I am coming out of hibernation. Actually I escaped from the Northern winter to a Southern beach for a few weeks. The first day of March isn't the same in Durban, but the wind does blow off the Indian Ocean. The last three months I have been swamped by the task of getting two books finished and into the publishers at once; and now it's all over. (I just opened up a group discussion thread on the more exciting project of the two, The Human Economy). In that time I have been watching the OAC slowly grow, but didn't get much involved. But in the run-up to Christmas, I had a couple of ideas I want to raise with you now. Think of it as a harbinger of spring (or the fall if you are in the South)

 

1. The OAC's Mission

 

I like the colourfully anarchic feel of the OAC, the unpredictable way that links are made and ideas shared. Sometimes it seems right just to leave it to take its own course without any attempt to give it direction. But I also wonder if we are missing an opportunity by not identifying a mission for the OAC. I don't mean that everyone has to sign up for a constitution or a program. We are not a political party or a professional association. We have some good general principles and a few minimal rules laid out under the About tab. The best part is that we are truly open, as few organizations or networks are. Yet here we are after less than a year, getting on for 3,000 members, an impressive variety of people from all over the world with some interest in anthropology. So what is the OAC for? What do we want to do for anthropology?

 

This question was actively debated in at least two turbulent patches and I doubt if many want to go back there. But things are a little quiet now, don't you think? It might not hurt to ask what the OAC's mission ought to be. I have some ideas of my own, but it would be good to come up with a bunch of proposals and see if anything consensual emerges. So I am inviting you to say what you think we could aim for. Maybe we can work out how to reconcile the idea of a mission with the freedom each of us already has here. 

 

2. A new window to discuss possible developments

 

The Admins team have been discussing off and on whether we might add a facility to the main page where members who are interested in developing the range of OAC activities could bring up suggestions, ask questions and take part in a more purposeful discussion about how to take the old Coop forward. We don't know if some people out there would like a chance to have their say or to join in future developments. One way of finding out is this Forum post. We don't have anything concrete in mind, but we would really welcome your suggestions and participation.

 

Maybe this is two items rolled into one, but the Mission could be taken as one of the issues to be included under the second. We have had lots of new members in recent months and it would be nice to hear from some of you. 

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1. I understand your concern, of course it would be positive with some kind of common goal and consensus among the members, but I also like the experimental part with this page, that it is open and that anything within anthropology can be discussed, developed and analyzed. Both consensus and conflict can be seen as productive. The reason for me to join OAC is because I want to strenghten my identity as an cultural analyst, I also want to deepen my knowledge about the subject and gain new insight. As an anthropologist, you see the world in a special way, you treat humans and knowledge in a special way and communicate your ideas in a special way. To me anthropology is a craft, a profession, a thinking and an identity, all at one time, you never stop being it, once you have lost your innocence you are stuck so to say. OAC mission should therefore be to offer a "playground" for that identity, a place where you can live out your total being with peers. Its a place were you can explore the richness of the subject and a place were you can introduce new ideas and concepts.
2. I would really like to participate in the future developement of the forum. I have some ideas but will explore the site more first and aslo see what others have to say about this thread.
Well, Rikard, it seems as if people are not exactly queuing up to join this discussion. Maybe the old hands are waiting for the newcomers and vice versa. Or it could just be that I pitched the question too broadly. I am glad that you want to join in further discussions and hope you will after you have explored the site. Don't miss the function that allows you to track the Group discussions.

For me the OAC is about building bridges between those for whom "anthropology" is already a vocation, as it seems to be for you, and others who might be interested in "anthropology" but do not identify with it as a vocation. Anthropologists are notorious for being interested in the largest questions imaginable and in talking only to each other. I want our conversation to be broad enough to interest a public that has not already committed to a life in anthropology, even though I recognize that the vast bulk of our members fall in the latter category, as they must.

So I want our mission, if such a thing is possible, not to close down the existing free experimentation, but to open up a conversation about how anthropology might contribute to making a better world. For our membership is already about as universal as you get in this kind of Forum.

