Online Seminar 1-12 November: Daniel Miller An Extreme Reading of Facebook

There is no doubt that the last five years have seen a quantum jump in how most people experience the internet. ‘Web 2.0’ features above all the spread of Social Networking Sites (SNS), of which the Open Anthropology Cooperative is one. Chief among them is Facebook. From the OAC’s beginning some of our snootier members complained about the ‘Facebooky feel’ of our Ning platform, the cheesy way of making ‘friends’, the superficial flashiness of it all. And yet it is not outlandish to suppose that we may be witnessing a fundamental change in the way many of us experience living in the world.

Daniel Miller’s paper, ‘An extreme reading of Facebook’ (available here), is not just an opportunity to engage with his ideas, but also to reflect on ourselves and the means we have found for coming together in this place. His is as close to a universal topic as we will come across, since, whatever we may feel about it (and I have had my moments of disenchantment), who does not know Facebook from the inside?

Danny has dedicated his life – and getting on for thirty books – to developing the anthropological study of material culture, the things people have made, and increasingly the virtual society in which they circulate. He has summed up his project in the first of two volumes, Stuff (2010), reviewed at the OAC Press. Join a discussion of the book and review in the Group, OAC Book Reviews.

His method and style are humanist, putting the emphasis on what people think and do as revealed by ethnographic practice and presenting his arguments with as little jargon as possible. He makes three bold propositions about Facebook:

1. It turns upside down the assumptions on which modern social science was founded.
2. It performs a function as an unseen witness similar to that of God.
3. As a cultural system it shares some of the fundamental features of Kula.

Daniel Miller invites the attacks of entrenched academicians; he may or may not be pushing at an open door with us. I want to invite the widest possible participation in our discussions. Please do not assume that there are invisible barriers to joining in, hidden protocols designed to dissuade outsiders. We encourage detailed analysis of Danny’s arguments, but also invite personal testimony, anecdotes and reflections that need not be so closely related to them. The aim is to advance a conversation about what anthropology is and might be, but don’t get twisted in knots over whether your contribution is anthropological or academic enough. We have a large membership from University College London where Daniel Miller is Professor of Material Culture in the Anthropology Department. I hope this will be a stimulus rather than an obstacle to their online participation.

The seminar will last from 1st to 12th November. This gives everyone a chance to reflect and read, maybe even a chance to do some limited fieldwork on Facebook or here at the OAC! We are developing a new medium of social interaction here. You can help shape what it becomes.

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No one would dispute that a comprehensive history of chosen geographic locales is essential for anthropological research, yet when it comes to the Internet, many forgo this very important step, or jump from ARPANET to Facebook in a single sentence. Internet history is more than that. Above all, it can be surprising "local" and is therefore essential for framing ethnographic research of this kind.

A round of applause, please.

Francine might want to add that people interested in doing this sort of ethnographic research no longer enter a wholly uncharted field. I can imagine this conversation evolving in all sorts of interesting ways if Daniel MIller's account of Facebook were compared explicitly with Tom Boellstorff's Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human and Christopher Kelty's Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. The first explores what it's like to be more totally immersed in virtual encounters; the second examines those who have the technical expertise to themselves modify the software the software that defines their community, becoming what Kelty calls a "recursive public."

Consider, for example, the implications of the three different stances (1) virtual connections for a real world; (2) virtual separation from the real; (3) willing and able to change the world—if, that is, your peers will accept the changes you make. Take these three stances; set them orthogonal to Miller's three propositions; explore what happens in each of the nine resulting cells. Lots of "good to think" stuff here.
P.S. Technorati has just released its latest report on the state of the state of the blogosphere, which may also be relevant.



John McCreery said:
No one would dispute that a comprehensive history of chosen geographic locales is essential for anthropological research, yet when it comes to the Internet, many forgo this very important step, or jump from ARPANET to Facebook in a single sentence. Internet history is more than that. Above all, it can be surprising "local" and is therefore essential for framing ethnographic research of this kind.

