The term digital anthropology sounds like a contradiction in terms. What could a discipline that typically depends upon months of patient, qualitative observation, and which was devised for the study of small scale societies, contribute to understanding the extraordinary dynamism of our digital lives?
The answer is that we often hear general claims about the impact of social media—that we have lost our capacity for real friendship or that our brains are shrinking. An anthropologist will respond: “but are these claims equally true about American college students and Indian farmers and Chilean copper miners?”
I recently published a book called The Comfort of People, based on research I conducted with the patients of a hospice in England, many of whom had had received a terminal diagnosis, most commonly because of cancer. The intention was to advise the hospice about how it could best employ new media. Communication technologies are especially important in this case, because almost all care is administered within patients’ own homes, rather than within the hospice itself.
The book tells of one patient whose first experience of Facebook followed the confirmation of her cancer as terminal. She used this new capacity to teach others about the experience of dying and repair ancient quarrels in her family. Another patient, a man who had worked in the IT profession explains how Facebook meant he didn’t have to inform each individual separately about his changing prognosis. But it also meant that in composing his posts he was acknowledging these developments to himself. At that time, his cover picture was a particular kind of selfie—one taken in a mirror—an exquisitely appropriate use of this technology to illustrate this simultaneity of revealing his evolving situation both to others and also to himself.
A layperson might dismiss these stories as superficial. But the anthropologist takes them seriously, empathetically exploring each use of digital technologies in terms of the wider social and cultural context.
I could only make sense of the hospice study, for example because I was simultaneously carrying out an ethnography of social media use in some English villages. One of the more surprising things I found was that even in this rural setting, where one elderly man died in the same bed in which he was born, many of these patients could become both isolated and lonely. The primary cause turned out to be not, as most people imagine, the decline of traditional community. Quite the opposite. It was the continuity of an English tradition by which people socialize in the public domain—the pub or the golf course, for example—but are very wary of entering the private home. The neighbors say that of course they would help, if asked, but the patient would never dream of becoming a burden by actually asking for help.
This ethnography appeared to demonstrate the essential Englishness of new media. In the villages, adults used social media to keep others at just the right distance. Having them on Facebook means you don’t have to invite them into your home or have long telephone conversations. As with traditional net curtains in the front window, you could observe without being observed.
But to suggest that this behavior is particularly English requires comparisons with behavior elsewhere—and in fact, my study was one part of a larger project called “Why We Post,” for which a team of nine anthropologists each spent 15 months in regions all around the world to examine the use and consequences of social media. Through 11 published volumes, the project documented the extraordinary diversity of what social media has already become. In a town in southern Italy, for example, where people have a fine social life drinking Aperol spritz in the town square, social media is not particularly important. But within a factory in China, one of my colleagues found that while the workers work, sleep and eat in the factory, everything important in their lives now happens on social media. In some places, social media seems like the death of privacy, but for these factory workers it was often their first experience of modern privacy.
There are 250 million Chinese factory workers, which means they are not some minor exception to the general claims we hear about social media. Once one considers the intimacy of social media and the regional diversity in its usage, it may be that digital anthropology is the only way we can actually observe and comprehend the new worlds that are being constructed today.
Or, to put it more simply, while corporations may develop platforms, it is people who mainly create the content, in ways that seem most appropriate to them and the societies they live in.