Author Archives: Elizabeth Rodwell

is a anthropologist of media and technology with a primary focus on Japan. Her dissertation / manuscript is on the development of interactive, social television in Japan as a tool for resistance to censorship. During the 2016-17 academic year she is a Visiting Research Fellow at Rice University, and an anthropology instructor at the University of Houston-Downtown. She also somehow works full-time as a UX Researcher for ChaiOne, in Houston, TX.

Trolling and the Alt-Right in Japan (Part 1)

I was only a couple of months into my fieldwork when I met Masa. I had been focusing my attention on innovation and politics within the major Japanese TV networks, but he drew my attention to a different kind of media organization: The Free Press Association of Japan, now defunct. At the time, he identified with its founder, Takashi Uesugi, who had made a name for himself as one of the country’s most prominent crusaders for Japanese journalism reform. Masa liked anyone who flouted convention, and the mainstream media’s disparagement of Uesugi for not having attended a high-ranked university only served to endear him further to Masa, who himself had not attended college. It was from Masa that I first heard about chemtrails (kemutoreiru) – the notion that the white trails that aircraft leave in their wake represent a chemical form of meteorological or biological manipulation. He began forwarding me articles and links to documentaries exposing Japanese and American government cover-ups. Unemployed, he spent most of his days on the Japanese bulletin board, 2ch (ni chan). He was my first encounter with the Japanese internet alt-right (the netto uyoku), the beginning of an inadvertent deep-dive into one of the most vocal factions in the Japanese internet. (read more...)

DDoS, DNS, and The Remarkable Case of Seven Crypto-Officers

Something big happened on October 27. Something unprecedented. And like much high-level change that impacts the Internet’s basic infrastructure, this change came down to the actions of a handful of carefully chosen people. It involved a ceremony straight out of a sci-fi movie–seemingly rife with opportunity for espionage, intrigue, or a massive telegenic heist. For STS-focused social scientists, this story is compelling for the layers of trust involved, and the way technical security and human relationships intersect. That something so critical to global infrastructure can be reduced to concepts like duty and accountability is neither surprising nor novel, per se—but it is remarkable. But let me backtrack, as this is really about two news stories. Friday, October 21, 2016 saw a massive disruption in internet traffic, particularly for the Northeastern United States. The outage, a distributed denial of service attack (DDoS) started at 7am EST, appears intended as a show of force, and was directed at New Hampshire-based Internet infrastructure company Dyn. (read more...)

Who are the Influencers?

It’s not a new idea, but the term “influencer” likely has not crossed the desks of those outside the world of marketing and advertising. On the surface, it’s a relatively straightforward concept: some individuals have more of an audience online than others. Among these, some have a knack for recommending products or services that are then purchased by others. For anthropologists and media researchers, the concept of an influencer recalls Bourdieu’s theory of social capital, and is a contemporary example of the kinds of influence addressed in social and actor/network theory (see here and also here). Attempting to understand the social uses of technology without considering monetization and the role of commerce is to ignore one of the strongest forces driving interpersonal dynamics online. Therefore, my intention here is to argue for both the relevance of “influencers” as an emerging concept, but also to highlight the ways in which it extends historical advertising concepts. (read more...)

Understanding Users through Data: UX, Ratings, and Audiences

“It needs to be usable by distracted individuals in a hurry. It needs to be extremely legible and intuitive,” began the client emphatically as he leaned forward, one of several people  gathered at a conference table on the 16th floor of an office tower in Houston, Texas. He rested back in his chair and waited, drumming his hands on the table. The project lead and two of the designers nodded, as one called a vast library of application mockups up onto the demo screen. As she scrolled through these, the other explained the rationale behind its user-interface elements: “we tested this prototype with [x user base]. We have seen that they need to take [y action] immediately, and if they are hindered in this, the company itself cannot track projects or time spent by employees. [Staff] are too busy on the job to engage in lengthy bookkeeping procedures.” This project, a massive one spanning more than a year’s research and development, is one among many for which I am currently acting as a participant observer at [Intellisoft Inc.] In foregrounding research, this company is not unique, but they are among an ever-growing number of organizations appropriating anthropological methods to understand how audiences interface with technological artifacts. Occasionally, these methods employ terminology that diverges between the academic and applied social sciences; it took me a moment to realize, for example, that “contextual inquiry” is field research, that is, ethnography. (read more...)

Understanding How People Use Technology: A Primer on Human Factors Engineering and UX Research

Corporations are increasingly interested in hiring anthropologists for human factors engineering (HFE) and, most recently, user experience (UX) research, roles many of us are interested in pursuing when we look beyond academia. I researched and wrote the following piece to help anthropologists of science and technology who want to approach these professional fields. Both HFE and UX research rely on methods that resemble the skill sets required by ethnographic fieldwork. Whether you expect to end up in such a role or not, much work being done in UX and HFE draws on similar theoretical perspectives to that of the  anthropological literature addressing users and interface design, and is interesting as a source of case studies and data. This isn’t coincidental, of course–there’s long been anthropologists in industry, and overlap between anthropology and design research in major tech companies. (read more...)

From Academia to Business: How Barry Dornfeld brings ethnography to the business world

Barry Dornfeld’s 1998 book Producing Public Television, Producing Public Culture was a formative one that knocked me from media studies to media anthropology (and made me realize that my “revolutionary” new idea for fieldwork had been scooped). For my first post on the CASTAC Blog as an Associate Editor, I want to return to my intellectual roots to interview Dornfeld, and discuss his transition from NYU assistant professor and University of Pennsylvania Communication program director to ethnography evangelist in the business world. Producing Public Television saw Dornfeld conducting full-fledged participant observation amidst the producers at PBS while they assembled a transnational documentary called Childhood. This book has influenced both my dissertation and my fieldwork among television producers, particularly for its treatment of expertise. Dornfeld, for example, addresses the degree to which producers consider themselves proxies for their audiences, vehicles for a kind of mass-mediated paternalism, or feel shackled by a necessity to communicate reductively. But in learning about his professional trajectory, I found myself curious about his unconventional movement(s) between academia and industry. And as our potential for engagement with the business (or at least non-academic) world is on the minds of some in the CASTAC community, I thought I’d talk to Dornfeld about his work on media production, the use of ethnography in the business world, and his most recent book on how ethnography can help organizations adjust during periods of intense change. Below, he graciously answers my questions. Elizabeth Rodwell: First, how aware are you of the legacy your book “Producing Public Television” has had in anthropology and media studies? What has been the legacy of that publication in your professional life? Barry Dornfeld: I am aware that some folks still use and refer to the book, which I am pleased to be reminded of after all these years. Not being in academia any more limits my exposure a bit, but I do hear periodically from people who are studying media production and find the book useful. And I have some old colleagues who still assign the book. I think the perspective and method hold up well, even if the world of media and media theory have evolved. ER: Do you think television corporations have become more sophisticated in their understanding of audiences than they were when you conducted your doctoral fieldwork? (read more...)