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Workshop note on digital media and socio-political change

March 3, 2015

By Victor Lasa

On 20 February 2015, Dr John Postill convened a workshop with fellow RMIT scholars and research students around the topic of “Digital media and socio-political change”. Participants came from a range of disciplinary and professional backgrounds, including anthropology, journalism, economics, and cultural studies (see their profiles here). The aim of the workshop was to get to know each other’s work and research interests and explore potential collaborations.

One of the threads emerging from the discussions was the idea that the internet has been considered a space for political contestation of power since its very inception. John Grimes and Barney Warf discussed the political nature of internet and its different actors as early as 1997 (Grimes & Warf 1997). The internet is, among many other things, a space for activism, including avant-garde, counter-hegemonic approaches. The most obvious expressions of political counter-hegemonic activism are well-known groups like Anonymous; networks of people from around the globe working together, and operating “on ideas rather than directives” (Kelly 2012, p. 1678). They typically present disruptive political discourses with the intention of challenging the existing structures of power.

There are other active groups with equally disruptive approaches, but different intentions. Crypto-anarchist groups with a strong libertarian, radical free-trade approach collaborate both online and face-to-face around Silicon Valley to build new state-less legal structures, as pointed out by the workshop participant Trent MacDonald.

The internet has given a new hyper-connectivity dimension to everyday politics, becoming instrumental for the development of several post-global financial crisis (GFC) socio-political movements of protest and change globally. These movements have often been misinterpreted by conventional analysts as a mere attention-attracting circus, usually being associated with existing political ideologies or organizations. However, the origin and development of these movements are typically not related to existing political organizations. They all have been characterized by a leader-less, network-style structure that used the internet to grow exponentially via emotional virality (Toret 2013).

The need for new paradigms in socio-political information management was at the core of the movement, which originated in the internet. The ‘Indignados’ movement gradually evolved from an online phenomenon to a face-to-face encounter in the streets of Spain that lasted several weeks. Afterwards, a mixture of digital media activity and regular street assemblies progressively lead to the creation of a new political party: Podemos (Spanish for ‘We can’). Smartly articulating the political message encrypted in the ‘Indignados’ chaotic, non-partisan movement, Podemos revolutionized the Spanish political landscape using a conventional hierarchical structure with a strong leadership. Although they always remained active in digital media, they built their popularity using the mainstream media. This resulting hybrid approach is an example of the potential of the internet to initiate political change, but perhaps also its inability to execute it without the contribution of conventional approaches.

Next meeting

These discussions raised awareness among workshop participants about the considerable gap existing in academic literature regarding digital media and socio-political change. The incognita is the magnitude of the socio-political change digital media can really drive. Unless the movement leads to a clear regime change, as was the case in Tunisia or Egypt, a macro analysis doesn’t clarify the real impact. Macro indicators can ignore changes at the micro level. More specific, narrowed-down research that focuses on measurable variables is needed. Following specific social groups and studying their behavior or status quo before and after the movements could be a good methodology to determine the magnitude of change.

After discussing several options, participants decided to meet again in June 2015 to discuss the recent ‘Umbrella’ revolution in Hong Kong (Hilgers 2015). Using a multi-disciplinary approach, the group will aim to understand the origin, structure, dynamics, purpose and outcome of the revolution, focusing on the digital aspects of the phenomenon. The ‘Umbrella’ revolution will be compared to similar post-GFC movements like the Arab Spring or Occupy, in order to find similarities and contrasts.


Grimes, J and Warf, B (1997), ‘Counterhegemonic discourses and the Internet’, The Geographical Review, 87.2 (April 1997):p259

Hilgers, L (2015), ‘Hong Kong’s Umbrella revolution isn’t over yet’, The New York Times, viewed on 1 March 2015,

Kelly, BB (2012), ‘Investing in a centralized cybersecurity infrastructure: Why “hacktivism” can and should influence cybersecurity reform’, Boston University Law Review, Vol. 92:1663 2012

Toret, J. (2013). Tecnopolítica: la potencia de las multitudes conectadas. El sistema red 15M, un nuevo paradigma de la política distribuida. IN3 Working Paper Series.


E-seminar on the Energy and Digital Living website by Sarah Pink et al

February 26, 2015

This is the opening post of the EASA Media Anthropology Network’s 50th e-seminar, convened by Veronica Barassi (Goldsmiths). The session is currently under way. E-seminars are free and open to anyone with a genuine interest in the anthropology of media. To participate please subscribe to our mailing list via this page.

Dear All,

Welcome to the 50th EASA Media Anthropology Network e-seminar! For those of you who are new to this mailing list, these sessions run for two weeks on the list and all subscribers are welcome to participate.

For this special occasion we will not be discussing a paper, but rather a website, which relates to the latest project by Prof. Sarah Pink’s (RMIT University).

Energy and Digital Living

Energy and Digital Living is based on the sensory and digital ethnography methodologies and design research undertaken at Loughborough University, UK, as part of the EPSRC funded Lower Effort Energy Demand Reduction (LEEDR) project (2010-14).

The site aims to disseminate both the ethnographic findings and design interventions developed from our work, as well as the digital-sensory ethnography methodology that we developed as a way of researching energy and digital media in the home. In doing so it makes an argument for a sensory-digital design ethnography, and demonstrates how we both used this approach to research digital media and energy consumption in everyday life, and to develop concepts to inform digital design interventions. The project was an process of learning to work across digital ethnography and digital design and in that sense also offers examples that invite reflections on the ‘next steps’ in bringing together such approaches.

The site is intended to be used by scholars and practitioners from different disciplines who are interested in this field, researchers and designers interested in video methods and digital-sensory ethnography practice and in interdisciplinary work, and has the potential to be used for teaching around a number of areas. It may have other uses. It is not so much a ‘how to’ site, but an example of what has and can be done, from which new ideas might be launched.

