Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Social Media: The Intersection of Sociocultural Anthropology and New Media

New media, including video games, YouTube, Facebook, blogs, wikis, mash-ups, et cetera, are part of the mediascape. The mediascape is one of five dimensions of the social imaginary, as stated by Arjun Appadurai(1999). The concept of the social imaginary was expanded in the 1990s from the original notion of psychoanalyst and theoretician Jacques Lacan that served to indicate the cultural practices and values of a particular culture/community.The expanded usage of this phrase by Appadurai is that the imagination is "an organized field of social practices" that exist as social facts-social structures and/or cultural norms that are external in relation to the individual. He indicates that the social imaginary possesses five different dimensions; they are ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, finanscapes and ideoscapes (Appadurai 1999). The term "mediascapes" refers to both the "distribution of the electronic capabilities to produce and disseminate information" to a large number of people as well as the "images of the world create by these media(Appadurai 1999)." Mediascapes are characterized by being image centered, narrative based and by their ability to offer a "series of elements...out of which scripts can be formed of imagined lives(Appadurai 1999)."

Various blogs are now paying attention to the mediascape and conducting ethnographic research as well as theoretical explorations of this sphere of human-system-technological interaction. Among those researchers are Michael Wesch and Brad Levinson. Michael Wesch is a cultural anthropologist and Associate Professor at Kansas State University who is working towards the creation of an ethnography of YouTube. He discusses the sites' limitations and its possibilities in a blog post that exhibits student work, responds to criticisms levied at the site and highlights the merits of studying entities within the cultural contexts which they inhabit as exmplified by Twitter, a micro-blogging platform. Brad Levinson, MA, previously of Georgetown's Communication, Culture and technology Program, currently works within the public affairs/strategic communications sector and discusses the relation between technology and culture by examining Twitter as a social-technological phenomenon. I have commented within these blogs and, for the sake of convenience I will repost my comments here.

Social Media and Social Anthropology, Part One:Technological Constructivism

I rather favor your perspective in that I also believe that culture shapes technology and applies technology so as to satisfy it's needs and desires. In addition, i think that these needs fluctuate over time and dictate the changing functions and formats of technology. The relationship, as you state it, is one of constant change that emphasizes quite heavily the impact culture has on the creation and usage of technology. This being the case, I find myself curious to hear more about the ways technology impacts culture. By this I do not mean to say I believe that t
echnology determines culture, because I do not believe that to be the case. I just find myself curious to know more about the ways technologies impact the lives of individuals, the minute components of culture.

Your discussion of how Twitter exemplifies the formula and steps within your post is well done and reinforces your thesis. It also provides an individual unfamiliar with that platform information on the cultural context from which it emerged and an idea of it's potential personal applications. As an individual user, would you be able to tell me about your experience and how you re-shaped/modified your life to allow room for Twitter to exist within it? Also, has your usage of Twitter changed over time from when you initially began using it? I find myself curious to know this.

Upon further reflection, I find these ideas of the technological determinist/constructivist to be rather binaristic. I do not think that operating based off of seemingly mutually exclusive dualistic principles can allow us to make great gains in terms of mapping mediascapes and their impact on culture, the technology and the individuals involved in the
ir creation/existence. In real life, it would seem that there is an overlap between these two perspectives in that the culture possesses unmet needs, the technology is shaped to meet these needs and the individuals then shape their lives to these technologies as a response to their personal needs. From this point I imagine that the changing needs and desires on the individual level change the needs and desires of the culture, that then in turn changes the technologies to meet these newly modified needs and desires. A discourse, as opposed to a simple give/take relationship exists between three entities and not two. Perhaps you meant to convey this notion in your blog and I simply failed to understand it, but I would be interested in seeing you highlight the discourse between the individual, the culture and the technology in future posts.

Visualizing the Mediascape(another step toward an ethnography of YouTube)

YouTube is only a small part of the mediascape. The criticisms levied at the site by those individuals on "The State of the Art" panel at the 24/7 DIY Video Summitt, as portrayed within your post, certainly did not seem to take this fact into account. As you point out, Henry Jenkins and Yochai Benkler do make mention of the fact that users embed videos into their blogs and other forums for public discussion and so in this regard they do address YouTube as only a component of a larger phenomenon. But, overall, it seems as though the time would have been better spent if the panelists critiqued the structural limitations of Y
ouTube while emphasizing users and how they cope with/navigate around these limitations. A deeper exploration and discsussion of how users interface with YouTube to create community and advance discourse within other locales would probably draw attention to how users impact the mediascape through their manipulation of and interaction with diverse cultural tools.

By looking at what the users are doing and where they are doing it, a web of inter-relatedness among various other components of the mediascape would emerge. This would both increase our understanding of the mediascape in terms of where it is and what is currently occurring within it more broadly. I believe it would also facilitate the mapping of the mediascape through the usage of static imagery.

You were absolutely right when you said "We think understanding this broader context of YouTube is necessary for understanding YouTube itself." We are better able to understand entities by exploring their structures and examining where they are situated within a particular historical context. Your ideas to map the mediascape and create an ethnography of YouTube are ingenious and, honestly, inspire some amount of admiration and envy within me [laughs]. As an individual who does not see herself as particularly involved within this dimension of the social imaginary, I'm extremely interested in learning what is occurring within this sphere. As a student of anthropology, I find your projects to be extremely enterprising and exciting, and hope that the field will continue to produce understanding in areas that it had previously left unexplored.

Appadurai, Arjun. "Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy." Cultural Studies Reader. Ed. Simon During. New York, NY: Routledge, 1999. 220.
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