A round of applause, please.

Francine might want to add that people interested in doing this sort of ethnographic research no longer enter a wholly uncharted field. I can imagine this conversation evolving in all sorts of interesting ways if Daniel MIller's account of Facebook were compared explicitly with Tom Boellstorff's Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human and Christopher Kelty's Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. The first explores what it's like to be more totally immersed in virtual encounters; the second examines those who have the technical expertise to themselves modify the software the software that defines their community, becoming what Kelty calls a "recursive public."

Consider, for example, the implications of the three different stances (1) virtual connections for a real world; (2) virtual separation from the real; (3) willing and able to change the world—if, that is, your peers will accept the changes you make. Take these three stances; set them orthogonal to Miller's three propositions; explore what happens in each of the nine resulting cells. Lots of "good to think" stuff here.


Francine Barone said:
M, I agree with you on many points here. I would add that Facebook has everything (like the things you list) because it's populated by people, just like any other "place", and that makes it intrinsically human. Where I might diverge slightly is in your use of the term "virtual" to refer to the spaces/places online. As I suggested in my first post, FB can be seen as another (actual) place contiguous with the social spaces in which people live, act and interact all the time. I likewise believe that FB is not only a place for "virtual fieldwork" or "cyber ethnography". Even though its popularity varied from person to person, I couldn't have attempted to (fully) understand the place where I did fieldwork without exploring how everyday life spilled over onto the Internet. I think new media is bound to affect our grasp of "conventional" fieldwork practices as time goes on.

Thanks, Francine, for questioning my use of the term "virtual" in relation to Online spaces/places. Forgive me if I'll go extreme with my response.

I must confess that I am not ready yet to consider Facebook as a real geography. Yes, it is almost real, and I do need to clear many things before I can finally “de-virtualize” Facebook.

When I opened my Facebook account a year ago, my first Online experience with it drove me to entertain the thought of finally enrolling in an anthropology graduate program and write a thesis on Facebook. Facebook fits well within my interests in systems theory, performativity, globalization, new ethnographic methods, metacommunity, and human ecology.

My very first day on Facebook, I had the feeling that the Online site could be the answered prayer of armchair anthropologists. Later I realized that it is not an easy place to conduct a fieldwork. Both textual and visual analyses are needed. I need to understand first how texts are real practices and visuals are real people. One question that I so want to answer is whether Facebook members are performing or living their lives. I want to focus on authenticity, identity, and privacy.

Lately I have been thinking about direction, mapping, mobility, spatiality, concepts of local and global, differences between real and imagined, and dichotomies that exist between society examined through networks and community examined through interactions and between attachment and detachment.

I think concepts in ecology like metacommunity can be applied anthropologically and ethnographically to “de-virtualize” Facebook. Different ecological paradigms can be used to turn Facebook into a real geography populated by human species. I believe these paradigms can legitimize it as a social and cultural space and a real setting for human geography and ecology. Real crimes do happen on Facebook. There are real preys and real predators that need to be checked.

The idea of metacommunity can save my time from entertaining simulation, fantasy, and imagination that are interesting but very taxing to think, read, and operate. It can be translated to appropriate social and cultural concepts. It can clear issues such as displacement, replacement, and misplacement which are all existent on Facebook. Niko’s question on why some Facebook members close their accounts and my observation why there are Farmville and Mafia games addicts can be best tackled with models.

I know it sounds ambitious, but I do think that Facebook can only be “de-virtualize” if its members are treated and studied as breathing species and real humans that exist in groups, networks, societies, and communities.

For more on metacommunity, click

http://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:N0ZtKpvqqHQJ:biology....


John McCreery said:
People interested in doing this sort of ethnographic research no longer enter a wholly uncharted field. I can imagine this conversation evolving in all sorts of interesting ways if Daniel MIller's account of Facebook were compared explicitly with Tom Boellstorff's Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human and Christopher Kelty's Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. The first explores what it's like to be more totally immersed in virtual encounters; the second examines those who have the technical expertise to themselves modify the software the software that defines their community, becoming what Kelty calls a "recursive public."