Rikard Edbertsson said:
1. I understand your concern, of course it would be positive with some kind of common goal and consensus among the members, but I also like the experimental part with this page, that it is open and that anything within anthropology can be discussed, developed and analyzed. Both consensus and conflict can be seen as productive. The reason for me to join OAC is because I want to strenghten my identity as an cultural analyst, I also want to deepen my knowledge about the subject and gain new insight. As an anthropologist, you see the world in a special way, you treat humans and knowledge in a special way and communicate your ideas in a special way. To me anthropology is a craft, a profession, a thinking and an identity, all at one time, you never stop being it, once you have lost your innocence you are stuck so to say. OAC mission should therefore be to offer a "playground" for that identity, a place where you can live out your total being with peers. Its a place were you can explore the richness of the subject and a place were you can introduce new ideas and concepts.
2. I would really like to participate in the future developement of the forum. I have some ideas but will explore the site more first and aslo see what others have to say about this thread.
So what is the OAC for? What do we want to do for anthropology?

These are the questions I was wondering--and asking about--sometime last fall. And I still think they are good questions to ask of the 3,000 or so people who have joined this site. What are they here for? And what are they trying to do? Is there any common goal?

It might not hurt to ask what the OAC's mission ought to be.

I think this line of questioning makes sense. Absolutely.
You were indeed asking these questions, Ryan; and I wanted to put them off in that particular context. I recall that I said then we were not a political party and didn't need that sort of thing at the time because it would encourage division. Things were quite contentious and now they are a lot more quiet, even somnolent, as can be seen from the slow response to my questions. Timing does matter, but I think you were right and would welcome your participation in this discussion now.

ryan anderson said:
So what is the OAC for? What do we want to do for anthropology?
These are the questions I was wondering--and asking about--sometime last fall. And I still think they are good questions to ask of the 3,000 or so people who have joined this site. What are they here for? And what are they trying to do? Is there any common goal?
It might not hurt to ask what the OAC's mission ought to be.

I think this line of questioning makes sense. Absolutely.
From my perspective as an independent scholar, my hope for OAC is that it becomes my on-line college. By "on-line" college, I mean a rather idyllic place, where I can talk about my work to sympathetic colleagues who provide useful feedback and point me to people and sources I don't yet know about but find myself delighted to discover.

The real OAC has, it seems to me, rapidly traversed a familiar on-line trajectory. A space is opened, conversation begins, newcomers pour in and start staking out their positions around the bar. Then, as positions harden, the conversation slows down. When responses are mostly negative and mostly predictable, people drop out. The hard core that remain fall into a kind of half-hearted sparring that doesn't generate much excitement.

The flaw in this metaphor is, of course, that OAC isn't one bar. It's more like a Tokyo neighborhood in which dozens of small bars, each with its own clientele co-exist. In a few of the bars, the crowd is lively. Most are empty a lot of the time. Not even the toughest pub-crawlers have the time or energy to drop in on more than a few on any given night.

Organizationally speaking, OAC suffers from the fact that its wide-open policy about starting new groups has resulted in so many groups that none attract many contributors. Many have ground to a halt (or been spammed with the same effect). Could it be time to prune the deadwood and allow new growth to emerge?

I envision something as simple as a rule that if a group remains dormant, with no new traffic for a month, it be taken down and archived. That niche will then be open again for someone who wants to start another group on the same topic.

Without some such device, sheer clutter will overwhelm us. OAC will stagnate.
You were indeed asking these questions, Ryan; and I wanted to put them off in that particular context. I recall that I said then we were not a political party and didn't need that sort of thing at the time because it would encourage division.

Ya, I understand your logic. And I understand the idea behind not wanting to create one political ideal that sets the whole stage. So that's why this is more of a platform than anything--which leaves it open to various interpretations, etc. That, of course, has its definite pluses and minuses.

I think John brings up a good point about fragmentation. The irony is that everyone has joined the OAC and then subsequently partitioned themselves off into specialized groups, etc. Nothing at all wrong with that--but what is missing is some kind of larger platform or forum that ties it all together...there does not seem to be too much discussion happening on the front page here, and I think that adds to the fragmented and seemingly sleepy situation.

If you look at some blogs/sites that have a lot of user-generated content, there is always a way for individuals and smaller groups to contribute to larger discussions and debates on the site. Some, of course, are more hierarchical than others. As I mentioned before, the Daily Kos is one good example of a site that has a lot of user-generated content--but they also have some regular writers as well. So there could be some ideas in there. The key, to me, is finding a way to bring the discussions back to a more central platform. That's my take.

