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Public anthropology in times of media hybridity and global upheaval

Public anthropology in times of media hybridity and global upheaval

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Published by Eric Prenen
An updated public anthropology is required if we are to reachout beyond the mass media channels familiar from previous decades.
An updated public anthropology is required if we are to reachout beyond the mass media channels familiar from previous decades.

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Published by: Eric Prenen on Jun 19, 2013
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Public anthropology in times of media hybridity and global upheavalJohn PostillRMIT UniversityMelbourneJune 2013To cite:
Postill, J. forthcoming. Public anthropology in times of media hybridity andglobal upheaval. In S. Abram and S. Pink (eds.)
 Media, Anthropology and Public Engagement 
 .
Oxford: Berghahn.
 Abstract
The growing popularity of new social and participatory media at a time of globalturbulence raises challenging questions for anthropologists wishing to engage with publics beyond academia. In this chapter I draw from my experience as a mediaanthropologist researching activism and social protest to explore some of thesechallenges. I argue that an updated public anthropology is required if we are to reachout beyond the mass media channels familiar from previous decades. The new digitalmedia environment is a ‘hybrid’ system made up of old and new technologies, actorsand practices interacting in contingent ways (Chadwick 2011) as well as a domain of cultural production mired in a deep political and economic crisis. This situationdemands open-ended, idiosyncratic, and collaborative approaches to publicengagement that take into account both the unique affordances of today’s digitaltechnologies and the aftereffects of the 2011 and 2013 waves of social protest aroundthe globe. I exemplify this argument through my experience with four distinct platforms, namely a mailing list, a research blog, Twitter and Facebook, in a range of  public contexts.
Introduction
Like other professionals, anthropologists work in a public environment that hasundergone profound technological changes over the past 10 years. New formsof publicness have arisen out of three converging global trends, namely the rise of ‘viral media’ such as Facebook, YouTube or Twitter, the mainstreaming of ‘nerd politics’ epitomised by Wikileaks and Anonymous, and the digitisation of publicspaces. I will now consider each of these trends in turn.First, with the proliferation of new social and mobile media around the world,millions of citizens now have in their hands the ability to decide how and with whomto ‘share’ digital information and commentary (Postill in press). There is nothing new,of course, about forwarding messages through electronic means. What is novel is thesheer scale, routinisation and sophistication of the new culture of ‘sharism’ (Mao2008), with the ubiquitous ‘Likes’ and ‘tweets’ of social media indexing the shift. If 10 or 20 years ago internet users could readily forward emails with hyperlinks to their contacts, today the very architectures and business models of social media andsmartphones are built on ‘sharing’ digital contents. While early cyberspace scholarsannounced the coming of an age of ‘virtual reality’ (Turkle 1984), what we have seenover the past five years is rather the rise of what I call ‘viral reality’, i.e. the
 
 2accelerated co-production of news and opinion by media professionals and amateursthrough social and mobile (or ‘viral’) media (Postill in press). This is a flattenedinformational terrain that the mainstream media must now share with alternativemedia outlets and millions of digitally savvy citizens. While the mainstream mediahave retained the ability to set the day-to-day current affairs agenda (Chadwick 2011),they must also contend with the ability of ordinary citizens not only to reach the sceneof a media event before reporters, but also with their new power to ‘Like’ a potentially viral item of news or opinion (Shirky 2008). The study of virality is still inits infancy, but given the participatory nature of their research anthropologists can play an important part in its development (Postill 2012).A second shift currently underway is the mainstreaming of ‘nerd politics’ (
 pace
 Doctorow 2012), epitomised by formations such as Wikileaks, Anonymous, Spain’sIndignados or the global Occupy movement. This is a novel phenomenon wherebygeeks, hackers, bloggers, copyleft lawyers and other ‘information activists’ (Brooke2011) have learned to take their once niche internet struggles to the heart of the political process by linking them to broader popular demands. A spectacular instanceof this trend was the release in November 2010 by Wikileaks via mainstream newsmedia organisations (including the
 New York Times
, the
Guardian
, and
 El Pais
) of over 200,000 US State Department cables. Less well known are the earlier activitiesof Julian Assange and fellow information activists which eventually led to significantchanges to Icelandic legislation protecting the country’s freedom of information, or the strong ties forged between information activists and grassroots protesters duringthe Arab uprisings and among the Indignados and Occupy movements. But the crucial point is that it is not only ‘tech nerds’ who co-produce and share digital contents insupport of greater internet freedoms, political and financial transparency, ‘distributed’forms of democratic participation, and so on. Thanks to the new viral mediaenvironment, even anthropologists who not long ago boasted of being technophobeshave now begun to actively participate in these new forms of public engagement (seechapters on Savage Minds and the Open Anthropology Cooperative, this volume).Third, in many urban centres the explosive uptake of smartphones combined with newforms of civic engagement in the wake of the Arab uprisings are reconfiguringcitizens’ public ideas and practices (Corsin and Estalella 2011). One defining momentwas the mass occupation of Tahrir Square in January 2011 to demand the end of theMubarak regime in Egypt, followed in real time around the world via a plethora of mainstream, alternative and social media. This successful occupation was aninspiration for citizens worldwide demanding political reform and social justice. TheTahrir model was adapted by a small group of hacktivists and other citizens whooccupied Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square later that year. In turn, the Madrid templatewas exported to New York by an activist network in Vancouver, giving rise toOccupy Wall Street (Juris 2012), from where is spread to hundreds of cities aroundthe globe in October 2011. The occupied squares were not only utopian exercises indirect democracy (della Porta 2011). They were also highly experimental‘hackerspaces’ (Brooke 2011) in which the mainstreaming of nerd politics acquired a public (inter)face, a manifestation of viral reality, and a context where thedisenchantment and fear of the educated middle classes was articulated with that of the general population.
 
