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Web 2.0 – Marx v. Socrates (what would Sapir say?)

3 July, 2007

In early 2006, Andrew Keen published a polemic in the Weekly Standard in which he argued that Web 2.0 was taking us down a dangerous cultural path. He was troubled about the development of new Internet-based technologies that allowed just about anyone with a computer to be able to “to publish weblogs, digital movies, and music….to become an author, a film director, or a musician.” He warned of the dire consequences in which a world of millions of blogs would crowd out the informed expertise of the “elite mainstream media.”

According to Keen, the new opportunities for writing and creating that the Internet opens up eerily recall “Marx’s seductive promise about individual self-realization in his German Ideology” [sic]:*

“Whereas in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.

This — the cultural division of labor in capitalist society — is a matter that has long been of interest to anthropologists, at least since Edward Sapir published his riff on Marx and Engels in “Culture, Genuine and Spurious” in 1924 with a comparison of the empty existence of the “telephone girl” versus the more fulfilling life of the salmon-fishing “American Indian.”

First: what is Web 2.0? According to Wikipedia the term was coined by the O’Reilly Media Group in 2003 (and for a hearty guffaw of irony, read this post and the first comment about O’Reilly’s proprietary claim to the term for a technology that is meant to embody open access and an era of new intellectual property law). The NY Times defines Web 2.0 as an era of Internet technology “distinguished by a new generation of participatory sites like and, which emphasize user-generated content, social networking and interactive sharing” and which its proponents argue “ushers in the democratization of the world: more information, more perspectives, more opinions, more everything, and most of it without filters or fees.” (Check out anthropologist Michael Wesch’s brilliant anthropology-inflected explanation of Web 2.0 on YouTube.)

But, according to Keen, this “fantasy” is really leading to narcissism and is “inherently dangerous for the vitality of culture and the arts.” Rather than a utopia of democracy and self-expression, Web 2.0 is leading to nothing but “the flat noise of opinion–Socrates’s nightmare.”

This past week the New York Times reviewed Keen’s new book, The Cult of the Amateur, which extends the argument of his original essay, with reviewer Michiko Kakutani seeming to side with Keen on the problems with “a world in which the lines between fact and opinion, informed expertise and amateurish speculation are willfully blurred.” It’s hard to not feel a little cynical about somber nodding over the threat posed to “informed expertise” when this is coming from that most elite of journalistic institutions, and hard not to laugh when you’re an anthropologist who during fieldwork in Cairo met plenty of wire agency journalists who didn’t speak Arabic. Informed expertise? It seems at least as likely to thrive on the free-for-all web as in the elite print media.

For example, Kakutani decries the possibilites of “postings that are inaccurate, unverified, even downright fraudulent” on Wikipedia, which gets “way more traffic than the Web site run by Encyclopedia Britannica” [sic]. But it’s a glaring omission when any journalist compares Wikipedia and the Encyclopaedia Britannica without mentioning the Nature research project that famously compared the accuracy of entries in both encyclopedias. Was the finding of the Nature investigation an excess of “inaccurate, unverified, even downright fraudulent” entries on Wikipedia? No. As Jim Giles summarized it, “The exercise revealed numerous errors in both encyclopaedias, but among 42 entries tested, the difference in accuracy was not particularly great: the average science entry in Wikipedia contained around four inaccuracies; Britannica, about three.” (And Nature, by the way, knows how to spell Encyclopaedia Britannica.)

Then there’s the fact that bloggers have been responsible for bringing news to the attention of the world that might otherwise have been ignored or supressed by the traditional media. Let’s take, for example, the case of the Egyptian blogosphere. In October 2006, bloggers were the first to report a mass assault on women in the streets of Cairo during the post-Ramadan feast holiday that Egypt’s state-run media failed to report. As Rania Al Malky reports at length in Arab Media and Society,

“The incidents were initially met with zero coverage in the press and on satellite channels. Some bloggers alleged that Al Jazeera had footage of the episode but was given strict orders by the authorities not to air it. And so it remained for three days until Nawara Negm, daughter of leftist poet Ahmed Fouad Negm and outspoken Islamist thinker and journalist Safinaz Kazem, appeared on Dream TV’s magazine show Al Aashera Masa’an (The 10 O’clock Show) hosted by Mona El Shazly. Nawara was originally invited to critique Ramadan TV shows, but suddenly diverted the issue to talk about the Downtown assaults that were being discussed all over the Internet.”

(See also Sharon Otterman for an extensive discussion of Egyptian female bloggers.) So without the bloggers, the event might never have made it into the mainstream media. The Egyptian blogosphere has also consistently been an early source of eyewitness accounts, in both Arabic and English, of government supression of the democracy protest movement Kefaya, not to mention the means by which the movement propagates itself.

With Web 2.0 (and eBay and§) we may be seeing a new era of the ‘Long Tail‘ (or, as Keen pessimistically puts it, “everyone is an author, while there is no longer any audience”), but that doesn’t mean that we don’t still see talent rising to the top with new media technologies. It’s not only the traditional media and culture industry that are able to “discover, nurture, and reward elite talent,” as Keen puts it. While everyone may be able to create music and dance and post these online for an intimate audience (see, for example, my 3-year old niece perform the hula), not everyone will author an Aunt Jackie and get signed by producer Jermaine Dupri.

OK, so what happens when we try to apply Keen’s argument¤ to Anthropology 2.0? As I’ve already rambled long here, I’ll confine my musings to the anthropology blogosphere and let others explore visual anthropology on YouTube, the propagation of anthropology “brands” on the Internet, and anthropology open access debates.

