Friday, 13 November 2009

Social media gurus get a kicking

Spotted this on Gabriella Coleman's blog Interprete today (see blog list). Very, very, (very) funny for anyone who has experienced the patter of a certain kind of social media guru.

There I was a few posts ago almost cutting such people some slack ('Not all sell, sell, sell') but I think it was a case of absence making the heart grow fonder...

Thursday, 12 November 2009

The BBC stripped bare (and paying for strippers)

Went to an interesting talk today by anthropologist Professor Georgina Born who wrote 'Uncertain Vision', based on ethnographic research at the BBC. She said that the BBC was an excellent place to witness the impact of neoliberal marketing thinking applied to the public sector in the 1990's (bringing in terms like accountability and a whole set of practices which are now accepted as part of the landscape).

She was critical about this impact, which for example saw the introduction of short term contracts which in her opinion squeezed the space available autonomous creative thinking, betraying the democratic Reithian vision.

There are pockets of hope and creativity for her, one being the BBC's determination to keep its finger on the pulse by exploring the possibilities of digital technology, leading to excellent services such as the BBC Asian Network which manages to be universalist and cater for a 'minority' (though this didn't square with her criticism of investment by public sector broadcasters in consultancies to project which platforms were going to be key in the future - how else are they supposed to know...?)

The answer came soon enough. Unsurprisingly perhaps for an anthropologist she also saw hope in the BBC's concerted efforts to carry out its own market research to ostensibly find out how to reach its audiences (I thought much like a PR professional might applaud an organisation which decides to do PR ect., but that's me being cynical). In the last decade this research has also included ethnography and she relished in the irony of the BBC employing commercial ethnography practices to "slap them in the face" when she had to tread so warily in her dealings with the upper echelons.

Anyway - two things to add. Firstly, the BBC isn't keen to shout about all the research it does. I am aware of its employment of a consultancy which conducted ethnographic research into nudist camps on its behalf (imagine the headlines...!). Secondly, for all her travails trying to get access to various departments such as news at the BBC, I spent a lot of time on the other side of the equation, trying to get journalists access to anthropologists going about their daily work. It wasn't easy and I think points to the difficulties outsiders have in gaining access to the internal processes of any institution as well as the similar incomprehension felt when facing rejection: "but why wouldn't they want to speak to me, my motives are pure..."

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Digital anthropology vs digital ethnography

I was speaking to a commercial market researcher today and mentioned that I was studying digital anthropology. He understood this to mean the deployment of digital tools in conducting qualitative research such as ethnography. 

I outlined the difference between digital anthropology and ethnography, which I'm repeating here, to clarify that the focus of the MA (soon to be MSc) is the former.

There are two ways of interpreting digital ethnography. The first is that it is ethnography on digital subject matter (a la Mike Wesch at Kansas University) and the second is that it's using digital tools to conduct ethnography (a la Cardiff University's Hypermedia and Ethnography Group). They aren't exclusive: In the latter sense digital ethnography involves traditional ethnographic practices transposed into a digital medium, such as in-depth online interviewing and (participant) observation in virtual communities. It also covers the (immediate, remote and scalable) gathering of content-rich digital output from research samples to gain insights into behaviours (extending to digital audio/film diaries or field recordings by researchers). Finally, it presents new possibilities for the presentation and analysis of data (e.g. the potential of hypertext). The subject matter of this research may be digital (e.g. the study of the culture of YouTube) or not, which is why I prefer the second more inclusive interpretation.

Conversely, digital anthropology is about digital technology and the remarkable effect that it is having on social organisation and cultural practices in the same way that medical anthropology is a subfield of anthropology which examines how society is impacted by health issues. In connecting the theoretical with the empirical, anthropology is one of the best ways to understand the effect. 

So there you have it: Digital anthropology isn't digital ethnography but the latter may be particularly useful in helping us research and present issues arising in the areas covered by the former, considering that (some, not all) people are spending an increasing amount of time with digital devices and online and that it is in the empirical encounter with these people that gives grounding to our conclusions.

PS Here are some nice reflections on writing an ethnography on digital subject matter 
PPS I reserve the right to revisit the subject of definitions in the future...

Monday, 9 November 2009

Shape of news to come

Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt recently looked into his crystal ball to anticipate the future shape of news gathering and dissemination. He admitted that predictions are difficult but here’s one version of the future (a project by a UCL coursemate’s former journalism intern) that could become standard. All he has to do is monetise it and bingo!

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The democratisation of intimacy

Here's an interesting video that's just been put up of ethnographer Stefana Broadbent talking about the intersection of the personal and work spheres at TED.

We just had a small session with Stefana at UCL, who took us through her ideas in more detail. In a nutshell, she started out by saying that communication by adults with their nearest and dearest fits with the attachment theory of clinical psychology, given the typical content of messages that pass between them. Thanks to new media, the reaffirmation of close personal bonds is now possible at work but that this causes a conflict (especially for categories of worker being paid for their time rather than knowledge). This conflict is not just being addressed at the local level by organisations but states are legislating against the use of such devices and platforms, using safety as  the excuse. This excuse just doesn't hold water (her extensive ethnographies within organisations bear this out) and is the pretext for a large incursion by all sorts of authorities into our personal lives.

It's all a bit controversial (controversy is something anthropologists do best) but observations repeatedly show that once workers finish assignments, they disengage and perform distracting activity whether smoking or stretching. Why not extend this to personal communications, especially bearing in mind that the average phonecall comes in at less than 2 minutes and that an average of three are made per day. Add to that the mental wellbeing benefits of allowing people to cultivate personal emotional links and bans on comms devices/platforms seem less sensible.

As an aside, such bans throw the hypocrisy of offices with beanbags and Friday massages into stark relief. They try to make the office environment more 'personal' but on their own terms...