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Product Reviews?

Regular readers of this blog may have been wondering about my brief foray into eyeglass reviews, like what it had to do with anthropology or academia or ethnography or any of the other usual content I post here. In fact, I have written product reviews on this blog before (see 'Product Reviews' tab above), mostly on hardware and software. There are two main reasons why I write online consumer reviews and how-tos. Firstly, I like being able to produce something useful that will draw in a wider audience, especially if I have had trouble finding something suitable or comprehensive on a topic myself.

Back when I was a PhD student, I often lamented the lack of practical hardware and software reviews for stuff I could actually afford (which wasn't much), so I gravitated towards reviewing free and open source software or hacks and workarounds to make basic computers/browsers more productive. My own field kit was mixed bag of old technology put to new uses. Rather than buying a bunch of premium and proprietary software, I immersed myself in the belief that there is almost certainly a free/low-cost way to do most tasks using one or a combination of open source or gratis software/web-based applications. The learning curve is steep, but worth it when you can't afford more. That's more or less how I got on to tech reviews and how-tos in the first place.

In a similar vein, I still notice a lack of academic-oriented reviews for products and services, especially cross-over consumer items like tablets, digital recording devices, clothing or field gear. I had trouble finding a decent academic review of the Kindle DX graphite, for instance. Most of my reading is qualitative where extensive note-taking and highlights are imperative, but other academic styles of working are very different. Plus, anthropologists need to know what's going to work for them in the field as well as the office (or lack thereof).

I was sure that I had bored readers to death with eyewear reviews, but actually my 5-post series on glasses has become the most popular on this blog to date. I'm pretty confident that they've helped people to save a lot of time, energy and money. I intend future reviews to be of more direct interest to academics, anthropologists, students, geeks or social researchers, but not exclusively. My next planned review will also be of an optical nature, but with fieldworkers in mind.

Secondly, I am working on some new research to do with media and consumerism, so consider the product reviews that appear here as a minor form of participant observation. Details will follow in the future, but there are more pressing things on my agenda at the moment. Just to be clear: I will never post pre-written "sponsored" reviews (read: robot spam) to get ad revenues and won't ever post anything that I haven't written myself and don't honestly believe. I'll also clearly state when I've been given a complimentary product sample to review.

A brief Urban Firewalls update (finally)

I designated October as my month to return to my PhD thesis to prepare it for publication. Given my highly unstable personal circumstances at present (not to mention ending the month with Hurricane Sandy and a prolonged blackout), I am actually impressed that I managed to start getting down to work. I am currently drafting a plan for the new book version which includes re-working the chapter layout and refining the ethnographic contributions, potentially adding some comparative case studies from outside of Spain, and more original material that did not appear in the PhD version. The PhD manuscript as it stands presents a detailed story about a small Catalan town and its highly localized responses to technological and urban change. By re-organizing the contents, I hope to enable the local data to interweave with a more universal story of humans and technology and contribute to a more comprehensive anthropology of the digital age. I have a new website where I'll post updates of the progress of Urban Firewalls.

New at the OAC

There have also been quite a few items of interest over at the Open Anthropology Cooperative recently. We started shaking off the back-to-school malaise with a new e-seminar and some great blog posts. In case you missed it, catch up on the seminar for "In and Out of the State" by Patience Kabamba. In his featured blog, John McCreery asks, what about society and culture have changed to make being a dick the road to failure instead of the key to success? I am surprised that no one has yet provided any ethnographic studies of bullying in the forum, but this is a question I will be returning to shortly in an upcoming blog post. The US presidential elections inspired this post about language and politics and this follow-up blog on election lessons learned. Speaking of openness, why don't anthropologists share what they know about households with economists?

Despite this fairly steady stream of new and interesting additions to the site, the subject of "stagnation" in our forums has surfaced yet again, leading us to re-question the state of affairs over at the OAC under the header The Rise and Fall of Social Networks. If you are interested in the politics of making a site like the OAC work and some of the ongoing obstacles we are facing, please join in the discussion. My response to that thread will give you an idea of where I stand on a number of issues as well as a hint at what I'm working on for the future of the OAC:

Some good points in this article, at least for thinking about a historiography of social networking sites. But then there are significant differences between social networks and academic networks, much of which have to do with return on time investment, volunteer labor and long-term objectives, not to mention power relations and status hierarchies that carry over from the academic world. Much of activity on the social web need not concern itself with aims, intentions or long-term goals. It's easy. It can keep ticking over until boredom or newness - whichever comes first - force change. Academic networks don't work exactly the same way. The OAC mixes both together, which may contribute to an identity crisis of sorts.

