“With the future orientation and the immediacy of digital production of cultural information, we can begin to reconsider the relationship between cultural knowledge and social action – not just a system for documenting and preserving, but an epistemology forever in motion, a repertoire.”

Wendy F. Hsu
In The Routledge Handbook of Digital Ethnography

Introducing The Collaborative Anthropology Network

All-purpose social research sites like academia.edu and researchgate.net have gained considerable popularity amongst researchers over the years due to the ease of use to host and share scholarly research as a personal portfolio platform with some social networking capabilities. The Collaborative Anthropology Network is a new social network and online learning platform specifically catering to anthropologists and related researchers. Coming off of the heels of earlier attempts like hcommons.org and the Open Anthropology Cooperative, the CollabAnthNetwork is re-imagined as a more field-specific, collaborative, and proactive place for new and ongoing discussions in anthropological discourse with a commitment to continuing development using the most up-to-date technologies that have opened up opportunities in collaborative and interactive ethnographic database design, as well as operationalizing research in the emerging field of digital anthropology that implicates internet and social media technologies more broadly.

The main site will include extended features of a social network: an annotation aggregator in user profiles for note taking and tagging across the internet, an optional blog in the user profiles, social groups for research areas within anthropology with discussion boards and built-in wikis, zoom videoconferencing integration, an integrated job board and service directory, an online learning platform, and a soon-to-be-launched research repository aggregator with social network integrations that will revolutionize how researchers share their papers online.

This document presents a broad overview of design research conducted for the site as a reference for actionable insights by defining the problem space and identifying user’s motivations, needs, and pain points. Writings of anthropologists working in the field of digital anthropology are presented as a set of guiding principles for an anthropological social network of collaborative research.

Discovery – The Scholarly Publishing Ecosystem

The current state of scholarly publishing is essentially made up of five competing models that researchers have to contend with:

  1. Traditional publishers rely on their brand name and scholarly reputation to lure researchers to publish through them for free, then sell multi-million dollar subscriptions to governments and university systems or individual papers to the general public for a fee (ProtoHedgehog, 2017). Offering very little in return to the actual researchers apart from meeting the demands of their institution’s publishing requirements to gain or maintain tenure within university systems.
  2. Institutional repositories (IR’s) provide long-term archival and preservation services for researcher outputs, but are derived from traditional library information systems rather than social networks. These types of services require institutional membership or affiliations to make deposits into or even to gain access. Some repository platforms are also proprietary technologies of for-profit companies, including several that are owned by traditional publishers.
  3. Open Access Repositories are built on the same platforms and systems as traditional repositories, but are designed to allow research to move more freely and openly as human knowledge. Despite the rise of the open access movement, traditional publishers maintain a firm grip on the legitimization of research within institutional merit systems and often charge in excess of $3,000 to forego making money on works to be published as open access, creating a system in which only those privileged enough to have secure academic positions and money are able to afford to publish as open access or deposit into an institutional repository.
  4. Institutional profiles and professional profile services provide researchers with an online space to post resume-like pages of themselves on sites run by scholarly organizations, academic institutions, and internet companies – particularly LinkedIn. Institutional profiles are only available to approved members of an organization that meet certain criteria and pay membership fees, or at the graduate, PhD, and faculty level in academic institutions. While these institutions may or may not have affiliated repositories, integration is often very poor and even as community-based platforms, social networking features are almost non-existent. Services like LinkedIn offer free and open access to create an extended professional profile, with network connections, recent activities, profile views, social groups, and article posting capabilities geared towards career opportunities and professional development. However, LinkedIn does not host or integrate well with scholarly research and is poorly suited for intellectual and academic activities that take place outside of job market and career objectives.
  5. Personal Websites are an additional or alternative option for researchers to publicly post their professional profile and research. However, creating a website does require a certain level of technical know-how and investment for web development, presentation design, and related service fees. All-in-one website service providers such as wordpress.com, wix, and squarespace make it very easy for new users to establish a personal web presence but their available site templates are limited to certain genres of sites based on popular demand, and that does not include research sites. Even when researchers are able to meet all of these requirements, they often have to make compromises along the way in the design and presentation of their research all in order to create a site isolated from any community or institution. While some researchers have established reputations and networks where they can advertise their site, others are left with superficially linking their site to established social networking platforms to gain a more rounded web presence.
  6. For-profit social networking services like ResearchGate and Academia.edu are free, geared towards research communities, make no demands on author rights, and do not sell access to research. These types of sites have gained considerable popularity among researchers over time. However, they follow the same for-profit “user-as-product” and unscrupulous advertising business models as many other free services on the internet and are able to operate as they are today by taking advantage of the legal grey zone of user-generated content in the posting of published papers in violation of the licensing agreements of many journals. They have also acted unilaterally in other areas by imposing their will on established research standards. For instance, academia.edu offers premium features that provides additional information to users such as who is reading your work, what their academic role, geographic location and university are, as well as the source directing them to their work are. Researchers have argued that this promotes academic class politics and hierarchical stratification and that it does not, and should not, matter about the ‘rank’ of who is using their work. Instead it is argued that it is more important to know how and why others are using their work, a service that scholarly tools like Altmetric already provide for free to the research community (and have made available through a REST API).

