Nine field sites, nine ethnographers, eleven books: not exactly the setup for a conventional anthropological study. But for Daniel Miller and a team of eight other anthropologists in the Global Social Media Impact study at University College London (now online as Why We Post), this ambitious, comparative model was necessary to understand emerging social media practices across the world, or at least, in many different places, and extends what anthropological ethnography can be.
As Miller explained in a 2012 post on this blog (when the fieldwork was still underway), the shared features of social media platforms (from Facebook and Twitter to China’s QQ) make it possible to ask what social media are: a new means of communication? Longtime social practices in a new setting? An emergent form of social connection?
So a study that looks at this simultaneously in eight sites works particularly for something that has been introduced across the whole world within a very short time period. All this would at least suggest that a comparative study can actually deepen rather than take away from each individual ethnography.
This great diversity of practices on social media make it possible—and necessary—to theorize what it means to talk about some networked communication technologies as “social media,” and to examine what worlds and forms of social life take place on and through them. Ultimately, Miller and his team concluded that studying social media offers a way to study diverse, often localized, social formations, because media practices are entwined with everyday living in specific cultural contexts. Studying social media becomes a way to study human social worlds.
But the project didn’t stop there. The team wrote up their findings simultaneously, in close dialogue with one another, and on February 29, released the first three books in the series, launched an informative website and a free online course, “The Anthropology of Social Media,” and hosted a one-day workshop with media scholars and anthropologists in London. In this post, I’ll share highlights from the workshop, especially those that struck me as an anthropologist of social media. Rarely have I been in the same room with so many others studying social and digital media anthropologically, and it provided an opportunity to consider changing (and enduring) forms of life, sociality, connection—and disconnection—unfolding in a global, heterogeneous world.
Contexts of social media: locatability, mobility, difference
The workshop began by addressing research on the diverse contexts of social media practice, following a brief introduction by Miller. This included language and visual communication, the ordinariness of multiple media platforms for transnational families, and questions of inequality and social difference. Anupam Das, a linguist, described how language online expresses closeness through informality (something I’ve observed in my research as well), and conversely, social distance increases with formality. He also noted the rise of photo-blogging as a form of visual communication. David Herold raised the question of what are the implications of using machines and tools primarily designed in the US for people in other places and contexts.
Deirdre McKay described changing practices among migrant families, for whom platforms like Facebook and Skype are an ordinary, integral part of daily life, increasingly required in social ritual, saying: “it’s not ritual unless it’s polymediated.” One salient example was the practice of Filipino mothers, who run Skype on their phone during the day so their children in the Philippines can tune in and hear what’s happening, a sort of auto-sound-ethnography (“Oh, mum’s getting on the bus now! I can hear her talking to the driver”). Tiziano Bonini, moderating, offered up Madianou’s concept of “ambient co-presence” to describe alternative ways of being together through media platforms.
Next, Gabrielle Hosein described how gendered selves are negotiated in apps like WhatsApp and Snapchat, as places that feel more private and allow for a range of publics alongside what Miller calls scales of sociality (or “scalable sociality”). In the WhyWePost study, social media were often a conservative social space, where people often conform to social norms and expectations. But Hosein argued that social media platforms also provide a site for renegotiating inequalities such as gender. Rosana Pinheiro-Machado asked why the world before social media is often imagined in some discourse as better, finding social media can both support horizontal social movements and still reproduce racism and sexism. Following this, Nimmi Rangaswamy reflected on the politics of the tech-savvy “cyber-Hindu,” asking to what degree they are just concerned about India, as they proclaim, or are fundamentally rightwing.
Dylan Kerrigan pushed further questions of gendered subjectivities to ask about a possible crisis of masculinity. Nell Haynes pointed in response to her field site in northern Chile, where, on the contrary, social media bring together the male-dominated space of the mine, where workers (mostly men) spend a week at a time, with the more “proper” space of the home, without provoking a crisis of masculinity. Perhaps such crises take place as the result in broader changes in the nature of work, especially in service- and “knowledge”-based economies where forms of labor associated with women are replacing the manual work of manufacturing.
McKay reasserted concerns about the ethics of collecting data in these emergent spaces, which led to further conversation about online research ethics. Sonia Livingstone offered AoIR’s (Association of Internet Researchers) ethical guidelines for consideration, to recognize how ethics must be situated culturally, which requires being sensitive to and responsible for specific possibilities for harm in any particular setting. She also referenced Annette Markham’s term “creative fabrication of data” to describe using composites of research participants, a method many ethnographers find helpful for relaying fieldwork accounts without compromising identity. From another angle, however, Tom Macdonald reminded the group to consider how Chinese control over access goes one way—users in China can’t easily get around the Great Firewall, but outsiders can use Chinese platforms like WeChat. Yet for the most part, they don’t. Ethnography in this light must be considered as an ongoing encounter, attending to sources of friction and learning from mistakes.
Intersecting fields, disconnecting field sites
In the second half of the workshop, Veronica Barassi, Haidy Geismar, and Hannah Knox reflected on the state of media anthropology, digital anthropology, and the anthropology of technology, respectively, and Bonini, Livingstone, and Mirca Madianou related current research in media studies. Linking the study of mediation to the history of material culture, Geismar considered the stakes of comparison, and the varied entanglements between people and platforms. As social media platforms are themselves, standardized in certain ways, Knox asked how tech standardization relates to ideas about universalized knowledge. This can create continuity across field sites in the study of digital media. For Miller and the Global Impact Study researchers, this offered a way to study places through media practices. Comparison was then made possible precisely through questions of scale.
Livingstone addressed ethnography as one means among others to approach a larger problematic, and recounted stories of “chosen disconnection” by teens. She suggested that the reassertion of conservative values on social media might represent pushback against neoliberal individualizing competitiveness. Madianou described growing interest in media ethnography and a critical turn in media studies, such as Tarleton Gillespie’s work on inequality, surveillance, and algorithms, concluding “these assumptions about technologies are not really realized on the ground,” such as how social media actually increased inequality in the Philippines during typhoon recovery in low-income areas.
In closing, Alicia Blum-Ross, Laura Haapio-Kirk, and Laura Pountney discussed issues of applying and disseminating anthropological research, another central innovation of Why We Post study. The open-access books, for example, accompanied an Anthropology of Social Media MOOC (massively open online course), translated into the nine languages of the field sites. But engaging with broader publics remains a challenge for anthropologists and other scholars. As Blum-Ross explained, what many people want to know is not necessarily what scholars want to talk about, or think to address. We must find ways to distill our findings—without oversimplifying them, and consider issues of legibility and accessibility. The MOOC, for example, had thousands of subscribers, and offered a means to attract many more people to anthropology who might not be exposed to anthropological approaches otherwise. Yet just translating a course into so many languages represented an immense amount of work, much more than anticipated.
It’s edifying as an anthropologist to see that the Why We Post project has been covered extensively in the media, from The Economist to the BBC and well beyond. We grapple continuously at Platypus with writing about scholarly work in accessible terms, without sacrificing complexity. A lot can be said about this balance and its merits (or limits). But the widespread permeation of social media means anthropologists must contend with both theorizing emerging media in the places we study, and engaging new means to discuss and share this work.
Update: Since this post was drafted, Miller has published a provocation on studying (and to study) the Internet anthropologically, on the Cultural Anthropology website: “The Internet: A Provocation” (Apr. 4, 2016).
 Madianou, Mirca, and Daniel Miller 2013 Polymedia: Towards a New Theory of Digital Media in Interpersonal Communication. International Journal of Cultural Studies 16(2): 169–187.