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Digital ethnography and the global information crisis: theories, methods, publics

January 25, 2014

John Postill
Digital Ethnography Research Centre
RMIT Melbourne, Australia

Presentation notes, incl. Q&A
Oxford Digital Ethnography group (OxDEG)
Oxford Internet Institute (OII)
University of Oxford
22 Jan 2014

Many thanks to Shireen Walton and the rest of the Oxford Digital Ethnography group for the invitation. It’s great to be here for your first meeting of the term.

After I corresponded with Shireen over email about the focus of this talk, I couldn’t quite decide whether to focus on my experience with digital ethnography theories, methods or publics. So I’ve decided to do all three, and connect them to an idea that’s been on my mind for a while, namely that over the past few years we have entered a global information crisis.

A global crisis and us

Thomas H. Eriksen: The three crises of globalisation: An anthropological history of the early 21st century. The period examined by the project, the present era, begins

with the discontinuities of 1989–91 – the coming of the Internet and mobile phones, the breakup of Yugoslavia, the end of the Cold War and the end of apartheid; and the project amounts to a globally comparative investigation of the converging crises of the 21st century – finance/economy, climate/environment, culture/identity – as perceived from local vantage points.

I would add a fourth converging crisis: a global information crisis tied precisely to ‘the coming of the Internet and mobile phones’. A protracted struggle over future governance of internet pitting ‘information activists’ against powerful govs and corps (Brooke 2011).

I became acutely aware of this crisis in November 2010. A month earlier, in Barcelona, I had met the Icelandic information activist Smari McCarthy at the Free Culture Forum, an international gathering of people interested in digital freedom issues, where we talked briefly about how all systems – including political systems – can be hacked, i.e. changed. We also talked  about the anthropological aversion to notions such as structure or system and our post-structuralist preference for the notion of practices – which I find problematic (Postill 2010).

What I didn’t know at the time was McCarthy’s involvement in Icelandic techno-politics along with fellow Icelanders from the Modern Media Initiative (MMI) as well as the leaders of Wikileaks, led to changes in the country’s media legislation.

Then in Nov 2010 US State Dept cables released by Wikileaks with mainstream media partners (Guardian, NYT, El Pais, Le Monde) had impact around the world, including Tunisia and Egypt. When Paypal, Mastercard, etc. stopped donations to Wikileaks under US gov pressure, Anonymous launched DDOS attacks against them. Anonymous also got involved in nascent Arab uprisings.

In Spain, where I was doing fieldwork at the time, State Dept leaks confirmed information activists’ suspicions that the US embassy in Madrid had practically drafted the new proposed anti-digital piracy bill, Ley Sinde. When the Spanish gov went ahead and passed the bill despite a massive online mobilisation, in early 2011 leading Spanish netizens created NoLesVotes – don’t vote for them – which joined forces with other platforms to organise 15 May 2011 marches across the country, followed by  month-long square occupations. This was the birth of the indignados (15M) movement.

In turn, 15M had a direct input on the creation of Occupy Wall Street movement Sep that year, which then became the global Occupy movement Oct 2011.

Boomerang effect: US gov reaction to the leaks in 2010 eventually came back home to America the following year through a wave of protests against the political class and the 1%.

More recently Snowden and Guardian NSA revelations.

But global information crisis reaches far wider and deeper than the work of famous hackers and whistleblowers. It is also inside highered, in academia. Take the case of the late Aaron Swartz (MIT), who committed suicide when faced with the very real possibility of a jail term for downloading millions of academic documents. As the Leaksource website put it:

“…Aaron sought to liberate millions of JSTOR documents from their vaults into the archives of the internet as a product of Open Access. […] Aaron was seeking a new age of enlightenment through Open Access. Simply put, Aaron wanted as we all do, Freedom of Information.”

Or think about the so-called ‘Academic Spring’ around boycotting the publishing house Elsevier, or more recently the successful pressure from Elsevier on to take down copyrighted articles.

Open/free culture movement no longer of geeks and other computer nerds. The mainstreaming of nerd politics reaches the whole of academia, not just those fields more closely concerned with issues of internet freedom, open access, and so on.

Whether we like it or not, we digital ethnographers are in the thick of it – the thick of the global information crisis. What can we digital ethnographers contribute towards resolving this complex, multi-faceted crisis? Three things, in my view: theories, methods and publics.

I will discuss them briefly on the basis of my own experience, but I look forward to hearing about your own experiences and reflections, both individual and collective, as an emergent digital ethnography group.