Much like in college sports, we see very little first-order gain through any of the existing models for individual researchers or the fields that they are dedicated to, even while they provide the bread and butter of multi-billion dollar industries. The current models each serve very narrow purposes for the researchers and require them to plan, implement, and approach these services strategically, and those choices are often limited by traditional scholarly gatekeepers as well. While institutional repositories serve vital long-term archival functions, services that facilitate research-related activities and that greatly enable the dissemination of research to a wider audience are not part of the traditional repositories service offerings, even while there is a growing demand for such services. This explains the great appeal of current research-oriented social platforms in spite of widespread complaints of their for-profit motives and careless disregard for enabling violations of licensing agreements. These services meet researcher-user demands by offering a social platform that allows them to:

  • reach a wider audience and gain a greater impact for their research
  • share both traditional and non-traditional forms of research outputs
  • provide a space for researchers who can’t afford to publish Open Access to widely disseminate their work
  • provide a space for researchers who don’t have access to an institutional repository or have an institutional affiliation
  • provide a space for researchers outside of academia who still want to preserve and share their research

Even so, many more researchers see these services merely as a social platform to host an online portfolio for the self-promotion of their research, rather than a legitimate place for preserving or publishing their work. We believe there is a need for an integrated model that preserves the scholarly standards that researchers and institutions have come to expect while also innovating outside of entrenched scholarly models to allow for greater collaboration amongst a dedicated community of cohorts.

User Analysis – Anthropologists

Turning our attention to the proposed specialization of the site and the issues faced by our target user group of anthropology researchers. The exclusive purpose of ethnography from the perspective of businesses and other professional organizations outside of academia is to produce straightforward, actionable insights that can inform near-term decision-making processes. Practitioners in applied settings are often obligated as a matter of professional relevance and survival to meet the expectations of business, working hard to deliver research findings that have been molded and forged to extract only what is deemed immediately useful. Thus, while the ethnographic toolkit has grown in popularity and use, its practices have been increasingly perceived as a straightforward and self-evident process that can easily be illustrated and learned using idealized notions derived from popular consumption of narrowed research findings that are often presented on request.

