Holding our anthropological spaces

Holding our anthropological spaces

I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point the anthropological community that used to be online shifted mostly to Twitter and other platforms. Maybe this was around 2015-2017 or so? I shifted there as well but always wondered how it would all play out.

Twitter was good in many ways, because it opened things up and gave more people a chance to speak for themselves through their own micro platform. But I feel like it also resulted in more atomization and many of us…just getting lost in the massive flow of information.

About 10 years ago, the online anthropology community looked pretty different. I’m not saying it was some utopia—it wasn’t—but there were some aspects that I do miss. Back then there seemed to be a more connected and coherent online community. In some ways, it was great.

There were tons and tons of blogs, which included the former iteration of this site (SM), and others like Neuroanthropology (Daniel Lende and Greg Downey), Somatosphere, John Hawks’ Weblog, Powered by Osteons (Kristina Killgrove), Context and Variation (Kate Clancy), From the Annals of Anthroman (John L. Jackson), and of course Jason Antrosio’s Living Anthropologically, among many others. For a full list of the anthro blogosphere a decade ago, see this archived post on Jason’s site

Those were just some of the most popular and well-known blogs. There were so many others. Everyone seemed to have a blog. For better or worse, there was a lot of conversation and activity–and arguably even more potential for what we could do with it all.

I found that online network to be fascinating, hopeful, and inspiring when it was at its best. I jumped into that world when I was a PhD student, and it provided a place where I could talk with others in the field–even well-known and established scholars (gasp)–in ways that went beyond my graduate seminars. For me, it was great. I liked being able to think through ideas through these various platforms.

When I first joined Twitter in 2009 there were conversations and connections running through and across various platforms, from all the blogs to Facebook, Twitter, and also sites like the Open Anthropology Cooperative (OAC). 

Those good aspects of that online anthro community lasted for a few years (from around 2005-2012), and then seemed to slowly implode. Maybe things didn’t really implode…they just kind of withered away as people migrated to other platforms. Maybe everyone got too busy? Or things just…changed? But blogs kind of died for the most part, and most people migrated to places like Twitter (and then Instagram and now more recently Tik Tok).  

With the online anthropology community, there are lots of great people on Twitter, but it’s dispersed. It also requires constant engagement on the platform to keep things going. Otherwise all those connections seem to drift away. Blogs such as Somatosphere are still going, and we have new sites like Sapiens that are bringing in good content. But in terms of the anthropology community, what do we have? And what will we have when and if Twitter completely goes off the rails?

For the platform as a whole, things are not looking good. It looks like a public space, but it’s really not. Twitter is more like a shopping mall than a public square–a privatized, monetized space that’s subject to the whims of its ownership. It’s great until it’s not, like when someone buys it for multiple billions of dollars and clearly demonstrates what it really is within a matter of weeks. Still, it is one of the critical spaces we do have. Should we all just jump ship and find new platforms?

All this has me thinking, once again, about the need for not just making new spaces, but also holding and using the spaces we already have. That includes this site, which has been somewhat…underutilized for the last few years (IMO). As Sarah Kendzior said recently: “Do not cede territory in an information war.” I’ll leave it there for now.

7 Replies to “Holding our anthropological spaces”

  1. twitter was fine for links to papers and announcements of books/conferences/etc but never really allowed for the kinds of conversations/exchanges that blogs did, not too many in academia seem willing to share work-in-progress with the pubic (and of course there are paywalls that come with publishing) and I think that says something about how deep the hall of mirrors goes. Paul Rabinow was a prickly fellow in some ways but I think that he and his little crew were onto something: https://www.snafu.dog/

  2. Dmf: Thanks for reading this. For me Twitter worked okay for a while when I first joined a while back, mostly because of how it fit within the blogs and other networks. When those died out, there wasn’t much left. Or maybe that’s just all that Twitter really was. I’ve seen and had good conversations there…but they all just seemed to get lost. It’s not something you can go return to, search, or archive in the same way. And ya one of the things I really liked about the so-called ‘blogosphere’ of a decade ago was a willingness to share more work in progress kind of stuff. One thing that killed blogs, at least for me, was when they all started looking and feeling more like journal articles.

