Distraction Free Reading

What Can Twitter Do to/for the Field?

By Andrea Ballestero, Baird Campbell, and Eliot Storer*

Between June 15 and 22, 2015, a group of anthropologists and graduate students convened by the Ethnography Studio linked our fieldsites via Twitter. The experiment, entitled “Ethnography Studio in the Field: #ESIFRice,” was designed to open conversations about how being in the “field” might shape the ways in which we conceptualize our problems of inquiry. How are the problems that mobilize us imagined once we are “in situ”? So we set up a structure for a parallel co-inhabitation of different sites. Each participant tweeted from her own location and with her own research interests in mind. The idea was not to establish a single multisited space or a joint research project but to keep the separation between sites alive, while linking them as an attempt to think together.

If there was any purpose to the experiment, we could say that it was to craft an experimental system (Rheinberger 1997), that is, to set up a “system of manipulation designed to give unknown answers to questions the experimenters themselves are not yet able clearly to ask” (28). The experiment was related tangentially to ongoing conversations in anthropology about the uses of social media in fieldwork (Juris 2012; Horst 2015; Kraemer 2015; Sanjek and Tratner 2015), or what Kozinets has called “netnography” (2009). Yet, the purpose was not to explicitly discuss social media, but to create a space of structured play where we could see what Twitter might do to shape our analytic fields in real time. And so it was that a group of us, in different stages of our training, enmeshed in different geographic sites, and from different professional locations, got together to think about the field. The experiment generated a set of familiar and unfamiliar impressions. This post is an initial reflection on the effects of the experiment, not a report on results.

Effects

For many of us, the experiment first highlighted the need to carve a field out of an extremely dense and affectively charged lifeworld. Those of us tweeting from the US had to grapple with news of more killings of black men and burned black churches. Death kept intruding into the analytic mood troubling the ease with which communities are sometimes turned into “research locations” or informants. Analogic sensorial and affective intrusions linked the U.S. environment with different geographic locations where other incursions interrupted the self-evidence of a place: a green creek cutting a dry hill, an automated car surfing the carpet of the office where an interview took place, an invisible windshield framing the limits of a landscape inviting wayfaring, or in less poetic terms, interminable hours of driving. Cutting across and slicing through. The field was a bit choppy, no panoptic God trick, a fantastic display of methodological awareness of one’s theoretical commitments.

Another issue that quickly became visible was how sites were possible thanks to many forms of relatedness. Our Twitter-space was filled with the anthropologists’ kin. These included, for instance, old friends as non-stereotypical images interrupting the expectations placed on classically anthropological locales such as Papua New Guinea; mothers spotting possible informants and opening new connections for ethnographers whose projects were still being designed; inherited facial features and family body languages resulting in new transportation means that extended the reach of the inquiry. The coalescence of these experiences amongst many geographical sites reminded the lone ethnographer of the extent to which a field site is a collective achievement.

When planning the experiment we were curious about the effect the “telegraphic” form of the tweet would have. If ethnography is still predicated on the power of thick description to embrace the richness and complexity of the field, what effect would a constrained form have? After all, saying that an anthropological work is “thin” continues to be a marker of inadequacy and it would not be a stretch to say that in anthropological terms, tweets tend to be thin. Would the tweet be a form of anthropological description? If so, would it flatten sites? Implicitly, and largely because of the wording of the prompt we sent to participants, which read “Sometimes the field…,” there was an expansive tentativeness in thinking about the field. None of the participants reduced their tweets to illustrations of location. All “the fields” were conceptual and existential configurations requiring a response from the anthropologist, despite her being a constitutive part of it. These tentative physical and analytic configurations underscored how fields are under permanent construction and continuous disassembling. In many circumstances, ethnographers feel as if they have choices about whether to reassemble those configurations. In many others, they experience the call for their suturing as a demand—political, affective, ethical. The series of tweets, despite being grounded in very particular locations, kept that tentativeness alive.

More practically, one could speculate that the formal restrictions of the tweet were in fact the most conducive element for this productive tentativeness. The character limit, in an interesting twist, had the effect of expanding field imaginaries for the readers of the tweets. The 140-character constraint created a structural limit to any insinuation of totality and for that reason turned the collection of tweets into implicitly partial objects. What remains to be seen is whether the amplification that partiality effects translates into the more familiar anthropological formats the participants are working on: the book chapter, the research proposal or the journal article. With their comparatively longer forms, those formats can freeze and fill up the porousness of the fields, inadvertently objectifying geographic location. Sometimes, more description results in a mirage of totality that has the effect of being reductive in its excess of data. Sometimes more text is in fact less accuracy.

 

Method

Although decentering the geographic physicality of “the field” may seem like an obvious outcome for our social media experiment, #ESIFRice indicated that this is easier said than done. While none of us were in the same physical space, we were nonetheless all still firmly grounded in our individual physically defined field sites. This was especially evident in the number of tweets, particularly in the early days of the experiment, that focused on rather traditional elements of fieldwork: where we were, who was there, and what we were doing. Our difficulty in decentering the physical aspects of the field evinces one of the tendencies our experiment sought to interrogate: the often taken for granted conception of “the field” as a distant and physically situated location, a space that one can and must choose to enter and leave. It was in this regard that the ‘social’ in social media became crucial to the evolution of the experiment.

