I see it daily. New members join and they sign up for a series of groups. Then they find that they are dead. No activity, nothing. Some intrepid souls announce themselves and there is no echo from the cave. Fran Barone and I have concerned ourselves with the life of Groups for a while. She has installed a great way of checking them out. You need to know that the info comes in two forms: recent posts and an alphabetical index of groups that you switch between by clicking on an icon (guess which!). But this really isn't a technical problem.
I started one of the most popular groups: economic anthropology. But that is dead like most of the rest. So I started another called the human economy. I figured I was on a winner here, since I just started a postdoc program in South Africa with the same title and thought I might easily be able to persuade its members to be the active core of a discussion group. I put a lot of stuff online and bingo...after a few stuttering comments, nothing.
The problem with the Groups can be massaged in several technical ways, but there is something fundamental underlying their moribund character. It is obvious enough that a Group leader can inject energy into his or her threads. Look at what Achirri Ishmael has done from time to time with Southern Africa and Ethnographic Writing. I tried to revive Digital Anthropology once which, of all our Groups, ought to be a medium for airing our common interests. Its founder spent a few weeks at the OAC and then disappeared. There are a number like this.
If ever there was a question that a relevant anthropology ought to be able to address, it is this: what accounts for the social dynamics (or more often its opposite) of participation on social networking sites like this one? This is an applied question, since I can't help feeling that quite a few members are frustrated by the lack of activity in Groups that speak to their interests. But they don't know what to do about it or they do and don't care enough to do it. Most often there is no real interaction.
What I love about Web 2.0 is that the geeks were in charge for so long when technical issues predominated on the internet, but now the issue is social which gives people like me a chance to be innovative in our own right. We have here getting on for 5,000 members from all over the world, of whom a bare handful do anything beyond possibly read. I am not desperate. I am happy with what we have, but I also know that we are not even beginning to tap our social potential.
Perhaps the issue of how Groups do or don't work is one way of approaching this. Any suggestions?
I think there are a number of reasons why there is 'a problem with groups'. Firstly people are hesitant to commit themselves to expressing their perspectives to people they do not know. Secondly, they, especially the younger members, are too respectful of older members who have, or appear to have, or display, wider knowledge, and are thus discouraged from putting their perspectives down in print - they are looking for leads! And thirdly, the written word offers a restricted medium, only one dimension, in which people can express themselves. There is also a problem with the dis-articulation that accompanies the creation of separate groups. I attended an afternoon of seminars at SOAS in London this Wednesday within the Department of Anthropology. The first seminar was concerned with Dalit activism in India. The second focused on smell and the perfume industry. The third focused on cricket, the colonial legacy, diasporas and identities, in the light of the 'spot fixing' scandal. Why would you consign those different issues to different groups -or why should you? Do we need groups? What is the explanation surrounding the dissipation of interest that accompanies the 'retreat' into groups ?
One way of trying to overcome the restrictions associated with the 'virtual world' might be to provide opportunities for face-to-face interactions over issues that might have been raised only virtually. With that aim in mind we initiated the London Anthropology Forum - to provide a real space for people to get together and work through their common interests. The first meeting of this forum attracted over 60 people. The impressions, so far, have been quite positive. A second meeting is planned for May.
While this does not cater to parties that are isolated physically from face-to-face interaction it does provide a rooted space for people to get together and address the issues that concern them as anthropologists. Is there a case for suggesting that face-to-face meetings in central locations might consolidate (in different physical locations) and enhance what OAC is trying to evolve?
Firstly people are hesitant to commit themselves to expressing their perspectives to people they do not know. Secondly, they, especially the younger members, are too respectful of older members who have, or appear to have, or display, wider knowledge, and are thus discouraged from putting their perspectives down in print - they are looking for leads! And thirdly, the written word offers a restricted medium, only one dimension, in which people can express themselves. There is also a problem with the dis-articulation that accompanies the creation of separate groups.
