms, political and financial transparency, ‘distributed’ forms of democratic participation, and so on. Thanks to the new viral media environment, even anthropologists who not long ago boasted of being technophobes have now begun to actively participate in these new forms of public engagement (see chapters on Savage Minds and the Open Anthropology Cooperative, this volume).

Third, in many urban centres the explosive uptake of smartphones combined with new forms of civic engagement in the wake of the Arab uprisings are reconfiguring citizens’ public ideas and practices (Corsin and Estalella 2011). One defining moment was the mass occupation of Tahrir Square in January 2011 to demand the end of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, followed in real time around the world via a plethora of mainstream, alternative and social media. This successful occupation was an inspiration for citizens worldwide demanding political reform and social justice. The Tahrir model was adapted by a small group of hacktivists and other citizens who occupied Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square later that year. In turn, the Madrid template was exported to New York by an activist network in Vancouver, giving rise to Occupy Wall Street (Juris 2012), from where is spread to hundreds of cities around the globe in October 2011. The occupied squares were not only utopian exercises in direct democracy (della Porta 2011). They were also highly experimental ‘hackerspaces’ (Brooke 2011) in which the mainstreaming of nerd politics acquired a public (inter)face, a manifestation of viral reality, and a context where the disenchantment and fear of the educated middle classes was articulated with that of the general population.

As we face new national and global crises in the coming years (witness, for instance, the June 2013 protests in Brazil and Turkey), it is likely that new and old forms of public engagement will continue to interact and co-evolve. In this chapter I draw from my own recent experience as a public anthropologist to explore some of the ways in which anthropologists can not only ‘reach out’ to non-academic constituencies via different media, but also help to constitute new forms of public engagement and democratic reform.  I argue that an updated understanding of public anthropology is required if we are to transcend the mass media channels of a previous era. The new digital media environment is a ‘hybrid’ system made up of old and new technologies, actors and practices interacting in contingent ways (Chadwick 2011) as well as a domain of cultural production mired in a deep political and economic crisis. This situation demands open-ended, idiosyncratic, and collaborative approaches to public engagement that exploit both the unique affordances of today’s digital technologies and the aftereffects of the 2011 and 2013 waves of social protest around the globe. I exemplify this argument through my experience with four distinct platforms, namely a mailing list, a research blog, Twitter and Facebook, in a range of public contexts.

Sustaining a mailing list

Although there is little doubt that today’s media environment differs markedly from that of the early 2000s, and even more so from earlier environments, it is unwise to adopt a ‘replacement model’ of media change in which ‘new’ media replace ‘old’ media (Apprich 2013). Thus in a recent ethnographic study set in Italy, Barassi and Trere (2012) found that an ‘old’ internet technology, the humble listserv, took pride of place among student activists who valued its interactivity and discretion (see also Trere 2012). These authors caution against the current rhetoric around ‘Web 2.0’ as the age of interactivity and user-driven content, as if email and other earlier technologies had not possessed such affordances. Moreover, they found that young Italian activists were often using social network sites and other ‘Web 2.0’ technologies in strategically non-interactive ways.  Similarly, Kelty’s (2008, 2010) ethnohistory of the free software movement reveals the long-standing centrality of mailing lists to the making and remaking of ‘recursive publics’ around the practices of open-source coding (which in turn, we could add, eventually led to the mainstreaming of nerd politics). These listservs were in fact a key resource in Kelty’s archival research (Postill 2010).

Mailings lists have been a mainstay of academic life for decades, and show no signs of decline despite the parallel rise in social media usage amongst academics. The number of European Association of Social Anthropologists’ (EASA) networks continues to grow every year, and they all rely on listservs as their main communication tool. For instance, the EASA Media Anthropology Network – which I co-founded and convene –  relies on its thriving listserv. Set up by a small group of enthusiasts during the 2004 EASA conference in Vienna, the listserv has continued to spread by word of mouse and today boasts over 1,400 subscribers from a wide range of national and professional backgrounds. As stated on the Network’s website:

[M]embership of EASA is not a prerequisite for subscribing to the Media Anthropology Network mailing list. The mailing list is open to scholars, research students and others anywhere in the world who have a legitimate interest in the anthropology of media.