A closer examination of the characteristics of the anthropology blogosphere suggest that it’s not so simple as a proliferating democracy of the masses. There really aren’t that many anthropologists who have blogs, and there are clear generational divides. Most of the anthropology bloggers I follow are graduate students or untenured professors. A lot of people seem to have started blogs in a bout of early enthusiasm for the genre, and then lost interest (case in point: AnthroBlogs). The liveliest blogs are the group blogs, since no one academic seems to have enough time to maintain the constant stream of intelligent anthro-related postings that you need to gain a regular blog audience, with the notable exception of the astonishingly prolific Robert Philen. (If you’re an anthropologist looking to join a group blog, it looks like is accepting contributors.) But I’m not an expert reader of the anthropology blogosphere so feel free to weigh in on whether my characterization does it justice or not.

Okay, so we have a generational divide. Is this because the older tenured folks are unfamiliar with the technology? Or is it because they have nothing to gain by blogging? It’s a “weird, emergent genre,” to quote a friend, that officially doesn’t count for anything as far as work goes (you won’t get tenure by blogging). But even if it doesn’t formally count for anything, it’s a place you can make a name for yourself outside of peer-reviewed publications. (I would never know who Alex Golub is if it weren’t for his posts on Savage Minds and that incredibly awesome picture he has in his ‘about’ page.) If hype and name recognition count for anything in the making of an academic career (do they?), then blogging might help in that direction.

But besides that, it gives you possibilities for dialogue and feedback for ideas that are running around in your head with a community way broader than your local little network.

I’ve already argued that we’re going to see more anthropologists use blogs as a way to write and publish their fieldnotes. It’s a place to try out works in progress. It also gives you a forum for publishing shorter or longer versions of pieces that you’ve published in other formats. (Sorry, I’m dipping into open access debate territory here.)

For me, one of the most fantastic aspects of the medium is the way you can link to anything you are describing. (Readers will notice that I do this to excess — it’s a linkorama.) It’s a different kind of referencing in which equal weight is given to the primary documents being discussed/dissected and to the authoritative peer-reviewed sources. But between the links and the comments, it also gives readers an easy way to evaluate your sources and critique what you write.

It’s not going to replace American Anthropologist, but I think anthropology blogging still has an interesting role to play in the evolution of the discipline. Thoughts?

* Is this really “informed expertise”? Because last I heard, The German Ideology was authored by both Marx and Engels. [back]

† The original quote (translated slightly differently) can be found in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, edited with an introduction by C.J. Arthur, New York, International Publishers, 1993:53. [back]

‡Go, NY Times fact checkers, go! Another point for ‘informed expertise’! [back]

§ According to Harper’s Index, June 2007: Minimum number of different books sold in the U.S. last year: 1,446,000. Number of these that sold fewer than 99 copies: 1,123,000. Can we say academic book market? [back]

¤ Confession: I’ve read Keen’s Weekly Standard essay but not his new book. [back]

◊ Everytime I see that picture it always gets me to thinking how I could come up with the same type of picture for myself. Would it be me in a nightclub wearing Princeton orange and black, with a belly dancer performing on stage behind me while I pore through Commodifying Bodies, N.Scheper-Hughes and L. Wacquant, eds.? [back]

L.L. Wynn

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 5 July, 2007 10:08 am

    Great post Lisa! Really thought provoking. An initial thought about this “weird, emergent genre” we’re participating in. Here in Australia at least (where anthropology blogging hasn’t yet caught on nearly as much as in the US) one of the core roles of academics, besides teaching and research, is supposed to be “providing service to the community”. This could be in many forms but I personally think blogging has a lot of potential for bringing academic thinking to a wider audience. And the fact that it is a looser genre means that we can express ideas in a more accessible way than we would be expected to do for “proper” academic publications. It’s the intermediate nature of blogging which appeals to me, and like you say, it’s a good place to put down those semi-formed thoughts which are buzzing around your brain. Although some might worry that this could mean a decline in rigour, I see the opportunity for more productive discussions as there’s much more opportunity to float ideas and see how people respond without feeling you have to commit to them, and defend them, as “your work”.

  2. 7 July, 2007 11:51 pm

    And I’ve just read a pretty scathing post on BoingBoing, about Keen’s book, where, among other things they write:

    The book’s a lot more fun to read if you replace every instance of "YouTube" or "MySpace" with "rock and roll," and pretend it’s 50 years ago and you’re watching scared old fogeys rag on Elvis and the Beatles. Or just imagine the whole thing being read aloud by General Jack D. Ripper.

  3. 15 July, 2007 10:22 pm

    Jovan’s point about the BoingBoing reaction leads us back to the anthropological dimensions of generation gaps. Sure, there is a generation gap within the discipline. But attitudes toward “participatory culture” tend to delineate a gap between two broad “generations” in the mainstream of industrial societies. Aren’t we used to this? Seems to me more like a cycle than like a new phenomenon.
    As for anthroblogging itself, there seems to be a slow increase in anthropologists’ recognition of what blogging may provide. The point about tenure seems particularly important to some scholars, especially those who live in hyper-competitive academic climates. But blogging certainly goes well with the move, in the discipline, toward transparency and dialogue. In this context, ethnographic blogging at least makes a lot of sense.
    We should never forget the importance of blogging and other online activities for teaching. Here, the concept of “generations” becomes prominent yet again. But it’s easier for us to keep in mind that many of our students already participate in the movement decried by Keen. After all the Powerpoint-with-music videos on YouTube giving out-of-context statistics about contemporary students, one would think that the dedicated professor will at least try to see how online participation may be integrated with both teaching and research.
    Sure, it takes time. But people eventually grok changes.


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