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17. Digital rights in Southeast Asia and beyond: a review of RightsCon 2015

March 31, 2015


Update 1 April 2015: See also PDF version.

Last week I was in Manila to attend the 4th meeting of the RightsCon series, held on 24-25 March 2015. This series of conferences seeks ‘to advance solutions to human rights challenges by concentrating on the possibilities within the tech sector’. The Manila conference was organised by Access, a digital rights NGO, in partnership with Engage Media and the Foundation for Media Alternatives.

As stated on the conference website, the first ever RightsCon event to be held in Southeast Asia set out to pursue the following goals:

• Protecting rights online in the age of surveillance
• Technology and infrastructure interdependence
• Digital rights and economic development
• Freedom of information and Open Data
• Tech solutions for human rights challenges
• Limiting and measuring risk in the ICT sector

In the following review I first discuss eight of the sessions I attended by clustering them into four paired sessions under the subheadings ‘Ruling the internet’, ‘Regional networks’, ‘Online fundamentalism’ and ‘Social media interventions’. I then offer some first reflections on the event.

Ruling the internet

In the morning of the second day, I attended a mock international human rights tribunal in which legal and technological experts mulled over the validity of a YouTube video submitted by a civil society group purportedly showing a war crime.

The importance of triangulating the digital evidence with witness statements was pointed out by a panelist. Another issue raised was the need to bring together legal, digital and media expertise so that international jurisprudence can advance in an increasingly digital world. This echoes my working hypothesis about the key role played by lawyers, IT specialists and journalists in new protest movements such as the Arab uprisings, Spain’s indignados and the global Occupy movement (Postill 2014a).

Missing from the Q&A, though, was the potential role in future juridical developments of other specialists such as scholars in the humanities and social sciences (these fields were, in fact, under-represented throughout the conference). For instance, at one point in the proceedings one of the digital experts referred to the video’s narrative intent, an area of inquiry well suited to the humanities. Or consider the just mentioned significance of online-offline triangulation: here ethnographic expertise could be of invaluable assistance.

One thing is clear: technology alone will not lead progress in the fight against war crimes. As one audience member put it, we must ‘manage our expectations’ when it comes to technologies such as satellite imagery, for there is a wide gulf between the digital wizardry of Hollywood films and the actual evidence that satellites can provide, which very rarely comes in the form of a ‘smoking gun’.

A related session was devoted to the ‘chilling effect’ of state interventions in the digital realm. The case studies ranged from Pakistan’s blanket ban of YouTube following the uploading of a film about Mohammed, to India’s imminent ruling on intermediaries’ liability, to the EU Court of Justice’s 13 May 2014 ruling that internet users can request companies like Google to remove unwanted information about them, to examples from South Korea.

Regional networks

Panelists at the Asia-Pacific digital rights networking session were agreed that this region is far too large and unwieldy to allow for a common strategy. It makes more sense to organise at the sub-regional level, e.g. South Asia, Southeast Asia. Even then, national differences in infrastructure, legislation, political culture, economic development, and others, are still vast within these sub-regions. One area of concern is the highly uneven levels of English competence among civil society actors from different countries. As one participant from the Philippines noted, Filipinos tend to dominate conversations because of their fluency in English compared to their counterparts from neighbouring countries.

Southeast Asia provided the geographical setting for one of the sessions devoted to freedom of expression online. Internet activists from Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, and the Philippines compared and contrasted their experiences, with Thailand and Philippines standing at two ends of an authoritarian-democratic continuum. One of the Indonesian participants stressed the need for solidarity with Thailand, arguing that there are no guarantees that other countries will not return to military rule. Meanwhile, a Filipino member of the audience wondered whether his country’s ‘slow Internet’ was not a form of state censorship, despite the Philippines supposedly enjoying a ‘free’ internet. An unwired population, he added, poses less of a threat to the ruling elites than a net-savvy one.

Despite its Southeast Asian focus, the participants stressed the importance of overcoming regional parochialism and learning from the digital rights experiences of countries both near and far. Indeed it was during this session that we heard the good news that India’s Supreme Court had struck a draconian internet law that had been used by police to arrest critics of the government. The news soon spread to all other sessions, lifting our spirits throughout the remainder of the conference.

One major challenge identified by civil society participants was the speed at which both digital technologies and donors’ priorities change, making the task of building sustainable networks and coalitions increasingly difficult. One speaker encouraged us to think in terms of events rather than structures – echoing long-standing debates within anthropology and other social sciences. Here I would suggest the need to critically interrogate whether most of us suffer from a pro-sustainability bias. Perhaps it is time to remind ourselves that some ephemeral actions can have lasting effects – and that the most solid of structures can ‘melt into air’.