The decision to open the list to non-EASA members, and indeed to anyone with an interest in the subfield, lent it a public dimension, although in practice most active participation comes from scholars and advanced students working within academic institutions. Another formative influence was the informal agreement to focus on the anthropological (and related) study of media rather than on anthropology’s presence in the public domain. Nevertheless, and particularly in the network’s early years, we have occasionally engaged with journalists, activists, documentary film-makers and others working at the intersection of anthropology and public life but the thrust of the list – and the network as a whole – has always been media-related academic research.

This research-driven agenda is clearly at work in the mailing list’s widely praised innovation, its e-seminar series. E-seminars are chaired sessions that unfold around a working paper over a period of two weeks. The sessions were originally designed to ‘remediate’ (Bolter and Gursin 1999) a familiar offline social script, the co-present academic seminar, so as to serve a dual purpose: to present cutting-edge research in the subfield whilst fostering a sense of collegiality amongst list subscribers.

Now it could be argued that this mailing list – and others across the academic field – is merely a small inward-looking group that does not make a substantial contribution to the public projection of its discipline. However, this criticism would assume that the only meaningful ways of ‘doing’ public anthropology are either through the mediation of mainstream media outlets or by means of traditional outreach events such as public lectures. On the contrary, I would argue that mailing lists can be an important means of building and sustaining new publics that can reach out beyond the walls of academe. In the case of the media anthropology list, we do so in mostly indirect ways, by sharing and co-producing specialist knowledge not only with fellow ‘experts’ but also with researchers and practitioners from many walks of life, including journalism, activism, technology and film production, many of whom may be ‘lurking’ on the list.

Too narrow a conception of the notion of ‘engagement’ can be misleading here, for experience suggests that far from being idle onlookers, lurkers can in fact be active but silent members of a vibrant public. An anecdote will illustrate this point. In December 2012 I presented a working paper to the media anthropology e-seminar. Towards the end of the session I joked about the inclusive nature of these events by suggesting that even lurkers had been busy theorising during the seminar. To my surprise, soon after making this remark, a colleague recommended the seminars to her Facebook friends and described herself as a lurker who had indeed been theorising all along, but too busy to post. Although this colleague is also an anthropologist, many of her Facebook friends are not. This is an example of a modest but cumulatively significant type of indirect or unintended outreach. Another instance of unintended publicity would be those occasions in which network participants are approached for an interview by journalists or bloggers who have found or been referred to the mailing list. In sum, even the most seemingly academic of exchanges can find its way into wider public domains through the mediation of inter-field practitioners and technologies (e.g. search engines, ‘Like’ buttons, tweets).

A public research blog

While mailing lists are taken-for-granted features of most scholars’ email routines, blogs occupy a more ambivalent position in academia. Despite the strenuous efforts of leading anthropology bloggers to promote this practice amongst colleagues, blogging remains very much a minority pursuit in the discipline. One common sight is to find anthropology blogs that were started with great enthusiasm only to be abandoned or neglected within weeks or months. Experience suggests that those rare anthropology blogs that have achieved great longevity tend to be collective rather than personal endeavours, e.g. Savage Minds (see this volume) or Neuroanthropology.

The reasons for the low uptake and lack of sustainability of personal blogs among anthropologists are complex and would require a separate discussion. I would nevertheless hazard the following two factors. First, blogging requires considerable time and effort, both of which are in short supply amongst anthropologists and other academics facing heavy teaching and administrative workloads in an increasingly competitive marketplace.  Second, blogging is a low-status practice regarded as having far less career value than publishing in respected journals or securing research grants. Like other scholars, anthropologists blog against the grain, as a meaningful activity in its own right with low external rewards (see Warde 2005).

My own research blog is named media/anthropology. Although launched in July 2006, it was only in April 2008 that I started blogging in earnest. I use this site primarily for research, self-promotion and archiving. As stated on the homepage, the aim of the blog is

to put out in the public domain materials that I am already working with as part of my research activity under the broad theme of media anthropology. The idea is to keep colleagues, students and others informed of my work as well as to keep an online notebook for my own personal use, e.g. as an easy way of tracking down materials that may otherwise have remained hidden in my personal records.

Notice the double disclaimer contained in this passage. First, I imply that this is not the place to find time-consuming ‘passionate blogging’ (Estalella 2011). Rather this is a site of modest ambitions run by a busy academic. Second, the site has a personal archival purpose riding alongside its public mission. In other words, I am both the sole owner of the blog and a key member of its target audience, not in a “Dear diary” confessional mode but as a future seeker of specific contents via Google or the blog’s own search engine. Indeed, I sometimes find that a Google search for online materials on a given topic will direct me to my own blog (e.g. “practice theory”)!

