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Victims, volunteers and voices of the digital age

December 6, 2016

Figure 1. A widely shared campaign image calling for the release of Prita Mulyasari, one of Indonesia’s best known ‘ITE Law victims’ (korban UU ITE). Source: Hadin (2013).

Victims, volunteers and voices of the digital age: personifying digital issues in contemporary Indonesia [PDF]

Draft chapter to the volume Digital Indonesia. Singapore: ISEAS.
eds. Jurriens and Tapsell

John Postill (RMIT Melbourne)
Kurniawan Saputro (ISI Yogyakarta)

23 November 2016


In this chapter we draw from recent ethnographic and archival research in Indonesia to explore how digital activists in that country translate or ‘modulate’ (Kelty 2008) key digital issues – which are sometimes highly technical and abstract – to reach diverse publics, often with remarkable success. We argue that Indonesia’s digital activists have developed an effective pedagogical folksonomy in which three particular digital personas stand out, namely victims (korban), volunteers (relawan) and voices (suara) of the digital age. Each of these complexly mediated personas is endowed with unique attributes and located within a specific corner of Indonesia’s digital activism space, and each is integral to efforts to educate diverse publics about the digital issues at stake. These three ‘digital keywords’ (Peters 2016) may seem both familiar and mundane, but we suggest that the work of personification that they enable has significant consequences for the framing of ongoing civil society struggles in post-Suharto Indonesia. We conclude that whether a certain individual or group is labelled a digital ‘victim’, ‘voice’ or ‘volunteer’ makes a difference to the evolution and eventual outcome of a given techno-political contention.

Keywords digital issues, digital activism, digital politics, media advocacy, digital rights, human rights, volunteers, voices, victims, Indonesia


In early 2015 the British comedian John Oliver travelled to Moscow to interview the exiled NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden for a TV show. In the interview, which soon ‘went viral’, Oliver reacted to Snowden’s laborious attempts at explaining the privacy implications of the US government’s mass surveillance programmes by exclaiming: “This is the whole problem. I glaze over. It’s like the IT guy comes into your office and you go, ‘Oh shit — don’t teach me anything. I don’t want to learn. You smell like canned soup!”. The comedian then proceeded to ask Snowden a series of questions about the hypothetical fate of shared pictures of his – Oliver’s – penis under the NSA’s digital surveillance regime. By using his own private parts to explain privacy, his aim was to bring to life Snowden’s dry discourse (whilst extracting comedic value).

This hilarious exchange raises three intriguing questions. First, John Oliver correctly identifies a fundamental problem at the heart of today’s increasingly digitised power struggles: digital activism ‘nerds’ like Snowden are often not the best translators of key technical issues for a general public. For this reason, they frequently rely on intermediaries such as journalists, filmmakers and even comedians to communicate their political views (see Chadwick and Collister 2014). Second, and more problematically, Oliver’s gag reproduces the lazy popular stereotype of digital activists as young, white, male, Western ‘geeks’ (or hackers). In reality, this is a highly diverse constituency made up of women and men of all ages, races, nationalities and technical abilities, including people with no knowledge of coding or hacking (Postill 2014). Finally, it follows that the expanding transnational space of digital activism epitomised by WikiLeaks, Anonymous, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or Global Voices is itself highly heterogeneous. Therefore we must differentiate among its various sub-spaces, or fields, of political action, e.g. digital rights, data activism, social protest, institutional politics (Postill forthcoming).

In this chapter we take these three observations as our guiding lines. Drawing from recent ethnographic and archival research in Indonesia, we explore how digital activists in that country translate or ‘modulate’ (Kelty 2008) key digital issues – which are sometimes highly technical and abstract – to reach diverse publics, often with remarkable success. We argue that Indonesia’s digital activists have developed an effective pedagogical folksonomy in which three particular digital personas stand out, namely victims (korban), volunteers (relawan) and voices (suara) of the digital age. Each of these complexly mediated personas is endowed with unique attributes and located within a specific corner of Indonesia’s digital activism space, and each is integral to efforts to educate diverse publics about the digital issues at stake. These three ‘digital keywords’ (Peters 2016) may seem both familiar and mundane, but we suggest that the work of personification that they enable has significant consequences for the framing of ongoing civil society struggles in post-Suharto Indonesia. We conclude that whether a certain individual or group is labelled a digital ‘victim’, ‘voice’ or ‘volunteer’ makes a difference to the evolution and eventual outcome of a given techno-political contention.

