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Notes on the 6th digital ethnography reading (Pink, Horst, Postill et al 2016)

January 18, 2016

Digital Ethnography

By Allister Hill
PhD student
Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC)
RMIT University, Melbourne

See other posts under digital ethnography reading group

On Tuesday 15 December we wrapped up the last of the Digital Ethnography Reading Sessions (DERS) for the year by reading the introductory chapter to ‘Digital Ethnography: Principles and Practice’ by DERC’s own collective of esteemed academics – Pink, Horst, Postill, Hjorth, Lewis, & Tacchi (2016). As a concise argument (or perhaps even befuddlement), engaging with this collaboration was a way for to celebrate ‘the reason for the season’, aka why we are all here at the Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC).

Being the first major collaborative book that focuses purely on digital ethnography this was a chance for the group to get stuck into what is essentially a primer for the expanding discipline. First up we all agreed that the intro chapter gave a nice accessible introduction into digital ethnographic practice. One of the group suggested that it encapsulates the meta process of the mediatisation of ethnography, that is being matched with shifts in the analogue world. This is reflected in the notion of an approach that has both a non-digital and non-media centricness, recognising that the digital is enmeshed with the wider landscape, but at the same time something that we have to account for.

The introduction to the various ‘turns’ that ethnography itself has taken as it has evolved in the digital age, is helpful for the novice ethnographer, while the five key principles of Multiplicity, Non-digital-centric-ness, Openness, Reflexivity, and Unorthodox were seen as useful rallying points. These principles were discussed in some detail, with points of interest raised around matters, including ‘to what extent can we have a level of openness?’ For example, at some point, a researcher needs to have an end point to his/her research. Though it was acknowledged that the authors are more likely pointing towards being relatively open to other ideas, a question is still raised: When one combines openness with multiplicity, how does one assess when the end point is reached in a research project? Or even when one gets to the point when what he/she is practicing / doing is no longer ethnography?

Two talking points that we discussed, in relation to what could have also been considered in the chapters, were:

1. The actual digital mediation of the writing process itself – as ethnographers we produce our ethnographic writings using both paper and digital means, sometimes using less analogue and more digital. This could have been explored a bit more.

2. Humans are seen to be static in the face of these rapid changes – while the book, and much of the writing around the digital, talks about how the field is rapidly shifting, there is not as much of a focus on how we as humans are changing alongside the digital.

Next the seven key concepts (corresponding to separate chapters in the book) were discussed: experiences, practices, things, relationships, social worlds, localities, and events. At first it was suggested that the concepts seemed like a bit of shopping list. Under further discussion, however, it was put forward that the concepts could be a good way of thinking about issues – either as a starting point for research or post analysis. The discussion then considered that, while in the field, ethnography requires researchers to be open ended, flexible and follow leads (not necessarily a certain agenda) to see where they are taken. It is perhaps better to be lead by key concepts, when writing, but less so when conducting ethnographic fieldwork. This is perchance the very essence of the openness and reflexivity of ethnography – that is, to go with some ideas but ‘expect the unexpected’ and be guided by research participants. With agendas being driven by what is found in the field as opposed to what researchers take to the field.

A side issue was explored that considered how the, somewhat, serendipitous nature of reflexive ethnography fits with algorithmic digital worlds. For example, as our digital experiences are increasingly mediated by algorithms, do we see a corresponding reduction in opportunities to be physically present, potentially missing out on data significant to our research? Perhaps the algorithmic effect has always been there, but is much more noticeable now. Furthermore, does a focus on the digital exclude more traditional diachronic historical research, were the history of changes in movements (such as the uses of social media) are tracked? Much digital research is based on the here and now and there is an inherent concern that one’s research and positionality can become immediately obsolescent. Though, perhaps, it is also worth noting that there has been some explicit focus on tracking digital metaphors and how they change over time.

Lastly, it was suggested that a good follow-up DERC book could be about the actual process of writing up one’s ethnography in the digital age. This could explore the work and skill employed when taking varieties of information and information sources and turning them into something coherent. There is the potential that, with practice, evolving engagement with these different forms and sources of information could better enable researchers to bring information from various data sources all together.

Due to be officially released in 2016 ‘Digital Ethnography: Principles and Practice’ is a good read, so you would do well to get yourself a copy (and you’ll be supporting our very own DERC).

