Anthropology after Twitter and the power of old things in new hands

Anthropology after Twitter and the power of old things in new hands

Esoteric caption: The power of old things in new hands. Practical caption: This is one image I have on hand while I’m here at the airport that I can work into this post somewhat reasonably. Real caption: Central California coast, 2017.

I’m sitting here at Toronto Pearson International Airport after this year’s AAA meetings. The first time I went to the AAA’s was back in 2008, in San Francisco. I was a grad student back then, all worried and nervous about presenting at a professional conference.

My first shock was just basic economics. The room at the conference hotel was $250, and it wasn’t particularly luxurious. It was tiny. And the sink was inside the room. As a grad student I didn’t have much money so that was all pretty unnerving.

My presentation was on a Sunday morning. Four people showed up…and two of them were my friends from grad school. The presentation was fine. I made it. I didn’t break any major theoretical boundaries but I did make it through my presentation somewhat coherently. So it was a win.

It could have been an alienating experience. I mean, it was alienating in terms of cost and some of the usual badge-checking social status sort of stuff that tends to happen with these kinds of things. But it also wasn’t alienating because there was this thing we had back then called…the internet.

Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s that thing that’s dead, dying, decrepit. That thing that Elon Musk and others are actively seizing and taking apart, piece by piece.

Back in 2008, there was this whole social space that was building up on blogs and, yes, Twitter. But those were still the days when blogs (and other things) were on the rise. There was this whole community that was building at the time, and it helped open things up.

For me, as a grad student, that whole network gave me other ways to find people, get in touch, have conversations, make connections. It sounds like some ad for a social media company, but I’m serious. It actually worked. There were all these spaces and conversations happening, and you could jump into them by starting your own site, posting comments, sharing stuff, and so on. It helped cut through some of the alienation–to jump through or past some of the tensions, status competitions, and sheer volume of such meetings. 

For me, that whole network added an entirely different layer to conferences…and to anthropology. It was, in many ways, some of the best of it all. 

Of course, that’s all mostly gone now. You know the story, right? People migrated from all their blogs to micro-blogging sites, mostly Twitter. Some of that had to do with some of the challenges of comment moderation, but there were other reasons. Users migrated, and this thing called #Anthrotwitter was born, and it was both great and problematic (as were blogs). 

And then Elon Musk did his work, and that network, all those spaces and conversations, are mostly dead. 

This was my first conference after the demise of Twitter, and it was a different thing. Conferences often take place in big spaces, so it can be a challenge not to feel a bit lost in it all. Back in the day, things like the anthroblogosphere (yes that’s what people called it) and #Anthrotwitter helped bring folks together (again, though, it wasn’t some utopia).

Just to bring things full circle here, my panel was again at 8 am. It was about theorizing sea level rise. I walked to the session assuming nobody would show up. But–surprise–we had a pretty solid turnout. It was fun. We had a good conversation. It was nice. That’s how things should work. Maybe there are some lessons here about how we meet, what we expect, and how we make and maintain connections. It turns out that actually meeting people in person, talking, and sharing ideas still works pretty well. So that’s good news.

But there was a layer that I used to value and appreciate that was missing. It was that layer that was the blogosphere–and then Twitter. A place, of sorts. As Hilary Agro wrote on Twitter/X just today, it was a “place that filled in the gaps left by institutions and professional organizations–people supported each other, learned, even theorized.”

It was, indeed. We should rebuild that place, or something like it, while heeding some of the lessons we have (hopefully) learned in the past decade or so. Key point: don’t bank on a private, corporate space to serve as a public sphere. As we have seen, that doesn’t pan out all that well. Some good news, as Alex Golub posted on FB somewhere today, is that the other, older internet is still around…and it STILL WORKS.

Go start a blog or something. Then tell me–and others–about it. Post stuff, then share it on a somewhat regular basis. Keep control of your content as much as possible. That’s the basic plan. Here are some details and ideas

There’s a certain power in old things. Particularly in some new hands. Consider this an invitation.

Onward, and keep in touch. Post some comments below. 

6 Replies to “Anthropology after Twitter and the power of old things in new hands”

  1. Thanks for this post! I feel hopeful about the death of twitter – I’m excited for the spaces and ways we will connect in its absence. I personally am dreaming for a turn to print – to newsletters and zine exchanges! And I like your idea of revitalizing blog communities. Cheers!

    1. Hi Ariana! Ya I agree there’s some hope here with the death of twitter. I love the idea of a turn to print as well. I love things that ‘work’ even when the internet, power, etc is not working. I’m not sure what will happen with the whole ‘blog revitalization’ idea, but I am looking forward to other spaces and possibilities. I’m also hoping we can avoid the same pattern that happened with twitter the next time around. Thanks for your comment here!

  2. Ryan, you mention that both blogs and #Anthrotwitter were great and problematic in different ways. I wonder if you could elaborate on that, perhaps here or in a different post.

    1. Hi Scritic, One of the best aspects was a kind of flattening of the usual hierarchies that used to dominate conversations in anthro and academia overall. Another great aspect was the sheer diversity of sites. Lots of people had their site and then linked to and participated on other sites as well. It’s similar to everyone having their own Twitter account in its heyday, but the ‘home’ site tended to be more built out. It was also nice to have something where you were working with more than 280 characters. Stuff that people wrote was easier to find and keep track of (unlike many of the long ‘threads’ people started writing to get around character limits). I always found twitter to be kind of a mess when it came to actually trying to find things you’d read (even with advance search functions). But things were problematic then just as now. People were terrible on the old internet too. I think platforms like Twitter sort of amplify the problematic dimensions, especially with the shorter content and how things work with likes, sharing, virality, etc. One good aspect of having a blog was that control over comments etc was in your hands, rather than some central admin that may or or may actually do anything to address problematic interactions and comments.

  3. I just found tbis blog this morning, December 1st, looking for blogs about anthropology, because I am despairing about trends in “higher” realms (politics, sociology, morality). (Fascism is clearly on a terrible rampage, clearly more than anytime in almost 100 years.)

    And just yesterday, Elon Musk filled the news with his latest escalations against Twitter. It looks like it could actually die, even though about 6 percent of humanity got tied to it in ways that mean if it dies their lives will be seriously disrupted.

    The sooner they do as you suggest, the better.

  4. It is strange how things move. I started my first website in 1994 on GeoCities, and then I started a blog on Yahoo 360 in 2005 or 2006. Then in 2008 I started ( Yes, Facebook Notes (now disappeared) and Twitter have been a major distraction and a place we all used to post our thoughts and discuss issues important to us, but somehow the fact that blogger, WordPress, Wix blogs, and other blogging platforms continue to exist, attest to the relevance and continuous importance of blogging. Even if blogger erases part of my content now and again because it no longer supports the applications I used to create it (for example, has been a stable place in my academic life in the 21st century, along with Savage Minds and then anthrodum. Lots of students and researchers visit or have visited my blog, like so many of us have visited yours. The anthropology blogsphere has remained amazingly stable, and anthrodendum is a place we have to thank for it! Hope you all find great projects to contribute to in the future, and thank you for all these years of great anthropological content! Wish you would stay, now that the blogsphere is kind of coming back, but such is the life of digital and other publications. All best to you and to all anthropologists who read blogs, blog, and contribute to blogs worldwide. Long live anthroblogging!