Energy and Digital Living was Directed by Sarah Pink. The content was written and produced by the Social Sciences team (Sarah Pink, Kerstin Leder Mackley and Roxana Moroşanu) and the Design Team (Val Mitchell, Tracy Bhamra, Carolina Escobar-Telo and Garrath Wilson). The web site was developed by Paper Giant Chris Marmo and Reuben Stanton. The project would have been impossible without all the people who generously participated in the LEEDR project, and the wider team of LEEDR researchers with whom we collaborated.

Professor Mark Pedelty (University of Minnesota) has kindly agreed to act as discussant, and you will receive his comments tomorrow. Mark Pedelty is a Professor of Communication Studies and an affiliate Professor of Anthropology. His research deals with music and sound as environmental communication.

As always you are all very welcome to contribute comments and questions after we’ve had the presenter’s response to the discussant who will be posting her comments.


Dr Veronica Barassi
BA Anthropology and Media Programme
Department of Media and Communications,
Goldsmiths, University of London

Digital ethnography: ‘being there’ physically, remotely, virtually and imaginatively

February 25, 2015

A revised version of this post will appear in Pink, S., H. Horst, J. Postill, L. Hjorth, T. Lewis and J. Tacchi. 2015, Forthcoming. Digital Ethnography: Principles and Practices. London: Sage.

IN 2003 AND 2004 I conducted anthropological fieldwork in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Subang Jaya, Malaysia (Postill 2011). I was part of an international team of social anthropologists from the universities of Bremen, Manchester and Amsterdam studying e-governance initiatives in multi-ethnic areas of six different countries. The aim of this comparative project was to determine whether the internet was making any significant difference to local governance policies and practices in those localities. In my particular case, events on the ground led me to an unplanned focus on internet activism around local issues, and its implications for relationships between the municipal authorities and local residents (Postill 2012a).

The municipality of Subang Jaya was created in 1997, coinciding with the Southeast Asian financial crash that led to a deep political crisis in Malaysia and to the onset of the reformasi movement in 1998. Although internet penetration was still low in Malaysia at the time, the internet played an important role in the reform movement as an alternative means of information, opinion and mobilisation, especially among the (sub)urban middle classes (Abbott 2001, Postill 2014).

A year later, in 1999, Subang Jaya residents reacted to a 240 per cent overnight rise in local tax rates by using the internet to successfully reverse the municipal council’s decision. That same year a Yahoo mailing list and a Web forum were created by and for residents as venues for both ‘serious’ and light-hearted exchanges about local issues, leisure pursuits, national and international affairs, and so on. The forum was a huge success, and it soon became Malaysia’s most lively local forum.

I discovered a panoply of digital initiatives in Subang Jaya on both sides of the government-civil society divide, including a trisectoral ‘smart township’ project aimed at bringing together the public sector, the private sector and the local residents. Although this project failed, it did contribute to the flourishing of internet activism and some modest democratic reforms in a country with an acute ‘democratic deficit’ after local elections were banned in the 1960s following race riots that pitted the Malay Muslim majority against the ethnic Chinese minority (Postill 2011: 53).

To my surprise, ethnic identity was not really a major concern among Subang Jaya’s activists fighting for better local governance in their largely middle-class, yet overcrowded and underserviced, suburb. The most salient identity marker was in fact residentiality, not ethnicity — a common refrain heard among activists being ‘We are local residents and rate-payers’. The key issue was not so much democracy either (e.g. a campaign to reinstate local elections gained few adherents). It was ensuring that the local authorities used residents’ taxes wisely and efficiently to resolve seemingly mundane problems related to traffic, waste disposal, green areas, and the like – a type of collective action I termed ‘banal activism’ (Postill 2011: 18).

On returning from the field, I first tried to place my empirical materials on Subang Jaya’s various local internet initiatives along a community-network continuum, with communal projects at one end of the spectrum and network-like projects at the other. However, this soon proved to be a dead end that did not do justice to the fluidity and heterogeneity of conditions on the ground. Inspired by the Manchester School of Anthropology’s pioneering studies of urbanisation and social change in Central-Southern Africa – where they fashioned new concepts such as ‘field’, ‘network’, ‘social situation’, ‘trouble case’ and ‘social drama’ – I developed the notion of field of residential affairs. A field of residential affairs is a conflict-prone domain of action in which residents, politicians, municipal staff, journalists, entrepreneurs and other social agents compete and cooperate over local issues, often via the internet (Postill 2011: xii). This new concept allowed me to escape from the analytical constraints of the community/network duo – a dubious conceptual pairing that has bedevilled internet studies for decades (Postill 2008). Trying to understand the infinite variety of internet social forms through ‘communities’ and ‘networks’ is like seeking to map the biodiversity of a Borneo rainforest armed with the words ‘bits’ and ‘bobs’.

I then followed up this 2003-2004 fieldwork in Subang Jaya with part-time online research from the UK until 2009, as well as online archival research reaching back to 1999. The result was a ‘diachronic ethnography’ spanning 10 years (Postill 2012b). Interestingly, during several breaks from ‘the field’ back in England, I was often actually able to be a more active participant with a broader range of residents via the lively Web forum than when I was physically in Subang Jaya, where I was busy interviewing people and attending events with narrower segments of the population and the local elites. In addition, the broadband connection was faster and more reliable in England than in Malaysia. Oddly enough, I felt closer to the local residents when I was 6,500 miles away than whilst physically ‘being there’ (cf. Geertz 1988).

‘Being there’ in the digital era

What are the implications for ethnographers and other qualitative researchers of this technological ability – increasingly common – to conduct participant observation remotely? Is ‘remote ethnography’ as valid a mode of inquiry as traditional co-present research? After all, being there’ has been the sine qua non of ethnographic research since Malinowski’s fieldwork revolution (Geertz 1988). What does ‘being there’ mean today, particularly among the (sub)urban middle classes, when ethnographers and their research participants alike have a range of telematic media at their disposal? Does this state of ‘polymedia’ (Madianou and Miller 2013) destabilise earlier notions of what counts as ethnographic fieldwork? Where are we when we Skype research participants across two or more locations? Are we in a virtual ‘third place’ akin to Second Life or in several physical places simultaneously?