The next reading session will be in February 2016 (giving everyone a bit of break in January) and back to the usual schedule of the second Wednesday of the month.

The February reading will be ‘Ethnographic Approaches to the Internet and Computer-Mediated Communication’ by Garcia et al 2012.

See other posts under digital ethnography reading group

Doing remote ethnography

January 18, 2016

by John Postill
RMIT University
Melbourne

Draft chapter to appear in the Routledge Companion to Digital Ethnography
Eds. Larissa Hjorth, Heather Horst, Anne Galloway & Genevieve Bell
January 2016

See PDF

Abstract

It is commonly thought that ‘being there’ has been the sine qua non of anthropological research ever since Malinowski’s ‘fieldwork revolution’ in the early 20th century (Geertz 1988). Yet during World War Two, leading US-based anthropologists such as Mead, Bateson and Benedict had no choice but to study the cultures of Japan, Germany and other nations ‘at a distance’, including through media formats such as films, novels, and poetry (Mead and Metraux 2000). With the explosive growth of networked technologies in recent years, the remote study of social practices is once again on the agenda – only now with far greater media resources at our disposal than those available in the 1940s. In this chapter I reflect on my experience of researching digital politics while physically absent from ‘the field’. I argue that there is nothing inherently inferior or illegitimate about researching local issues remotely (e.g. via Twitter, live streaming, web cam, email, online archives), or indeed retroactively, especially for ethnographers with previous local experience. The main challenge is precisely how to overcome this misconception and make adequate provision for remote ethnography in our research designs and practices.

Keywords
long-distance fieldwork, research, methodology, digital media, social media, anthropology, digital ethnography, remote ethnography

******

It was a tense event. I was sitting in a classroom at Goldsmiths College, University of London, near the front. The speaker was the ex-Muslim and feminist author Maryam Namazie. She was here as a guest of the university’s Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (AHS) to speak about blasphemy and apostasy. The audience consisted at this point of some twenty-five souls, including a contingent of young Muslim women sat towards the back of the room. Normally at a university lecture one assumes the audience will be reasonably quiet and respectful – you would certainly not expect to have to contend with hecklers bent on disrupting the session. But on this occasion that was exactly what was in store for Namazie.

After a brief introduction by a young, bespectacled AHS member, Namazie wondered out loud whether she should sit or stand, eventually choosing the latter. About ten minutes into her talk, half a dozen young bearded men – presumably from the university’s Islamic Society – entered the room and sat along the front row, a mere few feet away from the speaker. One of them began to laugh as Namazie related the recent murder of Bangladeshi bloggers critical of political Islamists. The speaker asked him whether he found it amusing that people were being ‘hacked to death’. Shortly afterwards, another bearded student started to interrupt Namazie, to which she responded by shouting numerous times ‘Be quiet or get out!’, alas to no avail. Tongue in cheek, the student replied that he felt intimidated by Namazie who immediately retorted: ‘Oh, you’re intimidated? Go to your safe space.’ Refusing to be silenced by the constant interruptions and irritations (e.g. loud ringtones), Namazie pressed on with her presentation and even managed to hold a lively Q&A session at the end, by which time the troublemakers had already left the room.

******

I folded my laptop, got up from the sofa, went downstairs to the kitchen and made myself a cup of tea. I had been glued to the screen for almost two hours without a break. I was not in London. I was at home in Melbourne, 17,000 kilometres away. What’s more, I was not even following the lecture in real time, for it had been recorded and uploaded onto YouTube the day before [2] (I learned about this video via Twitter). And yet it felt as if I was present there and then, in the thick of it, as much a member of the audience as anyone else. I felt the palpable tension, the anger, the fear, the dogged determination, the final triumph of argument over intimidation. Perhaps it did not feel exactly as if I had been there at the time, but no great leap of the imagination was needed to feel a great sense of immediacy – even intimacy – with a recorded event that took place a world away.
Read more…

26. Thoughts on the symposium “Internet in Southeast Asia: Power and Society”

December 8, 2015

header image 4

This is the twenty-sixth post in the freedom technologists series

See also the Directory of freedom technologists 

This past 3-4 December 2015 I was at the Bandar Sunway campus of Monash University, near Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) for the first “Internet in Southeast Asia: Power and Society” symposium, superbly co-organised by Tan Meng Yoe and Julian Hopkins with support from colleagues and students at the School of Arts and Social Sciences. The aim of the two-day event was

to gather scholars, including early career researchers and PhD candidates, who are doing work in the area of internet studies in Southeast Asia to present their research, network, and explore avenues for future collaborations.