Read more…

Public e-seminar on media practices and the radical imagination

October 23, 2016

By Veronica Barassi
via EASA Media Anthropology Network mailing list

We will be launching our next e-seminar on Tuesday 25 October 2016 at 00:00 GMT. If you are new to the list, our e-seminars run for a period of 2 weeks and they are vibrant spaces for discussion and confrontation on a specific paper.

E-seminars are free and open to anyone with a genuine interest in the anthropology of media. To participate please subscribe to our mailing list via this page.

For our 58th E-Seminar we will be discussing the following paper by Dr Alex Khasnabish (Mount Saint Vincent University) and Dr John Postill (RMIT University, Australia) will be acting as discussant.

On media practices and the radical imagination

The radical imagination is the collective, dialogic capacity to envision how the world might be otherwise that sparks between people in the context of generative, critical encounters. It is also the animating force of robust, radical movements for social change. What media channels does the radical imagination travel and what is their significance? How do these different pathways shape, facilitate, or constrain the radical imagination and impact movement-building? Drawing on research conducted with radical social justice activists in the Anglophone North Atlantic over the last decade, I explore the relationship between activist media use and the circulation of the radical imagination. I consider “media” expansively, looking across a range of channels and practices including documentary film screenings, social and digital media, community discussion groups, speaker’s series, print publications, and spectacles of dissent and resistance. I pay particular attention to the way that different media practices amplify or undermine the ability of radical activists and organizers to communicate with those beyond the ranks of the already-convinced. I conclude by considering important directions for engaged research in this area and the methodological issues they pose.

You can find the paper to download from our website

Really looking forward to the discussion


Dr Veronica Barassi
BA Anthropology and Media Programme Convenor
Department of Media and Communications,
Goldsmiths, University of London

Political culture keywords: exploring the media practices of social movements that are worlds apart

October 23, 2016

Proposed abstract to the special issue of Media, Culture and Society on “Media, political cultures and social movements”, Veronica Barassi, Alice Mattoni and Anastasia Kavada (eds.).

John Postill (RMIT)
23 October 2016

The concept of political culture offers scholars of media and social movements a powerful way to overcome the field’s traditional neglect of cultural specificities. This concept must, however, be handled with care to avoid both ahistoricism and sociocultural determinism (the evil twin of technological determinism). With this note of caution in mind, the present essay proposes an approach to the holistic study of social movements and their technological mediations inspired by Williams’ (1976) classic Keywords, Peters’ (2016) Digital Keywords remake and Sewell’s (2005) theory of historical change. I propose the urgent compilation of culture-specific political vocabularies from the ground up, i.e. by drawing from vernacular resources along six lines of inquiry: actors, practices, media, divides, trends and events. The resulting glossaries would provide scholars with rich spaces of dynamic relationality in which to locate particular activist groups or movements and their media practices. These glossaries would then be amenable to historical comparisons within the same political culture or to cross-border comparisons with coeval ones elsewhere. I briefly exemplify this approach by sketching the 2004-2016 trajectories of digital rights activists operating within the Spanish and Indonesian political cultures, whose respective sets of keywords are – not surprisingly – worlds apart.

Notes on the 14th digital ethnography reading (Haynes 2016)

October 18, 2016

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Haynes, N. (2016). Social Media in Northern Chile. London: UCL Press.

Summary of Chapter 3, “Virtual posting: the aesthetics of Alto Hospicio”, by John Postill

Introduction. p. 63. Visual homogeneity in Alto Hospicio (AH), northern Chile. Intriguing phrase: ‘normativity calls no attention to itself’, not even on Facebook. Aesthetics is the key to understanding citizenship, p. 64 – ‘it produces a certain form of citizenship’ [JP: what form? this point not developed in chapter].

Instagramming the uninteresting. p. 64. Selfies a good place to see ‘aesthetic normativity of social media’ in AH. Locals don’t do glamour, only minimal staging and effort put into it. Humorous take on narcissistic selfie, e.g. ‘footie’ (shared pictures of people’s feet), p. 66 which is just as normative as all else. p. 69 They capture the boredom of daily life in their photos. p. 70. Photo relation change in AH: from expensive recording of experience to cheap enhancing of it. p. 73. Very different from artie Instagram pictures of Santiago middle class.