I cannot answer all these questions here in any detail, but clearly the notion of ‘being there’ requires some unpacking. With the widespread adoption of digital media in recent years we are now in a position to discern at least four fundamental ways of being in the field. First, one can be there physically, or co-presently, interacting with research participants face-to-face (or indeed side-by-side, back-to-back, etc., see Postill 2008). Second, the ethnographer can also be there remotely, that is, via Skype, streaming, chat, pads, and other telematic media. Third, we can be in the field virtually, in a ‘third place’ that is neither our present location nor that of our interlocutors (Boellstorff 2008), e.g. via a mailing list, a web forum, a 3D real-time game, etc. Fourth, ethnographers (and their participants) can be elsewhere imaginatively, before and/or after the fact, through digital stories or images found on blogs, social media, video-sharing sites, and so on.

To add another layer of complexity to this heuristic scheme, these modes of being can be combined in potentially infinite ways. For instance, it is common nowadays for ethnographers – and their interlocutors – to use their mobile devices while in the presence of others, sometimes interrupting the flow of conversation several times in the course of an interaction, or adding a physically absent interlocutor to the conversation through a real-time connection, stored images or video of them, or a combination of these formats.

All modes of digitally mediated presence/absence entail a trade-off. Digital ethnographers will typically switch and mix among these modalities in the course of their ethnographic research – often without having the time to pause on the process as it unfolds, let alone catalogue and analyse all such instances in the post-fieldwork phase. In other words, this mixing and switching in our ways of being there has become almost fully naturalised.

It follows that we should abandon once and for all the received anthropological notion  assumption that unmediated physical co-presence is inherently superior to, or more legitimate than, other forms of being there. In fact, there are certain situations in which we can learn more by following a Facebook exchange about a local issue or the live streaming and tweeting of a local event from our homes thousands of miles away than if we had been there at the time, as I have found when researching the digital practices of activists in Malaysia, Indonesia and Spain.

The crucial point here is triangulation, that is, the ethnographic imperative to gather primary and secondary materials on a given question through as rich a variety of sources as possible (Ortner 1998), including the ever-expanding ways of being there. Relying solely on physically co-present, non-digital fieldwork, or solely on telematics is still theoretically possible, but in most research settings it no longer makes  sense to do so.

About the author

Dr John Postill is Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow at RMIT University, Melbourne (2013-2016), and Digital Anthropology Fellow at University College London (UCL). His publications include Localizing the Internet (2011), Media and Nation Building (2006) and the co-edited volume Theorising Media and Practice (2010, with Birgit Bräuchler). Currently he is conducting anthropological research on new forms of digital activism and civic engagement in Indonesia, Spain and globally. He is also writing a book on the Spanish indignados (15M) movement and its recent political offshoots, as well as the co-edited volume Theorising Media and Change (with Elisenda Ardèvol and Sirpa Tenhunen). Follow John on Twitter: @JohnPostill


Abbott, J. P. 2001. Democracy@ internet. asia? The challenges to the emancipatory potential of the net: Lessons from China and Malaysia. Third World Quarterly, 22(1), 99-114.

Boellstorff, T. 2008. Coming of age in Second Life: An anthropologist explores the virtually human. Princeton University Press.

Geertz, C. 1988. Works and lives: The anthropologist as author. Stanford University Press.

Madianou, M., & Miller, D. 2013. Polymedia: Towards a new theory of digital media in interpersonal communication. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 16(2), 169-187.

Ortner, S. B. 1998. Generation X: Anthropology in a media-saturated world. Cultural Anthropology, 414-440.

Postill, J. 2008 Localising the internet beyond communities and networks, New Media and Society 10 (3), 413-431; pre-publication version

Postill, J. 2011. Localizing the Internet: An Anthropological Account. Oxford and New York: Berghahn. See draft Introduction.

Postill, J. 2012a. Digital politics and political engagement. In H. Horst and D. Miller (eds) Digital Anthropology. Oxford: Berg.

Postill, J. 2012b. Media and social changing since 1979: Towards a diachronic ethnography of media and actual social changes. Paper to the EASA 2012 biennial conference, Nanterre, Paris. See e-seminar discussion of revised version (E-seminar 42, Media Anthropology Network).

Postill, J. 2014. A critical history of internet activism and social protest in Malaysia, 1998-2011. Asiascape: Digital Asia Journal 1-2: 78-103.

13. Six ways of doing digital ethnography

January 16, 2015

researchTitleThis is the thirteenth instalment in the freedom technologists series. A revised version will appear in Pink, S., H. Horst, J. Postill, L. Hjorth, T. Lewis and J. Tacchi. 2015, Forthcoming. Digital Ethnography: Principles and Practices. London: Sage.

IN THE 2000s I studied an internet-mediated social world that remained fairly stable throughout the main period of fieldwork, namely the field of residential politics in a middle-class suburb of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (Postill 2011). However, digital ethnographers will sometimes find that the social worlds they are researching will experience dramatic changes over a short period of time. In some cases, they may even witness the birth of a new social world whilst still in the field.

This is precisely what happened to me during fieldwork among Internet activists in Barcelona, Catalonia (Spain). In May 2011, with little prior warning, the small Internet activism scene I had been researching for ten months was swept up by a tidal wave of popular indignation involving millions of Spanish citizens who took to the streets and squares demanding ‘real democracy now’ (Postill and Pink 2012). This ‘wave’ soon came to be known as the indignados or 15M movement – a gargantuan social world demanding urgent investigation.