Consider, for example, the implications of the three different stances (1) virtual connections for a real world; (2) virtual separation from the real; (3) willing and able to change the world—if, that is, your peers will accept the changes you make. Take these three stances; set them orthogonal to Miller's three propositions; explore what happens in each of the nine resulting cells. Lots of "good to think" stuff here.

I agree that this would be a constructive way of developing the discussion. In the first three days half a dozen people have begun a conversation in which their positions are emerging. We have nine more to go and it would be nice if that conversation could be expanded to draw in more people. Considering some other well-known anthropological texts, as John suggests, might be one way. I would also be interested to hear if anyone has anything provisional to say about that Technorati report. Anthropologists are not sealed off as a self-referential group, even if it sometimes seems that way. One advantage of this seminar format over a live session in a room is that people can read and report back.

Thanks in any case to the half-dozen for laying out what ought to be an inviting platform for others to join, if they wish. I certainly don't want to shut you up by making this observation. Let's continue along the lines already established. If it just stays that way, it would still be good enough for me. I like it.
Meanwhile, the internet history that Fran rightly reminds us of is ongoing and it is a contested history. To old/new and same/different, we might add open/closed as a pair of intense interest to this network, for instance. Everything is open and closed too, in varying degree. I suppose I must have known that Facebook is closed to most search engines, but this article forcibly reminded me of it. The OAC is not and I have known members leave because of that.

original to: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/01/technology/01webwalls.html


Proclaimed Dead, Web Is Showing New Life
By ERIC PFANNER
October 31, 2010

PARIS — Twenty autumns ago, Tim Berners-Lee, a British computer scientist,
came up with a catchy name for a revolutionary project that aimed to open
the Internet to the masses. “The World Wide Web,” he called it, and the
image proved to be so evocative that, for many people, the Web has become
synonymous with the Internet.

But now, two decades after Mr. Berners-Lee had his brainstorm, some people
are predicting the demise of the Web. Even though the Web is merely one of
many online applications, they add, this could be the end of the Internet
as we know it.

“The Web is dead,” Wired magazine declared in a recent cover story. “The
golden age of the Web is coming to an end,” wrote Josh Bernoff, an analyst
at Forrester Research. The Atlantic magazine warned of “the closing of the
digital frontier.”

The argument goes something like this: After falling in love with the
openness of the Web, consumers are recoiling from its chaos and embracing
the sense of order offered by walled-off digital realms. These include
applications for mobile devices like Apple’s iPad and iPhone and
password-protected social networks like Facebook, where much of what
people do takes place beyond the reach of search engines and Web browsers.

Meanwhile, advocates of openness fear that telecommunications companies
want to build separate, Balkanized “Internets” of their own, where they
control the content and collect tolls for traffic that passes through
them. Some media companies are already putting more of their content, once
freely available, behind pay walls, and lobbying governments to crack down
on the free-for-all of illegal file-sharing.

Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard professor of Internet law, says that the
growth of walled gardens like Apple’s applications store have threatened
the “generative” character of the Internet, which has permitted users to
build on what is already there, as with Lego toys.

“The serendipity of outside tinkering that has marked that generative era
gave us the Web, instant messaging, peer-to-peer networking, Skype,
Wikipedia — all ideas out of left field,” he writes in a recent book, “The
Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.” “Now it is disappearing,
leaving a handful of new gatekeepers in place, with us and them prisoner
to their limited business plans and to regulators who fear things that are
new and disruptive.”

Are matters really so dire? For the doomsayers, there are some
inconvenient truths.

Every day, about a million new devices — computers, mobile phones,
televisions and other things — are hooked up to the Internet, according to
Rod Beckstrom, chief executive of the Internet Corporation for Assigned
Names and Numbers, which oversees the Internet address system. The total
number of Internet users worldwide, about two billion, is growing by 100
million to 200 million a year.

