The end of the connoisseur?

November 20, 2008

[Reposted from Savage Minds]

I enjoyed Rex’s post about anthropology as connoisseurship, and have been thinking about it a lot. Then today, during the Remixing Anthropology session, Eric Kansa talked about how centralized search services, like Google, are eroding the power and authority of traditional information service providers. He used the tourism industry as an example, highlighting how efforts to control the staging of local culture are undermined by web 2.0 technologies, but I also saw this as a threat to the role of the anthropologist as connoisseur.

Anthropologists traditionally deployed their authority as connoisseurs to shape and contextualize the context within which “we” learned about and encountered “other” cultures. Hell, we even had a role defining how people learned about and encountered anthropological knowledge. But now that carefully cultivated connoisseurship is becoming less and less important as Google algorithms and Web 2.0 recommendation engines become the primary gateways. Sure, to the extent that anthropologists are indexed in Google their authority is still important, but the first hit for a topic might be a corporate site who understand better how to game the system with search engine optimization (SEO).

Of course, it might not be a bad thing if a website run by an indigenous community can outrank anthropologists on google. There is something democratizing about the shift, which allows the producers of culture to outrank the connoisseurs. But, as Eric pointed out, there is something disturbing about the fact that these algorithms are a black box whose rules are determined by a corporate monopoly. How’s wikia search coming along?

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2 Responses to “The end of the connoisseur?”


  1. Just a note to say thanks for organizing the session this morning. I was too jet-lagged to ask a question, but learned a lot.

    Regarding the problem Eric raised about the Google black box and the potential for anthropologists’ work to become difficult to find, I wonder if there are any actual cases of valuable and widely appreciated anthropological content become essentially hidden due to low search-engine rankings. The best SEO is interesting content, which anthropologists are good at. And Google is far from having a monopoly of search, especially in places such as China and Japan, so it’s not clear to me what competitive advantage Google could gain by “hiding” useful content.

    I thought that Kerim’s point about the bias of open media such as Wikipedia with its massive coverage of anime compared to e.g. African literature was more urgent and something that anthropologists can actually do something to fix. It would be nice to get to the stage where anthropologists start complaining about the black-box gorilla hiding their stuff. This morning’s session got me thinking about how to make more of my own research data (mostly on Japanese open source software communities and political communication) available online.

    Jonathan Lewis
    Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo

  2. kerim Says:

    Thanks Jonathan. I don’t think it is so much a question of valuable content being hidden, so much as the fact that the rise of Google now means that a lot of other stuff might be a lot more popular and higher ranked than what anthropologists are doing … and anthropologists themselves are now relying even more on such tools for their own research. If grumpy professor X writes a review article I know his biases from his other writings, but what do I know about how Google ranks things. One thing I do know, however, is that we are not helpless. Blog links matter for Google rankings, and more anthropologists blogging about anthropological research will help!


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