    1. my guess is that the main killer of the blogosphere was that it became just another unpaid task that academics had to do, that said it was about as close an opportunity to see how academics do their work (of writing papers/books) as the public and really students can come to have, unlike lab or studio work students rarely get a chance to see how their faculty put together their work products and that’s a real loss. With or without the blogosphere the humanities/social-sciences could use more in the way of something like apprenticeships into crafting research and writing.

  3. Hi Ryan,
    The advent of the big social media platforms held a lot of promise for reaching a massive audience and connecting to all your friends and colleagues, but the user interface of social media is functionally a stream of conscious that requires constant attention and brings a sense of FOMA (fear of missing out). The technology itself is not to blame, the way it is implemented with no real specialization beyond sharing and networking. That may very well be the best way to design a global platform meant to cater to anyone and everyone with a mobile phone! Regardless, the new lure of reaching a global audience at the click of a button made personal blogging feel clunky and unnecessary – you had to set it up, design the layout, pay for a domain name, and then share every post on social media or risk your blog drifting out into the ether of empty space!

    I ran the design anthropology group on the Open Anthropology Cooperative and was actually very upset when they announced that they were shutting down. Of course I understood that the ning platform that it was built on went through several iterations and purchases, their design slowly grew outdated and ning’s support became lackluster. I approached the OAC with a proposal to start a new platform and I started building a plan to present to them for how the new community would work as an integrated ecosystem of collaborative anthropology research with social networking features and member blogging capabilities. At the time, they had other priorities and were not in a position to invest in a new platform. However, I became so excited about the potential of a new community site for anthropologists that I reached out to other organizations and eventually just started building the project myself out-of-pocket.

    Three years later, The Collaborative Anthropology Network (CollabAnthNetwork, or t-can if you will…), is currently in a soft launch. Originally modeled after the Open Anthropology Cooperative, after several years of additional research and development the platform has since been completely re-imagined of what it could potentially be. I won’t turn this into an advertisement, but I just wanted to say that the article did fill me again with a sense that the anthropology community demands more then what the big social media platforms are offering but while the technology is there, the fact is anthropology organizations are not in a position to build and maintain advanced technology platforms. Anthropology is such a small niche as well, but reading about design anthropology for the first time as a young design student changed everything for me and I want to enable the anthropology community to flourish as much as possible in this new era!

    Brandon Meyer

    1. have you folks found a way for people to get ‘credit’ towards their departmental workloads for this labor?

  4. Hi dmf,
    I believe there are ways to promote and add more value to projects created outside of the formalized channels that scholarly institutions have come to expect, but the decision is ultimately up to those institutions to broaden what they will recognize as “legitimate.” However, I understand that it has so far proven to be difficult and I suspect that is because there are entrenched interests that maintain a status quo that is not always helpful and in some ways prevents progress and innovation. We need to return to the basic question of what it is that makes a project truly valuable from the perspective of human scholarship and how scholarly institutions can play a role in promoting a wider range of works, rather than serving as the gatekeepers of narrow definitions. If we can identify what needs to be challenged and how that has evolved or not over time we can begin to formulate ways to penetrate parts of the status quo that do not have a net benefit, while promoting a broader view of what does. Innovating outside of entrenched scholarly models is one way to open up that conversation!

    1. hi Brandon, you will need to start within the current regimes to garner significant and sustainable resources/support, to this end I would suggest raising these questions as research projects, as say STS did with lab work, and have folks examine both existing models and newer experiments, universities are sort of mini cities with their own housing, police, sales-forces, medical providers, etc and as such could become subjects for many fields of study and this could be sold (at least initially) to administrators as a kind of accounting and improvement project.