Most of this growth is occurring in developing countries, where the Web is
dominant and applications stores and the like have made fewer inroads. The
number of Web pages has grown from 26 million in 1998 to more than a
trillion today, according to Google.

The Web has been better equipped to reach new corners of the world since
the recent opening up of the domain name system to non-Western languages.
North America, which once dominated the Internet, now represents only 13.5
percent of its users, according to Internet World Stats, a Web site that
compiles such data, compared with 42 percent for Asia and 24 percent for
Europe.

“Reports of the death of the Web have been greatly exaggerated,” Mr.
Beckstrom said. “It’s going to be alive and kicking for a long time.”

While the Web is merely one of many applications that operate over the
Internet, along with e-mail, instant messaging, peer-to-peer file-sharing
services and other tools, it is the most familiar one for many people;
almost anyone, anywhere with an Internet connection and a little bit of
knowledge can view a Web page.

So as other kinds of Internet traffic have started to grow more rapidly
than Web use, some open-Internet campaigners see a threat to the Web and,
more generally, the Internet as we know it. Yet the distinctions are
growing less relevant. When you visit YouTube, for example, you are using
the Web to sort through the available videos, while the video stream is
delivered outside the Web, but still via the Internet.

Even if the supposed threats have been overblown, it is clear that the Web
and the Internet are changing.

Mobile devices increasingly come with Internet access as a standard
feature. Within a few years, analysts predict, more people will connect to
the Internet from smartphones than from deskbound computers.

The popularity of applications for smartphones, often with content or
features similar to those available on open Web sites, could steer more
toward private digital gardens, like those that existed in the heyday of
online services like CompuServe and Prodigy.

“A walled garden is a place where everything looks beautiful, it works
well, and there are flowers everywhere,” said Frédéric Donck, director of
public policy at the Internet Society in Brussels. “But it’s not the
Internet.”

Why? Applications available for Apple devices are subject to approval by
the company, which rejects, among others, those that do not meet its
guidelines for taste or decency. Some European newspapers have had to
censor racy photos to make their applications conform with Apple’s rules,
which prohibit displays of bare female breasts.

“People don’t think of their use of devices as a political act,” said Mr.
Bernoff, the Forrester analyst. “They just think about whether they are
having an elegant, seamless experience. But do I really want Apple
deciding what kind of content is appropriate?”

For Internet users in countries like China or Iran, the idea that there
are limits to online freedom is nothing new. There, governments routinely
block access to Web sites that feature dissenting political views.

Advocates of an open Internet worry that official oversight is on the rise
elsewhere. In Australia, the government has proposed a system through
which the Internet would be filtered to block access to sites containing
child pornography or other material that is illegal or deemed to be highly
offensive.

Movie and music companies, meanwhile, have lobbied governments to crack
down on digital freeloaders who engage in unauthorized sharing of their
content. Countries like France, Britain and South Korea have established
laws authorizing the suspension of persistent copyright pirates’ broadband
connections, in an effort to get more of them to become paying customers.

For advocates of openness, the nightmare outlook is one in which
telecommunications companies, allied with other corporate partners, seize
control of the Internet and run it in a way that maximizes profits, rather
than openness. This concern has fueled calls for governments to impose
rules to enforce “network neutrality,” or equal priority to all Internet
traffic, regardless of the content.

“The Internet has become a truly global space where everyone, almost
everywhere, has access to the same information,” said Jérémie Zimmermann,
co-founder of La Quadrature du Net, a group based in Paris that campaigns
against restrictions on Internet use. “I think this is one of the most
precious things we have ever built as a civilization, and this is what is
at stake now.”

Others say network neutrality is a largely American issue, rooted in a
lack of competition among broadband providers, which fuels fears that
these companies might abuse their monopoly positions.

There are other signs that competition can keep openness alive. One of the
most successful of the closed systems, Apple’s iPhone, is already showing
signs that it might be eclipsed by other, more interoperable rivals. In
the United States, sales of smartphones using Google’s more open Android
platform recently overtook sales of iPhones. Android phones also use
applications, but unlike Apple, Google does not screen them, and Android
is open to competing applications stores, like one planned by Amazon.