Daily life and social class on social media. p. 76. AH people play down class/wealth differences, seen as ‘distasteful’. p. 77 Instead they stress commonalities, no stigma if poor or impoverished, e.g. someone who can no longer afford the internet. p. 78 They just laugh about it, e.g. with memes – p. 79 shared self-mockery. p. 79 Lilia uses Facebook to ‘patrol the boundaries of normativity’ e.g. stingy people who won’t share. [JP. Tensions, contradictions and conflict downplayed in this chapter?].

The joys of mediocrity. p. 79 They also perform their lack of life chances and aspirations. p. 80 memes once again. In 2014 Kermit the Frog memes all the rage. p. 82 In June-July 2013 contrast reality vs. aspiration memes were trendy, incl. health, body image, education (p. 85). Okay as long as ‘non-threatening to the core values at stake’ (p. 85).

Rethinking normative aesthetics. p. 86 There is a shared social script in AH. p. 87 Social media extends, not at odd with, daily life.

Seminar notes by Sharon Greenfield
PhD candidate, Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC)
RMIT University, Melbourne

The RMIT DERS group had the pleasure of reading and discussing Chapter 3 of Social Media in Northern Chile by Nell Haynes in the Why We Post Series on Sept 14th 2016 followed by a Q&A with the author via Skype from Chicago.

Within the discussion, the group had varying perceptions of the written text, and found it an interesting exercise in ethnography even though the book series itself intentionally does not engage with social media academic literatures. Because the group read only the one chapter, many of the inquiries we had were, according to the kind and informative conversation with the author, answered and had more depth of context in the other chapters. The main themes that the group picked up on and discussed were normativity and neoliberalism, context of objects, methodological clarity and analysis.

Normativity and neoliberalism

And for all the author’s expression of ‘normative’ aesthetics in Alto Hospicio, the group felt that there were undoubtedly underlying aesthetics there, just that they were not easily recognisable. For example, some wondered what were the different ways the miners represented themselves in clothes and image; since as a practice it’s often to the unfocused eye a very normative aesthetic, yet upon ethnographic research there can be found many differentiating aspects.

We also discussed the context behind this ‘normative’ aesthetic. The group wondered about the impact of the history of the area on social media usage, as a Chilean former area of protest against the military dictatorship of Pinochet ending in the early 90s. How did the area with socialist leanings, an economy based on mining workers, and a history of disappearances and tortures during the dictatorship have an effect on this ‘normativity’ and their social media use? Did what the author considered mundane or unassuming have a very real historically cultural reasoning behind it?

However, some felt that neoliberalism was an easy cop out. The ‘too neatly into the box of normativity’ conversation came up repeatedly, and how the conclusion was achieved. The group felt they wanted more of an analysis, and felt the ‘normative’ analysis a bit too easy.

From talk with the author the group found out that the introduction of the report itself set a tone for otherness which was missing in this chapter. The introduction set the scene well that the comradery with each other is an important value and in other chapters (6), the author does speak about class differences and other distinguishing factors even while painting the collective social identity as marginalised.

The group felt that, as image is part of practice, by focusing on image without the practice as context that it made the chapter feel a bit objectivist, and took for granted a lot of things which made the conclusions troubling.

While the author suggested that ‘humorous memes are important to Hospiceños because they allow for play’, the reading group felt that it’s the defining attribute of memes, not the culture, that allows for memes being OK to be over the top. So the data analysis of images here was questioned. However some in the group reminded that the author herself stated that memes were not performative, because they are by definition not an individual expression; they represent a collective feeling that can make individuals possibly seem less vulnerable. It’s just that the author felt that the memes ‘reinforced the sense of normativity, regardless of whether the individual feels constrained or comforted by it.’

Context of objects

In response to the objects themselves, the group questioned the chapter’s imagery and hashtag interpretation. While much of it is described as mundane, many felt that the context for the object making (FB or IG photos for example) was missing which was important to understanding the object. The group felt that the aesthetic interpretation of the objects were either unnecessary or incomplete in fully understanding the real data behind the objects/images.

