Distraction Free Reading

Associate Editor Intro: Jordan Kraemer on digital culture, tech trends, and why anthropologists can’t predict the future

As one of the new Associate Editors for the CASTAC Blog, I want to introduce myself and the kinds of topics I’ll be presenting here. In my work as an anthropologist of media and technology, I focus on how social and mobile media are reshaping experiences of space and place, especially in contemporary Europe. Ethnographic studies of social media have been in the public spotlight recently, when anthropologist Daniel Miller asserted that, for a group of teen users he is currently studying in the UK, Facebook has lost its coolness (“What will we learn from the fall of Facebook?” Nov. 24, 2013). Miller was sharing preliminary findings from a project still in progress, but his findings quickly got spun and distorted, in some cases by tech reporters more interested in Facebook’s stock value than its social implications. Miller and his team found that teen users (16-18 years old) in his fieldsite north of London no longer consider Facebook a cool space to hang out with peers, which isn’t shocking in light of previous research. He attributed this shift both to older family members joining Facebook and to younger users seeking to carve out their own spaces on newer sites. He also predicted that teens will continue using Facebook less and less, relegating it to communication with family. Facebook isn’t going to disappear, he argues, but its use is stabilizing as primarily a platform for adults: “it is finally finding its appropriate niche where it will remain.”

(Clip from NBC Nightly News: “Study: Teens leaving Facebook as parents flood site”)

These were not excessively sensational findings – but in the current climate of social media as engine of capital and economic value, it was more provocative than Miller may have imagined to cast aspersions on Facebook’s future popularity. The story didn’t go “viral,” as they say, until Miller shared his blog post with a journalist for the Conversation (an online academic magazine that his university, UCL, appears to support), published as “Facebook’s so uncool, but it’s morphing into a different beast” (Dec. 20, 2013). According to Miller (“Scholarship, integrity and going viral,” Dec. 30, 2013), the journalist revised the piece in a way that oversimplified, in some cases, and blatantly misrepresented, in others, his points. But he also identifies the tension for academics and researchers who want to share our work with a wide audience without sacrificing too much nuance and specificity:

But on the other hand, the journalist in question was only trying to do her job based on the journalistic claim (usually correct) that academic work will not gain popular attention because of the way it is written. Allowing your work to be ‘sexed-up’ seems to be a compromise academics will have to accept if they want to reach those audiences.

This version received criticism and backlash from commentators who took it as calling Facebook’s share value into question, such as the BBC’s technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones (“Facebook – not dead, not buried,” Dec. 30, 2013). But as Tom Boellstorff, another well-known anthropologist of digital worlds, pointed out (“Trending Ethnography: Notes on Import, Prediction, and Digital Culture,” Jan. 27, 2014) this backlash illustrates a fundamental problem of evaluating anthropological knowledge in terms of how accurately it predicts a technology’s future success or failure. Cellan-Jones, among others, also called Miller’s methods into question by equating ethnographic research with anecdotal evidence, and therefore, the opposite of legitimate data. It’s well worth reading Boellstorff’s longer piece on the discursive field that shapes discussions of trends and prediction, and what this limits or forecloses in research on digital culture:

Calls for digital culture scholars to engage with the public are increasingly being made in the language of this discursive field. This is dangerous because it limits what will be seen as a valid research finding and what genres will be acceptable for discussing research findings. It is also dangerous because this same discursive field has been used to delegitimate ethnographic inquiry by predicting its own failure.

I want to highlight two concerns that Miller and Boellstorff touch on, because I think they resonate strongly with our goals at the CASTAC Blog: first, how do we have meaningful public engagement as anthropologists of digital technology and culture; and second, what does it mean to disseminate research findings in the current climate of media technology as big business? As Miller added on why his findings spurred such vehemence: “I soon began to get emails from financial analysts, because in our world there are many people who couldn’t care a less about academic research but care hugely about share prices.” There are now big financial stakes in predicting the future of the next-generation technologies and social network sites – not to say these weren’t business ventures a decade ago, but the tech sector is even more mainstream now, and is a major driver of an otherwise sluggish economic “recovery.”

Over the next year, I’ll be using this space to investigate various aspects of digital media and technologies, focusing on topics such as social and mobile media, ethnography of design, technology and finance, and digital labor. If you’re working in these areas (within or without academia) and would like to contribute to the conversation, contact me at jkraemer  @ uci.edu. I’m especially keen to explore the following issues:

  • Ongoing proliferation of social networking apps, especially in relation to the emphasis on “trends,” youth, and novelty that Boellstorff calls out, and what kind of media ecology this might constitute
  • What it means to conduct ethnography of interface design and of “big data”
  • How mobile communication and experiences of mobility are changing as data-enabled smartphones become the norm
  • How social media practices around the world are challenging potential homogenization by transnational platforms like Facebook and Twitter, without reducing this diversity to a binary of local instantiations vs. global trends
  • What can an anthropology of digital culture bring to studies of the tech sector, which is currently one of the fastest growing segments of the economy.

As the above story illustrates, anthropology still faces challenges in communicating our particular critical and empirical approach to new technologies, both beyond the academy and in interdisciplinary settings. But the Internet provides numerous excellent platforms for engaging in dialogue, so let’s use it.

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