Even the idea that the desktop and the mobile Internet exist in two
different spheres may turn out to be merely a temporary phenomenon, some
analysts say. Much of the content in mobile applications is scoured and
repackaged from the Web — so, for now, at least, it is difficult to argue
that users of applications are really turning their backs on the Web.

“If you go with the Web, the potential mobile audience is in the billions.
If you go with any of the smartphone operators in a closed environment,
it’s a small fraction of that,” said Jon von Tetzchner, chief executive of
Opera Software, a Norwegian company that develops Web browsers. “To me, it
seems like the Web has been winning fairly big time.”
Thanks, Keith, for the positive reception of my off-the-cuff suggestion that we compare Miller's analysis with those presented by Boellstorff and Kelty. In a similar spirit, I would like to say that I agree with M. Izbel's proposition that,

Facebook can only be “de-virtualized” if its members are treated and studied as breathing species and real humans that exist in groups, networks, societies, and communities.

If I am not mistaken, this is precisely what Daniel Miller has done, by exploring the uses of Facebook by Trinidadians. More similar studies of other and diverse groups could be very useful, indeed, in developing a more nuanced understanding of how Facebook is used in different corners of the real world.

That said, I am hyperconscious of the fact that Facebook recently announced that it now has 500 million subscribers and wonder how far we can get without combining this kind of intimate study of Facebook usage by members of particular, relatively small populations with the use of techniques like data mining and social network analysis to position these studies within the larger metacommunity to which these small populations belong.

Pursuing the ecological modeling to which the link provided by M. Izbel points us, I imagine walking into a garden, finding a small anthill, and learning all I can about the ants, then trying to generalize to the garden, having left out of account all of the other flora and fauna that compete and co-exist within it. We must not forget the challenge described by Clifford Geertz in his preface to Islam Observed, where he writes,

"The fact that the anthropologist's insights, such as they are, grow (in part) out of...intensive fieldwork in particular settings does not...in itself invalidate them. But if such insights are to apply to anything beyond those settings, if they are to transcend their parochial origins and achieve a more cosmopolitan relevance, they quite obviously cannot also be validated there." (1968:vii)
John, I am inclined to use the metacommunity concept because there are things on Facebook that are tough to get into without using ecological models.

Examples:

Displacement

A network is initially populated by teens, and later the oldies, their parents or guardians, join in. The teens become inactive, and the oldies monopolize the space.

Replacement

The teens move out and create a new network, since they do not want to mingle with the oldies. Migration happens on Facebook.

Misplacement

The oldies who join in sometimes become inactive maybe due to generation gap. They end up as lurkers or "watchmen" of their teens.

It is clear that mobility or movement of populations is also evident on Facebook.

Dormancy and Extinction

There are groups on Facebook that close their pages. Meaning, their contents are not exposed to the public. I used to be a member of three networks that had private contents and exclusive membership. Later they became dormant until they were finally deleted off of Facebook. I wonder what could be the reasons for their demise. Was it their limited spaces, resources, and populations? Does expanding spaces, networks, contents, resources, and populations on Facebook mean longevity? If yes, a model already exists in Ecology.

I am interested to find explanations not to make generalizations. Maybe it's ambitious or over-stretched, but as I see it, Facebook has the features of an ecology-- social and human ecology.


Keith Hart said:
Meanwhile, the internet history that Fran rightly reminds us of is ongoing and it is a contested history. To old/new and same/different, we might add open/closed as a pair of intense interest to this network, for instance. Everything is open and closed too, in varying degree. I suppose I must have known that Facebook is closed to most search engines, but this article forcibly reminded me of it. The OAC is not and I have known members leave because of that.



I have had stimulating highly intellectual conversations on Facebook with graduate students who are afraid that online conversations on blogs might be seen unfavorably by future hiring committees. Such conversations are always much more tentative and exploratory than are published papers. The difference with the past is how publicly documented such informal academic discourse has become.

