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
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.
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