One way of trying to overcome the restrictions associated with the 'virtual world' might be to provide opportunities for face-to-face interactions over issues that might have been raised only virtually.
Is there a case for suggesting that face-to-face meetings in central locations might consolidate (in different physical locations) and enhance what OAC is trying to evolve?
I found these comments very stimulating, David, since they combine empirical analysis and constructive possibility. At their core lie extrapolations from experience of real life to virtual society and vice versa. You have suggested face-to-face interaction as a solution to the restrictions of online activities. This makes me wonder what a global network like this one can do to complement the restrictions of being in the same place. That in turn immediately reminded me of a conversation I had when I moved to Paris. A friend asked me what I was going to do there and I said write. He said " What do want to write for, Keith? Everyone knows you already." My reply was that I spent too much time in meetings and the classroom and I wanted people to know what I think without having to be in the same room to find out. Beyond that, I want to synthesize oral and written media somehow, to break down the limitations of each by combining them. So I am sympathetic to your practical suggestion, but my first priority is to find out what we can do here that isn't so easy in a single terrestrial location.
Our online seminars (another starts on Monday) have been quite successful, even though we have had to make up a form of organization from scratch as we go along. Several people have commented that it is rather special to realize that comments may be offered by participants from anywhere in the world. As the organizer I have drawn quite explicitly on my experience of terrestrial seminars, taking inspiration from the best parts and trying to avoid some of the pitfalls I have come to recognize. Reading and writing are common to both forms, but oral communication has sepcial qualities missing here. On the other hand, we can take time to read and compose a response at leisure. By spreading the event over two weeks, it allows participants to read other things or even to carry out some ad hoc fieldwork (although this has not yet happened often). How to overcome social hierarchy and encourage more open and equal participation remains probelmatic in both formats. But we have the advantage of not having to shift established institutions.
The point of the groups is surely to bring people together who share a specific interest. It may be that, when academic specialization is a stultifying norm, achieving general and diversified exchange in one place is a desirable complement like the menu you compiled for the London meeting. But I would prefer to ask what kind of specialized interaction is suitable for our network and one answer must surely be the chance to meet people online that you would never interact with normally. And what might such interaction be for? I don't think swapping opinions in a group chat is going to hold many people's attention for long. But the chance to pool research and reading experience across the usual barriers of discipline and geography is more promising. Let me give a couple of examples.
Michael Smith was persuaded by John McCreery to launch a thread in one group entitled Urban theory from outside anthropology. Michael is an archaeologist of ancient cities who finds little interest in his work from urban anthropologists, but plenty from geographers, town planners etc. His paper is about theories of the middle range, but I followed a link to his list of recent publications and found there a wonderful paper on Gordon Childe's concept of the Urban Revolution. I am writing a book on Africa's Urban Revolution which hinges on Childe's work via my teacher, Jack Goody. So you can imagine my excitement about making this connection which I hope to follow up with Michael in person.
Sjoerd van Grootheest posted a thread in Urban Anthropology on the exclusion of fishermen from Durban beach,. My wife, Sophie Chevalier, has been doing research there as part of a project on beaches as landscape in South Africa. It's the same beach that Fran featured as an OAC banner. These kinds of connection are surely just as special as meeting a stranger on a train who holds the key to some half-explored aspect of our own past or network. The OAC archive is full of such possibilities and I believe that the groups make the chances of a fruitful encounter more likely by virtue of their specialization.
Perhaps rather than try to explain perceived online behaviour by analogy with our previous terrestrial or virtual experience, we should ask what might be possible to achieve with the OAC's groups and pool ideas and efforts to get there. It's with that in mind that I offer some positive experiences of my own. I suspect that part of the problem is that you get as much out as you put in and many members neither expect not find much to engage them here.
[Heesun, I will get to your extremely helpful post, but first I need to find out what a webboard is.]