Things were quite contentious and now they are a lot more quiet, even somnolent, as can be seen from the slow response to my questions. Timing does matter, but I think you were right and would welcome your participation in this discussion now.

I don't necessarily think that contentious is bad--it is a good thing when people are critical, interested, and debating. That's where some issues get worked out and where ideas are challenged and reshaped (hopefully). But debate can also become counterproductive.

I was asking a lot of questions about direction, goals, and purpose back then for a reason. I was thinking that unless there was SOME KIND of common goal or ethic or SOMETHING, the meaning of the OAC (and anthropology) could get pretty diluted pretty quickly. I completely understand the egalitarian ethic--but the challenge of course is retaining some kind of meaning in the project as a whole. The OAC can be anything and everything I guess, but I am not sure what that actually accomplishes.

That's why I was asking about some of the guidelines or goals back then; it seemed to me that it would be easy for anyone to join and start using "anthropology" or the "OAC" in ways that may or may not gel with OTHERS' understandings. So how can those issues be worked out? One example is the recent thread by a photographer who is asking for remote and colorful people to photograph. At least from my perspective, anthropology is not about supplying publications with the exotic products they need to sell magazines--there was something a little off in that request to me. But what was more surprising, considering the more than 3,000 people on this site, was the lack of response. This is just a minor example, of course, but I think it illustrates some of the issues about goals, boundaries, and the various identities of anthropology. That discussion is one the main page, after all.

Anyway, I still think there is a lot of potential here and elsewhere. But I tend to think that most of the work is going to come from key groups and individuals who head in specific directions. There seem to be a lot of semi-interested member, but then that's how a lot of groups are. Maybe a good plan would be to find a way to tie those projects back into the main site somehow--to get more interaction between all of the various parts. I think there are some interesting sites to look at for ideas.

Maybe there really is less of a need for ONE goal or ethic, and more of a need to a way to bring everything back to larger discussions??? Then, at least, the debates and discussions that shape the group as a whole could be more visible. As it stands, a lot of the activity is hidden away in little corners.
Hey Keith,

this platform has been formidable to allow us to form a network (Tourism-Contact-Culture) that otherwise would be nothing more than endless emails or mailing list conversations; and the odd meeting at an annual conference. I think that, in our group, most people actually seem not to have much time to engage in online discussions on topics of any theoretical nature. Me neither. And I don't actually enjoy such online discussions much (they often end up in intellectual masturbation). However, people read messages (as far as I can tell from their feedback) and mainly respond to precise questions. I sense that you would like to do something else with this; to give the virtual a tangible character; why not organise an OAC congress/party/exchange? I actually believe that people like to meet each other in person and give the digital relations established here some more 'meat' and humanity. Our group will hold a meeting this September, and we think around a 100 people will join. Sure an 'AOC world congress' is maybe not the smartest idea to be had on a Friday night (cause there are already all the other anthropo meetings); but a meeting/party say during the next EASA conference in Ireland, AAA or the ABA conference in Brasil Belem could be realistic. What do you and others feel about this?
Interesting questions Keith. This is my understanding of OAC and what originally motivated me to join;
OAC was to both provide for and promote the profession by one; meeting the needs of the professionals and
two; by being a resource for others, to interest them in Anthropology as a whole.

I joined OAC to engage in dialogue to be sure but more to be a student; a listener.
I find group discussions on some specific subjects, over my head as I have not chomped my way through the dusty tombs, yet.
All part of being a student. Other subjects seem to be started by an interested party then not responded to by the originator.
Not sure why that is. Perhaps in the case of the professionals, they do not always have time to tend their topics,
due to the usual, tasks of grant writing, teaching, publishing and so on.

The previous half a dozen respondents have made some observations similar to my observations.
If I might elaborate on the bar/ neighborhood analogy; I find this to be the observation which resonates most with me.
If I walk into the vestibule, I expect to be able to identify the various destinations quickly and efficiently.
This applies to the bar as well as the entry of a neighborhood.
I do not get quite the same 'feel' here. I think it may be due to the structure of the ning network versus a traditional forum website.
Despite the vast array of dialogue choices in my aquarist forums, I am always aware of the base structure. Not so much here.

