Thoughts on anthropology and social media activism
A few loose thoughts on how existing anthropological scholarship on the Internet and related phenomena may be recruited to the study of social media activism:
* Around the turn of the millennium a number of anthropological and ethnographic studies of the Internet appeared (e.g. Hakken 1999, Hine 2000, Jankowski 2000, Miller and Slater 2000, see also Postill in press). They were part of a wider societal and scholarly shift in affluent countries towards the normalisation of the Internet away from earlier, hyped-up notions of a futuristic ‘cyberspace’ (see an account of this in Wellman and Haythornthwaite 2003). If in the 1980s and 1990s authors spoke of cyberspace as being apart from everyday life offline, now in the 2000s Internet ethnographers and others increasingly began to write about the Internet as a part of daily life (Miller and Slater 2000). For most of us in the global North the Internet has become quite ordinary, as taken for granted a network as the transport networks and electricity grids.
* Over the past 10 years or so, anthropologists have studied a range of Internet-related topics, including telework, online religion, nation-building, ethnic conflict, free software, virtual materiality, digital fan films, the digital divide, and Internet activism (see Postill in press).
* Within the anthropological study of Internet activism we can distinguish studies that have looked at indigenous activism (Budka forthcoming), anti-globalisation activism (Juris 2008) and local-level activism (Postill 2008). However, to the best of my knowledge little anthropological work has gone to date into the study of social media (blogs, social bookmarking, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube, etc.) – including for purposes of activism. If Debra Spitulnik found in 1993 that there was still no anthropology of mass media to speak of, I suspect that today (in 2009) we can say that there is still no ‘social media anthropology’ (other than as a recent coinage used in the field of social media consultancy).
* Little is known, even in other disciplines, about social media activism, i.e. those forms of social and political activism that rely heavily on social media technologies for their growth and maintenance. What could an anthropological approach contribute to the study of this emerging phenomenon? Some suggestions (I am adapting here a trichotomy taken from Kelty 2008):
- Methodologically – not only an ethnographic and sensory approach (Pink 2009) to social media practices but also historical research on social media activism (activists’ life histories, biographies of social media artefacts, online archives, see Kelty 2008, Postill 2009).
- Theoretically – (a) a long social anthropological tradition of grappling with forms of sociality and sociation in ways that don’t reduce the flux and complexity of social life to vague emic ideas of ‘community’ or ‘network’ (Amit 2002, Postill 2008); this is particularly important in the case of contemporary activism with its almost fetishisation of the idea of ‘networks’ as loose, non-hierarchical, futuristic social formations (Riles 2000, Juris 2008, Amit 2007); (b) a more recent turn to the theory of practice among media anthropologists (Braeuchler and Postill in press) – this can help to explore and develop a working notion of ‘social media practices’ in the context of social and political activism.
- Empirically – the combination of a diachronic + synchronic research methodology and theoretical sophistication just mentioned would enable anthropologists working on social media activism to study the regularities and contingencies of activists’ struggles to pursue agendas of social and political reform amidst a rapidly changing social media landscape.
For most references, see Postill, J. (in press, due early 2010) ’Researching the Internet’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Draft version available here.