(Cross posted from Savage Minds)

In Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody he says that “Communications tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.” The problem for those of us who are early adopters of new communications tools is that we get caught up in the excitement of new possibilities and lack the patience it requires to wait for the potential to be realized. I remember hooking up my Mac+ to a New York City node of France’s Minitel network via a 300 baud modem sometime in the late 1980s. I could see the possibility, but as late as the mid nineties I still faced angry looks from students when I told them they needed to sign up for an e-mail account if they took my class. Sometimes we forget how unnecessarily complicated all this seems to most people. Especially anthropologists. I have been blogging for nearly eight years now, but it seems like it is only in the past year that I suddenly stopped being able to keep track of every new anthropology blog out there. E-mail is now boring, as are blogging and the social web. And that’s exciting, because it means things are just getting started!

The evidence? If you haven’t already, take a look at the Open Anthropology Cooperative. Back in May I wrote yet-another-post complaining about how the AAA relied upon poorly made user surveys instead of proper qualitative research, or genuine bottom-up democratic decision making. That sparked an interesting discussion on Twitter about what a more open, global, and democratic alternative to the AAA might look like. The discussion soon outgrew the 140 character limit, and so moved over to Kieth Hart’s forum. The discussion there progressed for a while until, at the end of May, Maximilian Forte suggested using Ning, and Kieth Hart set up the Open Anthropology Cooperative.

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Mandatory Wikipedia Edits?

December 22, 2008

(Reposted from Savage Minds)

Nat Torkington reports that the RNA Biology journal (published by Nature) requires authors to submit at least one Wikipedia article on their research before they will publish their article. This is partially because the publisher, Nature, has something called the RNA WikiProject which syncs each night with related Wikipedia articles.

I thought this was interesting because I know there is a certain hesitancy among scholars in the social sciences to post their own research findings to Wikipedia for fear that it might hurt their efforts to publish material later on. Anthropology isn’t like the sciences, in that some of our “findings” might not even meet Wikipedia’s increasingly stringent standards for what qualifies for an article – and we certainly don’t subscribe (as a discipline) to Wikipedia’s concept of a “neutral point of view”; still, I think that there is a lot of basic information we acquire during the course of our research which is perfectly suited for Wikipedia. What would happen if American Anthropologist required that all authors make some substantial Wikipedia edits on their topic before considering their article for publication?

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?

Notice of Acceptance

August 1, 2008

Just a quick note to let you all know that the Remixing Anthropology panel has been officially accepted for the 107th Annual Meeting of the AAA, to be held at the Hilton San Francisco.

Session Date & Time: 11/19/2008, 12:00:00PM – 01:45:00PM
Room: Union Square 18

See you in San Francisco!

Joy of Tech on image ethics in the digital age.

The Media Anthropology Network is a mailing list that hosts regular e-seminars. The current one is focused on a paper by Erkan Saka about Blogging as a research tool for ethnographic fieldwork [PDF], with comments by Mary Stevens. Once the e-seminar is concluded the discussion will be archived on the Media Anthropology website.

[Originally posted on Savage Minds.]

I was actually thinking along very similar lines to CKelty [PDF] when I began looking at the literature on scale-making this week. In the world of the internet scale-making is all about scalability, about the ability to go from a website which can handle a few hundred users to one which can handle millions. Google recently launched a new service, App Engine, based around the promise that you’ll have Google behind you if your application takes off and needs to scale.

The reason I was thinking along these lines is that I recently finished Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody. Shirky argues that one of the defining features of the internet (once it has become a ubiquitous and prosaic part of our lives) is that it reduces the barriers to collaboration and collective action. But while the ridiculously easy group formation fostered by the internet makes it easy to form a group, the very fact of scale no longer serves as an index of group-strength. He gives this example from Howard Dean’s presidential campaign:

because Meetup makes it easier to gather the faithful, it confused people into thinking that they were seeing an increase in Dean support, rather than a decrease in the hassle of of organizing groups — the 2003 Dean Meetup simply brought out a much larger percentage of Dean supporters than would have shown up previously. We’ve seen this sort of effect before, as when written correspondence on letterhead stopped being a sign of a solvent company, thanks to the desktop-publishing revolution.

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Web based services, many of which are available on mobile devices, now mediate the experience of place, culture and heritage for tourists and even professional researchers.  Recommendation systems increasingly filter and optimize destination choice and perception, while social media platforms give tourists new ways to participate in the co-creation of narratives and histories about places.  This co-creation augments reality by making destinations more vivid, fanciful and immersive with rich overlays of information. Ubiquitous access to knowledge offers new opportunities for tourist “self-fashioning” by making it easier to learn about, evaluate, rate, and judge background histories and processes previously hidden from the tourist gaze. This dynamic landscape alters relationships between tourists and the objects of tourism, sometimes encouraging greater reflexiveness in understanding the staging of experiences. However, new power inequalities in online media impact the representation of people and places. Aggregation and data-mining algorithms relating to search and recommendation services tend shift power toward centralized providers (Google, Amazon). Such services derive from opaque processes, but are increasingly taken-for-granted starting points for understanding and experiencing places. These services extend beyond popular tourist media. They draw upon and help shape peer-review, impact assessments, and other aspects of professional scholarly communication. Thus, many communities, be they popular or academic, now discuss, experience, and understand “culture” via online social mechanisms (collaboration, review, and ranking) and machine services (data mining techniques and ranking algorithms). Taken together, the new media landscape of tourism offers a fascinating zone for anthropological inquiry.

Casey O’Donnell

What would anthropological fieldwork look like if it were a (video)game? How would a (video)game ethnography make its argument or construct its narrative? New forms of writing offer promise and peril for the ethnographic text, writer, and informants. The “ethnographic game” is no exception. This paper and presentation take the game form as a potential aspect of the ethnographic text, and asks, “What can games do that a traditional text cannot?” It proposes that the (video)game can too be part of the ethnographic text. While anthropologists have extended their research endeavors into online and virtual realms, those forms have had little impact on the ethnographic text. This talk combines traditional ethnographic accounts of the fieldsite, game design documentation, the resulting ethnographic video game, and user game play narratives to inform partial answers to this question. Each “text” illuminates and simultaneously obscures aspects of the overarching ethnographic narrative, one that ultimately emerges through play and re-play. Drawing on three years of fieldwork with video game developers in the United States and India, this talk emphasizes the importance of a “grounded” approach to research and ethnographic form. The explicit engagement with design as shaping the resulting possibilities for collaboration, interpretation, and remixing encourages attentiveness to the construction of the ethnographic argument. The game form ultimately offers anthropologists new means to approach their objects of concern as well as new collaborative opportunities for readers and informants.

The digital database of the mundane is growing, and some researchers have created some interesting ways to dig in and mine the data.  The MIT Technology Review identified Sandy Pentland’s work on “reality mining” as one of the key emerging technologies of 2008.  The primary data for Pentland’s work comes from cell phone logs along with proximity data created through the use of embedded bluetooth sensors.   This data allowed him and his team to, “accurately model the social networks of about 100 MIT students and professors. They could also precisely predict where subjects would meet with members of their networks on any given day of the week.” The original peer-reviewed article (published in 2005!) is available here.