For example, for the ‘footie’ images, some in the group felt that the context of the room, the environment, the weather, the room furniture, the actual individual, others in the room, and more factors were incredibly important context to the images themselves. And in addition, the very act of posting pictures – since not everyone has access to do so in their social-economic reality – the act itself was already was out of the mundane. Posting an image is just a tiny part of the image itself and oftentimes include a context that changes the significance or meaning to an image.

Methodological clarity and analysis

The group did wonder how far the author was embedded into the field site as it felt some of the findings seems to just grasp the veneer of the culture. For example, Chileans are known to have a specific sense of humour. There is often a sense of cultural self deprecation, which layers a context to many things they say and do. The group wondered if the researcher noticed this.

The author agreed there was often a joke, and that the participants would joke and then explain the joke to her in terms of context and meaning to them.

The author explained that in regards to the methodology, that at some point people stop being suspicious of you as a researcher and saying hello to the same people every morning was a way to mitigate the suspicious and quicken the immersion. Another way to immerse she did by living with a mining family for a few months.

Nell explained that the town Alto Hospicio in Northern Chile was very functional, and to her had a non aesthetic environment which seems to reflect on the people. She noted that they were proud of making fun of their citizenship as Chileans – that self deprecation was a big part of their cultural identity. And that their citizenship was closely connected to their class identity of being a hard worker; being a real Chilean meant feeling the solidarity of the hardworking middle class, not having a lot of access to luxury, being fine with marginalisation and this was reflected through the images they put on social media in that little was scripted or heavily edited and the production practice was very simple.

In closing, the reading group thought that the chapter and book within the context of the Why We Post series, including the comparative book, was thought-provoking and aimed at a general, non-specialist audience.

We very much appreciate the author for taking the time to converse with the reading group and answer many of the questions we had.

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Spain’s current political impasse

October 13, 2016

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Yesterday, 12 October 2016, I took part in a seminar titled “Resolving Spain’s political deadlock” held at my home institution, RMIT University, in Melbourne. I presented alongside Marta Poblet and Antonio Castillo, both from RMIT. We each spoke for about 15 minutes and there was a lively discussion with the attendees. Here’s a blurb announcing the event:

Spain’s political deadlock continues… In this seminar, Spanish and Australian experts from the Centre for Communication, Politics and Culture (CPC), the Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC) and the European Union (EU) Centre at RMIT University, will make an attempt at unlocking some of the issues behind the political crisis in Spain and its impact.

And here is a rough version of my handwritten presentation notes, pictured above (with many thanks to Elisenda Ardevol, Arnau Monterde, Ismael Peña-López, Laura Pérez Rastrilla and Annalisa Piñas for their views and suggested readings prior to the talk – any errors and omissions related to these responses are my own).


Seen from a Spanish civil society perspective, the current political impasse in Spain arguably the third in an ongoing series that started in 2004 with the Madrid bombings, followed in 2011 by the 15M (indignados) protests and now in 2015-2016 as a result of the irruption of two young political parties, Podemos and Ciudadanos, onto the parliamentary scene, putting an end to the till now seemingly eternal two-party arrangement by the Conservatives (PP) and Socialists (PSOE). All three have contributed to the end of the ‘PPSOE’ (to use a favourite 15M term) duopoly we have witnessed since the Dec 2015 general elections.

At stake is the end of what the Catalan journalist Guillem Martinez calls Spain’s ‘transition culture’ (Cultura de la Transición, or CT): the post-Franco regime based on a broad consensus among the main political parties (from right across the ideological spectrum) and trade unions around territorial integrity, regional autonomies, fighting ETA, joining the European Community and NATO — with a ‘market economy’ as the only possible economic system. In exchange for a place at the top table, the political left deactivated its mobilisation power, whilst the leftist cultural sector blunted its critical edge so as to secure state subsidies. The outcome was stability, a docile population and substandard cultural products. As a sociocultural anthropologist I cannot but be drawn to Martinez’s CT model.