In their 2006 EPIC paper, “The Real Problem: Rhetorics of Knowing in Corporate Ethnographic Research,” Nafus and Anderson point out that by presenting pictures and quotes of ‘real’ people “as both data and performance of knowledge… a subtext of the presentation then became, take pictures because they show the real, which does not require interpretation or analysis. In this unanticipated way… we down play much of the ‘real’ work that goes into producing an ethnographic representation… as if it were butterfly collecting or train spotting” (Nafus and Anderson 2006:249). The misappropriation of ethnographic practices in this way undermines the purpose of the field and ultimately anthropology’s ability to live up to the true potential of its value-contribution outside of academia. Melissa Cefkin suggests that if anthropology’s analytical and interpretive paths are not vigorously advocated for, practitioners may be inadvertently presenting themselves as mere “technicians, problem solvers for addressing immediate issues, rather than holders of vital social and cultural knowledge worthy of broader strategic consideration” (Cefkin 2010:55). In this way, research processes designed as digital social events can be transformative for the users, the practice, and collective knowledge of anthropology itself.

This analysis demonstrates that must-have services and features that meet the user needs of researchers and anthropologists in particular include:

  1. Preservation and self-publishing of their work in a manner that is compliant with research funding mandates and publisher policies
  2. Easy to use and freely available user profiles that meet their needs and expectations for an online portfolio and presence as (anthropology) researchers
  3. Presentation of raw ethnographic notes and the foregrounding of processes of interpretation and analysis
  4. Organization of groups as fully-formed social gathering places around specific research areas
  5. Collaboration with other researchers on specific papers and projects as individuals, teams, and a broader community
  6. Ethical and established processes for tracking research dissemination and impact (DOI, Altmetrics, ORCIDid, etc.)
  7. Other opportunities for personal and professional growth and development

Guiding Principles of Anthropological Research of Internet and Social Media Technology Within Digital Anthropology and Design Anthropology For The Development Of The Collaborative Anthropology Network

Writings and research conducted by Wendy F. Hsu, Paolo Favero, Jennifer Deger, Haidy Geismar, and Hannah Knox, compiled and edited by Brandon Meyer

New and emerging fields within anthropology provides both comprehensive practical guidelines and an exciting community of focus for the establishment of a field-specific social network for researchers. Tricia Wang (2012), along with proponents of open access publishing (Miller 2012; Hsu 2014b), have argued for an open ethnography that is based on the distributed openness of digital media while invoking its democratizing potentials for reaching of a wider audience. Sarah Pink (2015) has explored the multimedia affordances of digital media, advocating for the digital and its ability to capture more than one dimension of sensory experiences of the field. Digital technology affords us the ability to radically transport, manipulate, and reconstitute research materials with ease. However, because digital production falls outside of the scope of traditional scholarly expertise, it represents an elusive yet potential opportunity for content-and-form collaboration between scholars and makers of digital projects including designers, developers, librarians, and archivists. With the future orientation and the immediacy of digital production of cultural information, we can begin to reconsider the relationship between cultural knowledge and social action.

Research events designed as digital events can be transformative for the individual browsing the site or for the collective knowledge of ethnographic literature as well. This transformation implies a process-based thinking to create cultural knowledge, rendering the unfinished idea of research as “in beta mode” (Verhoeven 2014, 216). At the meta level of scholarly discourse, the highlighting of the acts of knowledge production over finished products has implications for at once building up and breaking down the history of Western accumulation of non-Western cultural knowledge. Ethnographic databases allow the users, both researchers and readers, to continually engage with field materials. This dynamicism stands in contrast with conventional collections—in analog form such as a book or a journal article in print or ephemera in a museum collection—that are fixed and “museumized.” The reanimation of field objects can mitigate rarefication of culture, a risk that we take while creating any ethnographic representations.

However, what is often lost in the shuffle—between the many moving parts of these individual and collective acts of recontextualization—is a continual, close attention to the dynamic relationship between part and whole, object and context, content and form. In a digital production, decision-making is often focused on the objects with less attention on how meanings shift from one context to another. What do we do with the objects? How should we organize, group, and present them? Which tags do we use? Where do we place them? How do we organize the objects into a hierarchy? An overemphasis over objects and things could de-prioritize contexts. Diana Taylor (2010) proposes a theory about the digital while drawing on her previous work on the distinction between archive and repertoire. The digital, according to Taylor, troubles the dichotomy between archive—a fixed entity with a past orientation that is authorized by institutions—and repertoire—a live, embodied, and collectivist practice that is focused on the here and now. The reason is that the rapid transmission of digital information creates a “temporal dislocation [that] perfectly captures the moment in which we currently find ourselves in relation to digital technologies—the feeling of not being coterminous with our time—the belatedness and not-there-yet quality of the now” (Taylor 2010, 2).