Also, I might add, trolls do not manifest themselves in conversations on Facebook nearly quite as often, in my experience. The cost of bad behavior is probably too high.
I am interested to find explanations not to make generalizations. Maybe it's ambitious or over-stretched, but as I see it, Facebook has the features of an ecology-- social and human ecology.


Fair enough. But recognizing the generic features captured by "an ecology" is only the first step to explaining any particular ecology, where the connections to be explored multiply exponentially with the number of communities considered. That doesn't mean that ecologies are impossible to understand in detail. We may, however, need new tools to do so.

Serendipitously, just today I took delivery of Albert-Lászó Barabási (2010) Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do. Barabási is a physicist, who has taken up the study of social networks, and his intellectual ambitions are huge. He also writes vividly, which makes him a pleasure to read.

I have just started the book and have formed no judgments about it. But the following paragraph from page 11 suggests the enormity (in many possible senses) of Barabási's ambition.

I will show how our nakedness in the face of increasingly penetrating digital technologies creates an immense research laboratory that, in size, complexity, and detail, surpasses everything that science has encountered before. By following the trail of these discoveries we will come to see the rhythms of life as evidence of a deeper order in human behavior, one that can be explored, predicted, and no doubt exploited. The insights to be gleaned require us to stop viewing our actions as discrete, random, isolated events. Instead they seem to be part of a magic web of dependencies, a story within a web of stories, displaying order where we suspected none and randomness where we least expect it. The closer we look at them, the more obvious it will become that human actions follow simple, reproducible patterns governed by far-reaching laws. Forget dice rolling or boxes of chocolates as metaphors for life. Think of yourself as a dreaming robot on autopilot, and you'll be much closer to the truth.
Thanks, M, for expanding on your thoughts on virtuality, space, and metacommunity. Also thanks to Keith for sharing the NYT article. I highly recommend Zittrain's book. These are interesting times for the internet as we know it, and Facebook is smack in the middle of the history/future of the generative/closed web. Particularly with regard to the security concerns that Nikos raises and that we all have to grapple with.

Jacob's point that students are reluctant to publicly post their ideas is also a good one. I had a really tough time getting my students to embrace using blogs or wikis to share information/collaborate. The standard model of academia that we've (collectively) fed them seems to be backfiring on a new generation that is very proprietary over their content. I'm not sure how it happened. Perhaps this will feed into Zittrain's predicted turn away from openness on the web. But then this very discussion and the founding of the OAC as a whole represents a strong countercurrent.

I also like John's idea of comparing Miller's analysis with Boellstorff and Kelty. I'd like to recommend John Postill's review article which contrasts Boellstorff and Kelty plus two additional dissertations and situates these recent works within the context of internet research as a whole. I think the background will be especially useful for those new to this area of study.


John McCreery said:
I can imagine this conversation evolving in all sorts of interesting ways if Daniel MIller's account of Facebook were compared explicitly with Tom Boellstorff's Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human and Christopher Kelty's Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. The first explores what it's like to be more totally immersed in virtual encounters; the second examines those who have the technical expertise to themselves modify the software the software that defines their community, becoming what Kelty calls a "recursive public." Consider, for example, the implications of the three different stances (1) virtual connections for a real world; (2) virtual separation from the real; (3) willing and able to change the world—if, that is, your peers will accept the changes you make. Take these three stances; set them orthogonal to Miller's three propositions; explore what happens in each of the nine resulting cells. Lots of "good to think" stuff here.
Gosh 23 hours is a long time in online discussion ! I agree with Francine that in a sense we are not looking for the unprecedented, rather for the significant, so what matters is not that FB is used for memorialisation but that it integrates that with this larger social nexus which better mirrors an ethnographic sense of `holism’ in social practice which thereby always implicates its place not as stand alone but in complementarity with offlline life. With respect to sameness and difference I think Francine has now posted enough of her work to see this in another way. Which is that either of our work alone has the perennial issue of ethnographic parochialism. What everyone wants after they publish their monograph is half a dozen people working on the same phenomenon in half a dozen places since the next analytical stage in anthropology ought to be comparative. This may sound incredibly obvious but is remarkably rare. I have tried to create a kind open source model for this in my other current project (for which Google the Global Denim Project). I mention this project because it demonstrates that the issue raised by John McCreery is by no means just an FB issue. Blue jeans are vastly more ubiquitous that FB, worn by most people in most countries on most days, which is why I see it as an ideal place to work out what is the relationship between anthropological approaches to global phenomenon as the aggregate of parochial ethnographic studies (as in the book Global Denim edited by myself and Sophie Woodward which I will now just happen to mention is published in two weeks time with Berg) as against the kind of macro-sociological approach to global phenomenon you would find in Beck, Giddens or Bauman. I think this is a crucial question for contemporary anthropology more generally, and is evident as soon as we talk about FB as global.