I argued that there are 5 main forces for change in Spain, in no particular order:

  1. Podemos, now 3rd party, yet lost votes in second election when joined United Left = Unidos Podemos. Current dispute between Pablo Iglesias faction (pablistas) and his deputy Íñigo Errejón faction (errejonistas). Iglesias the upper hand at present, took a leftist turn, went down to grassroots (circles) and reasserted his charismatic leadership. Meanwhile Errejón reeling from aborted ‘coup’ and his moderate stance towards PSOE now discredited given that PSOE seem ready to abstain so that the Conservative (PP) leader can become once again PM (see Esther Palomera analysis, 10 Oct 2016, in Spanish).
  2. New local governments rooted in 15M (indignados) movement in Madrid, Barcelona and other major cities. Extraordinary democracy labs, social justice agenda, trying to curtail worst of neolib capitalism. Not a lot of people know about them outside Spain. Important not to reduce politics to national level.
  3. Occupational or industry-specific movements known as ‘tides’ (mareas), e.g. health, education, etc. born once again from the 15M protests and filling the gap left a long time ago by co-opted trade unions like UGT or CC.OO. – though some argue that they haven’t achieved much (text in English).
  4. Politicised nerds, polnerds for short, i.e. people who like to mix their politics with their tech, aka freedom technologists. Spain boasts an extraordinarily vibrant techno-political scene, with a large variety of initiatives in four main domains of political action: digital rights, social protest, data activism and institutional politics, e.g. former activists like Gala Pin or Pablo Soto who are now local councillors or political newbies (in English).
  5. Catalan secessionists, a grassroots mass movement (like Scotland) that kicked off in earnest in 2010. PP viscerally anti-Catalan, PSOE too dependent on Southern voters to contemplate concessions to Catalan national aspirations, Podemos is unionist but accepts notion of pluri-national state, open to federal model. Secessionists currently in power at the regional level, calling for referendum on self-determination, but always thwarted by Madrid.

… pitted against 4 status quo forces:

  1. PP (Spain’s Conservatives) led by Rajoy. Corruption scandal ridden, now finally reaching the courts, after backbreaking efforts by techno-political activists, or polnerds. By millions of Spaniards, and against all the evidence, seen as the only guarantors of stability of economic growth, and the only party able to keep the allegedly Marxist-Bolivarista threat of Podemos at bay.
  2. PSOE (Socialists):  excellent piece (in Spanish) by historian Juan Andrade, 3 Oct 2016: current leadership crisis, with abrupt departure of leader Pedro Sanchez, is 1978 regime crisis (see CT above) – PSOE weakened in regions, too dependent on Southern voters who against plurinational model of Spanish state favoured by Podemos – old regime now coming to an end based on PP-PSOE consensus on fundamental issues but faux ideological bickering – PSOE has imploded – in both 1979 and 2016, Felipe Gonzalez in the thick of it, key to both – crisis caused by rapid ascent of youthful force from the left then and now (Podemos) – conflict between those who don’t acknowledge Podemos and those unsure what to do – Sanchez tried nostalgic return to old, pre-15M regime, wishful thinking about going back in time – though relatively young, his change discourse not persuasive, too contrived.
  3. Tamed, co-opted, corrupt trade unions (see above).
  4. New centre-right, neolib party Ciudadanos, led by Albert Rivera, Catalan but staunchly anti-secessionist. Presenting themselves as the equally youthful, non-threatening answer to Podemos, in reality they are just the old 1978 regime in new garb.

Cartoon credit: Pedripol


Creating and debating Harari identity over the internet

August 27, 2016 is the tenth (10th) set of notes under the theme of media and change in preparation for the volume Postill, J., E. Ardevol and S. Tenhunen (eds.) forthcoming, Digital Media and Cultural Change. The notes are taken from a wealth of media anthropological research into this question over the decades that has remained to this date largely hidden from mainstream media, communication and internet studies. This research deserves to be read more widely.

Notes prepared by Fran Barone (my emphases)Flag of Harari Region
Used with permission.

Gibb, Camilla (2002) “Deterritorialized people in hyperspace: creating and debating Harari identity over the internet” Anthropologica (New Series) 44(1): 55-67.

The Harari (Muslim Ethiopians from the city of Harar) are “invoking a new language of nationhood in order to give shape to a now dispersed community” by using new media to create a sense of national identity via email lists and websites for people in diaspora. In 1991, Ethiopians abroad celebrated the revolutionary displacement of the socialist dictatorship (Dergue) that had ruled the country for 2 decades and committed many human rights atrocities causing mass population displacement (p. 55)

Hararis in Ethiopia are excluded from this technological process due to lack of access (p. 56)

This paper draws on 3 years of multisited fieldwork in Harar and Toronto (online and offline), including discussions on the email list H-Net. H-Net requires “nomination by one or more Harari ‘brothers’ or ‘sisters’, which means that to some extent, this virtual community is founded on real-world connections” (p. 57).

