Anthropology Online: Github, Academia and Community

I think there may be a problem with anthropology, at least in its online incarnation. It has to do with intent. I hear from bloggers and discussions that there is a desire to ‘grow’. But what does this mean, what kind of growth do you want? On one hand, there is a growth in audience. More subscribers, more viewers, more readers. These metrics signify individual growth or promotion. Journals, magazines, tv channels, all try to encourage this kind of growth. On the other hand, there is growth in community. Some measures for this are more members, more discussions, more remixes. These metrics signify the growth of a group. Think of clubs, societies, online forums. In looking at the anthropology community I’m not quite sure what they want. To draw a more clear line between these kinds of growth and determine what the community wants I will elaborate.

Historically, if you look at academia, it encourages personal growth. You should write papers and get other academics to read them. Foster an audience if you want to be successful. There may be some amount of conversation within the writings themselves, but it is not the focus of academia. The focus instead is building off of each other (and in the process build a career for oneself). Academia is one kind of community, but it is exclusive and dominated by a focus on the individual.

However, if you look at open source, it is based around group growth. It’s main tenants center around collaboration and encouraging participation. The goal of the community is to have many members and incorporate the new as much as possible. Think of Github, the doors are open (anyone can join/contribute), collaboration is a key feature, basically it is made for group growth. Furthermore, cross-pollination between groups and disciplines helped it to grow. Having opportunities to collaborate with outsiders encouraged new and innovative content and techniques.

I’m worried that anthropologists online are saying they want group growth, but really mean individual growth. If you want to display your research, go to a conference, submit it to an established journal. If you want a vibrant community, start some discussions, do some collaborative projects. STOP thinking of anthropology as a purely academic discipline if you want it to grow (as a group) – invite strange perspectives. Profound discoveries can come out of collaboration.

Angela (of How to be an Anthropologist) wrote a great piece about the next revolutionary person or concept in anthropology. She suggests, “next big turn in the discipline of anthropology will be in presentation.” And I think this is an insightful point. I think the discipline must acknowledge as a whole that the way things are done must change if it is to grow. But I want to add that in the process of this change, we might invite the ‘next big thinker’ in anthropology into our community. Franz Boas himself got his doctorate in physics and studied geography.

Also, Ryan (of Savage Minds) wrote about “making anthropology public“, and spawned a promising discussion in the comments. I’ve written a bit there already. So I’ll just say that I’m a bit frustrated with ideas like Tumblr, PopAnth, CoolAnthropology. They have editors – let the community be the editors, let everyone speak. If group growth is the goal, please be open to completely new ideas.

Anthropology online is at a kind of turning point. Old practices that promote individual growth are holding the community back from what it could be. And it’s a shame because I think that anthropology has a lot to say. And as I try to study the intersection of anthropology and computer science it would be nice to be able to share and collaborate on my thoughts, but current channels of communication limit my ability to do that. I hope anthropology can grow.



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