Here is a rough outline of events. When some forty protesters decided to stage a sit-in at Madrid’s main square, Puerta del Sol, in the early hours of 16 May 2011, they could not have anticipated the repercussions of their spontaneous action. After calling for reinforcements via Twitter and other social media, their numbers grew into the hundreds throughout the day. Yet it was only when they were removed from the square by the police on 17 June that their plight ‘went viral’. This led to the retaking of the square, only now by thousands upon thousands of protesters from all walks of life – an action that was soon replicated in dozens of other squares up and down the country. What started on 15 May as a series of peaceful marches, had turned within 48 hours into the Tahrir-inspired occupation of countless squares across Spain. The fledgling protests had morphed into a mass social movement, a social media phenomenon and a global media event. Within days, millions of Spaniards were exchanging a huge volume of 15M digital contents through email, Facebook, Twitter, Tuenti, blogs and countless other platforms, both on desktop computers and handheld devices (Rodriguez 2011).

Since those eventful days, I have sought to conceptualise the 15M social world in a number of different ways — often as a result of an invitation to contribute to a special journal issue or edited volume. We could regard these varied efforts as diachronic, ‘multi-timed’ versions (Postill 2012) of the influential ‘follow the’ approach to multi-sited ethnographic research proposed by Marcus (1995) twenty years ago. Here I review briefly some of them, namely following (1) the viral contents, (2) the digital technologies, (3) the digital technologists, (4) a single field of contention, (5) a series of fields of contention and (6) the protest temporalities.

First, I have argued elsewhere that we are entering a new age of ‘viral reality’ in which media amateurs and professionals are co-defining what constitutes a newsworthy story through citizens’ increased ability to choose which digital contents to share – or not – with their personal networks (Postill 2014, see also Nahon and Hemsley 2013). These ‘hybrid media systems’ (Chadwick 2013) or ‘convergence cultures’ (Jenkins 2006) pose formidable challenges to ethnographers, requiring as they do new conceptual tools and approaches. In this vein, I outlined a new research programme that I termed ‘media epidemiography’. This concept blends Sperber’s (1997) ‘epidemiology of representations’ with the ethnography of digital media. By analogy with medical epidemiology, its remit is to track the endemic and epidemic distribution of digital contents (or ‘representations’) across a given population – in this case, 15M contents across Spain – through ethnographic means. For a protest movement like 15M, I proposed four working types of viral form: campaign virals (i.e. campaign contents that ‘go viral’), viral campaigns (the whole campaign goes viral), niche virals (digital contents shared within a specific demographic, e.g. law students in Barcelona) and sustainable virals (contents that become endemic within a whole population, e.g. the slogan “Real democracy now!” across Spain). Given the speed with which digital contents will sometimes spread, media epidemiographers will have to develop new digital forensics techniques to investigate them retrospectively, e.g. through interviews with activists involved in creating campaign memes, Twitter trending topics, and the like.

A second avenue open to the ethnographer is to ‘follow’ one or more digital technologies as they traverse discrete social contexts (Marcus 1995, Spitulnik 2002). For instance, Arnau Monterde and I (2013) have retraced the uses of mobile phones by 15M participants during the first semester of the movement’s existence through both qualitative and quantitative data. We found a great deal of variation from one event or action to another, coining the notion ‘mobile ensembles’ to refer to the unique mix of digital media, participants and issues found in each instance. This term is derived from the earlier notion of ‘media ensembles’, introduced by the media theorist Bausinger (1984) to refer to the combination of radio, TV and print media typically found in a Western home in the early 1980s.

Another option available to the digital ethnographer is to follow not the technologies but rather the technologists. For instance, as we can see in the present blog series, I am currently following a specific subcategory of political actor I call ‘freedom technologists’, i.e. those people who are deeply invested in exploring the limits and possibilities of new digital technologies for progressive political change (e.g. bloggers, vloggers, hackers, geeks, online journalists, civil digital rights lawyers). In this context, ‘following’ does not necessarily entail physically shadowing participants in real time. Digital ethnographers will often retrace the steps of key participants after the fact, by means of interviews, Web archives, social media platforms, field notes and other materials. Thus I am currently translating and editing a series of transcripts of YouTube interviews with Spanish freedom technologists available on a 15M website. The interviews were not commissioned or conducted by me, but rather by a collective of freedom technologists. I am then sharing these ‘para-ethnographic’ materials (Holmes and Marcus 2008) via this research blog. In turn, these posts are being recirculated through Twitter and other sites by the research participants, thereby reaching non-academic audiences. As digital technologies and free/open ideals and practices continue to spread, such intersections between the work of ethnographers, activists, and other political actors will become more habitual.

The 15M social world can also be conceptualised as a field (Postill in press). More specifically, as a movement-field or field of contention, i.e. a highly dynamic political domain in which variously positioned field agents (including freedom technologists) struggle over a small set of pressing issues and rewards, often through digital media. By contrast with more institutionalised fields such as art, sociology or journalism studied by Bourdieu and colleagues, a movement-field (particularly in the digital age) is characterised by its mercurial dynamism, i.e. by the swiftness and unpredictability with which it can expand, contract, mutate and migrate (Postill 2011). Rather than a static ‘community of practice’ with a shared membership, the 15M field resembles the ‘affinity space’ of a massively multiplayer online game (Gee 2005). This is an open, inclusive socio-technical world in which ‘players’ can find highly diverse routes to participation and accomplishment, regardless of prior qualifications or social identity.

Alternatively, we can regard 15M not as a single field but, as we saw in a previous post, as four distinct (sub)fields of civic action (15M, 17M, 25M and 24M) interrupted by a long period of unorganised civic space. These fields can be regarded as games of a kind. They are not games like chess, tennis or Minecraft, but they are still contests in which civic ‘players’ with unique skills and trajectories enter into relationships with other players (both individual and collective) in pursuit of the same rewards or prizes. Freedom technologists bring to Spain’s streets, squares, TV studios, newsrooms, social media sites, seminar rooms, etc., a unique experience and passion for exploring the limits and possibilities of mixing technology with politics, a capacity for civic experimentation and for freely sharing its fruits, and a growing realisation (which came as a shock to many in late May 2014) that we live in hybrid media systems in which we dismiss ‘old’ media like TV at our own peril.

