Monday, 30 December 2013

When anthro research and the media collide... can get a flurry of inaccurate headlines, followed by further media analysis pieces that take as their starting point those headlines rather than the underlying research. Especially in the holiday season when news is thin on the ground.

This is what happened to UCL's @dannyanth when his academic research found Facebook lacked cool among UK teenagers and blogged about it. The media used this as evidence to bash Facebook and claim it was in sustained decline globally. Then the recriminations started, when other journalists criticised this conclusion as if it were Danny's. This is Danny's response. I hope people read it, but realise that the media circus has moved on so the chances are slim.

It's a real shame that this has happened to such a significant piece of long term anthropological research on social media, which is just out of the starting blocks. The final findings are a long way off but judgement has already been reached.

It's also a shame because the experience will only make other academic researchers say 'I told you so'. They will keep their research from public view and the threat of misconstrual (which reflects badly on them in academic circles).

Perhaps there really is a fundamental disconnect between the anthropological/ethnographic approach and news media expectations / the news media modus operandi. Among other shortcomings the media has a bias towards covering quant research. This bias is long-standing because it takes less mental energy to understand than qual and makes for more impactful headlines. Where audience attention is in short supply, so is coverage of qual research (which is what made this BBC award for ethnography particularly welcome as an exception that proves the rule). Academic anthropological research is more nuanced than the (news or indeed long form) media would like, hence the selective reading of Danny Miller's work. Note the media fixation on the research's quant findings in Italy as if that's the only part of the research that proves anything, along with Danny's retort that you need to do the qual groundwork to provide the basis for quant questionnaires.
My three hats (ok, I only found
this two hat image)
Image: justOneMoreBook used under a
creative commons licence (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I'm saying this wearing my three hats (anthropologist, journalist and PR person) and as someone who has witnessed this dynamic for many years. However, in this instance the media takeup was largely inadvertent and I hear from Danny that he has been considering suitable popular formats for the publication of the research as a whole, where he will have more editorial control.

I'll be exploring some of the issues involved in releasing (applied) qual research into the wild in my next post, which is about some outreach that I helped the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC) conduct in 2013.

Postscript: 'Facebookgate' triggered lots of comment on Twitter and lists such as Yahoo's 'Anthropology and Design' group. Here are three worth repeating:

"Danny's comment that Facebook is "dead and buried" was an interpretation on its "cool" factor, not on its frequency of use or numbers of users....It's very difficult for something significant, though not generalizable, to capture the public attention. Why? Because we have so internalized the notion of statistical prediction that we fail to see things as important if they are not indicative of a massive change....The tragic outcome of this? We fail to see change until it's too late."
- Sam Ladner

"Perhaps someone should explain journalists, once and for all, that to ask how many people are thinking of Facebook in a given way, or doing things with Facebook in particular ways, is altogether different from identifying NEW WAYS by which people are thinking and doing things with Facebook. Not to mention identifying the differences between thinking and doing, in Facebook or else, that tend to show us all as a bit more flawed, contradictory, multi-faceted and ultimately A BIT MORE HUMAN and A BIT BETTER TO DESIGN WITH than a T-test will ever do."
- Pedro Oliveira finally a very well considered response from academic anthropologist Tom Boellstorff, which argues that ethnography: "is a question of meaning, of understanding ways of living, not of prediction." I.e. the wider public judges research by its predictive potential only and this colours what they are receptive to, with problematic consequences for disciplines such as anthropology. And a very different response from a journalist, which does a good job of explaining where the media come from and why journalists sometimes get it wrong.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Twitter and malaria: Joining forces to fight poverty

WTF? That was my reaction too as I read an FT article which came to the radical conclusion that Twitter and malaria are bedfellows in the global fight against poverty. 

This mosquito has shares in Twitter.
Image courtesy It's Nico under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence

Ok, I admit that I have heard the argument that connectivity alone can combat social, political and economic ills many times. It’s something that Evgeny Morozov has called technological humanitarianism. Got a problem with poverty, education or dictators? Throw some technology at it. Don’t try and understand the problem or worry about the circumstances in which the technology is deployed.

In discussing connectivity’s contribution to solving poverty (ultimately in an effort to justify Twitter’s share price), the journalist makes the general point that it changes behaviour radically and positively. He rehashes some tired anecdotes, for example the one about the African farmer using his mobile to find higher prices at market (no, I’m not sure about where Twitter fits into this picture either).

The anthropological evidence, unsurprisingly, paints a more nuanced picture. Namely in general terms digital technology often facilitates social reproduction rather then change. Specifically, anthropology has convincingly refuted the 'farmer uses phone' anecdote as myth. In other words, the journalist is wildly optimistic about technology’s potential to heal the world autonomously. Silicon Valley would welcome him as one of their own.

But Silicon Valley might want to reconsider the welcome after reading a few lines on. He maintains connectivity would do more for Africa than immunity to malaria in financial terms (and that the investment of well-meaning tech philanthropists such as Bill Gates into the latter is misdirected). That is far from convincing in itself given what I say above (and think about productivity gains from a healthy malaria-free population). Worse, he thinks a malaria cure would actually cause more poverty because malaria acts as a great population control mechanism in overpopulated countries, making it doubly stupid to invest in it from a financial point of view.

Even if all his previous arguments stacked up we need to ask him: Is money the only thing people care about? Even FT readers?

Anyway, I was moved to write a response that the FT published and an elaboration of it for the Popanth website.


A timely intervention from Melinda Gates about the myth, propagated by the FT journalist, that saving lives leads to overpopulation (see myth three).

She notes that anxiety about the size of the world population has a dangerous tendency to override concern for the human beings who make up that population.