My digital ethnography strategy since around 2002 has been the classic Manchester School of Anthropology strategy of ‘following the action’ (or the conflict), starting in suburban Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) in 2003-2009 and more recently in Barcelona (Catalonia/Spain) since 2010 – and now I’m about to resume this line of work in urban Indonesia.

Ground-up theorising post-fieldwork rather than arriving with a theoretical framework (Postill 2012), to the incomprehension of colleagues in other fields, e.g. Nordic PhD political science candidate I met in Malaysia shocked about my loose handling of the concept and theory of ‘governance’.

–       What d’you mean you haven’t got a definition of governance? How can you study something you haven’t theorised beforehand?

–       Erm, I don’t know, it’s just a term that some people use here, especially government technocrats. I’m trying to get the local perspective, ideas and issues that matter to my research participants.

Of course, when you enter a field site you simultaneously enter a specialist literature, in my case Internet Studies as it was back in 2003. Every field has its paradigmatic theories and metaphors. Internet Studies is no exception: community (esp. online or virtual community) and network (esp. network society, social networks) were then – and still are – some of its preferred metaphors (Postill 2012).

Although I went to Subang Jaya – a middle-class suburb of KL, in Malaysia – to study e-government, by ‘following the conflict’ I ended up focussing on local forms of internet activism.

Back in the UK, on my first attempt at theorising suburban internet politics I fell right into the community/network trap. I managed to get out of the hole through conceptual work on notions such as field of residential affairs, internet drama, field arena, field station, etc. This led to theory of internet localisation – in some ways the internet becoming ‘more local’ (Postill 2011).

Have developed this further in Spanish work on indignados/15M, now adding other working concepts such as techno-politics of citizenship, mainstreaming of nerd politics, viral reality, media epidemiography, working the algorithm, and other notions, as well as from other authors such as Chadwick’s (2013) ‘hybrid media system’.

Through very different routes (US sociology in America vs. UK social anthropology in M’sia and Spain) Fligstein/McAdam (2012) and I have ended up with similar theories of the field of action, see their Theory of Fields, FSA (fields of strategic action): challengers vs. incumbents, internal governance units, external shocks, inter-field dynamics…

At the moment I’m trying to scale up my internet politics theory to national and global level. What would happened if we regarded  the global information crisis as an FSA with information field incumbents (US-UK intelligence, China gov, giant corps like Google, FB) fending off individual and collective challengers like Assange, Snowden, the Guardian, the P2P Foundation, Spain’s 15M movement, with the rest of us not quite knowing what to make of it – or do about it.


Elsewhere I have written about various methodological aspects of my research, it’s all on my blog and Academia page, free of charge, e.g. article with Sarah Pink on social media ethnography, or article in press on what I call media epidemiography, i.e. the ethnographic study of digital virality (incl. viral epidemics), or forthcoming book chapter on the multilinear temporality of protest (events, trends, routines, see Sewell 2005).

Here I’d like to explore the question of ‘being there’. Being there is a sine qua non of ethnographic research since Malinowski’s fieldwork revolution (Geertz 1988). But what does it mean today, in 2014, with the huge range of digital media options available to ethnographers – especially for those working among the urban Technorati in places like Barcelona?

In digital/media anthropology we are fond of telling ourselves a tale of methodological progress. Once upon a time we lived in the bad old days of cyberspace (as a realm apart from ‘real life’). Luckily with  the new millennium it dawned on us that the internet is not apart from but rather a part of everyday life – a moment captured by Miller and Slater’s 2000 book The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach. This appeared to put paid to the idea, once and for all, that it makes any sense to separate the online from the offline. We now knew, or so we thought, the two are inextricably entwined.

Alas a few years later, Tom Boellstorff came along to unsettle this consensus by doing an ethnographic study entirely online, Coming of Age in Second Life (2008). Boellstorff demonstrated that it is in fact possible to ‘be there’ ethnographically, among residents of a virtual place, aka avatars. Of course, not all of us must or wish to conduct all our fieldwork online, but this anthropologist demonstrated that it is possible to do so.

This is all very well, but we are still left with the problem of how to move on from our perpetual fixation with the online vs. offline binary. Here I’d like to suggest that we do so but looking more closely at what we mean today, in 2014, by ‘being there’, in the field.