Finally, the digital ethnographer can approach a social world like 15M genealogically, that is, by teasing out its entangled processual lineages. Eschewing the received notion of non-linear time – popular in anthropology since the 1980s – I favour instead the idea of multi-linearity (Postill forthcoming). Reworking a conceptual trinity developed by the historian William Sewell (2005), I distinguish between 15M events, routines and trends as three distinct forms of temporality with their own unique trajectories (or lineages). Not all ‘media events’ in Dayan’s (1994) classic formulation qualify as 15M events in the Sewellian sense of the term. To qualify as such, they must transform the movement-field. For example, when 15M participants throughout Spain abandoned the occupied squares in June 2011 to relocate to local neighbourhoods, this move had a profound effect on the movement, marking a new stage in its evolution. Events such as this will have a direct impact on a social world’s web of routines: whilst some square routines survived the relocation (e.g. holding assemblies), others perished in the process. Finally, trends are of interest not only to the diachronic ethnographer, but also to movement-field participants themselves. Perceived trends push 15M collective action towards traits regarded as desirable, e.g. non-violence, and away from those seen as undesirable by most participants, e.g. a turn towards violent ‘direct action’ (on trends, see also Robbins 2014).

Back to freedom technologists series


Bausinger, H. 1984. Media, technology and daily life. Media Culture & Society, 6 (4), 343-351.

Chadwick, A. 2013. The hybrid media system: Politics and power. Oxford University Press.

Dayan, D. 1994. Media events. Harvard University Press.

Gee, J. 2005. ‘Semiotic Social Spaces and Affinity Spaces’ in D. Barton and K. Tusting (eds) Beyond Communities of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Holmes, D. R., & Marcus, G. E. 2008. Para-ethnography. SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods, 595-7.

Jenkins, H. 2006. Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. NYU press.

Monterde, A. and J. Postill 2014. Mobile ensembles: The uses of mobile phones for social protest by Spain’s indignados. In G. Goggin and L. Hjorth (eds.) Routledge Companion to Mobile Media. London: Routledge, 429-438.

Nahon, K., & Hemsley, J. 2013. Going viral. Cambridge: Polity.

Postill, J. 2011. Localizing the Internet: An Anthropological Account. Oxford and New York: Berghahn. See draft Introduction.

Postill, J. 2014. Democracy in an age of viral reality: a media epidemiography of Spain’s indignados movement Ethnography 15 (1): 50-68.

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

Postill, J. forthcoming. The multilinearity of protest: understanding new social movements through their events, trends and routines. In Othon Alexandrakis (ed). Method Acting: The Anthropology of New Social Movements. Zone Books (MIT Press).

Postill, J. and S. Pink 2012. Social media ethnography: the digital researcher in a messy web. Media International Australia 145 , 123-134.

Rodríguez, D. 2011. Los virales de la #spanishrevolution, Trending Topics, 19 May 2011, spanishrevolution.html

Robbins, J. (2014). How Do Religions End? Theorizing Religious Traditions from the Point of View of How They Disappear. Cambridge Anthropology, 32(2), 2-15.

Sperber, D. 1996. Explaining culture. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Spitulnik, D. 2002. ‘Mobile Machines and Fluid Audiences: Rethinking reception through Zambian radio culture.’ In F. D. Ginsburg, L. Abu-Lughod and B. Larkin, (Eds.). Media worlds: Anthropology on new terrain. Univ of California Press.

Image credit: NPS Ethnography

12. Freedom technologists and protest formulas in Egypt

December 20, 2014

John Postill:

This is the twelfth instalment in the freedom technologists series.

Originally posted on CONNECTED in CAIRO:

What can formulaic expression tell us about media and social change? To study technology users rather than technologies, says John Postill in a recent article. What can formulaic expression tell us about media and social change? For one thing, to study technology users rather than technologies, says John Postill in a recent article.

There’s a new article out from John Postill in the latest issue of Convergence that may be relevant to the study of the roles digital media played (and continue to play) in the Egyptian revolution.

John’s project is to study the relationship between Internet activism and post-2008 protest movements generally.

John does not look at Egypt, alas. Instead he draws on his own anthropological fieldwork in Spain, and on secondary literature about uprisings in Tunisia and Iceland.

Key to his analysis are two new terms he has coined: ‘freedom technologists’ and ‘protest formulas’:

  1. Freedom technologist refers to social actors who combine technological and political skills to pursue greater Internet and democratic freedoms (which they typically see as inextricably linked).
  2. Protest formulas refers to the unique compound of societal forces…

View original 630 more words

Aggregation vs. networking: a conversation between Paolo Gerbaudo and Jeff Juris

December 19, 2014

These are the first few exchanges of an ongoing public conversation between the social movements scholars Paolo Gerbaudo and Jeff Juris, with Sasha Constanza-Shock and myself chipping in as required. It all started on Twitter a couple of days ago, but we then decided to move the conversation to a much roomier platform: Pirate Pad.

[JP update 19 Dec 2014. For readers new to this topic, here is the abstract of Juris, J. S. (2012). Reflections on# Occupy Everywhere: Social media, public space, and emerging logics of aggregation. American Ethnologist, 39(2), 259-279.

This article explores the links between social media and public space within the #Occupy Everywhere movements. Whereas listservs and websites helped give rise to a widespread logic of networking within the movements for global justice of the 1990s–2000s, I argue that social media have contributed to an emerging logic of aggregation in the more recent #Occupy movements—one that involves the assembling of masses of individuals from diverse backgrounds within physical spaces. However, the recent shift toward more decentralized forms of organizing and networking may help to ensure the sustainability of the #Occupy movements in a posteviction phase. [social movements, globalization, political protest, public space, social media, new technologies, inequality]]


I suggest we let Paolo begin by making his point about aggregation vs. networking, with citations if need be, and then Jeff can respond. Either Sasha or I could be the moderator (one moderator is better than two, I reckon).


Hi Guys what if you (John and Sasha) raise some questions about our views of aggregation and networking and we respond? That would give a stronger framing to the discussion.