Online fundamentalism

On Wednesday I was fortunate to attend two back-to-back sessions on religious fundamentalism online in its multiple variants (Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, etc.) and how to curtail it. Panelists noted that ‘hate speech’ has become a global buzzword, yet one whose legal and everyday meaning is poorly understood. Often conflated with ‘offensive speech’, the latter notion is frequently used by religious conservatives to limit freedom of expression online.

A presenter from the South Asian region drew laughter when she said that we are too ‘beholden to the beards’. She also added that internet libertarians may not like the word ‘protection’, but that in many countries more state protection from the fanatic mobs was actually needed. This suggests to me a faultline running through the international digital rights scene dividing an anarcho-libertarian sector deeply mistrustful of the state – most firmly rooted in global North hubs such as Silicon Valley or Berlin –  from a secularist-rationalist sector, most active in the global South, where religious extremists and conservatives are often given a long leash by their governments.

A range of responses to hate speech against women, LGBTIQs, religious minorities, secularists and others were presented and taken up in the lively discussion. These included various forms of humour (mockery, parody, satire), with lessons to be learned from the Soviet era; the use of critical, rational, research-based evidence to counter dogma; and meeting online discourse with more discourse, not less. In addition, the role of men working alongside women to respond to sexist cyberbullying was highlighted, as well as the importance of building coalitions with like-minded groups and of exercising great caution when countering hate speech.

There was an interesting contrast between two of the main strategies presented, namely an inter-faith vs. a secularist approach.  One speaker was sceptical of  inter-faith campaigns in the face of the mounting aggression and intolerance from extremist quarters. This participant suggested that secularists should set the terms of the discussion rather than allow the fanatics to do so.

We also heard about the new YouTube moderation tools from a Google representative and listened to an entertaining talk from a Wikipedian. On Wikipedia, he explained, each speech ‘community’ has full autonomy to make its own decisions about controversial issues. For example, pressure from Orthodox Jews within Wikipedia led to the creation of a sanitised version of the Hebrew-language encyclopaedia that can be downloaded and consulted offline. Also, whilst the Malay-language Wikipedia does not show the Danish cartoons of Prophet Mohammad, the German-language site does. This raises the question, not voiced during the session, of whether Wikipedia truly is ‘All the world’s knowledge’, as it claims to be.

The presenter also encouraged audience members to make more use of Wikipedia, yet adopting a ‘neutral viewpoint’, something that ‘opinionated’ activists may find hard to do: ‘Educate, don’t advocate’. By shedding light on certain issues, civil society actors are still furthering a cause, albeit on the basis of evidence, not opinion. The beauty of Wikipedia, he concluded, is that its volunteer editors are protected by America’s First Amendment wherever they are in the world. This means that a repressive state wishing to force Wikipedia to reveal information about a contributor would require permission from a US judge to do so. So far, this has occurred ‘zero times’.

Social media interventions

By far the most fun session I joined was the workshop ‘Hashtags, memes, and more: creative communication strategies for advocacy’. How can a civil society group or organisation make and spread successful hashtags? This was the challenge for the small groups who were given three topics to choose from. Our group – made up mostly of Southeast Asian activists – chose online censorship, taking Malaysia as our case study. After a series of brainstorming activities we finally settled for the hashtag #untrulyAsia (a play on the country’s famous tourism slogan “Malaysia, truly Asia”), which had its 15 seconds of fame during the whole-group discussion. We also proposed a transmedia strategy that built on existing networks to launch the slogan via Twitter and numerous other channels, both old and new.

The workshop convener, a seasoned campaigner, made some intriguing observations about the orality of digital culture, the demise of ‘digital dualism’ (that is, the idea of the online and offline as distinct realms), the reasons for the spread of protest sign language, and the cumulative effects of micro-affective campaigns over time, i.e. individual hashtags may be short-lived but a long series of them can make a difference (I have made a similar case about Spain’s indignados’ ‘nano-stories’, see Postill 2014b).

The session rightly assumed that most of us in the room were urban middle-class people with advanced digital skills and ready access to laptops and/or smartphones. But of course, countless millions in Southeast Asia — and around the world – are not in the same position (e.g. only 17% of Indonesians were online as of 2014). This gulf was addressed in the session ‘Social media without the internet’. Thus the smartphone app Firechat, made famous during Hong Kong’s 2014 ‘Umbrella Revolution‘,

works by creating its own network outside the internet, relying simply on the Bluetooth or Wi-Fi link that exist between one phone and another.