This belatedness can be the foundation for thinking performatively about the emergent qualities of digital media. It is precisely the digital’s emergent characteristics that empower new forms of archives and repertoires, with an orientation toward the future. An explicit foregrounding of an interpretive perspective in digital expressions of ethnography widens the aperture to focus on the performativity of knowledge. Seeing what the knowledge does, instead of its ontology alone, can be productive. It can inform how we reconsider the digital and the interpretive role as we approach the making of digital ethnographic knowledge. In her well-cited article, Johanna Drucker (2013) highlights a theoretical distinction between ontology and performativity, a framework for rethinking materiality in the digital realm. Drucker’s take on digital performativity is rooted in an analytical commitment to examine digital forms of knowledge:

  • What it is doing interpretively?
  • How does it express an interpretive rhetoric?
  • How does it work within machinic, systemic, and cultural domains

Exposing its process rather than showing it as a finished product. Time-bound, event-based expressions of cultural knowledge can account for the dynamic nature of culture. This interpretive explicitness translates into design decisions that end up producing:

  • digital artifacts in their own right
  • social relations
  • ethnographic writing and representations

All are aspects of anthropological knowledge that invoke social particulars including time, place, and sharing protocols within the material parameters of digital expressions. An event-based approach to digital ethnography suggests a time-based, in-flux engagement with field materials, one that embraces liveness, spontaneity, and openness to uncertainties in execution. Drucker encourages us to create an interpretive interface that “exposes, calls to attention, its made-ness—and by extension, the constructed-ness of knowledge, its interpretative dimensions” (2013, 41). This also includes the authorial voice, which, according to Kisliuk, should be contextualized within the explicit conditions of a researcher’s inquiry and process. Displaying knowledge as partial and constructed truths produces material friction and therefore, a fertile ground for first-order anthropological exploration.

The flexibility of linking digital objects within a database environment has made possible a (near) synchrony among a multiplicity of research activities including organizing, sharing, annotating, analyzing, and interpreting field content (the Tibetan and Himalayan Library, for example). Made possible by the digital affordance of relationality, a multi-tier database has social ramifications. According to Geismar, “the relational knowledge fields converted into binary and remediated by digital technologies are not fixed, but rather are continually emergent out of pre-existing fields, power relations, modes of social engagement” (2012, 268). These projects highlight the reflexivity that digital technologies bring to the process of archiving in which the archive increasingly preserves a commentary or documents the process of archiving alongside the “original” material it contains. Such self-consciousness, or metadata, alters our understanding of what the archive is—not just a machine or system for documenting and preserving, but an epistemology forever in motion. All archives are responsive systems in which user experience or subjectivity is built into the usability of the archive.

  • This digital system affords scholars a time-space in which to engage with the iterative cycle of observing, documenting, organizing, field note taking, annotating, reflecting, analyzing, writing, etc.
  • A significant advancement in ethnographic database design is the ability to present field recordings and interpretive content—of both primary and secondary sources—in one space.
  • This multi-tier database structure invites the users to engage with content in exploratory and argumentative pathways.

Using query-based search functions, users can experience and explore the site based on metadata selection. This feature makes possible the comparison of field recordings across different contexts, categories, and demographics. The path through which a reader engages in each instance of navigation with site content creates a unique interpretive event within a specific time-space. Knowledge produced through engaging with the site content is then made into a productive, iterative exploration:

  • Re-engaging with the same content in a different order between items within a collection or between the primary and secondary source levels can generate performative results, making the experience of re-reading content active and participatory.
  • The performative nature of reading and browsing through different queries, phases of research, and various other assemblages of research would be amplified if the site gave the readers the capability to save and comment on their explorative paths.