I’m not so sure either aggregation or networking are new logics :)


Come on Sasha don’t open another battle line in this logic battle ;)


OK, here’s my kick-off question. Paolo, could you take us back to Sasha’s original tweet, give us a paragraph or two or three about the point you were trying to make? Then Jeff could respond, and we’ll take it from there. In other words, we’re reinitiating the original Twitter conversation from scratch but this time with room to develop points and respond, something that was not possible on Twitter. (NB. Bear in mind that some readers won’t be familiar with your work or Jeff’s).


Just finished grading, have a bit of time now. Remember: my initial query about Sasha’s tweet was in response to the implication that I somehow saw aggregation as negative. This was likely more a result of the specific properties of Twitter than anything else (John’s point: affordances anyone?). So, hopefully starting from scratch will allow for a more productive discussion. BTW, who reads this pad (nice to know something about audience)?


Re: who reads this pad, well it’s a public arena which anyone can read if they know where to find it, although we haven’t really explicitly publicised it other than indirectly via our Twitter exchanges. I was thinking we could publicise it once the conversation gets under way?


[why don’t we use this as a draft for an interview to be published somewhere on da web?]


An interview sounds like a great idea to me.


Hi folks. Thanks for getting this conversation started. I think the small Twitter misunderstanding we had is a perfect excuse to start a conversation I was very eager to have.

Jeff’s discussion of a logic of aggregation as the emerging communicative logic of the Occupy wave, and its difference from the logic of networking of no-global activists, which he had described in Networking Futures, has been one of the major sources of inspiration for the theorising I have been developing in Tweets and the Streets and thereafter (I have a book on protest culture coming out sometimes in 2015, which discusses very much these issues).

To start from the tweet, my reference during the Media Activism conference to the fact, that I had a more positive view of aggregation, was based mostly on two critical points made by Jeff on aggregation vis-a-vis networking in 2 separate articles.

1) in the Occupy Everywhere article, Jeff argued that the logic of aggregation had some problems compared with networking and in particular a more serious problem of sustainability than the logic of networking, because of its flash-mob tendency to aggregate and disaggregate. Connected to this diagnosis he saw in decentralized organisation (collectives, affinity, groups, community projects) a possible solution.

2) in another collective article ‘Negotiating Power and Difference Within the 99%’ while not referring to the notion of aggregation, some related criticisms emerged which I think ultimately have to do precisely with aggregation. In particular the collective tag 99% was seen as homogeneising, with the risk of eliding differences (class, gender, ethnicity).

Both articles are pertinent and they are right in signalling some risks. Yet, as far as I am concerned, online aggregation and its manifestation in unifying identities as the 99% constitute a clear advancement vis-a-vis the networking practiced by anti-globalisation activists and one which matches well the challenges of the present times.

In particular aggregation – as a process by means of which atomised individuals can be grouped in a collective category  as “the people” or “the 99%” – can allow to

a) supersede the profound divides created by decades of identity politics and the particularism and separatism it has engendered (this is were the 99% identity was useful – to say let’s leave differences aside for a minute, let’s use the economic battlefield as a gathering point. Otherwise they’ll do “divide and rule”)

b) construct a cross-class alliance to face the challenge of an oligarchic society, characterised by an alliance between the business class and the political class, and the presence of so-called “cartel parties” (Katz and Mair, 1995) that is parties that do not really compete with one another

c) overcome the atomisation of contemporary society (in the form of a networked individualism), and cope with the lack of strong categorical identities to be mobilised. As the historian of social movements Charles Tilly (1978) taught us with his concept of cat-net (network within a category) we need both net and cat . Imho at the moment we have too much net and too little cat ;)

d) overcome the self-ghettoising tendencies of small group politics (affinity groups, collectives), which I think were ultimately detrimental for the anti-globalisation movement and autonomous movements (if you are not part of the scene, you are not part of ‘us’)

This is why I think that developing an understanding of online aggregation is very a urgent political task and I welcome this discussion. This is a good point to end my first round.


Here’s my first post- think I got carried away:-)

Thanks for the clarification, Paolo, definitely helps flesh out your arguments a bit more than a twitter post! The twitter post was great for grabbing my attention and pulling us all together to have this conversation (perhaps a mini-example of aggregation), but then other tools/structures were needed to really flesh out our ideas and build a productive and more sustainable discussion (essentially a wiki, one of the classic tools of collaborative, networked writing that was widely used during the heyday of the global justice movement). This can serve as a kind of metaphor for the way I see the relationship between logics of aggregation and logics of networking. Each has specific effects, including significant advantages and challenges with respect to movement building and strategy, and I think movements would benefit from understanding how these logics work and incorporating elements of each. I actually don’t think it is possible that one is a clear advancement over the other in such an absolute sense. That’s the gist of what I argued toward the end of my American Ethnologist piece. I actually think this began to happen more and more within the Occupy movement, but, ultimately I don’t think it was enough, and the movement wasn’t really able to sustain itself in the same way for too long after the evictions despite the rise of many exciting initiatives like Occupy Sandy, Strike Debt, Occupy Boston Radio, etc. I was actually more optimistic at the time of writing that piece than I am now.

Paolo provided a lot to chew on and I want to briefly address his point about subjectivity, but before that let me address two potential misconceptions. I am NOT arguing for a deterministic relationship between certain technologies and particular movement logics. Rather, I am making an argument based on the idea of affordances: that certain technologies are more facilitative of certain kinds of practices and interactions than others, but that these practices and interactions are mediated by a host of social, cultural, and political factors. Nonetheless, it is interesting to think about the wider movement logics that may be partly shaped, at an early stage, by certain kinds of technological platforms and practices. Additionally, I use conceptual binaries like logics of aggregation vs. logics of networking as heuristic devices. In practice, these logics are never complete, they are always contested, and there is never an absolute divide between them. That is why I emphasize the potentially productive inter-relationships between them. Nonetheless, they can be helpful in terms of ethnographically interpreting (which is what I do) key movement dynamics as well as key cultural-political tensions and struggles within movements.