Another example of the blog’s labour constraints is that while comments are allowed on the site I seldom solicit them from readers, as a high volume of comments would add to the burden of running the blog on a very limited time budget. This reinforces Barassi and Trere’s (2012) earlier point about the gap between the potential and actual interactivity of ‘Web 2.0’ technologies such as blogs or social network sites.

That said, there have been a number of interactive episodes throughout the blog’s short history. Thus on preparing for fieldwork in Catalonia in 2010 I wrote a small number of blog posts on the topic of regional nationalism in Spain. Although my aim was to position myself as an impartial observer with a scholarly interest in the subject, some of the comments made by blog visitors challenged this neutrality. After some reflection on the issue – a privilege conferred on the blogger by the asynchronicity of this medium – I decided to steer clear of the topic in future posts so as to maintain access to prospective research participants when working in nationalist circles.

One obvious attraction of owning a personal research blog it the almost complete editorial freedom it allows its proprietor. This is not to say that owners operate in a moral and political vacuum, but in contrast to a collective blog such as Savage Minds, a personal blog requires no communal negotiation on the theme, register or style of its contents. The onus is entirely on the solo blogger. This makes personal blogs idiosyncratic media stamped with an individual’s unique traits and preoccupations, the quintessential home of ‘me-centric’ or ‘networked’ individualism (Castells 2001, Wellman 2001). Coupled with the time constraints just mentioned and the incessant demand of the medium for new contents, the results are often uneven. Thus, in my blogging career I have made virtue out of necessity by turning all manner of materials to hand into unlikely blog posts, including presentation notes, summaries of readings, tweet collections, working papers, reblogged posts, musings on topical issues, and so on. Because of the archival nature of blogs (Estalella 2011), items that were originally neglected by blog readers may acquire new audiences when they are ‘rediscovered’ weeks or months later through a search engine and shared via social media or other means. Some blog posts have remained perpetually popular, such as the post ‘What is practice theory?’, an extract from the introduction to Theorising Media and Practice (Bräuchler and Postill 2010). Since I posted it in October 2008, this entry has been viewed over 35,000 times and received 22 comments, and continues to draw traffic to the site. This is an example of a high publicity return on a low investment in time and effort.

Twitter’s transient publics

There are probably few web platforms as misunderstood as the micro-blogging site Twitter. One common misconception about this site is that it is first and foremost an outlet for narcissistic trivia and celebrity self-promotion. While there is some truth to this portrayal, there is far more to Twitter than mindless entertainment. In fact, Twitter is surprisingly conducive to the practice of public scholarship.

The media theorist Nick Couldry (2010) argues that certain powerful (media) practices ‘anchor’ other practices. For example, televised state ceremonies such as a royal wedding can anchor offline gatherings in pubs and homes (Couldry 2003). This is an intriguing metaphor, but it does not travel well to public microblogging. The term anchor suggests, of course, immobility. Instead, we need dynamic metaphors that can capture how microblogging may be ‘spearheading’ both socio-political change and the creation of new publics in which anthropologists can play an important part. Looking back at the trajectory of Spain’s leading internet activists over the past two years, I regard activist microblogging as a cutting-edge, disruptive practice that has helped to ‘unsettle’ powerful fields such as politics, journalism and finance whilst creating new transient publics ripe for anthropological intervention.

Launched in 2006, Twitter is today a hugely popular platform where information can be shared and discussed via brief messages known as tweets. Unlike Facebook, Twitter is based on asymmetrical relationships. That is, to establish a visible relation on the site there is no need to be ‘friended’ by another user; one need only ‘follow’ them. The result is a huge disparity in users’ follower-to-followed ratio – a key index of prestige on Twitter. Thus, while A-list celebrities will typically boast millions of followers, they are likely to follow in return far fewer people. In stark contrast, ordinary users may find it difficult to recruit more than one or two hundred followers, with public scholars generally lying somewhere in between.

Like many other social media platforms, Twitter is free of charge and poses no significant technical challenge to prospective users. However, most novices must embark on a steep learning curve if they wish to be noticed amidst Twitter’s relentless torrent of information. Many newbies must also overcome the initial ‘culture shock’ of a giant platform teeming with half a billion users who generate over 340 million tweets and make more than 1.6 billion search queries every day.