According to the presenter, Firechat can also help poor communities in the global South form their own local communication networks. Another presenter introduced Bubbly, a social voice platform that works across smartphones and feature phones. School staff in Jakarta successfully used Bubbly during last month’s floods to advise students to stay at home.

We also learned about engageSPARK, a messaging service that allows users to communicate through multiple channels, including SMS, voice, email, social media, and fax. This platform was used to send recorded messages to people in remote areas of the Philippines with timely updates about approaching typhoons and other valuable information. Surprisingly to spam-averse Westerners, local people did not tire of receiving the recorded messages, which they regarded as being both relevant and as a sign that they were at last ‘connected’ to the outside world and not forgotten (see Castells et al 2009 for a discussion of connectivity as a key factor in the popularity of mobiles in the developing world).

At this point, followers of the internet commentator Evgeny Morozov (2014) may dismiss these social media interventions as nothing but techno-utopianism. This would be the wrong inference to make, as I did not once hear anyone in the room announce that ‘This technology changes everything’, or words to that effect. Instead, participants displayed the familiar techno-pragmatism that I have encountered many times among internet-savvy people. This is, in fact, one of the chief characteristics of the political actors I am calling, at least for the time being, freedom technologists. The idea was not to hold hands and sing together whilst awaiting the imminent coming of a new digital dawn. It was a far more modest ambition: to experiment with some of the discursive and technical tools at their disposal.

A nagging issue

All in all, this was a highly successful event. As the conference hosts put it during the closing ceremony, the Manila conference provided a safe, gender-balanced space for civil society and technology actors from many different countries to meet and network. It was also an event where the importance of evidence-based (as opposed to opinionated) advocacy came to the fore.

As an anthropologist currently researching internet activism in Indonesia, this last point about the urgent need for empirical research was music to my ears – although in the present enthusiasm for Big Data we should not forget the equally crucial need for theoretical development. There is much scope here for future collaborations between anthropologists and other social scientists with colleagues from civil society, journalism, computer science, and the legal fields.

For me, RightsCon 2015 was an excellent opportunity to ‘follow’ my Indonesian research participants to another field site, a site where they engaged with counterparts from other parts of the region and beyond, setting their current activities against a much larger backdrop. In a sense, Manila was an extension of my Indonesian fieldwork.

Yet something about this event has been nagging at me. I am not entirely sure how to formulate this, but it has to do with the entrenched social inequalities of the world system. These inequities are glaringly obvious as soon as you step out of the comforts of an international hotel and walk the streets of Manila (or London, for that matter). By way of an experiment I tried to enter a beautiful gated community aptly named ‘Arcadia’, just across the road from the conference venue.  I was refused access by the security guards for not having a contact name and address inside the vast compound. ‘Sorry sir’, one of them apologised, ‘it’s SOP, Standard Operating Procedure’. Meanwhile, Arcadia’s army of workers was streaming out on foot, whilst the occasional luxury vehicle was allowed to enter through the gates.

Economic inequality has been on the rise worldwide for decades, which have witnessed the concomitant emergence of a global plutocracy (Freeland 2012). In the opening ceremony, ‘structural inequality’ was identified as one of the conference’s main concerns. However, not much was said about it during the conference, at least not in the sessions that I attended, including the closing ceremony. Yes, it did come up in the context of communication being a universal human right, but the subject was not taken up in any sustained way.

To me, the most urgent issue to tackle in future RightsCon events is precisely how to use our collective techno-political and research savvy to address the present global system’s grotesque inequalities. There is a crucial debate to be had between reformists who argue for multi-stakeholder approaches to the future of the internet (e.g. MacKinnon 2012) and those like Aral Balkan who advocate a post-plutocratic world order in which the internet is a global public good, not a corporate and state battlefield. As Balkan puts it:

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 on Twitter: @JohnPostill

Back to Freedom technologists series…


Castells, M., Fernandez-Ardevol, M., Qiu, J. L., & Sey, A. (2009). Mobile communication and society: A global perspective. MIT Press.

Freeland, C. (2012) Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else. London: Penguin.

MacKinnon, R. (2012). Consent of the networked: the world-wide struggle for Internet freedom. Basic Books.

Morozov, E. (2014). To save everything, click here: The folly of technological solutionism. Public Affairs.

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

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

16. A letter from Jakarta

March 21, 2015

Many years ago, in 1987, I left Madrid and came to Jakarta to become a journalist. For about a year, I was a trainee at Tempo magazine and a stringer with Spain’s national newsagency, EFE.