This was a highly successful event, with a coherent rationale, impressive line-up of presenters, well prepared papers and effective deliveries, as Professor Kuah Kung-Eng, the Head of the School, pointed out.

Owing to constraints of time and space, in these brief symposium notes I won’t be able to cover every single paper or discussion (with apologies to those presenters whose work I may have left out). Instead I’ll merely arrange some of my preliminary reflections into a number of sections in no particular chronological order. Needless to say, my own biases and interests will be apparent throughout the exercise. As always, feel free to send me corrections or your reaction to this post via the comments section or some other channel. For more information about the event, see the symposium website.

Internet struggles in Southeast Asia

To break up the programme into more manageable chunks, the co-organisers wisely scheduled my keynote address, ‘Internet struggles in Southeast Asia: an ethnographic account of RightsCon 2015, Manila’ not at the opening of the event but rather after lunch on the first day.

My talk was based on a conference report I published on this blog in March 2015. I argued that at the forefront of current struggles over the internet in Southeast Asia (and elsewhere) there is a new class of political actors I call ‘freedom technologists’ (Postill 2014), that is, techno-politics nerds keenly interested in the democratic and emancipatory potential of information and communication technologies (ICTs). Largely absent from their discourse and actions, however, is a sustained engagement with the issues of growing inequality and environmental degradation.

My notes on the Q&A are sketchy, but I will try to convey here the gist of the discussion we had after the lecture. One question had to do with the different understandings of freedom in Southeast Asia and Silicon Valley. If I recall correctly, I referred to my earlier point about a possible divide running through the digital rights space between an anarcho-libertarian global North (with hubs in Silicon Valley and Berlin) vs. a secular-rationalist global South where progressive activists seek protection from the state against the online and offline violence of religious fanatics. After the session one participant made the point that most SE Asian civil society actors, including freedom technologists, are chronically ‘down and out’, at the mercy of changing funding priorities by foreign donors, and at risk of moving to the state or private sector.

Another question was about the role of journalists in the net freedom battles (in my current model, journalism is one of four key forms of expertise in the techno-political space, along with IT, law and politics). Someone said that the mainstream media ignored the Manila event. Meanwhile they are complicit in the ongoing structural inequalities and lack of freedoms in the region. I agreed, and gave the example of the recently signed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) which the transnational corporate media under-reported as they stand to benefit a great deal from it in advertising revenue.

On a more hopeful note, I also mentioned that recent research by Kubitschko (2015) on the Chaos Computer Club, a hacktivist group from Germany, demonstrates that a long-term strategy of building close working relationships with the media can yield substantial civil society dividends. Another participant wondered about the ability of civil society freedom technologists to work with the respective national governments in the region. In the Philippines, she added, ‘they seem to be very good at it’. I replied it is still early days of my fieldwork in Indonesia but I think this varies greatly from group to group and that translating civil society lobbying into new internet legislation is very hard. The next big struggle in Indonesia, I suspect, will be over the forthcoming, and much delayed, Communication Act, which has already brought together internet and broadcasting activists previously working separately.

Although delivered at the very end of the two-day symposium, the excellent paper by Bridget Welsh (Ipek University, Turkey) and A. Ibrahim Almuttaqi (Habibie Centre, Indonesia) titled ‘Beating, hacking and joining: varied controls of the internet in Southeast Asia’ nicely complemented and expanded on my lecture. This paper is an ambitious comparative effort to track state efforts to gain control over the internet across the region. It proposes a tripartite conceptual scheme whereby regional states seek to control the net through three main practices: beating (the use of legal, physical or some other force), hacking (cyberattacks, espionage) and joining (influencing the social media ‘conversations’).