For example, I noticed a change in the group listings and went to investigate. In the sidebar, I scrolled
down until I located the "Students Again" discussion I belong to; the link did not take me to the discussion
Paul started as I expected. It kept refreshing the latest posts from all groups, twitter style. K, I'm lost now, where is
the vestibule again?

Answering a question with more questions is not good form; however they serve to illustrate one reason why I
personally have not settled in yet. I think the freedom to create groups for specific dialogue is a legit function.
I would also like Plato's porch or Aristotle's study or even the lizard lounge. Us up and commers must start
as generalists before we acquire the stuff to be specialists. For me, it is difficult to get that by jumping in to
the middle of an esoteric dialogue.
ryan anderson said:
If you look at some blogs/sites that have a lot of user-generated content, there is always a way for individuals and smaller groups to contribute to larger discussions and debates on the site. The Daily Kos is one good example of a site that has a lot of user-generated content--but they also have some regular writers as well. The key, to me, is finding a way to bring the discussions back to a more central platform. I tend to think that most of the work is going to come from key groups and individuals who head in specific directions. Maybe a good plan would be to find a way to tie [groups] back into the main site somehow--to get more interaction between all of the various parts. Maybe there really is less of a need for ONE goal or ethic, and more of a need to a way to bring everything back to larger discussions??? Then, at least, the debates and discussions that shape the group as a whole could be more visible. As it stands, a lot of the activity is hidden away in little corners.

I think you have nailed the real issue here, Ryan. It is not so much a question of providing a general manifesto for the OAC, but of coming up with a way for decentralized small group discussions to feed back into the main page, where perhaps a limited number of regular contributors would try to tie things together and move the show along. What matters is to keep a movement going between all the disparate interests that the OAC can accommodate and some of the larger issues that we might share.

For example, I don't know of an anthropological association or network that has as large or diverse a membership as ours. We symbolize an emergent world society in our own composition. I still think that anthropology could be a way of talking about and studying the principles that might make for a better world. That is not to denigrate less inclusive conversations, but to point to the need for them to be integrated into something more ambitious that few other fields of inquiry could begin to address.

The challenge is not to discover new and revolutionary ideas -- ideas are cheap -- but of building new social forms better able to express our common human interests. The OAC is potentially such a form or a receptacle for several of them. That is why I like your focus here.
Keith, and all,
I believe these issues are worth consideration. At the moment I am new to OAC but have recently joined academia.edu with similar questions in mind. What seems appealing first off about OAC is the diversity and volume of members. Whereas membership in AAA here in the US seems a requirement for at least, us "aspiring" anths, it is also somewhat impersonal. Yes attending meetings can be wonderful, stimulating and useful but at the same time somewhat limited. So I guess that OAC could provide, for me, some other sorts of contact with and possibilities to learn from others in the field. It seems a good practical resource - e.g. a group on Teaching.

I also like, as you said, that it is very international. I am very interested in the broader global configurations of anthropology - which is not practiced the same everywhere.

I will be following this discussion. Thank you!
Since launching the OAC, there is no doubt that we've accomplished something very useful and full of potential through our colorful and unpredictable anarchy. I'm happy to be on board for future challenges as I have personally found this enriching.

I've never liked the term "mission statement", but I invite a new arena for discussion about what the OAC should be for and how it can contribute to anthropology as a whole. Now that we have an excellent framework and broad membership in place, I'd like to think about what we can do or add to make the site what we all (as members) want it to be. How can we better adapt this community to serve our needs as anthropologists, researchers, specialists, novices, hobbyists and wandering web denizens?

Hopefully some renewed discussion will also helps us to diversify and manage our commitments. As admin, I'd like to receive more feedback from other members. Are there things that you wish you could find at the OAC that aren't available here yet? With nearly 3,000 members knowledgeable in a diverse and growing number of fields, I'm sure that there are more ways that we can pool our collective resources and skills into making things happen as well as continuing to host meaningful discussion in our forums.