Through direct conversation with other ethnographers—a phenomenon that happens far too infrequently in physical fieldwork—participants’ tweets organically began to focus on more theoretical aspects of “the field,” and the hashtag itself began to emerge as a new, virtual field. Unmired by the constraints of physical space, #ESIFRice thus became a sort of aggregation of individual life-histories and ways of thinking about the same issue. This mirrored the way “traditional” ethnographers in a physical field are able to cobble together a coherent narrative from the distinct, and often contradictory, narratives put forth by their interlocutors. “The field” does not have to be one thing, in the same way that contemporary anthropologists shy away from the universalizing definitions of ‘kinship’ and ‘myth’ of our forebears. By viewing the hashtag as a field unto itself, we were more easily able to access the social constructedness underlying the idea of “the field,” privileging the theoretical while pushing the physical—if temporarily—into the background.

This experiment was also a directed exercise in the “ethnographic tweet” genre—which is just to say that the ethnographic tweet is not just any tweet by a so-called ethnographer. This ethnographic tweet that we speak of also is not really in the same family as our term papers, articles, conference papers, or even other digital media like blog posts. Our participants showed that engaging with ethnographic, anthropological, and/or scholastic ideas on Twitter doesn’t have to just be a practice of translating your argument for laypeople, nor is it really just about creating the perfect arrangements of jargon. It’s maybe a little poetics, and a lot of practice. More than merely a unit of contingent musings, an ethnographic tweet is produced not just by reflection from an ethnographer, but by a loose organizational practice such as this experiment. This helps direct conversations and connections on a platform that otherwise can suffer from an information overload.

The ethnographic tweets from our experiment also demonstrated that however specific an organized engagement with such a genre might be, the diversity of play and engagement is substantial. You can be reflective, quirky, and bold. Informational, descriptive, or unsentimental. Dialogue with interlocutors, colleagues, corporations, and your past self. Break the ethnographic experiment’s wall altogether!

Finally, organized ethnographic engagement with Twitter suggests that such “digital scholarship” isn’t about advocating that you tweet your entire dissertation (please don’t!) nor does it equate retweets to citation counts on your CV. Organizing anthropological subjects on Twitter is about having engaged public conversations not necessarily of the viral type. Such organized anthropologies on such a platform produce and reconfigure forms of communication within and beyond scholarly networks, systems, and energies. A pre-meditated and collaborative project, among other uses of twitter, can cultivate novel manifestations of ethnographic data.

Closure?

Twitter itself is not the fetish though. The interface is just one variable, one unique discursive tool provisionally available to us. An organized experiment like this requires an entire infrastructure beyond Twitter: face-to-face planning, emails, telecommunication, and post-experiment workshops are all part of it. There will be a better interface someday, and it is important to remember that any digital medium supposes ethical, temporal, and other important tradeoffs.

That the experiment itself had the effect of constituting a field of its own was noticed “live” in the temporality of the conversation, as Rachel Douglas-Jones noted. In a somewhat arbitrary way, just because we said we would, we closed the Studio in the Field experiment on June 22.  The closure was sharp, and devoid of ritual. We just stopped. We were left nostalgic, curious about where projects, but mostly our co-fieldworkers, were. We are thinking about reopening the experiment, for the pleasure of doing so, and without the expectation of any product. When that happens we hope you will join us at #ESIFRice.

*Authors listed in alphabetical order.

Related links

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References

Horst, Heather A. 2015. “Being in Fieldwork: Collaboration, Digital Media, and Ethnographic Practice.” In eFieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology in the Digital World, Roger Sanjek & Susan Tratner, eds. Penn Press: 153.

Juris, Jeffrey S. 2012. “Reflections on #Occupy Everywhere: social media, public space, and emerging logics of aggregation.” American Ethnologist. 39 (2): 259-279.

Kozinets, Robert V. 2010. Netnography. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Kraemer, Jordan. 2015 “Doing Fieldwork, BRB: Locating the Field on and with Emerging Media.” In eFieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology in the Digital World, Roger Sanjek & Susan Tratner, eds. Penn Press : 113.

Rheinberger, Hans-Jörg. 1997. Toward a history of epistemic things: synthesizing proteins in the test tube. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Sanjek, Roger & Susan Tratner, eds. 2015 eFieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology in the Digital World. Penn Press.


Andrea Ballestero is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Rice University. Her research looks at law, numbers, and water in Latin America.

Baird Campbell is a PhD student in Anthropology at Rice University. His research focuses on queer and trans activism in Santiago, Chile.

Eliot Storer is a PhD student in Anthropology at Rice University. He studies environmental management practices and energy systems in South and North America.

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