In the Q&A, I asked the presenters about non-state actors. Bridget Welsh responded that they were coming on to this in the talk but ran out of time. At any rate, she added, the opposition to these tactics by civil society actors is an area of the model that needs more development. With hindsight, this makes me think that we need more multi-directional, and multi-actor, models of internet struggles than the ones we usually find in the literature, where, as Bridget pointed out, the focus tends to be on civil society actors. This would include the partly overlapping practices and actions of  state, corporate and civic actors, e.g. in the latter case hacking, whistleblowing, joining, and lobbying (see also my blog post on Occupy digital practices, adapted from Boler et al). I see exciting collaborative work ahead here, an area ripe for further theorisation and empirical research in SE Asia and elsewhere.

Working on a related problem, Arnoud Schwemmer – a PhD candidate from Amsterdam University – gave a paper on ‘the state in cyberspace’, or digital nationalism, in the context of Malaysia. It is now clear around the globe, he explained, that the internet is becoming ever more Balkanised along national lines, with China, Iran or Russia as clear examples. Also apparent is that the idea of a free/open internet is increasingly looking like an ‘historical aberration’ of the 1990s and early 2000s. Halfway on the freedom-authoritarianism continuum (with Iceland at one end and China at the other) lies Malaysia’s semi-authoritarian regime. Schwemmer’s research took an unexpectedly historical turn as interviewees kept referring to the legacy of Dr Mahathir’s 1990s Multimedia Super Corridor ambitions, part of his vision of a fully developed Malaysia by 2020. Nowadays we find a conflict in Malaysia among state actors between an old ‘freedom guard’ from those days and new(ish) ‘hawks’ who seek more state control of the internet in the name of ‘national security’. Following the work of anthropologists of the state, says Schwemmer, we must disaggregate the state into rival interests if we wish to understand these conflicts. Thus from 2004 onwards internet policy was no longer centralised around MIMOS (Malaysia’s national R&D centre in ICT), so today we find that ‘ICT people’ are scattered across ministries, which creates information silos (and echo chambers), whilst the civil society contribution has fizzled out.

Adding another dimension to the discussion, Ross Tapsell (Australian National University) demonstrated the importance of not dismissing radio, TV or the print media in our theories about the ‘digital age’. Taking Indonesia’s media oligopolies as his case study, Tapsell reminded us that despite the country’s post-Suharto process of reformasi very little has changed in Indonesia’s political economy. Whilst large media conglomerates continue to grow larger and larger, middle-sized news organisations such as Tempo or Kompas languish in their shadow. Because of the economies of scale of the present transmedia landscape, these organisations have no choice but to set up their own TV stations but lack the deep pockets to secure licenses and run them at a profit.

The good news for Tapsell is there are digital counter-oligarchic forces at play in Indonesia, most spectacularly seen during last year’s successful presidential campaign by Joko Widodo, a non-elite candidate supported by a huge grassroots and digital campaign reminiscent of Obama 2008. Tapsell took issue with my freedom technologists idea for distracting us from the fact that the pro-Jokowi movement was highly inclusive and heterogeneous – it was made up of countless ‘ordinary citizens’, not merely technology nerds. Sometimes all it took was for ‘someone’ to start a Twitter hashtag for others to share and make a contribution to the campaign.

I didn’t have time to respond to this point at the time, so I shall do so now. In my existing work on freedom technologists I don’t claim that they are the only political actors that matter. For instance, during the Tunisian uprising of 2010-2011, in addition to freedom technologists (e.g. WikiLeaks, Nawaat.org, Anonymous, Al Jazeera etc.) we must weave into our explanatory narratives other key players such as protesting youths, the Association of Tunisian Lawyers, the trade unions, and the military.

Moreover, as Wasisto Jati (IIS, Indonesia) noted during his presentation, many campaign volunteers (relawan) went on to secure posts in Jokowi’s administraton. I would be surprised if the notion of ‘ordinary citizens’ merely sharing information and mobilising were able to stand closer scrutiny. Meanwhile, Julian Hopkins (Monash Malaysia) wondered why the role of Silicon Valley corporations such as Facebook, Google or Twitter in Indonesia’s digital landscape was not mentioned. Ross Tapsell said these organisations only have small offices in Jakarta but he would look into this. I concur with Hopkins: we must transcend the old media vs. internet studies divide when mapping today’s media/digital landscapes.