A general issue of inactivity and stagnating conversations has been raised. Groups, forums, blogs and member profiles considered, I think our activity stream is fairly regular, even if the homepage seems a little sleepy for 3,000 members. This pattern does not appear to be unique to Ning. Most web forums seem to have a similar threshold. When the number of members gets too large, discussion clusters among smaller units (like 130 groups). So what can we do about it?

Perhaps we might want to consider diversifying the types and sources of content that users first see when they visit the OAC homepage on Ning. So far, there are forums and blogs, plus photos and videos that have been uploaded. Group-specific content rarely crosses domains. There are also some limits as to the kinds of information we choose to share. Lots of us are avid Twitterers and Flickrers and all manner of Web 2.0-ers and yet our forum can remain without comment for 1 or 2 days at a time. Is there any way that we can encourage more organic, timely sharing of new and interesting anthro (or other) resources, news, reflections, opinions? It wouldn't take too much effort. For instance, photos are sometimes uploaded without detailed descriptions. You've been to the field, taken this photo, and have nothing more to say? Really?

A while ago, someone (not sure who) suggested integrating more third-party anthro stuff on the OAC. We can do this via RSS feeds, links, maybe even additional modules and apps provided by Ning. Would this help to generate site-wide conversation on interesting topics? If so, what kind of anthro news/material does everyone want to read? There's no reason why the OAC can't be both a portal for the discovery of new information and a place to discuss it all.

Any forward-looking discussions about the development of the site will hopefully consider brainstorming possible avenues to solve these and related issues of practicality. I like the idea of it remaining a platform open to various interpretations. I think that's essential, even taking on board the inherent pluses and minuses that Ryan discusses. Thus far, the admin team have attempted to amend the structure of Ning, but more input and action from members in arriving at solutions would seem in tune with our potential as a collective. I second Keith's suggestion that a new window for members input in this way would be nice.

For me, the OAC has always been about providing a relaxed atmosphere which encourages both sharing and experimentation. My goal is not really just a platform to shoot the breeze about anthropology, but to inspire people to get together and do useful things in anthropology. If that means open-ended discussion, sharing ways to improve learning and teaching, field techniques and methods or to criticize the larger trends in our discipline as a whole, that's fine. But maybe it’s just the beginning. We have the tools at our disposal to diversify our efforts, but only if we all join in. Which is why we're here, right?

I’d also like to see and hear more about the Press and Seminar series and other concrete initiatives. I definitely second offline meet-ups, whether at established conferences or elsewhere.

On groups

Victoria: At the moment, the right sidebar links on Collected don't take you back to the OAC, you have to follow direct links from the feed to discussion titles. I'm working with Collected on this and may need to amend each of the links manually (with over 100 groups, that could take some time, so bear with me).

John: thanks for your input. The main reason for putting the new group index on Collected was to help to organize and filter group activity in a more direct and common-sense way. The frontpage on Collected (http://oac.collected.info) shows the most recent activity. Inactive groups won't appear or clutter up the space. The alternative view (instructions here) shows us all the groups, even those with no discussions. I don't find this intrusive, and there are several benefits. 'Empty' groups are not all inherently useless; they may have comments but no discussions, and they're all open to new discussions at any time. Dormant is not the same as 'dead' and renewed activity is possible. The number and variety of groups isn't necessarily a bad thing, either. It can always help to direct people to subjects that they didn't know existed.

I admit that the sheer numbers can be overwhelming. Of course, there are simple ways that we can make a difference to group clutter. I would encourage would-be group owners to think about whether or not the discussion they want to start really needs a group at all, especially as many groups do come to a halt after one discussion or none at all. Do you have the time and resources to commit to the upkeep of a new group? If any group owners would like to voluntarily close their empty groups because they have given up on maintaining them, they can remove them. (It would be a good idea to inform OAC members and the admin team of imminent deletion so that relevant backups of existing content can be made (if necessary) and the Collected index can be amended.)

What is likely to cause a lack of focused activity at group level is not (just) the number of groups on the OAC, but difficulties inspiring new and continued interaction between members in each group. Any member can choose to create a group and conduct it the way they'd like to (within the general site guidelines). Some are regularly well-moderated and consistently active; others are quiet for long periods despite some moderation. In the first instance, it falls to the group owner to keep the group animated. My own group has some 200 members, but without much time to dedicate to it in recent weeks, activity levels have declined. I am therefore sympathetic to the fact that activity will always come and go in waves, as members have varying responsibilities throughout the year. I hope to get back to invigorating conversation as soon as possible.