I lived with local host families and learned reasonably good Indonesian, but couldn’t quite figure out Indonesia. So I decided to become an anthropologist.

(I was also a lousy journalist, too laid-back, or so I gathered from one of my mentors, the poet and journalist Goenawan Mohamad).

After a long detour, I am back in Jakarta. This time as an anthropologist.

I am still trying to figure out Indonesia, only this time I have entered through a portal that didn’t exist back then: Indonesia’s internet activism scene.

I started off last year in the city of Yogyakarta, the cultural centre of Java, where I learned about Engage Media, Kampung Halaman, Lifepatch, Combine and other initiatives that are making interesting uses of the internet and digital media.

In Yogyakarta I also caught up with my former PhD student Kurniawan Saputro. His thesis is a brilliant  study of the uses of digital media in the wake of the 2006 eruption of Mount Merapi. We are now working on a piece about digital media and last year’s presidential election.

I have now relocated to Jakarta. At first I was reluctant to make this move because of Jakarta’s famed traffic jams, pollution, floods, crime, disease… (“Don’t go there, it’s far worse than in the 80s”, I was warned).

But I’m actually enjoying every minute of it. I live in a permanent state of Csikszentmihalyian ‘flow’. (This is not substance-related. In fact, I made the mistake of booking into a sharia hotel, for all my sins. It’s proving to be a sobering experience).

My flowy state may have to do with having acquired a good feel for the ethnographic game, or with the excitement of being in a megapolis again (I grew up in the countryside, with no roads or telephone), or with having been able to resuscitate my cryogenically preserved Indonesian after all these years – with considerable help from my Melbourne teachers Mas Onny and Pak Tata, to be sure.

For whatever reason, being in Jakarta makes a lot of sense.

I live in the central Menteng area, where I walk 6 miles a day along busy roads (I never leave without my mask and umbrella), stopping to chat to (ngobrol) local people as I go along. I also talk to hotel staff and taxi drivers, attend civil society events, interview people in cafes and offices, catch up with itinerant academics (most recently Ross Tapsell and Birgit Bräuchler), follow Twitter and Whatsapp conversations, read the press, and watch TV.

For relaxation I read Jo Nesbo crime novels.

The guiding principle of my Indonesian research is, as always in social anthropology: “If it matters to my research participants, then it matters to me”.

So what of sort of things matter to internet activists here? A short list would include corruption, freedom of expression (especially Indonesia’s Computer Crime Act, the controversial UU ITE), internet governance, media convergence and digitalisation, internet safety, child pornography and cybercrime.

I am also finding that civil society actors here – both tech-minded and others – are very interested in learning more about other countries. For instance, I have been asked to talk about Spain’s indignados and their digital media uses a number of times. Just yesterday, I gave a talk about this topic at Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW), having been kindly invited by Pak Ade Irawan.

It’s too early to say where this research is going, but I hope it will be the preamble to a large collaborative research project with partners in Indonesia, Australia, UK/Europe and other countries in the region – perhaps a cross-national comparison of digital activism within Southeast Asia.

In this connection, tomorrow I am heading for Manila to attend RightsCon, an international conference that brings together freedom technologists from across the region and beyond, including Silicon Valley — where the event originated. I am hoping it will be a good place to meet prospective research partners and participants.

Back to the freedom technologists series…

15. Location technologists: the politics of digital media in a ‘special region’ of Indonesia

March 16, 2015

Chapter proposal to Location Technologies in International Context, Rowan Wilken (Swinburne Uni of Tech), Gerard Goggin (U of Sydney) & Heather Horst (RMIT), eds.

John Postill
RMIT University
16 March 2015

As noted in the book’s Introduction, there is a growing technical literature on the proliferation of ‘location technologies’, particularly in North America and Europe (e.g. Goswami 2012, Williams et al 2011). Largely missing from this literature, however, is a conceptual vocabulary that can place these and other location technologies in different cultural and political contexts, especially in the global South. The aim of this chapter is precisely to contribute to this theoretical advancement. It does so by shifting the focus of inquiry from the technologies to the technologists (cf. Postill 2014) involved in contemporary location practices, thereby opening up a space to address questions of local power and historical agency. To this end, the chapter proposes the concept of ‘location technologists’ – those human actors with a stake in the use of digital technologies for local politics (broadly defined), e.g. local engineers, journalists, activists, entrepreneurs, artists, politicians. Drawing from anthropological fieldwork in the ‘special region’ (daerah istimewa) of Yogyakarta, a cultural and tourist hub in central Java, Indonesia, it maps out the space of possibilities within which location technologists employ social and mobile media to struggle over local issues. The analysis compares four recent local campaigns – ‘Jogja Istimewa’, ‘#SaveFlorence’, ‘Visual rubbish’ and ‘Behind the hotels’ – and places them on a matrix along two axes: ideology and geography, finding a correlation between the ideological orientation of a campaign and its geographical reach. That is, whilst the two social justice campaigns found mostly local audiences, the ‘Jogja’ branding/reputation campaigns reached national audiences, at least for a short while. The remainder of the chapter seeks to explain this correlation, and its implications for our comparative understanding of location technologies, in post-Bourdieuan, field-theoretical terms (Fligstein and McAdam 2012, Postill 2011, 2015, forthcoming).

