ANT4133 - Ethnography of New Media

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The ethnographies which follow are selected works by students in the Winter 2017 term of ANT4133, “Ethnography of New Media.” Our course explored new media as topic and tool, by way of the research and writing of anthropologists. The goal of the course was that this would come to include the students themselves.

The term “new media” would seem to point inevitably to a process of obsolescence. After all, how long can something remain new? But (as I’ve noted elsewhere) it is better thought of as a moving label, with newness, at least in part, a quality of the renewability of media in general. “Writing at a distance,” for example, has moved from letters to the telegraph to computers. One may point out that letters are still important (we agree), which leads to the anthropological question, what do people do with letters today? How do they mediate relationships that are affective, capitalistic, institutional? This was precisely our premise: new media, now and yet-to-be, must be distinguished not in terms of novelty or as some set of devices, but by the relation between technical capabilities, and social and subjectifying characteristics. They present "modes of mediation that entail the technological,” as Hirschkind et al. recently wrote, “but are not reducible to it."

In class, students read and led discussions of three recent ethnographic monographs, studies of hackers and political protest, the image brokers of contemporary journalism, and computer programmers who are simultaneously white collar elite, and transnational migrant labourers. The anthropologist-authors present fine-grained, complex portraits of people’s lives through their ethnographic material, while also offering conceptual tools that help make sense of what are, in each case, existential shaping and shifts inextricable from new media technologies.

At the same time, students began multi-media ethnographic research projects of their own. They were asked to first observe and then participate in an online venue of their choice. In this process, they needed to produce a visual archive: a screenshot of the landing page from their field site, or a still from a video game encounter, for instance. After interacting in these spaces for around a month (some dated their engagement from much earlier), the students sought out interlocutors to interview. Although visual-textual interactions can be the basis of anthropological research, part of the goal was for students to get broad experience in ethnographic methods, and so here they were asked to do an audio or, preferably, video interview.

As you will see, the result is a set of ethnographies that is original and richly observed. In the construction of identities, virtual communities, and emerging forms of political and social participation, they capture what are still little-studied aspects of new media and mediation. In addition to substantive documentation, they bring to these topics historical context, and astute reflection on how this research challenged their previous knowledge and understanding of contemporary lives and the internet, as it will, perhaps, your own.

Enjoy.

Meg Stalcup,
Assistant Professor,
School of Sociological and Anthropological Studies,
University of Ottawa