Twitter’s 2011 tagline “Follow your interests” encapsulates one of the chief attractions of the site, namely the ability it confers users to keep track of those people and issues that matter to them. Interestingly, this tagline mirrors the old ethnographic maxim “Follow their interests”, making Twitter a milieu that is highly conducive to ethnographic research. Most topics are freely created and shared (or ‘retweeted’) by users themselves, not by the site owners, and arranged into topical threads through ‘hashtags’ (e.g. #anthropology, #worldcup). Topics that are rapidly gaining in popularity at any given time are publicly listed by Twitter as ‘trending’ nationally and/or globally. As can be expected, there is fierce competition among certain kinds of Twitter users and groups (including political activists) to create and maintain trending topics.

In recent years Twitter has become integral to the work of activists and protesters around the world, not least in Spain. As one veteran Catalan activist told me in the summer of 2011, when broaching the subject of the 15M protest movement: “I had no choice but to join Twitter to find out what was going on”. Thus during the mass occupation of Spain’s central squares in May 2011, two 15M activists highlighted the role played by Twitter in these terms:

The assemblies in each of the encampments are essential not only for logistical reasons but also because everyday and mid-term tasks are outlined in their committees. Above all, they are massive, transparent exercises in direct democracy… However, the [movement’s] direction is mostly set on Twitter. The hashtags serve not only to organise the debate. They also set the collective tone: #wearenotgoing #wearenotafraid #fearlessbcn … (@galapita and @hibai [2011], my translation).

The importance of Twitter to my own research became clear in December 2010. Having spent four months ‘chasing’ activists across Barcelona while slowly building a directory of campaigns and groups on my research blog, it was on Twitter that I ‘found’ them all gathered in one place. More importantly, Twitter became a central rallying space and ‘meme factory’ for activists and protesters themselves (Postill in press). Although Twitter came to be one of my key field sites, I resisted the temptation to turn the inquiry into an ‘online community’ study (see Postill 2008) and instead, continued to ‘follow the conflict’ (Marcus 1995) across a range of online and offline sites (Postill and Pink 2012). My Twitter persona (@JohnPostill) was that of a UK anthropologist researching new media and activism, with special reference to Barcelona, Catalonia and Spain. In order to keep the flow of information manageable, I limited the number of people I followed to 130 to 140 users, while steadily building up a following that reached around 1,400 on leaving Barcelona (2,000 at present). Twitter was my default aggregator, a ‘human-mediated RSS feed’ (Naughton 2011) where knowledgeable informants operating in different domains filtered news and commentary on a large set of actors and issues related to my research question.

Over time, I learned to craft my tweets to increase the likelihood that they would be retweeted, e.g. by tweeting in English on topics generally discussed in Spanish, or posting messages during peak hours of Twitter traffic in Spain so that they would reach a larger audience. I also made ample use of my interstitial position as a bicultural scholar with access to academic, journalistic and blogging resources in both English and Spanish (and occasionally other languages as well) to feed relevant contents into the appropriate discursive streams. One important part of the process was learning how to play social games on Twitter. I turn now to four of the games I learned to play, which I shall provisionally label ‘working the algorithm’, ‘gathering the #facts’, ‘self-promoting’ and ‘killing time’.

In the weeks and months leading to the 15 May 2011 mobilisations across Spain, influential activists promoted certain slogans and ideas by means of Twitter’s trending topics facility. Aware that the site’s algorithm prioritises novelty over volume when ranking the more popular topics (Cullum 2010), skilled players would constantly change the campaign keywords, asking their followers to share them widely so that they would trend. To find my own competitive advantage in this game, I developed a set of techniques such as using Google to search for recent news items in English on a Spanish trending topic, and then feeding the more valuable finds into the relevant thread, often copying the tweets (via the ‘cc.’ abbreviation) to influential Twitter users operating in specific niches such as online journalism or copyright law. I found this game to be rewarding both extrinsically – in that it boosted my ‘name and fame’ (Miller 2000) – and intrinsically, as a pleasurable activity in its own right with instant psychological rewards (Warde 2005).