Back to Freedom technologists series…


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

Goswami, S. (2012). Indoor location technologies. Springer Science & Business Media.

Postill, J. (2011) Localizing the Internet: An Anthropological Account. Oxford and New York: Berghahn.

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

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

Postill, J. forthcoming. Field theory, media change and the new citizen movements: the case of Spain’s ‘real democracy turn’, 2011-2014.

Williams, G., King, P., & Doughty, K. (2011). Practical issues in the selection and use of GPS tracking and location technologies to support vulnerable people at risk of becoming lost or threatened. Journal of Assistive Technologies, 5(3), 146-151.

Biographical note

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 new protest movements as well as the co-edited volume Theorising Media and Change (with Elisenda Ardèvol and Sirpa Tenhunen).



14. Field theory, media change and the new citizen movements

March 5, 2015

This draft article is the fourteenth post in the freedom technologists series.

Field theory, media change and the new citizen movements: the case of Spain’s ‘real democracy turn’, 2011-2014. Forthcoming (see PDF or join the lively discussion of this paper via till 26 March 2015).

Dr John Postill
RMIT University
Melbourne, Australia
23 December 2014


Field theory can help to produce more nuanced analyses of the relationship between media change and the rise of new citizen movements. In turn, this can be of invaluable assistance in our comparative understanding of the world’s current ‘crises of citizenship’. Taking as my example Spain’s indignados (15M) movement and its recent political offshoots, I explore the potential uses of a range of field concepts, including a pair of contrasting notions introduced here for the first time: ‘field of civic action’ vs. ‘unorganised civic space’. I argue that Spain’s 15M movement is best understood not as a continuous flow of events but rather as a series of discrete, ephemeral fields of civic action separated by a long hiatus of unorganised civic space. These transient, complexly mediated fields can be regarded as socio-political games of a certain kind, namely as contests in which civic ‘players’ with unique sets of skills, including ‘freedom technologists’ (Postill 2014a), enter into relationships with other individual and collective players in pursuit of common goals and rewards. Of particular salience in the Spanish case is the emergence of citizen-led initiatives (e.g. PAH, Podemos, Barcelona en Comú) that have learned how to bridge the civic vs. establishment media divide to great effect. Together, these initiatives – and their forerunners – have mobilised hundreds of thousands of Spanish citizens, imbuing them with a new agonistic vocabulary (‘us’ vs. ‘them’, ‘the citizenry’ vs. the caste’) and with a heightened awareness of their social rights, an awareness that many have already put into practice.


field theory, citizenship, citizen movements, social movements, activism, freedom technologists, media, democracy, political change, Spain, 15M, indignados

The end of the Franco regime (1939-1975) ushered in a period of democratisation but also a protracted crisis of citizenship in Spain. Writing thirty years after the dictator’s death, the sociologist Jorge Benedicto (2006) argued that civic rights took precedence over social rights in Spain during the transition years and beyond. Coming at a time of economic crisis, when northern Europe’s post-War ‘redistributive revolution’ had already come to an end (Rosanvallon 2013), democratic Spain’s efforts to create a welfare state were subordinated to the macroeconomic demands of global competition and a neoliberal ideology (Benedicto 2006: 112).

Out of Franco’s military regime emerged a ‘transition culture’ (cultura de la transición) whose institutional foundations were laid in October 1977 through the Moncloa Pact – an agreement signed by leading formations across the political spectrum (from Communists to ex-Francoists) and by the major trade unions. The emphasis was on national unity, political stability and social cohesion. To be allowed into this new order, Spain’s left agreed to ‘deactivate’ its two key assets: culture and social mobilisation. In exchange for not undermining the state, the state rewarded the leftist cultural sector with funding and awards. It also promised to save Spain from the army, the church and Basque terrorism (VV.AA. 2012).

Read more…

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.


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