I quite agree with John McCreery that Kelty for example gives a great sense of the specificity and actual materiality involved in evolution of these technologies, the skeletal backbones we tend to forget when looking at the subsequent fleshy surfaces of FB. Where Francine and myself both differ from Tom Boellstorff and Chris Kelty is that our work is focused on social consequences, which is why those two projects work so well to widen out the potential of a Digital Anthropology. The point is that one can fully respect such ethnographies, but as Francine correctly insists for the kind of work she and I want to do, there is no alternative to classic ethnography, much of it offline. This poses a still larger question of what it is that links rather than separates all such studies, and I agree that John Postil and his colleagues through Medianth have really helped upon up this larger terrain, and I think that once again that is why one wants to be fighting at the same time on the coal face of intimate and personal ethnography and at the widest possible theoretical frame for Digital Anthropology as a whole. I really hate the idea of ceding that terrain to those macro-sociologists mentioned above. The problem as I see it is that anthropologists tend to respond with relativistic critiques based on the authority they gain from ethnography. While I would rather emulate Keith in what I would characterise as his best `oh sod it lets go for the big picture’ style.

A final caveat, please don’t use the words `real world’ - stick to offline world - otherwise you concede most of what you want to gain from these studies.


John McCreery said:
Serendipitously, just today I took delivery of Albert-Lászó Barabási (2010) Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do.

Albert-Lászó Barabási is a key figure in my life. His book on the new science of networks, Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It ... (2003), was an eye-opener which led to my published interest in the rise of the power-law distribution at the expense of the normal or Gaussian curve (come to think about it, this may be related to Danny's first main point about how the assumptions of classical social science are now being discredited).

Boy is Barabási smooth! He was a Hungarian physicist at Notre Dame who hit on the idea of sending robots out on the Web to measure links between sites. This got him onto the front cover of Nature at a tender age. This latest book is another point in his exponential trajectory. I noticed that he seemed to be indifferent to the massive inequality associated with power laws which in a sense naturalize a winner-takes-all competitive market economy, just as the normal distribution reflected the interest of nation-states in curbing inequality between citizens. So I wrote to him and asked for his opinion. He wrote back saying that he purposefully wrote the book at a popular level so that scientists like me could take up these questions and push them further!

One look at John's quote might lead casual readers to dismiss the guy as another mad scientist. But anthropologists, when they dabble in subjects like social networks, often import unknowingly the dominant statistical paradigms of the real scientists. All the early work on this subject in our discipline was based on graph theory whose basic assumptions are atomism, synchronicity or stasis and randomness. The new science, using power laws, identified scale-free networks whose key characteristics are that they are dynamic and exhibit preferential attachment. At the end of the article linked above I show how this enabled me several decades later to make sense of 'small-world' networking practices among illiterate Ghanaian migrants that seemed bizarre to me when I first encountered them.

I don't want to live in Barabási's mechanical universe. I prefer Skip Rappaport's version. But I sure respect his effectiveness as a science popularizer. Why, even anthropologists can read him!

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