Anthropology 2.0: For Real?

June 28, 2009

(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.

At present, OAC isn’t really an alternative to the AAA at all, its just another social networking site for anthropologists all around the world. But it seems to attract people interested in issues of openness and governance. In Shirky’s book he argues that the modern corporation was created to reduce the transaction costs involved in coordinating activity among large groups of people. It did that by imposing a large management hierarchy on top of the people actually doing the work. This model has worked for a long time, but it has limits. Such a management hierarchy is expensive to maintain, so it isn’t worth it for management to engage in activities which don’t generate enough revenue to support the hierarchy. Shirky argues that the social web solves this problem by reducing transaction costs to near zero. While the AAA may still be required to pull off something as monumental as the massive annual meetings, software like Open Conference Systems should make it easier to organize smaller conferences outside of the AAA. And, apart from their prestige, it is increasingly unclear that publishing in AAA journals offers any added value beyond what could be done with Open Journal Systems. Since much of the academic labor for these things is donated anyway, the cost really can be reduced to near zero.

But Shirky raises another point, which is that as the transaction costs get close to zero, it becomes trivially easy to do things which used to require either a strong ideological commitment or an oversized organizational hierarchy. As a result, it becomes much harder to gauge commitment. Signing an online petition is not the same thing as marching on Washington. So I was initially skeptical that what is essentially an Anthropologically branded version of Facebook would produce much in the way of “Open Anthropology.” It may still be too early to tell, but the site just seems to be growing and growing. There have been other attempts to create online forums for anthropologists but never have any of them succeeded like this. Time will only tell how well OAC survives its own success, but today gave me real hope saw the launch of yet another initiative: the OAC Wiki, thanks to the efforts of Paul Wren. I myself have tried to start a few wikis and given up because one needs a certain critical mass for a wiki to succeed. In general social media has a “user elite” who do most of the work editing and maintaining the site, even as content is added it bits and pieces by the entire membership. But with over a thousand people on OAC, maybe running a wiki has become boring enough that it can succeed.

Looking forward, one of the biggest hurdles will probably be in the realm of self-governance. Already this has been an issue on OAC, with Maximilian Forte leaving in a huff, citing “authoritarian and elitist tendencies” by which I think he means over-zealous moderation in the forums. Self-governance is difficult, especially since a small handful of people tend to do all the hard work of maintaining these communities. Two years ago I wrote a blog post about the bureaucratization of Wikipedia. It seems like these are issues already facing the fledgling OAC. But I’m encouraged that this time, Anthropology 2.0 might be taking off for real. I certainly hope so!

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