I would not like to have my group deleted due to inactivity, since I would lose valuable discussions that I would like to keep around so that others can contribute to them or look back on them in the future. As far as “archiving”, there is no built-in provision for that on Ning. The activity stream on Collected, on the other hand, naturally 'archives' inactive content by letting the latest activity take priority in the main feed. This seems fairly equitable and still allows us to explore a full range of group topics.

It might help to explore other ways to encourage group activity. For instance, group owners who feel overwhelmed (especially those running 2 or more groups) can appoint co-owners on a rota basis or transfer ownership to someone else by giving them group admin rights. None of this would have to go through the OAC admin team; group owners are free to do what they wish to moderate their groups effectively. They are also other tools available to inspire discussions in groups, such as adding RSS feeds or links to other websites on the group homepage (see Urban Anthropology as an example). This can be useful for suggesting items of recent news or publications in a relevant field that are worth discussing, or keeping a list of group members' personal pages or publications for download. Virtually anything members want to see and share can be amended to the page.

A second factor is connecting the groups to the rest of the site so that they feel less 'detached' from the main forum. I think that represents a fairly static way of looking at Ning and the OAC in general (but maybe this is symptomatic of a front-page problem that needs reviewing). How can we better incorporate group content to the whole network? Incidentally, a recent change to the front page now shows more group icons based on popular activity rather than newly formed groups.
Francine Barone said:
I've never liked the term "mission statement", but I invite a new arena for discussion about what the OAC should be for and how it can contribute to anthropology as a whole. Now that we have an excellent framework and broad membership in place, I'd like to think about what we can do or add to make the site what we all (as members) want it to be. How can we better adapt this community to serve our needs as anthropologists, researchers, specialists, novices, hobbyists and wandering web denizens? As admin, I'd like to receive more feedback from other members. Are there things that you wish you could find at the OAC that aren't available here yet?

Perhaps we might want to consider diversifying the types and sources of content that users first see when they visit the OAC homepage on Ning. Is there any way that we can encourage more organic, timely sharing of new and interesting anthro (or other) resources, news, reflections, opinions?

A while ago, someone suggested integrating more third-party anthro stuff on the OAC. We can do this via RSS feeds, links, maybe even additional modules and apps provided by Ning. Would this help to generate site-wide conversation on interesting topics? If so, what kind of anthro news/material does everyone want to read? There's no reason why the OAC can't be both a portal for the discovery of new information and a place to discuss it all.

Any forward-looking discussions about the development of the site will hopefully consider brainstorming possible avenues to solve these and related issues of practicality. I like the idea of it remaining a platform open to various interpretations. Thus far, the admin team have attempted to amend the structure of Ning, but more input and action from members in arriving at solutions would seem in tune with our potential as a collective. I second Keith's suggestion that a new window for members input in this way would be nice.

For me, the OAC has always been about providing a relaxed atmosphere which encourages both sharing and experimentation. We have the tools at our disposal to diversify our efforts, but only if we all join in.

OK, Fran, thanks. A lot to chew on there. I am more than willing to postpone discussion of the OAC's mission or rather to focus on how that might be reflected in improvements to the home page as a means of encouraging wider participation in its design and functions.

At the risk of caricaturing our brief history, the Admins were accused of being authoritarian and undemocratic at the beginning and now we find it hard to get members to play any part in extending the OAC's activities. So perhaps we should focus on a new window for feedback and wider participation in developing our functions, where at least the few individuals who want to be more actively involved amy come forward.

I am content with a view of the OAC as a largely passive resource for members and others to read as they wish. But Ryan's cotnribution above pointed to the need for a few more engaged members to play a role in articulating decentralized, fragmented and spoaradic activities with an attempt to move the OAC forward in a more coherent way.

Of course, if this appeal for feedback and participation fails, it is then up to those who care to launch a varitey of initiatives on their own. At least it would not then be possible to claim that such people are unaccoutnable to the wishes of the majority.

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