But of course, partly thanks to digital technologies, we now know there are many ways of being there, in the field, including:

  1. Co-presently, physically
  2. Remotely, e.g. via streaming, Skype, Twitter, TV (live or archived) – we need to reinstate the old 20th century notion of tele-communication, tele-presence, telematics, etc.
  3. Virtually, i.e. via a ‘third place’ e.g. via listserv, web forum, Second Life, Facebook thread (live or archived)
  4. Imaginatively, e.g. via recollections on blog, social media (live or archived)

All these different modes of presence/absence entail a trade-off, and I suspect most of us switch and mix among these modalities in the course of our ethnographic research – often without even reflecting on it, for we’re getting on with the business of doing the research. In other words, this mixing and switching in our ways of being there has become almost fully naturalised.

We need to leave behind the assumption that unmediated physical co-presence is inherently superior to other forms of being there. In fact, sometimes we learn more from the comfort of your home thousands of miles away than if you had been there, e.g. redada meeting in Spain I followed via streaming and Twitter from the UK.

During my Malaysian fieldwork I sometimes had to ‘commute’ to the UK and I found that I could participate more actively in local life from there – via the local web forum – than when I was physically in Subang Jaya, where I was often too busy chasing my ‘key informants’ to be able to spend long hours online!

Last week during fieldwork in Barcelona, I was amazed once again at how much information I could find online about people I was about to interview or hang out with.

In my ethnographic work I seek to triangulate from a wide range of sources – both digital and analogue  – as I follow and reconstruct a techno-political process, e.g. the gestation and birth of the indignados movement in Spain, or the unfolding of a local protest in Malaysia.

There is a catch, however.  Digital ethnography is so rich an experience, and so enriching that like other knowledge workers we find it very difficult to switch off, esp. to go offline. Always temptation to catch up, look things up, ‘share’ stuff, self-promote… (Postill and Pink 2012)

To paraphrase Tony Blair, we must be tough on time, tough on the causes of time (wasting). In other words, we must reclaim our offline time.

I try to do so, with uneven success, through the little square method: blocking off whole chunks of time, wherever possible four hours in the morning, by drawing a little square on my non-digital diary (well OK now I do it on Google Calendar).

That’s me-time, offline time. To write. If I need to look something up, I look it up on my very own MWW (Mind Wide Web). Using a keyboard is OK, as long as you’re offline, but pen and paper is better (see Tim Ingold on writing by hand). Occasionally, though all too rarely, I even go off to a cabin in the middle of nowhere – a man-cave with no wifi – in order to write. If you can’t remember something you leave a blank, look it up later. We don’t need to have ready access to Google all the time.


Just as many of our research participants are now leaving an ever greater digital trail in their wake, so do we ethnographers. In our case, a research/public scholarship trail – the two activities becoming increasingly hard to tell apart.

My own public presence: mailing list, blog, Twitter, Facebook (see Postill forthcoming), nowadays (more on this platform shortly). Each with its own limits and possibilities for public scholarship.

Lately I have found that Twitter has got a lot more interesting in this regard, e.g. conversations about what to call people who love to mix their technology with their politics, about sociological theory (which led to the discovery for me of Fligstein and McAdam), about the meaning of digital activism, etc.

Many of us digital ethnographers are, I suspect, content hoarders. And we’re always convinced that there’s a technical fix just round the corner for all our hoarding needs. Some people swear by Mendeley, others love Delicious, still others are Evernoters. For me first it was the bibliographic software ProCite, back in the 1990s, then it was Mendeley (for a short while), then my blog, then Delicious, now

At the moment I’m struggling with archival tension between Scoop.It (public, self-promotion) and archiving PDFs in old-fashioned directory (private). Incredibly useful to carry a laptop full of PDFs to read and highlight as a new writing deadline approaches. No wifi required. On the other hand, is good as a public resource as well as putting your name out there as an expert on that topic. If introduced an automatic way of turning your bookmarked/Scooped pages onto PDFs, I would sign up to it straight away.

The truth is there will never be a one-stop solution to our all too human scholarly urge to hoard stuff, in this day and age to hoard digital contents. People change, and so do technologies. Perhaps we should try to hoard less, be more selective? And worry less about losing that vital piece of information on which our entire career depends?


To recap: I have discussed the global information crisis and digital ethnography through examples from my own work on digital media and activism over the past 12 years or so.

Whether we like it or not, we digital ethnographers are in the thick of this crisis. For me there were two moments of realisation:

(a)  seeing the information activists in that TV documentary discussing Iceland’s ‘information famine’ and how Wikileaks got involved in national crisis, leading to new information freedom legislation.