A second game that I played with Spanish activists and other field agents was ‘gathering the #facts’ – a sub-type or variant of working the algorithm. This relatively new Twitter game is a modification of the now classic internet game that grew around the actor Chuck Norris, under the rubric ‘Chuck Norris facts’. The original game consisted of sharing, tongue in cheek, made-up ‘facts’ portraying Norris as ‘a tough, all-powerful super-being’ (Wikipedia 2012). Since 2005, this subgenre has spawned countless variants around the world and been applied to many other public figures. The Twitter version of the game turns the phrase into a hashtag. For instance, in late December 2010 the Spanish pop star and tax exile Alejandro Sanz tweeted: “Spanish politicians are such cowards, they’re not going to vote for the new bill safeguarding intellectual property” (my translation). This tweet provoked an outcry that was channelled through the Spanglish hashtag #alejandrosanzfacts, with tweets ranging from the humorous to the factual via the outright insulting. Not surprisingly, Sanz’s alleged tax evasion featured prominently in the discursive torrent.  As this case shows, a transient Twitter public – here formed by a heterogeneous universe of users – can instantly expand to swallow up an unsuspecting microblogger who is then hurled into a turbulent sphere of discursive action over which they have little or no control. (By the same token, these ephemeral publics will often contract and dissipate equally as fast).

A third Twitter game I play regularly is ‘self-promoting’. In common with other forms of online and offline self-promotion, the prefix ‘self-’ belies the thoroughly collective and reciprocal nature of this activity. Thus, seasoned Twitterers tacitly understand that retweeting a contact’s self-promoting messages may be reciprocated in due course. As in other contexts, this game must not be overplayed. In other words, public scholars promoting their work on Twitter must also engage in activities of other kinds, such as sharing topical information on events or publications not directly related to their career achievements, or participating in both serious and light-hearted threads of conversation.

My final example is a game we may call ‘killing time’. Not all Twitter activity can be devoted to the dogged pursuit of professional or political agendas. As in all social worlds, there are also times on Twitter for relaxation and conviviality. One common way of doing this is to join existing trending topics where the conversation is likely to be animated and the cognitive investment required low. The topics are usually steeped in popular culture but can vary widely in subject-matter (e.g. sport, TV, sex, health), longevity (from a few hours to a day), cultural framing (regional, national, global), and so on. For the anthropologist these seemingly banal threads can provide valuable glimpses into the state of ‘the national conversation’ at any given point in time. Over a period of months or years, recurrent themes and trends can be triangulated with other sources of data (the mainstream media, interviews, offline observation, etc.). My own participation in the game of killing time will vary from non-participant observation and replying to a particularly amusing tweet – often from a total stranger – to posting my own informal tweets.

Awkward Facebook

Boyd and Ellison (2007) have suggested that the term ‘social network site’ is a more accurate way of describing platforms such as Facebook or MySpace than the commonly used phrase ‘social networking site’. This latter formulation, they argue, is more applicable to sites such as LinkedIn designed for the purpose of ‘networking’ for career or other instrumental ends. By contrast, Facebook and similar sites draw their sustenance from users’ existing social networks.

However, this neologism – popular today among internet scholars – is itself problematic, for it conflates a fundamental distinction made by social network theorists since the 1960s, that between ‘whole’ and ‘personal’ networks (Knox et al 2006). A personal (or ego-centred) network comprises an individual’s set of ties, e.g. friendship, family, work, etc. Diagrammatically, this is represented by a central ‘ego’ connected through nodes and lines to a finite set of other individuals. In contrast, a whole (or socio-centric) network lacks an individual centre – or indeed, a centre of any kind. Examples of whole networks include organisations, cities and markets.

Personal networks are unique social formations in that they revolve around individuals without whom they cease to exist, normally after the individuals’ biological death. Virtually all other social formations centre around a collectivity not an individual. Therefore, from the perspective of its individual users Facebook could be described as a personal network site. At the same time Facebook is a gigantic whole network comprising hundreds of millions of individual users and clusters of users (e.g. fans of a given football team, celebrity or cause). It is the dynamic interactions between the personal, group, and total logics of Facebook that lend this multitudinous site its unique character and attraction.

While a great deal of media and academic attention has been paid to issues such as privacy and collective action on Facebook (Liu et al 2011), surprisingly little work has been done on the curious social morphology of this platform. Following ethnographic research in Trinidad, Miller (2011) writes:

Facebook has all the contradictions found in a community. You simply can’t have both closeness and privacy. You can’t have support without claustrophobia. You can’t have such a degree of friendship without the risk of explosive quarrelling. Either everything is more socially intense or none of it is.

