My SXSW Interactive Cyber Anthropology Podcast

The podcast I created for SXSW Interactive has finally been posted. You can find it here on the extended content page (bottom of the page). Or you can listen to it directly here.

This was the first podcast I have ever recorded and I did it all in one take!

Transcript is below!

Have you ever wondered what the staying power of your favorite social networking site was? Or, perhaps why over 9 million people play World of Warcraft? What about Twitter and why 140 characters just seems to work? Ever been curious about the explosion of webcomics, blogs, or podcasts? Or, perhaps considered what impact the Internet has had on your daily life? The lives of your children and their education? The lives of people all over the world? Ever given thought to how law or politics influences the web or how the web may influence them? What about intellectual property, digital property rights, or the viability of open source software? How about hot topics such as net neutrality, censorship, or the digital divide?

It is exploring these questions and more that motivates me, my name is Diana Martin, and I am a Cyber Anthropologist.

Just what is a cyber anthropologist you may be asking? Well, before we get that far, I’d like to ask you to take a moment to simply consider the question – what is an anthropologist?

Images may come to mind of the fictional characters of Indiana Jones (who was an archaeologist by the way), or Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan the pretty and smart, though a little socially inept, forensic anthropologist on the popular TV show Bones. You may even think of Margaret Mead, a widely known cultural anthropologist, and her controversial studies in Samoa. Well, stick with that train of thought as for each of these anthropologists, fictional or not, it is their curiosity of people that draws them to their line of work. Anthropology literally means the study of man. A simple way of looking at it is that never-ending quest to answer the question – why do people do what they do? In order to answer this question cultural anthropologists, myself included, do what they do best – study culture.

In earlier years, cultural studies have focused on the ‘other’ or those that do not necessarily share the same beliefs, artifacts, language, attitudes, and behaviors as ourselves. This resulted from the colonization of lands that forced people from different cultures to interact with one another, which of course spurred that burning curiosity of wanting to know more about each other for reasons both good and bad.

More recently, anthropology has shifted from studying the other to studying ourselves, taking a more scientific look at what we do in our sub cultures, communities, societies, organizations, businesses, or bureaucracies and asking why do what we do? As the Internet has grown more popular, many anthropologists have focused their studies online to ask this same question as it relates to online culture. And, yes! There is such a thing as online culture. Technically, there are several, each with their own language, beliefs, artifacts, attitudes, and behaviors. Just try explaining all of the abbreviations you use while talking online to someone who has never used email or instant messengers. Imagine showing a cat macro to someone who has never seen one and expecting them to ‘get it’. My personal favorite is to watch the eyes of my friends who do not play World of Warcraft glaze over as the rest of us start talking about raiding strategies or epic loot.

So now you may be asking yourself, how does one study online culture? Central to the anthropological approach of studying any culture is participant observation, immersion, and holism. Immersion being the way in which we immerse ourselves in the cultures we study so that we may be able to get a true sense of what it is to be a part of that culture and holism being a totalizing perspective where we take into consideration the context of the situation in order to reveal as much about it and everything that surrounds it as possible. Both of which are key to participant observation, where not only do we observe the culture we are studying, but also participate in it as well.

In addition to this we use several tools, both qualitative and quantitative, throughout our research including direct observation, surveys, interviews, and focus groups. Moreover, it is the emphasis of the anthropologist as the primary research tool, and the training we go through to refine our eyes and ears as research instruments, that is an important aspect of our methodological approach. Anthropological methods are scientific and we take great measures to be objective in order to avoid bias and to ensure the accuracy of the data collected. The strength of our approach lies more in the exploratory stage rather than in the later confirming stages of research. It is the discovery, finding the unexpected, being open to surprises, and learning the natives’ point of view that makes anthropological research worthwhile and unique. It is this entire process as well as the written culmination of these efforts that is known as ethnography.

Now there’s a word you might recognize – ethnography. Ethnographies have taken the social media world by storm, especially in terms of marketing and public relations. However, this has not had quite the positive effect on my field as one would hope. You see, the problem begins with the fact that many people conducting ethnographic research today have a lack of training in theories and methods with which to collect and analyze the data. You are likely to find these resulting ethnographies to be incomplete at best, completely unsuccessful at worst.