(b)  joining a mass of highly diverse occupiers of Placa de Catalunya (Barcelona) having followed the build-up to 15M marches through ethnographic research – with key role played by internet freedom fighters.

We digital ethnographers can contribute theories, methods and publics to the ongoing struggle over greater informational and democratic freedoms.

Theoretically, as digital ethnographers we can help to broaden the existing conceptual vocabulary, especially at the intersection of the social and the technological, so that we can move beyond the current reliance on a handful of favourite metaphors such as community, network or public sphere. For example, through plural socialities idea: the quality of social intercourse on a Twitter hashtag advocating digital freedom is different from that in a private offline meeting – the community/network pairing can be of little help here.

Methodologically, we can ‘follow the information conflict’ and its wider ramifications, incl. how they became entangled in broader struggles over democracy, accountability, corruption, etc, by ‘being there’ remotely or in person, live or after the fact, and then weave thick ethnographic accounts that pay attention to the multiple ways in which both us and our research participants made it there – to that particular field site.

Publicly, we can continue to co-create with colleagues, students, online journalists, information activists and other research participants new forms of public engagement across sites. The challenge, in my experience, is how to fight the tendency to hoard contents onto a single platform that we hope will solve all our problems with information dispersal.

But perhaps the biggest challenge, and we’re not alone here, is how to resist the urge to be constantly online. My conclusion is that that we should spend more time in our very own MindWideWeb (MWW), with the sole aid of pen and paper. Easier said than done, no doubt.

Thank you.

Q & A

(Disclaimer – these Q&A notes may not be accurate, apologies for any errors)

1. How are  you defining ‘global information crisis’? Why not ‘information war’ (another term you used)?

Erm, I’m still working on this notion, early days. Partly to blame, as it were, is Thomas H. Eriksen’s model of the 3 global crises (economic, environmental, cultural) that I started with, adding that there is a fourth global crisis to consider, an information crisis that took global centre stage (for a while) in November 2010 with the release by Wikileaks and its partner media organisations (Guardian, NYT, El Pais, Le Monde, etc) of thousands of US State Dept diplomatic cables.

Besides, the notion of Information War (Brooke 2011), has too much of a hyperbolic, ‘cyberwar’ ring to it when in fact the phenomenon I’m referring to is more heterogeneous, ranging from Anonymous DDOS, to Wikileaks releases of cables, to the ‘academic spring’ over open access, etc. But I definitely need to think more about it.

[Post-seminar update: Perhaps it’s worth asking who the parties are to the current international struggle over the future of digital information by taking self-ascribed ‘information activists’ as our guides into this struggle. In my research so far I have found five fields to be particularly embroiled in these struggles: computing (hacking), law, journalism, intelligence and academia. Again, this is a work in progress].

2. How do we avoid in our ethnographic accounts conflating two different forms of access to field situations, namely archival (retrospective) and in real time (lived experience)?

As ethnographers we often weave into our accounts both forms, I don’t see this as being a big problem. That said, perhaps we should be more explicit in our methodological sections/chapters about these differences.

3.  I find screenshots to be a very useful way of stringing together a rapidly unfolding event (comment).

4.  You said we should move on from the offline vs. online binary but I still find it useful. For instance, my research participants in [country X] are very different online (on Facebook) and offline.

I may have been unclear when I talked about this question earlier. What I meant to say is that we need a richer set of concepts around this area, go beyond our excessive attention to the online vs. offline quandary. That’s why I introduced distinctions in the way ethnographers are ‘being there’ in the field: physically, remotely, virtually, imaginatively… (and in all cases either in real time or retrospectively, through recorded or archived digital materials).

5. The video clip you showed [about Wikileaks’ intervention in Iceland’s banking crisis, 2009] didn’t quite fit in with the idea of a global information crisis. The information was available. There was no ‘information famine’ [as claimed by an Icelandic activist]. Something else must have been going on, perhaps to do with trust/mental models…

Yes, that’s a very good point. A few months ago I started thinking about what information is already available online about ‘the 1%’ and there’s much more out there than one would think. It’s a matter of having the motivation and time to dig it up. The rich and powerful also use social and public media, they too leave a trail of information – and there is no shortage of leaks, either (Postill 2013).

[End of notes. NB there were more questions/comments, but it’s late and I’ve run out of steam. Sorry. Many thanks to the seminar organisers and participants!].













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