Leaving aside the problematic status of ‘community’ as an anthropological concept (Amit and Rapport 2002, Postill 2008), this passage highlights a crucial aspect of Facebook: its awkwardness as a social space. Facebook collapses the inner walls of our personal networks, bringing into close contact people from different times and regions of our life trajectories. This architecture results in a digitally mediated ‘open plan’ sociality, a quality of social intercourse in which formerly discrete facets of our lives are now within the purview of our wider network. Increasingly, Facebook brings into the semi-public personal spaces of ethnographers two sets of significant others, namely the researched and the non-researched, sometimes even blurring the distinction between the two. This is the stuff of scientific insight – and potential trouble.

For example, early in my Barcelona fieldwork I shared on Facebook a news item related to the controversial Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon. Shortly after posting this item, a robust exchange took place between two of my Facebook friends holding diametrically opposed political views. Although privately sympathetic to the leftist, pro-Garzon position, I managed to defuse the tension by adopting a diplomatic stance. Because the exchange took place on my Facebook wall, I had no choice but to play the role of a congenial host mediating between two quarrelsome guests.

On another occasion, my Facebook wall was the setting for a rather more scholarly exchange about Spain’s Indignados movement. Here I found it more difficult to remain impartial, as I had recently undergone something of a political conversion to the new movement (Postill in press). My exchanges with a Barcelona-based political scientist were particularly helpful in that they shed light on the chasm between emic and etic understandings of the unfolding protests.

Intra- and inter-platform engagements

As we have just seen, each of the main media platforms that I use for my anthropological work is unique. This uniqueness compels me to behave in ways that I consider appropriate to that particular site. Compare, for instance, the relative sizes of the media anthropology mailing list versus Twitter. Whilst the listserv is a small bounded network of some 1,400 subscribers, Twitter is a huge aggregation of over 500 million users. Another key difference is the mode of communication. Mailing lists are designed to facilitate many-to-many exchanges, even if in practice some subscribers will of course be more prolific than others.  By contrast, Twitter affords one-to-many exchanges – the ‘many’ varying greatly from a score to millions of followers. But arguably the most striking difference is the absence of bounded groups within Twitter. Although efforts were made in the past to form Twitter ‘tribes’ (known as Twibes) around common interests such as art, golf or anthropology, these have all foundered. Instead, Twitter has become the world’s preeminent open market of news, commentary and discussion, with participants engaging with one another through ephemeral threads, not sustainable groups. As a result, on Twitter the public scholar has no option but to engage with a far more heterogeneous population of users and issues than is the case on a specialist forum such as the media anthropology list or a subject-specific blog like Savage Minds.

In my pre-social media research in suburban Malaysia in 2003-2004 (Postill 2011), I found that internet-savvy activists, politicians and others had to tread carefully when traversing the country’s variegated online terrain. For instance, the influential activist Jeff Ooi developed a rugged ‘networked individual’ (Wellman 2001) persona when blogging, a stance that brought him accolades from fellow bloggers but made him run afoul of the country’s ruling elites. Yet despite his national prominence, Ooi had to mind his language when interacting online with fellow residents of the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Subang Jaya. Thus another resident once took him to task for bragging about his achievements on a residents’ web forum devoted to discussing ‘community’ issues – ironically, a forum that Ooi himself had founded (Postill 2011: 77).

Similarly, public scholars must learn how to navigate the often treacherous waters of online discourse by developing an acute sensitivity to the specific ethos and ‘netiquette’ of each site. For example, some years ago a new subscriber of the media anthropology list used the list to loudly protest the four-post limit imposed on e-seminar participants, a rule intended to encourage wider participation. He regarded this rule to be contrary to the free spirit of the internet. This was a strange accusation coming from a seasoned anthropologist, who would have known that different social groups will develop their own rules and conventions over time – internet-based groups being no exception.

