This April you will find me at Theorizing the Web in Brooklyn (April 25-26). Drop me a line if you will be there; We can meet up or come see me present on the Curators of Sweden and Digital Anthropology.
Tweeting Sweden: Complicating Anthropology through the Analysis of the World’s Most Democratic Twitter Account
After completing my masters in anthropology, I spent six years working as a web developer, weaving together ethnographic methods and insights into the design and development of websites. In the Fall of 2013, I returned to my academic roots and began coursework for a PhD in anthropology to explore, in greater depth, the relationship between humans and the Internet. However, my experiences in the field have often grated against two common theoretical trends in the anthropological literature.
First, I have found the academe to be infatuated with the user and dismissive of the Internet’s designers, developers and creatives, except when those creators fit neatly into categories of traditional anthropological interest, such as the open source and free software movement (Kelty 2008, Coleman 2013, Karanovic 2008, 2012, 2010). By extracting the user bit of the digital and failing to contextualize user experience amid the greater web of connections in and among digital technology, digital anthropologists have failed to heed the important lesson put forth by Eric Wolf (1982) in Europe and the People Without History: “…the world of humankind constitutes a manifold, a totality of interconnected processes, and inquiries that disassemble this totality into bits and then fail to reassemble it falsify reality” (3).
Second, the concepts of online and offline have taken on a privileged position within digital anthropology. I have found through work with diverse users this distinction to be of little importance to most users and technology professionals and that the actual experience of Internet involves many states of being and experience that have little connection to the simplistic binary of online and offline. The entanglement of the online-offline concepts — including virtual-actual, online-onground (Cool 2012), and other similar reimaged and renamed online-offline distinctions — within anthropology seem rooted in three problematic areas in the development of digital anthropology: establishing academic validity (Miller and Horst 2012:18), making disciplinary or specialist boundaries (Boellstorff 2012:35, 45), and the establishment of methodological best practices (Boellstorff 2012:34, Cool 2012:24).
The Curators of Sweden project began in 2011 when two official governmental agencies, the Swedish Institute and VisitSweden, gave a Swedish citizen full and seemingly unfettered control of the official Twitter account of the Swedish government. Every week since then, a new Swedish citizen has been given access to write as @Sweden, to curate Swedishness for the Internet. Through the example of the Curators of Sweden project, I will explore the dangers of ignoring the relationship between designers, developers, and creatives and their users by exploring the subtle dialog between creators, participants, and users across platforms, media, personal communication, and documentation that has shaped the project and its users’ experiences. I will also problematicize the online and offline concepts as analytical tools by extending the analytic scope of this “online” project beyond its online-ness to more fruitful engagements with history, politics, business, and technology. I will contextualize the project into the history of Swedish Modernism and Swedish nation branding that shaped the creators’ choices in design, development, and platforms.