1) Professionals intimidate, and newbies are intimidated
2) Graduate students are so gungho about theories, definitions, and terms forgetting that fieldwork and ethnography are important too, while undergraduate students are interested in knowing how anthropology is practiced and how anthropologists work since they have not really experienced the field yet. .
3) Some join groups to get ideas, and others who are already members of groups don't want to share ideas
4) Those with unpublished papers don't want to reveal their findings maybe due to copyright and plagiarism issues, and those with plans to write papers don't want to expose the summaries of the papers they want to write maybe due to their apprehension that someone will copy their ideas and write a paper ahead of them.
I really hope this thread continues and that other members have a look because Heesun has offered the OAC a genuine idea of how the site could be changed. Heesun makes a strong case here:
board categories are usually less in number; each covers a wider range of topics; more members feel natural to write something on them as a result - one doesn't need to care much about where to put posts and what to write. This means that there may be a bigger degree of freedom in webboards; for example, I feel that I should be more specific about topics (which is precisely why we have groups here though) if I were to write on the group pages.
The question is whether people think that this change will help alleviate some of the problems that Keith highlights.
Personally I'm still inclined to stay with my earlier position, that the platform is already there, people just need to be encouraged to use it, although a mock up of what the OAC looked like as a bulletin board might persuade me to think otherwise.
Ryan, I agree with your assessment and I like the idea of integrating the Collected feed more visibly on the front page in place of the current box of group icons which don't give us much information.
Dumping groups or converting the groups system into a BBS style forum listing will simply recreate the problems of categorization. That we have so many groups can be overwhelming, but it is also testament to the richness of anthropology. Whatever we do structurally to the site won't be able to avoid that, IMO. But Heesun's suggestion has made me think about incorporating a category-style view into our forum menu, so we can jump between forums easier.
I'll shortly be announcing some layout changes that incorporate all of the recent feedback we've had about site organization, so standby for an update.
Keith, thanks for your very thoughtful and exploratory response, and thanks to others for taking up this debate about how best to pool ideas and efforts. I was suggesting that face-to-face encounters might be one part of that effort. Ryan's efforts on Anthropologies is another important step in that direction I think. Your examples of individual connections that have emerged through virtual connections are well taken. I have learned so much from membership in this forum over the past 2 years and have followed so many links that have taken me in novel and exciting directions. I think I am more concerned about grounding what can be ephemeral links, into engaged reflection that has a shared purpose and direction.
In the Sunday Times today there was an article entitled "80 pints of discourse, please, barman" by Brian Deer. It described the Skeptics in the Pub groups. These are (quite large) groups of diverse individuals discussing important issues of the day in convivial surroundings.
I suspect that the vast majority of groups suffer from a problem also seen on the OAC as a whole: A very low percentage of members actually contribute to the site. We have over 4500 members, yet the number of active contributors is probably on the order of 1% of that. If you have a group with 50 members, then 1% is less than one person... so from that aspect alone it is not surprising.
A couple of other contributors to the problem:
1. You Get One Chance at a First Impression. If a group is created and the creator does not post content that motivates others to participate right from the beginning, then perhaps a lot of new members will join in the hope they will see something of use to them, but things will die out quick.y
2. Creators Must Make Things Happen. Any group lives or dies by the energy and charisma of one or two individuals who drive it forward. Group creators must commit themselves to periodically adding new content, asking new questions, and taking active steps to get new members or bring old ones back.
I created a Southwest Archaeology group because that's my area. 17 people joined. I added little content initially, and things went dark. In the past few months I have tried to add new content, but only the crickets can be heard. This is probably attributable to the general absence of archaeologists on the site (with the recent notable exception of Michael E. Smith), but I know I could still do more.
I've looked back through the activity logged in the Collected.info stream, and do not see any groups that are thriving, but certainly there is activity. Can someone point me to an OAC Group that is working? If so, we should look at why it is working, and possibly create a thread where we can provide hints and tips to Group owners.