In terms of broad populist subjectivities like “the people” or “the 99%,” I think these played an extremely important and productive role within the Occupy movements (like the category of los Indignados in Spain). And I have specifically argued that they are related and partially shaped, if not determined, by the wider logics of aggregation within these movements (they are of course also a reflection of a widespread populist critique of the banks, Wall Street, financial capitalism, etc.). In a short Cultural Anthropology blog ( I try to ethnographically capture some of the visceral and political potency of these emerging insurgent subjectivities and to think about how to think about them more in performative than in representative terms (given the obvious pitfalls of trying to “represent” the 99%, which I don’t think is what people were actually trying to do). 

All that said, one potential problem of relatively universalizing categories, despite their clear productivity (again, I think in terms of strategic pros and cons, not absolute differences) is that they provide a language where it is often more difficult (not impossible) to articulate differences in ways that recognize internal stratifications, power relations, and exclusions. This means that members of historically marginalized groups may feel that their experiences are not recognized. This is precisely what we began to see in Occupy in relation to critiques of the notion of the 99%, the controversy over the Occupy Wall Street statement of occupation, etc. The point I have been trying to make in my writing is that 1) networking logics and discourses like unity through diversity, networks of networks, movements of movements, etc. provide a more fully developed language for incorporating difference (not that difference and power were effectively addressed in practice during the global justice era either!) and that 2) strategically, at least in the United States and other multicultural societies, it will be impossible to build the kind of diverse, cross-class, multi-racial movement that will be needed to win (whatever that means to you: to topple global finance, to achieve socio-economic and racial justice, to build an alternative society from below, etc.) without engaging difference. Again, rather than setting up logics of aggregation against logics of networking, this is a call to figure out ways of combining elements of each to find strategic ways of expressing broad populist sentiments that can produce powerful affective solidarities and link movements and communities together, while still recognizing differences and internal power relations.

This last point is perhaps shaped by my location in the United States, but here it is very difficult, if not impossible, to build cross-class, multi-racial coalitions by deemphasizing racial and ethnic differences and focusing primarily on class. This is independent of whether you think this would be a good thing. In strategic terms it is a non-starter. The goal, it seems to me, should be to find ways of conceptualizing and productively engaging differences of race, class, sex, gender, privilege, etc. in ways that lead, not to fragmentation and isolation, but to the building of links and connections across communities. This is where logics of networking have something to offer I think. But again, in my most optimistic moments, I believe there are ways to combine different logics and modes of subjectivity to move us forward and not continue falling into the same cultural-political stalemates. For me, conceptual and strategic innovation comes from creative mixing and mashing, not black and white kinds of oppositions (although those can be useful when confronting our political enemies!).

Continued here…

How information volunteers solve communicative issues during a disaster

December 18, 2014

Volunteers Playing with Children-Refugees
Volunteers play with children at a disaster refugee centre near Yogyakarta, in Indonesia. Photo by Eko Suprati.

This is an invited post from Kurniawan Adi Saputro (@ksaputro) who is about to complete his PhD at Sheffield Hallam University, UK. His thesis is a study of media audiences’ engagement in disaster response. He currently teaches at the Indonesia Institute of the Arts, in Yogyakarta.

The importance of ‘volunteer and technical communities’ (Meier, 2013) in today’s disaster response cannot be overstated. One of their key contributions is to help disaster-affected communities produce and obtain crisis information. They are especially needed to sift through a huge trove of crisis information, which is partly a product of widespread mobile phone adoption. Further, ‘volunteer and technical communities’ can lend their hand so that those affected by disaster can obtain local, up-to-date, and actionable information.

Much has been written about the technological issues of involving and serving the public in crisis communication. Here I want to highlight two communicative issues that these volunteers face, namely issue selection of the media and the public’s disconnection with the survivors. Jalin Merapi volunteers in Java, Indonesia, who provided alternative types of information and spaces of action from those of the mass media are a case in point.

Jalin Merapi

Jalin Merapi was founded in 2006 by a coalition of three community radios on the slope of Mt. Merapi, in central Java, two networks of community radio, and four local NGOs in the surrounding area. The coalition was formed after their realisation that during Mt. Merapi’s eruption in 2006 the people of Merapi needed to communicate more between themselves and that they could not rely on the mainstream media to voice their real concerns to the publics because the media listened to the authorities more than to them. In 2010, during the eruption of Mt. Merapi that claimed 367 lives and forced at least 410,388 people to evacuate the area (Surono et al., 2012), Jalin Merapi recruited and assigned approximately 700 volunteers to gather information about the refugees’ needs, to operate a media centre, and to help distribute the relief aid. In short, they created a medium whose central aim was to connect wider publics, especially potential donors, with the survivors.

Besides money, private donors in Indonesia are fond of giving in-kind donations. But there were two problems. First, there were thousands of them acting independently of each other. Second, different refugee camps might require different goods and services. For the survivors, Jalin Merapi provided an alternative channel to seek aid. For the donors, information from Jalin Merapi helped to determine what to provide in what quantity. It also helped donors identify which areas were still lacking supplies. Meanwhile the mainstream media would focus on the major refugee camps and the local governments were slowed down by red tape.

Reporting the overlooked

The 2006 Merapi eruption brought about Jalin Merapi activists’ realisation that they were being overlooked by the local government and the media. The local government’s disaster management was so weak that the people of Merapi had to pay for their own petrol to evacuate. On the other hand, the media could not be expected to voice their true concerns since, in the words of one of the founders, “… the media quoted the local government’s public relations. It might be due to their laziness, or due to them not knowing whom to talk to, that they did not go higher to the people’s place. They only went to the official refugee camps.”

This neglect motivated them to create an information network among the local people themselves, and between them and wider publics. The community radios on the different sides of Mt. Merapi supply the information and the NGOs in the surrounding cities help connect them with the wider publics. Their main tool of publication is the Jalin Merapi website, maintained by an NGO in the nearby city of Yogyakarta that specialises in providing technological support for communities.