My hope is that within these discussions, anthropologists may consider the digital not just as an information infrastructure or content objects. Beyond the technical considerations are important ramifications for how the digital can performatively remediate the meaning of knowledge production within the machinic, cultural, and social domain of our time and space. Thinking about what the digital does as an interpretive intervention materialized as an interface, event, database, and site of social action can help clarify our decisions regarding the form, content, tool, expressions, and potential consequences of ethnographic knowledge. We must also acknowledge that the dialectic with the viewers includes another possibility, i.e. that of generating, with the help of this very same platform used for communicating, new ethnographic materials. Viewers can today, as we have seen, actively interact with online materials, generating not only new interpretations but also actively adding new materials capable of opening up new interpretations. Transforming a space of display into a space of on-going production of ethnographic evidence, this practice might not be easy to manage and interpret; yet it carries the potential of offering an on-going form of participatory (crowd-sourced) data production.

Sensitive Groups, Research Informants and Cultural Advocates: Self-Representation and Privacy Concerns

We must reflect on the struggles over the appropriate uses of this type of data that may very well open up deeply contentious discussions about what data is, to whom it belongs and how it should be used (Gitelman 2013). From concerns over copyright and piracy (patent), to questions of privacy and international security (Amoore 2011), the issue of who or what produces data, how this data circulates, and to what uses it is put constitute important sites of politics. These issues come in direct conflict and challenge those who would presume that the participatory world-making should be driven by a free-for-all flow of information, endlessly remixed in intensified temporality of the now and the flattened, de-territorialized and avowedly democratic world of open access that many digital enthusiasts and theorists embrace (cf. Markham 2013; Irvine 2014). This type of acquisitive impulse could potentially lead to a retrogressive move towards the collecting and conserving imperatives of an older anthropology and an inherent disfiguring danger of wrenching these works out of the specific, kin-based networks through which they were made to move.

The ways in which some Indigenous digital archives utilize generic database systems to challenge the political sensibilities of the archive mirrors a broader tension within the anthropology of digital infrastructures that explores the relationship between local cultural imperatives and the global forms that increasingly co-opt them into recognizable generic forms, and raises questions about whether these digital frameworks either incorporate meaningful cultural differences or eradicate them (see Geismar and Mohns 2011). These Indigenous projects, often state funded, sit in tension with ideals of public access, constituting a newly differentiated public sphere which, while similarly resisting the privatization or archival material, runs parallel to the open access movement, in fact challenging key tenets of openness and accessibility (Christen 2011; Geismar 2013). This betweenness provides the grounds for the kinds of resonance that concern me here; and—together with the back and forth dynamics that it enables—it is this betweenness that provides the grounds for appreciating contemporary indigenous political and social investment in digital media.

For infrastructure studies to begin with the question – not what is a digital infrastructure – but when is a digital infrastructure immediately expands the ambition of digital anthropology from one of dividing the world up into a series of discrete sub-specialisms or multiple field sites, to the question of the power of relational assumptions that inhere in decisions about how to construct the world in which we live. The question “when is an infrastructure?” draws attention to the work that the appeal to infrastructure does, and requires not that we go out looking for concrete infrastructures to study, but that we attend to the operations through which digital devices, technologies and material arrangements become “infrastructural.”

