Theses on Method: New Media, Social Technologies, and the Anthropology of Digital Worlds

Theses on Method: New Media, Social Technologies, and the Anthropology of Digital Worlds

This is a guest post by Dr. Travis Cooper, who teaches at Butler University in Indianapolis and is a research fellow with the Lived Religion in the Digital Age initiative.

The study of digital worlds is an emerging field in the social sciences and humanities. The concept of studying so-called “online” cultural activities poses difficulties for anthropology and the ethnographic tradition. But how might we imagine this young and controversial field beyond its institutional context and apparent methodological limitations? Drawing on media and technology studies both within and outside of anthropology, I offer ten provisional theses. The following list is a series of provocations. I do not intend it to be exhaustive. The list could be twice its length or half the size but are meant to summarize the theoretical contours of the field and inspire constructive thinking about digital anthropology. Although somewhat abstract in list form, these ten theses emerge out of around five years of ethnographic research among progressive religious communities in the American Midwest.

  1. New media are never (entirely) new.

To assume or take for granted new media’s newness is to ignore the ways by which people create and circulate the discourse of newness. New media forms emerge within existing patterns of practice and are by no means immune to social protocol, cultural practices, or interpersonal standards of communication. Media ideologies for “new” technologies emerge out of and in interaction with older technologies and those technologies’ attendant social protocols.1

  1. Technologies are both irrevocably plastic and intentionally structured.

If an axiom for the critical study of technology and media exists, this is it. Humans think up, design, create, and deploy tools for various purposes. Such tools then change the playing field of social, cultural, religious, technological, agricultural, economic, industrial, or environmental interactions. We make tools and then our tools make us. This cycle of causality encompasses even digital media. As a corollary point, the boldest and most unsophisticated versions of Big Data research—in as much as the perspective of Big Data flattens out sociocultural context and reduces human actions to mere numeric data—is the new scientific positivism.2

  1. The Internet is paradoxical in its (re)configurations of social power and hierarchy.

To assume in either direction that the Internet either exclusively (a) reinforces existing structures of power or (b) champions democratic, populist, alternative, marginal, or grassroots reform, is a grave misstep. The Internet allows for action in both directions. The Internet is first and foremost a network, and networks behave strangely and sometimes unpredictably. Who are the gatekeepers of the Internet’s various nodes of power? Who controls access to information and expression in digital fields? And who is working to circumvent these nodes? In terms of power and hierarchy, media, indeed, are double-edged swords. Media are themselves technologies, which is to say they are devices for social order. The Internet is a platform for shoring up power. But as a communicative media, the Internet is also a hotbed of countercultural activism.3

  1. Ideologies, predispositions, and agendas shape Internet mediations.

The Internet as a network of ideas, imageries, materials, texts, and resources, but it did not emerge into a cultural vacuum. Rather, the originators and gatekeepers of the Internet across the spectrums of technology, coding, artificial intelligence, and application design reflect particular dispositions and habitudes. Social media, likewise, echo in their structures the various agendas of their designers.4

  1. The medium is (both always and never just) the message.

Marshall McLuhan was correct that the means by which people communicate are as important as the content being communicated. Digital anthropology partially confirms McLuhan’s hypothesis. The medium does shape, both enabling and constraining, the message contents being communicated. Such an axiomatic statement now borders on truism. But incorporating the second thesis above, with regard to the plasticity of media, we might push back against the McLuhanesque position from a social constructionist angle as well as from the perspective of cultural relativism. The intended form, structures, and affordances of different media may well be circumvented. Social media uptake varies across the globe. The rules and directives for a medium are not written in stone but are flexible and malleable. As a practical example, Twitter up until a short while ago allowed only a mere 140-character space for any single Tweet, underscoring the brevity and concision of Twitter’s affordances. But that didn’t stop some users from writing full-fledged novels using the platform.5

  1. Terms like “real,” “fake,” “virtual,” “disembodied,” and “authentic” are first-hand, folk, and non-scholarly languages.

To employ such concepts is to fail to observe, identify, and scrutinize the quotidian valuations that our ethnographic collaborators deploy in their thoughts about communication. News articles bemoaning the addictiveness of mobile technologies and op-eds about how texting leads to the demise of coherent interpersonal communication are as interesting for the scholar of technology as internecine theological and ecclesial debates by religious authorities on the in/authenticity and un/orthodoxy of “online religion.” Media ideologies are everywhere. Scholars study such ideologies but should ideally refrain from producing them.6

  1. The Internet inhabits and structures everyday life; as such, the new media era is the age of the domesticized cyborg meets surveillance capitalism.