 3As we face new national and global crises in the coming years (witness, for instance,the June 2013 protests in Brazil and Turkey), it is likely that new and old forms of  public engagement will continue to interact and co-evolve. In this chapter I draw frommy own recent experience as a public anthropologist to explore some of the ways inwhich anthropologists can not only ‘reach out’ to non-academic constituencies viadifferent media, but also help to constitute new forms of public engagement anddemocratic reform. I argue that an updated understanding of public anthropology isrequired if we are to transcend the mass media channels of a previous era. The newdigital media environment is a ‘hybrid’ system made up of old and new technologies,actors and practices interacting in contingent ways (Chadwick 2011) as well as adomain of cultural production mired in a deep political and economic crisis. Thissituation demands open-ended, idiosyncratic, and collaborative approaches to publicengagement that exploit both the unique affordances of today’s digital technologiesand the aftereffects of the 2011 and 2013 waves of social protest around the globe. Iexemplify this argument through my experience with four distinct platforms, namelya mailing list, a research blog, Twitter and Facebook, in a range of public contexts.
Sustaining a mailing list
Although there is little doubt that today’s media environment differs markedly fromthat of the early 2000s, and even more so from earlier environments, it is unwise toadopt a ‘replacement model’ of media change in which ‘new’ media replace ‘old’media (Apprich 2013). Thus in a recent ethnographic study set in Italy, Barassi andTrere (2012) found that an ‘old’ internet technology, the humble listserv, took pride of  place among student activists who valued its interactivity and discretion (see alsoTrere 2012). These authors caution against the current rhetoric around ‘Web 2.0’ asthe age of interactivity and user-driven content, as if email and other earlier technologies had not possessed such affordances. Moreover, they found that youngItalian activists were often using social network sites and other ‘Web 2.0’technologies in strategically non-interactive ways. Similarly, Kelty’s (2008, 2010)ethnohistory of the free software movement reveals the long-standing centrality of mailing lists to the making and remaking of ‘recursive publics’ around the practices of open-source coding (which in turn, we could add, eventually led to the mainstreamingof nerd politics). These listservs were in fact a key resource in Kelty’s archivalresearch (Postill 2010).Mailings lists have been a mainstay of academic life for decades, and show no signsof decline despite the parallel rise in social media usage amongst academics. Thenumber of European Association of Social Anthropologists’ (EASA) networkscontinues to grow every year, and they all rely on listservs as their maincommunication tool. For instance, the EASA Media Anthropology Network – which Ico-founded and convene – relies on its thriving listserv. Set up by a small group of enthusiasts during the 2004 EASA conference in Vienna, the listserv has continued tospread by word of mouse and today boasts over 1,400 subscribers from a wide rangeof national and professional backgrounds. As stated on the Network’s website:[M]embership of EASA is not a prerequisite for subscribing to the MediaAnthropology Network mailing list. The mailing list is open to scholars,research students and others anywhere in the world who have a legitimateinterest in the anthropology of media
.
 

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