This sense of digital media as both a profoundly connective and invigorating technology gives a defining focus, not to mention a sharpened sense of urgency, to the new forms of digital and public anthropology we develop together. However, we worry that the project might be taken as meaningless cultural mishmash by audiences accustomed to the somber ochres and magisterial presence of bark paintings. This project is not only concerned with achieving empowerment through strategies of self-representation but also with materializing concepts, possibilities and, indeed, a certain infrastructural respect for diversity itself, by generating an encompassing field of resonance. What if, rather than creating an archive of the already gone, digital media were used to orchestrate a renewal of life? To thicken and deepen time beyond the present? To fill the world not with data, but with a multisensory pulse of possibility? How to extend such worlds of kinship to others? How to use digital light and colored pixels not just to draw strangers close, but to disrupt categories and easy assumptions and so to clear the way for new affinities?

For instance, the “Gapuwiyak Calling” project worked as an exhibition for the aboriginal Yolngu members of the collective because they found a way to assemble individual media files into a performative work that simultaneously claimed ancestral authority and the possibility of contemporary global connection. A senior indigenous man with international experience as a dancer and leader of a performance troupe, Gurrumuruwuy was determined to locate new media within a continuum of visual and performative traditions that have their roots in rom (ancestral law and precedent). They found a curatorial tone that they felt suited the Yolngu trickster figure Mokuy—at once cheeky and serious—and an overarching design that situated this work not in the endless recombinatorial potential of digital remix, but in the particularities of a world made and marked by ancestral action.

The continual engagement with the changing content and form of ethnographic materials destabilizes the notion of a single human history; a concept based on linearity driven by and reinforcing the positivist ideology of modernist knowledge systems (Barkan 1995). The potentials for deriving new interpretive insights on a multiplicity of histories from the field documents, especially when given access to communities without previous access to producing scholarly discourse, can foster the emergence of new and nuanced human narratives with disparate time(s)-space(s) as origin and trajectory. With this, we can also begin to challenge the un-varied notion of the user and potentially design for the post-colonial user.

This analysis demonstrates that possible services and features that wold meet the needs of sensitive groups, research informants, and cultural advocates include:

  • Highlighting and advocating for works of self-representation and exploration
  • Highlighting and advocating for culture-specific interpretations of modernity, globalization, and the West
  • Offering private groups for cultural self-representation to recognized cultural organizations
  • Catering to diverse social media practices and culture-specific forms of knowledge accumulation, preservation, and dissemination as much as possible.
  • Advanced permissions and privacy settings for configurable user access
  • Forge new opportunities for research mediation and review with cultural organizations and advocacy groups, in addition to traditional institutional review board processes
  • Overarching terms of service and privacy policy that respects and empowers at-risk groups

Main Features and Services of the Collaborative Anthropology Network

  • Social Network
  • Online Learning Platform (service fees)
  • Ethnographic Blogs in user profiles (premium subscription)
  • Annotation widget (site wide except in profiles)
  • Annotation Aggregator in user profiles
  • Discussion Boards in social groups
  • Introduction and Resource tabs in social groups
  • Private groups for cultural groups (also available as a premium subscription)
  • Research Repository (coming soon!)
  • Job Board (service fees)
  • Service Directory (service fees)
  • User Donation and Fundraising Management (tbd)

List of Possible Features for a Research-Based Social Network

  • Interests (subjects)
  • Groups (topics: cultural areas, practice, theory, methods, organizations, schools)
  • Ethnographic Blogging
  • Discussion Boards
  • Private/Group Messaging
  • Extended Document Metadata (Reflections, Context, Raw Data) – future proposal
  • Saved Query Paths
  • Social Events
  • Zoom Conferencing
  • Recommend/Share/Bookmark User Blogs
  • Relationships between social groups and Documents/Posts/Courses/Jobs/Services
  • Peer Reviewing
  • Document Library in user profiles and groups
  • Document-level tagging (topics)
  • Sentence-level annotating w/commenting, tagging, and metadata (public and private)

Works Cited

ProtoHedgehog. 2017. “ResearchGate, Academia.edu, and bigger problems with scholarly publishing.” Green Tea and Velociraptors. http://fossilsandshit.com/researchgate-academia-edu-and-bigger-problems-with-scholarly-publishing/ (accessed April 25, 2022).