The Internet cannot and should not be studied as some locatable, external thing—some separate, omniscient Cloud—that exists in an empirical sense out in the ether. Mobile, habitual media are increasingly altering the structure of everyday life. Fitbits, Echo, Glass, dataphones, fourth screen technologies, digital watches: Technologies are now wearable, habitual, and quotidian. The digital is an extension of the body. To engage with the Internet involves complex interactions with intelligent, nonhuman meaning machines, networks, algorithms, and commercial industries. The Internet engenders the illusion of freedom. Google searches do not produce raw, unfiltered data results. Amazon algorithms tailor the experience of the consumer. In this brave new neoliberal world, we have not one Internet—not a unitary, singular market—but a million markets curated and cultivated and individualized by the meaning machines. We live in a posthuman world of surveillance capitalism.7

  1. The Internet scrambles social boundaries and blurs cherished dichotomies.

This is an important claim. But even more importantly, the development of the Internet (and the normative discourses surrounding its development) provides a venue for the study of the somewhat arbitrary construction of “public” versus “private” social registers. Front stage and back stage domains are not natural or given but must be constructed through performance. Are blogs private diaries or public media events? Are digital friends “friends” or something else entirely? Are social media more social or less social than pre-digital networks?8

  1. The Internet and new media do not need scholarly approval or disapproval, but rather sustained, careful, critical study.

Bold, normative claims about what the Internet is—i.e., the end of civilization, the great leveler, the anti-Christ, the priesthood of all believers, the demise of civil discourse, democratic populism incarnate, Big Brother 2.0, etc.—are all data for study. Scholars should be suspicious of essentialist claims that mark the Internet or digital media with broad brush strokes.9

  1. Digital anthropology is neither traditionally anthropological nor conventionally ethnographic; it’s an uncomfortable hybrid and amalgamation of mixed methods.

Digital ethnography eschews conceptions of ethnography as first-hand, immediate, empirical, emplaced, in-person, or as a form of direct study, participation, or observation. Sometimes digital anthropology looks more like corpus, discourse, and textual analysis. Sometimes digital anthropology involves hanging out with people as they thumb through their social feeds in so-called “real time,” or interviewing them ex post facto about their digital proclivities. Sometimes digital anthropology involves engaging with one’s informants on social media, separated by physical distance. The texture of interpersonal connections has increased in complexity. Digital anthropology requires a vast toolbelt of interdisciplinary methods that are robust and flexible enough to understand the growing complexity of social networks in the contemporary era.10

[1] Ilana Gershon, “Media Ideologies: An Introduction.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 20/2 (2010): 283-293; Gershon, The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010); Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 2001).

[2] Gerson, The Breakup 2.0, 20, 50, 53-65, 90, 108; Steve Matthewman, Technology and Social Theory (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2011).

[3] Lynn Schofield Clark, The Parent App: Understanding Families in the Digital Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013): 45; Heidi A. Campbell and Stephen Garner, Networked Theology: Negotiating Faith in Digital Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerAcademic, 2016), 51; John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015); Ramesh Srinivasan and Adam Fish, After the Internet (Cambridge, UK and Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017); Zynep Tufecki, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017).

[4] Stephen Segaller, Nerds 2.0.1: A Brief History of the Internet (New York: TV Books, 1998); José van Dijck, The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Adam Fish, Technoliberalism and the End of Participatory Culture in the United States (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

[5] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001); Daniel Miller, Tales from Facebook (Malden, MA: Polity, 2011); Daniel Miller, Elisabetta Costa, Nell Haynes, Tom McDonald, Razvan Nicolescu, Jolynna Sinanan, Juliano Spyer, Shriram Venkatraman, and Xinyuan Wang, How the World Changed Social Media (London: University College of London Press, 2016); Daniel Miller, “The Anthropology of Social Media” Scientific American (2018), observations/the-anthropology-of-social-media/.

[6] Heidi Campbell, Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds (New York: Routledge, 2013); Stewart Hoover, The Media and Religious Authority (University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 2016).

[7] Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2016); Adriana de Souza e Silva, “Interfaces of Hybrid Spaces.” In The Cell Phone Reader: Essays in Social Transformation, edited by Anandam Kavoori and Noah Arceneaux (New York: Peter Lang, 2006): 19-43; Ganaele Langlois, Meaning the Age of Social Media (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

[8] Chun, Updating to Remain the Same.

[9] Although not an exhaustive list, I have in mind works including Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011); Adam Greenfield, Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life (London and New York: Verso, 2017), Byung-Chul Han, In the Swarm: Digital Prospects (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017), and James Bridle, New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future (London and New York: Verso, 2018).

[10] Heather A. Horst and Daniel Miller, Digital Anthropology (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013); Roger Sanjek and Susan W. Tratner, eFieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology in the Digital World (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016); Crystal Abida, “Three Lies of Digital Ethnography,” anthro{dendum}, February 7, 2018.

Bio: Travis Cooper teaches at Butler University and is currently working on a book project titled The Digital Evangelicals: Constructing Authority and Authenticity after the New Media Turn. He is a research fellow with the Henry Luce Foundation-funded initiative, Lived Religion in the Digital Age, and writes about the social architectures of everyday American lifeworlds, rituals, and traditions, systems ranging from digital and print media to the built environment. Find out more about his research and publications here.