Still in Indonesia, we also had a paper by Leo Epafras who spoke about ‘Religion, governmentality and civility in the Indonesian cybersphere’ via the civil society organisation ICT Watch, created in 2010. A year earlier, the country’s Ministry of Communication and Information, Kominfo, started requiring that all ISPs filter content for a ‘safe’ internet as well as blacklisting sites deemed to be rocking the official SARA (ethnicity, religion, race, and ideology) boat. Epafras also discussed Indonesia’s draconian UU ITE cyberlaw which in his view smuggles nonmedia/internet defamation criteria into the digital realm. For example, an Indonesian citizen who announced online his atheism found himself on the receiving end of UU ITE. As a result of these harsh measures, by 2013 Indonesia had regressed from ‘free’ to ‘partly free’ on the Freedom House internet index. For Epafras, SARA is not a Habermasian public sphere, but rather a site of Foucaultian governmentality.

To conclude this section, it seems to me that we need a unified theory of internet power struggles in Southeast Asia that integrates insights from a range of studies on both state and non-state actors operating within and across the region’s national ‘hybrid media systems’ (Chadwick 2012).

Cybertroopers, flamers, and other smart citizens

Niki Cheong, a former blogger/journalist and currently a PhD candidate at Nottingham University (UK), presented his work on Malaysia’s ‘cybertrooping’ (known elsewhere as ‘astroturfing’), i.e. ‘calculated efforts to influence public sentiment through staged movements’. His case study was the campaign by UMNO (the country’s leading ruling party since independence) cybertroopers against the Bersih 3.0 anti-corruption movement in 2012. In the Q&A, Bridget Welsh advised him not to underestimate the opposition’s own cybertroopers, whatever name they may go under, and to be careful with being overly definitional.

We then learned from Dang Nguyen (a PhD student at Oxford University, UK) about memes, humour and long-term social change in Vietnam. This was a paper based on materials gathered from three Vietnamese Facebook civic groups between 2011 and 2015. Nguyen stressed the importance of studying everyday, non-contentious politics (see also Kubitschko 2015 above) which may not be as spectacular as the politics of protest movements but deserve attention nonetheless. Memetic humour ‘unearths an often overlooked authoritarian political life that exists prior to and apart from episodic moments of contentious politics’. This includes making fun of the regime’s online commenters for their servility and stupidity. The meme commenters’ sense of superiority vis-à-vis the state’s online army reminded me of a paper by Oren Livio (Haifa) to the recent media anthropology workshop on media and conflict held in Vienna, in which he identified a similar hubris among Israeli social media commenters who used condescending humour towards Palestinians they met online. In both cases, the result was a reinforcing of boundaries of class and ideology, with ethnicity and nationality added to the mix in the Israeli context.

Other papers dealing with practices native to the internet included a presentation by Revathy Amadera Lingam (Universiti Utara Malaysia) on YouTube flamers in Malaysia. Although this was an interesting paper, I felt the 15-strong flaming typology could be reduced to 3 or 4 items to make it more manageable. The question of online hate speech, which I touched upon in my keynote address, resurfaced again in a paper on Malaysia by Sandra Hanchard (Swinburne University, Australia) and Pauline Leong (UTAR, Malaysia). One audience member was concerned that the paper may be reproducing rather crude ethno-racial divides (Malays vs. Chinese) and I suggested that given that ‘hate speech’ is a legal term that is not vernacular to the internet, it may be an idea to find out how net users themselves talk about it on their own terms.

Most papers in the two-day symposium hovered at the nation-state level of analysis (the problem of methodological nationalism was raised a couple of times). One exception to this rule was a presentation on the Makassar City kota cerdas (smart city) project by Ishaq Rahman (Hasanuddin University, Indonesia) — one among 98 such initiatives launched across the Archipelago in recent years.

Rahman discussed some of the entanglements of social media platforms with important local issues in Makassar such as safety (#makassartidakaman) and cleanliness. Having worked myself on internet and local politics, this was a refreshing paper in its local-level pitch. It also touched, like other papers, on the question of ‘monitory democracy’ (Keane 2009), more specifically, on the use by both state and non-state actors of digital media to keep a watchful eye on others.