The process of Harari migration and political unrest in Ethiopia: p. 57-59.

Communication within the Harari diaspora community takes place via the Internet, at soccer competitions and cultural festivals. H-Net, est. 1996, is one of the most popular mailing lists among teenagers and young adults (p. 60).

Young people born and raised in diaspora feel little desire to “return” to Harar. “Young Hararis who have had limited direct contact with the actual city of Harar are engaged in redefining community and identity in the global and largely impersonal arena of cyberspace, a space which largely excludes both elders in the diaspora and Hararis in the homeland” (p. 60).

Many diaspora Harari find religion (Islam) to be the most important factor of identity (p. 60). There is some confusion over the key features specifically Harari identity in diaspora beyond Islam (p. 61).

“Where members of their parents generation see return to Harar as a moral imperative, the discussion of repatriation among youth on H-Net is voiced primarily as a response to the perceived fears of increased racism and anti-Muslim sentiment in the US [and] Canada” (p. 62) “The notion that their rightful place is back in the city of Harar is reinforced by the perceptions of racism against Muslims in North America” (p. 63).

Younger people find more support/ contemporary sense of community in adopting a pan-Muslim identity and dress within the US than a specifically Harari one. Through Muslim discourse, Hararis can take on simultaneous identities (p. 64). “While young Hararis in disapora appeal to the idea of Harari as a nation, it is at the level of the nation-states, Ethiopian, and American and Canadian that reconciling multiple identities appears to be problematic” (p. 64)

Image credit: Wikipedia

Notes on the 13th digital ethnography reading (Takhteyev 2012)

August 22, 2016

Update 9 Sep 2016. @Liberationtech wrote: Why Silicon Valley is having trouble exporting its best practices$_35.JPG

Takhteyev, Y. (2012). Coding Places: Software practice in a South American city. MIT Press.

Notes by Tresa LeClerc
Non/fiction Lab and Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC), RMIT University, Melbourne

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In the August 2016 Digital Ethnography Reading Session (DERS), we discussed the introduction to Yuri Takhteyev’s book Coding Places: software practice in a South American city entitled ‘The Wrong Place.’ The chapter starts with a question “Why would you come from California to Rio de Janeiro to study software developers?” The group agreed this was a highly intelligent, well-written introduction to Takhteyev’s research. At times trained anthropologists can get paralyzed with the weight of the tradition, but he seems to be both aware of it and depart from it. Takhteyev showed an excellent balance between what he said about himself, his context, which was Brazil, and the theory. Several talking points were discussed in depth:

  1. Centre vs. periphery
  2. Ethnomethods
  3. Language in Coding

Centre vs periphery

Takhteyev’s research brings back the concept of knowledge being centralised as opposed to peripheral. His study takes us to Rio and centres in Rio, and how they have created their own niche in knowledge production. He discusses how culture is disseminated and thus brings back in the concept of diffusion rather than assimilation. Anthropology abandoned diffusion in the face of Malinowski’s fieldwork focus, and began to look at local ideas and cultures rather than cultural hierarchies. One problem could be the difference between dispersed practices and integrated practices. Takhteyev’s discussion of practice is quite general in the context of ‘worlds of practice.’ It is not clear that worlds of practices will travel better than single practices, which can diffuse more easily than an entire world. Is it even possible to have a global world of practice?


‘Ethnomethods’ was an interesting point in this introduction. Takhteyev learns, from within, things that work and don’t work within the Rio coding community. There is a point where he understands that the interviews aren’t giving him the full picture. He then starts running his own project on the Wiki, making himself useful to coders. After, there is a turning point where he becomes useful, a form of active participation, which provides him “with a partial solution”. It is interesting that he notes it is not complete access. We discussed this in relation to fieldwork and the way we understand things, first as researchers and then as participants. One of the group brought up the analogy of driving. “Until you become a driver,” he said, “it’s very mechanical. Then there is a point when you’re not thinking about it too much. Once you know how to do it, it’s very hard to bring up to consciousness,” noting that fieldwork can become more difficult to articulate once you get it. Following on from this, the argument that different types of engagement bring different kinds of knowledge was brought up, with the example of the Arab Spring and how the people that were on the ground did not know exactly what was happening because they were in a specific place, though the political scientists monitoring the situation had access to a range of sources of information and made different predictions. Thus, we discussed the differences between insider information, which runs the risk of being bound by empathy, and outsider information, with access to the big picture. As researchers we need to balance our empathy, for the experiences and perspectives of our informants, with other considerations such as other viewpoints and long-term consequences.