Of course, human agency always intervenes in the maintenance and transformation of socio-technical practices (Tenhunen 2008, Shove et al 2012). In my own public anthropology practice, I have learned how to exploit the limits and possibilities of different platforms not in an ahistorical void but through the vagaries of both my life course and a changing media landscape. One ongoing area of learning is cross-platform participation in issues of public concern. Given the centrality of participant observation to the ethnographic approach, anthropologists are well placed to study the use of participatory media in public processes. As said earlier, one remarkable feature of the Indignados movement was the pervasive, decentralised use of social media by hackers, students, pro-democracy activists and countless ordinary citizens to form a common front. Although a few fundamentalist hackers refused to use corporate platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, most campaigners I encountered justified their use of corporate social media on pragmatic grounds. For example, when the Barcelona chapter of the umbrella organisation Real Democracy Now! (in Spanish, DRY) was created in March 2011, participants were encouraged to use both Facebook and a non-proprietary web forum to coordinate their activities. When it became apparent that Facebook was the preferred platform, the group’s informal leaders readily went along with the majority.

Throughout the course of my research into the 15M movement, I took part in a range of collaborative activities across various online platforms. As a native English and Spanish speaker, part of my modest contribution to the movement was to act as an occasional translator and proofreader. Thus I once shared via Facebook what I regarded as an improved version of a passage taken from the English translation of the DRY manifesto. In a matter of minutes, another user replied with what we both agreed was a better translation, which I duly forwarded via email to the manifesto team. This example may seem pedestrian, but it captures neatly the sorts of micro-political collaborations amongst strangers – including scholars – that social media, especially Facebook owing to its critical mass and popularity, enable on a much vaster scale than was possible even a few years ago.


It is exciting to look back at the digital progress anthropologists have made from around 2005 to the present (2013). Reluctantly at first, countless anthropologists (young and old) have acquired valuable digital skills and, perhaps more importantly, digital self-confidence in a matter of four or five years. Let us not forget that Facebook only opened to the general public (us included) in September 2006, or that Twitter caught the world’s attention a mere six years ago, in 2007. I have no figures to hand, but personal experience suggests that a substantial proportion of anthropologists are now regular users of mailing lists and Facebook. This means that they are also likely to be, via other people’s shared contents, indirect users of Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Academia and so on.

In this chapter I have argued that the practice of public anthropology is today caught up in three convergent global trends: the mainstreaming of nerd politics, a viralised media environment, and digitised public spaces. With their commitment to ethnographic methods, anthropologists are well equipped to contribute to the new public environment, characterised by its increasingly participatory and politically engaged nature. To support this argument, I drew from my own personal experience ‘doing’ public anthropology while researching and participating in momentous techno-political events unfolding in Spain and other countries on the receiving end of post-2008 ‘austerity’ measures. Spain’s protesters, like their counterparts in Greece, Turkey, Brazil and elsewhere, are collectively ‘hacking’ their country’s representative democracy and demanding new forms of governance and social justice. In the process, they are ceaselessly forming and reforming new publics open to anthropological interventions of the kind discussed above.

Digital media are integral to these processes, but they are by no means the preserve of young ‘digital natives’. While inequalities of class, race, gender, age, etc, will remain important, never before has access to personal and communitarian media been so wide. As mobile media continue to experience rapid growth across the global South, there is an urgent need for new forms of civic engagement and democratic reform to which anthropologists can contribute their cross-cultural expertise. The omens are good for anthropologists wishing to conduct further incursions into uncharted digital territory – many of whom were happy until recently to leave Web content creation and sharing to others. These incursions could well include those outlets once known as the mainstream media.


Some parts of the section “Intra- and inter-platform engagements” are taken from Postill (2012).


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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 13, 2013 3:14 am


    Let me put my 2 cents here.

    When you say

    (..) To support this argument, I drew from my own personal experience ‘doing’ public anthropology while researching and participating in momentous techno-political events unfolding in Spain and other countries on the receiving end of post-2008 ‘austerity’ measures. Spain’s protesters, like their counterparts in Greece, Turkey, Brazil and elsewhere, are collectively ‘hacking’ their country’s representative democracy and demanding new forms of governance and social justice.

    I would like to ask: The West Society is on ‘State of Denial’?

    I do think so and I would like to say:

    (…) Young people go to the streets in Spain, or in the USA (Occupy Wall Street), with the full support of the global media, is not the same situation of young people on the streets of Brazil and the emerging world.

    In the world of OECD countries, young people return home (they have a place to live), they have food to eat, if it´s winter, they have heater, if it’s summer, they have air conditioning. They are defending their wonderful achievements of Western society after WWII.

    In Brazil and in emerging countries is the opposite, is to win a minimum quality and dignified life that we never had in our history.

    Celso Furtado and the West Society on ‘State of Denial’


  1. Public anthropology in times of media hybridity and global upheaval | atbackbook

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