I don't agree with all the points made in the article about Facebook vs. Twitter. I actually think that Twitter is, on the whole, more active and powerful than Facebook. Facebook's modus operandi is outdated, the layout and structure muddled, its features are restrictive and its policies are confusing. Sure, for most users, a lot of this is irrelevant. Even Apple can convince people its products are inherently usable, which is patently untrue. Yet both of these companies are successful by closing off their markets and thereby normalizing clumsy technology and unintuitive interfaces. Twitter not so much. But I digress ...

There are probably more dead blogs on the internet than active ones. There are at least 83 million fake, unused or inactive Facebook accounts. I have emails that lapsed into oblivion over the years, websites that expired, and domains I never renewed. Is there any technology online that is not subject to simply running its course? This post, Why Are There So Many Dead Blogs, does a pretty good job of noting all the simple human factors involved. It's not only the technology that determines what network lives or dies.

Playing around on Twitter and/or keeping in touch with family on Facebook are not analogous to activity at the OAC. The first is fleeting and impermanent. The second is personal and intimate. The latter takes more time commitment, at least some critical thought, and the expectation of some kind of pointed exchange or response over time. We've tried to add site features that lower the barrier to participation (share buttons, twitter tab, RSS), but the returns on this are also quite low. The content that is uploaded without the requirement of reciprocity or response (e.g. "sharing a video", "liking" something, "listing an event"), is really incidental to any wider successes here, or so it would seem.

The more significant products of the OAC's concerted efforts - namely the Press - require investments of time and energy. They attract participants because they fit longstanding academic value models. Academics change slowly even if we'd like to think that new modes of communication make a qualitative difference to how we live and work. Hence why email has not imploded as the means for transmitting academic information. Mailing lists are still popular because they are semi-closed/private and simple. They do one useful thing well enough to stick around. In early OAC days, Twitter was a big deal for us: a real paradigm shift that led to the OAC's development in the first place. Today, no one seems that bothered to engage on Twitter. Perhaps that is a failure on our part as far as implementation, but it is more likely that Twitter no longer fills a communicative need for the OAC since circumstances have changed. The OAC Facebook page is now a bit more active, but still pretty separate from the main network.

We have had continual debates about what the site hopes to achieve or "do" - a mission statement - that would attract participants and be meaningful. Yet no one seems willing to take on a more permanent role in shaping the site. If the OAC is imploding, what's the precise cause and remedy other than lack of dedicated interest?

I have concentrated a lot on technical development at the OAC and I still believe that a deluge of content is preventing more adequate use and navigation of the site. I do agree with John that we need to streamline access to the most interesting content and like the idea of running a "best of" series that resurrects old posts to keep them alive. Instead of pushing for some "new" spark, we are likely not making best use of what we already have. I wish Ning made it easier to index and display old posts. I have sketches/ideas for site changes, but I am scrambling to keep on top of things at the moment. We don't have as strong a development team as we once did among the admins, and it really can't be done without wider interest.

We have been talking about these issues at the OAC in some form or another since the site's speedy launch in 2009. I am now committed to taking more drastic efforts to put an end to pervasive content-navigation woes in the hopes that related participation woes will also disappear. A few weeks ago, I began experimenting with site improvements for revamping the OAC's appearance, perhaps better termed "image". The OAC homepage hosted on Ning has been both a source of the OAC's successes as an academic/social network and a frustrating infrastructural barrier to expansion. I am working on some bold ideas that would involve making more dramatic changes beyond Ning. If the experimentation starts to look like an actual possibility, I will float the new ideas on-site for feedback. As I mentioned in the post above, any lasting effort cannot really be forged without wider community interest. If you can help in any way to make the Open Anthropology Cooperative a more effective, active and useful site for anthropologists to accomplish meaningful things, please volunteer your skills.

New to anthropology: PopAnth

The launch of PopAnth in September marks an exciting move forward for anthropology online. PopAnth presents snapshots of anthropological knowledge for popular audiences in online magazine format. It was formed out of a discussion about public anthropology over at the OAC. The team, including some OAC veterans, has really embraced the idea of opening anthropology and making it more publicly engaging. The articles are fun to read and really distill worthwhile talking points about what anthropology is and what it hopes to discover about people. Greg Downey over at Neuroanthropology sums up the motivation and intentions behind PopAnth, including samples of recently submitted articles and how to get involved.

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