While yes, not all ethnographers need be anthropologists, and not all anthropologists consider themselves ethnographers, it is important to make a distinction between ethnographers that have an anthropological background with a specific set of skills focused on creating a holistic picture based on empirical studies versus those who  do not and fail to be able to provide true and unbiased insights as a result.

Now, don’t get me wrong – there are anthropologists doing just this. However, they tend to be few and far between.

Beyond marketing and public relations anthropology has also become a useful tool in areas such as human computer interaction, interface and interaction design, usability and accessibility. Imagine the possibilities when you marry anthropology to user experience. Many people, myself included, are doing this today. However, for all those that are making strides to bridge these two together, it seems to still be a widely unknown or at least unused practice! On the subject of design and development, cultural differences have begun to play a much larger part when it comes to digital domains especially in terms of our growing global economy. Those of us in application design are no longer developing just for an American audience and this is becoming more evident than ever particularly when it comes to things such as games, social networking sites, and software as a service. It is in these fields that anthropologists, if given the opportunity to use their skills, have a chance to really shine.

Another question that may have occurred to you is why? Excellent – you are already a budding anthropologist. Why would someone want to study online culture?

To reiterate, let’s consider the following: building and sustaining digital communities, privacy issues, censorship, cyber law (especially concerning copyrights, intellectual property and the buying and selling of pixels), politics, the digital divide (particularly how this will effect the education of our children as well as the work force in the very near future), practical business uses such as defining and mitigating the risk of introducing new applications, venues, or services to the digital world, user experience, accessibility, as well as several global applications both in terms of development (with respect to languages and customs) and availability.

This list could continue on and on with unlimited ways anthropology can be useful in terms of studying online culture. Now let me shift gears for just a moment and introduce a slightly different idea – that of studying culture online. What I mean by this is giving particular attention to the way one’s culture affects their view of the online world. Remember the concept of holism we talked about before? This is one of the ways it comes into play.

When it comes to studying culture online, it is important to note that there are in fact online communities embedded in specific national cultures. Questions we may consider are how are these the same? How are they different? What can we learn from them and how does this play out in an offline context? There is also the way communities online tend to be comprised of people who come together across class, sex, age, education, and cultural barriers. Many online communities form based solely on a common interest. How do people deal with these differences and overcome these barriers to successfully participate in these communities? What implications does this have in terms of communities goals and collaborations? How does the ability for people to come together online despite these differences affect their worldly outlook and their daily lives beyond the Internet?

With that in mind, it is important to make another point. A key contribution anthropologists have made to the study of online communities is in fact our holistic approach in relating the activities of both a persons digital and analog lives. These lives are not separate! Too often researchers look at isolated instances instead of taking in the bigger picture. We are not only our Second Life avatars, our level 80s in WoW, our Twitter or blog feeds, users of internet applications, or digital consumers. No, these are simply the digital parts of our lives as parents, employees, students, friends, families, and neighbors so on and so forth. This total picture reveals participants in cyber cultures as a combination of organic and technological – or, cyborg in nature if we take a chapter from Donna Haraway. While we are indeed creatures of social reality, this combination of us and the machine it is not so much fiction anymore. And, if we are to take into account Michael Wesch’s ‘The machines is using/us’ then in some respects the Internet is a cyborg too, as it wouldn’t be the Internet as we know it if we as contributors, programmers, designers, and users were not a part of it.

My hope with this podcast is to introduce, or maybe even reintroduce anthropology to today’s internet innovators and to provide several ways in which anthropology can be put to use to explore questions in terms of online culture and culture online. I would also like to reemphasize that I am one of several attempting to research technology and the people who use it from an anthropological point of view. Many of us, myself included, have backgrounds in programming or design in addition to our anthropology training, and have been involved in various Internet communities since their conception. Speaking personally, I simply love technology and everything about it. It is my goal to find ways to combine this love of technology, my understanding of it from a development perspective, and my curiosity of people into a truly holistic form of cyber anthropology.

If you would like to find out more, I invite you to visit my blog or to email me at Diana [@] And of course, you can find me on Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, Livejournal, and many more. Just email me for details!

Wesch, Michael – The Machine is Using/Us

Haraway, Donna
‘Manifesto for cyborgs: science, technology, and socialist feminism in the 1980s’, Socialist Review 80 (1985): 65-108.