Guest Author: John Postill
The digital world is exhilarating and frustrating in equal measure. On the one hand, the possibilities for socialising with like-minded others, meeting new people, honing old crafts, making digital things, sharing contents and co-producing knowledge are virtually endless. On the other hand, digital technologies can be slow, unreliable, unstable, disorientating and, quite literally, a pain in the neck. My starting premise is that any attempt at sharing anthropological knowledge with non-specialists via digital means must always bear in mind this basic contrast. Once we accept this fact of contemporary life, a whole new world of digital possibilities – and frustrations – opens up.
It is exciting to look back at the digital progress anthropology has made from around 2005 to the present. Let us not forget that Facebook only opened to the general public (us included) on 26 September 2006, or that Twitter caught the world’s attention a mere three years ago, in 2007. I have no figures to hand, but personal experience suggests that a large proportion of anthropologists are now on Facebook, which means that they are also likely to be, by default, users of Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Delicious and so on. Reluctantly at first, countless anthropologists (young and old) have acquired valuable digital skills and, perhaps more importantly, digital self-confidence in a matter of two or three years. The omens are good for further incursions into uncharted digital territory from colleagues who only 8 or 9 years ago were happy to leave Web content creation and sharing to others. These incursions could well include those outlets once known as the mainstream media.
At the same time, there are endless sources of irritation and frustration with the digital world. For example, those of us who maintain a personal blog are frustrated by the lack of time to feed it regularly, and worry that our loyal readers will head for the nearest collective anthropological blog or for reruns of old Ricky Gervais shows on YouTube. Another example is Twitter: whilst regular users feel they haven’t got enough time to keep up with the relentless torrent of #anthropology (re)tweets, non-users feel they are missing out but fear being sucked into a time vortex said to be 1,000 times stronger than Facebook. More than anything, we are dazed and confused by the pace of digital change around us and depressed by the seemingly meagre returns on our daily investment of digital time and labour.
Given this complex and shifting scenario, how can we hope to disseminate anthropological knowledge by digital means? I have two brief suggestions to make.
- We should keep doing those digital things that ‘work’ for us as individual scholars and students, e.g. making short ethnographic videos for YouTube, keeping a personal research blog, commenting on other people’s blogs, sharing anthropological contents via Facebook and Twitter, collaborating via social bookmarking sites or wikis, etc. These practices may not be reaching a non-anthropological audience right now, but the learning they entail could well be put to good public use when the opportunity arises, e.g. an unforeseen media event closely connected to our research expertise. For instance, I use my own research blog (media/anthropology) largely as a scrapbook and personal archive but on occasion people from outside academia who’ve stumbled upon the blog have contributed a private or public comment. It may not seem like much, but over time it adds up to a public profile and your work may acquire public relevance in unexpected quarters. The more anthropologists that are active in the digital realm, the greater the chances of having a public impact.
- Collectively, we should continue to strengthen and protect the anthropological ‘digital commons’, i.e that collegial space in which we co-produce and share anthropological knowledge digitally for non-commercial purposes. In recent years we have made swift progress in this regard thanks to sites such as Savage Minds, Anthropology Matters, Antropologi.info, Neuroanthropology and others. The good news is that unlike the physical commons of yore, in the digital world there is unlimited space available for new commoners, so there are excellent prospects for new ventures. For example, Europe is crying out for an online site where European(ist) anthropologists can meet and collaborate with other anthropologists. But what about non-anthropologists? you may wonder. Isn´t this a way of excluding them, a manner of virtual glass tower? On the contrary, one of the key tasks of fellow commoners would be to circulate the fruits of their labour beyond the commons. In the digital era, publicity begins at home.
John Postill is an anthropologist (PhD, UCL) who specialises in the study of media. He is Senior Lecturer in Media at Sheffield Hallam University and Senior Research Fellow at the Open University of Catalonia. He is
the author of Media and Nation Building (2006), Localizing the Internet ( in press) and co-editor, with Birgit Bräuchler, of Theorising Media and Practice (2010), all published by Berghahn. His current research interests include Internet activism, digital media and social change, with special reference to Malaysia and Spain. He maintains his own blog, Media/Anthropology.