Perhaps the most lively discussions of the meeting were sparked by the issue of language within Takhteyev’s observations of the coding community. Takhteyev not only learned Portuguese in the course of his research, but also the coding language. Lua, the program used by the coders in Rio, primarily uses English. However, the group wondered if this was representative of the entire coding community. Is all coding in English? If you read Kelty (2008), who talks about the global software movement and cultural significance of free software, you get the impression that this is global, that this ‘global community’ speaks English. Yet this is not true, nor is this discussed with reference to place (as far as we’ve read). This has reference to California being or considering itself to be the center of digital production and knowledge. Investigations and discussions, after the session, established that it appears to be true that majority of programing language use English syntax and keywords. Like, however, a number of other languages developed in non-English speaking countries, Lua has a smattering of the local language, i.e. Portuguese words. English may be the lingua franca, but non-English linguistic exchanges go on in smaller local developer circles. The danger is that this linguistic code-switching and -mixing goes on routinely can be overlooked when considering the wider uses of code.


We concluded that it would be interesting to read the book itself rather than just the introduction. We wanted to know more about the global world of practice, and the extent to which English influences communication in diverse situations across spaces and cultures – what does this mean for political worldmaking?


Kelty, C. (2008). Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Takhteyev, Y. (2012). Coding Places: Software practice in a South American city. MIT Press.


Islam, devotional genres and electronic mediation in Mauritius

August 4, 2016

MauritiusHere comes the ninth (9th) set of notes under the theme of media and change in preparation for the volume Postill, J., E. Ardevol and S. Tenhunen (eds.) forthcoming, Digital Media and Cultural Change. The notes are taken from a wealth of media anthropological research into this question that has remained to this date largely hidden from mainstream media, communication and internet studies. This research deserves, in my view, to be read more widely across this interdisciplinary area of scholarship.

Notes prepared by Fran Barone (my emphases)
Used with permission.

Eisenlohr P. 2006. As Makkah is sweet and beloved, so is Madina: Islam, devotional genres and electronic mediation in Mauritius. Am. Ethnol. 33(2):230–45.

Fieldwork in Mauritius [Indian Ocean] in 1996, 1997–98, and 2003.

Some scholars have argued that a global “return to religion” intertwined with modern forms of mass communication is taking place in the contemporary world (p. 230)

Recent work on Islam and electronic media focuses on discourses, inclusion and exclusion of different categories of actors. Arguing against technicist tendency to highlight media over social agency and “thus, push societies toward a kind of social change that can be read off from the material and formal setup of media apparatuses (e.g., Kittler 1997; McLuhan 1964)”, author emphasizes that local assumptions/traditions inform process of mass mediation. Need to avoid both technicism and excessive celebration of individual agency/self-determination (p. 231)

Investigation of the circulation of audiocassette and audio-CD recordings of the Islamic devotional genre na‘t and its role in shaping performances in religious speech events known as “mahfil-e mawlūd”. (p. 231)

“The significance of electronically mediated na‘t emerges in the ways in which practices of electronic mediation become part of a preexisting genealogical logic of Islamic authority” (p. 232).

Competition between Ahl-e Sunnat tradition that sees prophet as a spiritual presence and Deobandis (purists) who see this as illegitimate innovation. Na’t devotional performance genre is a key point of contestation between followers of these two traditions (p. 233).

1980s brought audiocassettes, followed by CDs from India and Pakistan and performers in Mauritius produce own collections of na’t supported by Ahle-Sunnat imams. People listen to na’t recordings on the radio to prepare for mahfil-e mawlūd on special occasions and transcribe the text, then photocopy the handwritten notes to distribute to event attendees. Local performers create printed booklets to go with their cassettes and CDs. Audio is considered the actual model to emulate (p. 234).