Digitised socialities

Julian Hopkins (Monash Malaysia), whose background is in the media anthropological study of personal blogging in Malaysia, has now moved to the study of social media. In his talk he introduced the working concept of ‘algorithmic socialities’ to refer to the growing mediation of human sociality by algorithms. Interestingly, Malaysia’s most popular social platform at present, Whatsapp, favoured by all manner of closed groups (e.g. families, peer groups, leisure groups), is not particularly algorithmic, argued Hopkins. He also made intriguing reference to Van Dick’s (2012) distinction between platforms, protocols and interfaces and to Latour’s (2005) mediators (actants) and intermediaries.

Another familiar bias in this symposium – and of internet studies generally – was the relative inattention to the internet lives of the poor. The exception here was an empirically rich study by Cheryll Ruth Soriano and Ruepert Cao (De La Salle University, Philippines) on how children and adolescents living in Metro Manila’s urban slums use ICTs (one third of Manila’s residents live in slums).

The paper compared young people’s ICT practices in three different contexts: computer shops, pisonets (slum net access points) and mobile devices. Pisonets are located at the heart of the slum, typically along an alley. They are ‘jukebox’, coin-operated computers that are often shared among many young people during the day. At night adults take over and share the cost of feeding the jukebox, e.g. to watch sporting events communally. Given the flimsy structures where they are located, pisonets are subject to disruption during episodes of heavy rain or floods. By contrast, computer shops are sturdier and consist of a set of networked PCs suited to gaming and far more regulated than pisonets. Run by a manager, they typically forbid certain contents (e.g. porn) and practices (streaming). Finally, the ‘mobile’ net is not that mobile for these young slum dwellers, many of whom cannot afford to own a phone. Facebook is ‘free’ but has strictly limited functionality and users must pay if they wish to read hyperlinked content outside the famous platform.

The Malaysian and Philippines papers worked very well in tandem, for they both dealt with the comparative question of mediated sociality in different socio-technical contexts. There is potential here for collaboratively reworking the classic sociolinguistic distinction between ‘code mixing’ and ‘code switching’ as ‘media mixing’ and ‘media switching’ in everyday life, e.g. whilst playing games in a slum computer shop or simultaneously interacting with middle-class friends on Whatsapp and Facebook, etc.

Finally, Camellia Webb-Gannon (UWS, Australia) presented her research on online music and pro-independence activism among West Papuans (Indonesia). She argued that the advent of the digital age has meant a shift from an ‘analogue hydra’ model of resistance to today’s ‘digital swarms’ (Negri). One area that could be developed in future versions of this work, I felt, was an engagement with the large anthropological literature on Melanesian forms of exchange and sociality and how they may – or may not – shape the West Papuan exchange of digital and other media contents over the years.

Next steps

The organisers of the event hope that it will lead to a special journal issue on internet and power in Southeast Asia. They are also in the process of setting up a Southeast Asia Internet Research Network.

For more information, please contact:
Dr Tan Meng Yoe or Dr Julian Hopkins at isaps.monash@gmail.com

About the author

Dr John Postill is Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow at RMIT University, Melbourne, and Digital Anthropology Fellow at University College London (UCL). His publications include Digital Ethnography: Principles and Practice (2015, with Sarah Pink, Heather Horst et al), 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 connection between techno-politics and new citizen movements around the world, as well as the co-edited volume Theorising Media and Change (with Elisenda Ardèvol and Sirpa Tenhunen). His Twitter handle is @JohnPostill

 

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

November 11, 2015

By Julian Waters-Lynch
PhD candidate
RMIT University, Melbourne

See other posts under digital ethnography reading group

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

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

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

Abstract

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

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

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

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

– how long did she observe flickr for?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See other posts under digital ethnography reading group

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

November 11, 2015

This is the 25th post in the freedom technologists series

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

Lima, Peru
16-17 November 2015

Dr John Postill
RMIT University, Melbourne

Abstract

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

References

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

Postill, J. 2014. Freedom technologists and the new protest movements: a theory of protest formulas. Convergence 20 (3), 402-418. http://con.sagepub.com/content/20/4/402

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

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

5th digital ethnography reading session (Murray 2008)

November 10, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Points of interest to facilitate the discussion:

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

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

Notes on the workshop “Theorising Media and Conflict”

November 9, 2015

blackboard 2 - sites of mediated conflict

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

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

Notes prepared by John Postill (RMIT) (see PDF)
EASA Media Anthropology Network e-seminar 54
www.media-anthropology.net

10-24 November 2015

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

Original CFA

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

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

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

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

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

Read more…

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