Learning from the previous disaster, in 2010 Jalin Merapi stationed field information volunteers at or close to refugee camps. These were strategically selected so as to avoid those that had been well exposed by media. The volunteers were instructed to go to other refugee camps in the surrounding area and to report their needs. Along with bringing information from the less exposed area, Jalin Merapi actively posted messages on Twitter urging the donors to bring their aid to Muntilan and Magelang, not to the city of Yogyakarta which became the centre of attention. When a community living on the north-eastern side of the mountain refused to evacuate and, consequently, were isolated from the relief aid due to the police blockade, the information volunteers worked their way around the blockade and went back with a report. In another case, the public eye was focused on the refugee camps in the surrounding cities, whereas in fact more than ten thousands survivors took refuge in private houses in Gunung Kidul, 70 kilometres away from the disaster area. The citizen journalists brought up the issue and helped to turn the mass media and public gaze towards them.

The citizen journalists were required to focus on problems that were important to the survivors. Consequently, in the daily meeting they were encouraged to listen to the survivors’ problems, although they may have seemed trivial to outsiders. Furthermore, articles were not written to get a certain number of hits but to bring the survivors’ concerns to light. In the same spirit, the micro-blog channel was used to raise funds for the “pillow for Merapi” project whereby public could donated 10,000 rupiah (approx. one US dollar) for material that would be made into a pillow by volunteers. The website’s news section covered the refugees’ need for rubbish bins and paper wrap for food. The common interest of Jalin Merapi’s diverse media channels is its focus on the survivors’ immediate needs according to the survivors themselves.

Focusing on the survivors’ needs

Jalin Merapi learned a lesson when they attempted to connect the survivors with wider publics following the earthquake disaster in 2006 in the southern part of Yogyakarta that killed more than six thousand people. Seeing the disconnection between the supply of aid and the urgent needs of the survivors, they published print bulletins on alternate days and distributed them to the refugee camps. The problem was that they published the list of aid suppliers. Because the survivors’ needs were so high and the supplies were limited, the donors and the aid distributors on the list were overwhelmed with requests. Jalin Merapi was, in turn, reprimanded by the donors.

In 2010, Jalin Merapi decided to publish the needs, whereas the aid supply was published only occasionally and only if the donor specifically requested it. To solve the dilemma of speed vs. accuracy, Jalin Merapi chooses speed and treats the information as “accurate until proven otherwise.” This does not mean that there is no effort to verify the information. Efforts are made to make sure that the requests are correct and that the contact person exists and can confirm the request. From the audiences’ perspective, the voices of the survivors make the requests real, different from requests made by humanitarian organisation and the mainstream media. And the publics themselves love to see their aid reach the right person or, if possible, to distribute the aid in person and meet the survivors.

The weakness of this approach is that made-up requests cannot be distinguished from true requests before aid delivery. In fact, there was a case of a request for a generator that was later exposed by the donor to be fraudulent. Jalin Merapi published the story to warn other donors. Another problem it faces is that the requests may be made to many organisations simultaneously and can be fulfilled redundantly. Jalin Merapi cannot ascertain if and when a request can be fulfilled and by whom. Although Jalin Merapi manages the information centre and the aid distribution, the two operations are loosely connected.

Direct connection

The supply of information about survivors’ needs in disaster is an obvious problem to solve. There are many ways to go about it. The common approach is to rely on the authorities to source the information. This approach assumes the government and its agencies can keep abreast of the ever-changing circumstances of the refugees. During the Mt. Merapi eruption in 2010 the escalation of threat forced the refugees to evacuate three times, following the expansion of the safe zone threshold from 10 km to 15 km and finally to 20 km. The number of refugees surged from tens of thousands to about three hundred thousand people. The sudden change of reality rendered the hard earned data useless since refugees moved to new places and formed new groups. Furthermore, the way mass media covered refugees was aimed at creating an informed public, regardless of their action. Instead of helping the publics to donate themselves, Indonesian mainstream media liked to be the intermediary to whom people donated their money without being connected with the receiver (Abidin and Kurniawati, 2004; Heychael and Taniago, 2013). At variance with the media, Jalin Merapi provided information that could be acted upon by the publics and avoided standing in the way between the publics and the refugees (Dewi and Nasir, 2012).

Jalin Merapi changed the relationship between the subjects of news reports and the audiences by providing the opportunity to connect directly with the survivors. The phone number of the survivor or the volunteer was provided in the news article, in the micro-blog posts, and in the online live document. Concern over privacy was superseded by a more important objective, namely to allow the potential donors to contact the refugees. By calling the potential receiver first, the donors could spend their budget effectively. And after delivering the aid, the donors could keep themselves updated by maintaining a connection with the survivors. When the survivors moved, the donors knew how to reach them.

Two lessons can be learnt from Jalin Merapi’s information volunteers. One, we need to see beyond the traditional communicators of disaster (government and mass media) and pay attention to local people and ‘volunteer and technical communities’. Two, their strategic decision to put new and innovative technologies to use can be critical in disaster response.

Further reading

Abidin, H. and Kurniawati (2004). Galang dana ala media. Jakarta, Piramedia.

Dewi, A. S. and A. Nasir (2012). Solid@rity from the crowd: The use of ICT and collective action for disaster relief in Indonesia. In: CITS – ICT4D working paper series conference, August 17. Yogyakarta, Centre for Information Technology Study, Sanata Dharma University. Unpublished.

Heychael, M. and R. Thaniago (2013). Ketika televisi peduli: Potret dilematis filantropi media. Jakarta, Remotivi.

Meier, P. (2013). Strengthening humanitarian information: The role of technology. In IFRC, World disaster report: Focus on technology and the future of humanitarian action. Last accessed 18 December 2014 at

Surono, et al. (2012). The 2010 explosive eruption of Java’s Merapi volcano: A ‘100-year’ event. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 241, 121-135.


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