Imams used to be the main source of na’t in Urdu before cassettes, but audiocassettes have brought “a new popularization of na‘t, making the poetic genre accessible to people who lack the necessary reading knowledge of Urdu”. Authority of accomplished na’t performer is important, becaut na’t is a delicate genre that must be done properly: “The audiocassette recordings reassure many Mauritian Muslims that reciting and appreciating na‘t is not a matter of ignorance about proper Islamic conduct in the diaspora or an unwarranted perpetuation of the ways of ancestors who may not have been very knowledgeable about scriptural Islamic traditions when they arrived as indentured laborers in Mauritius” (p. 235).

Cultural influence: Contrasting proper and correct na’t performance with Bollywood film songs which have ubiquitous influence in Mauritius (p. 236).

Media choices have local meaning: Cassette tapes enthusiastically adopted because spiritual benefit of na’t performer increases with the number of times it is recited and listened to (p. 236). “Here, Mauritian Muslims reshape technology according to a genealogical form of Islamic authority centered on a “safeguarding” of textual and performative transmission through long successions of reliable interlocutors.” (p. 241)

Media change and culture: “Whereas the mass circulation and reproduction of art has been associated with a loss of aura and authenticity in some modern European aesthetic traditions (e.g. Benjamin 1968), here, in the case of electronic voice mediation of na‘t as a genre of devotional verbal art, an opposite dynamic seems to be at issue.” (p. 241). Introduction of new technology does not necessary create “new” fields of cultural and political debate; instead, “audiocassette and audio-CD na‘t in Mauritius demonstrate how new practices of mediation become part of old debates” (p. 242).

Image credit: Maa Ke Shan Muhammad Umair Zubair Qadri Mahfil e Naat In Mauritius (daily motion)



Notes on the 12th digital ethnography reading (Lane 2016)

July 30, 2016

harlem.jpgLane, J. (2016). The Digital Street: An Ethnographic Study of Networked Street Life in Harlem. American Behavioral Scientist, 60(1), 43-58.
doi: 10.1177/0002764215601711

Notes by Jolynna Sinanan
Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC)
RMIT University, Melbourne

See other posts under Digital ethnography reading group

In this month’s reading group, we interrogated the idea of the digital street as posed in ‘The Digital Street: An Ethnographic Study of Networked Street Life in Harlem’ by Jeffrey Lane (2016). The article argues that the contemporary street life of Harlem teenagers is characterised by the integration of online and offline communication, and is difficult to comprehend without participating in both contexts.

We noted that contemporary street ethnography can’t simply be conducted face-to-face; we also need to consider multiple forms of social interactions, ‘online’ and examining social media networks and discussing more private communication such as within the home as well phone calls and private chat over platforms such as Messenger. If Facebook is a visual representation of extended networks, does it necessarily translate to meaningful engagement between those in the actual networks? By considering these different forms of communication, we can then better understand how public and private spaces are formed and the norms of conduct in these spaces.

We also discussed the power dimensions of contemporary street ethnography by questioning the role of the pastor, or ‘gatekeeper’ in accessing research participants and the implications of street life as monitored by police officers described towards the end of the article.

The most significant aspect of the article for the reading group was how ethnography and ethnographic writing of ‘the street’ was developed as the idea of the ‘digital street’. For example, in Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson’s edited volume Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain, Paul Corrigan’s chapter ‘Doing Nothing’ is an ethnography of street corner culture, which presents data as reporting conversations, describing context as gesture, language and movement as part of the street’s social ecology. We question to what extent, do we lose some of these contextual elements when discussing chats. We pose that other digital ‘gestures’ may be at play.

Lane also employs boyd’s theorisation of ‘networked publics’ to “explore both the net- working of space and the spatiality of the network” (2016, p50) but perhaps not enough is made of the networked elements to bridge the gap between the data presented and the analysis.

We concluded on the subject of how the street may be conceptualized as an ethnographic place in relation to digital technologies and social media. How can we think about how people perform or navigate sociality on the street to effectively analyse how Facebook and private messages compliment or extend these dynamics and interactions? To appreciate the potential social media has to transform the street, we discussed if the street and social media should treated as separate components, to better understand the relationship between the two.

In our next reading session (Wed Aug 10, 2016 12:30pm – 2pm, B9-4-31) we will be looking at the introductory chapter of Yuri Takhteyev’s book “Coding Places: software practice in a South American city”. Available from


boyd, d. (2010). Social network sites as networked publics: Affordances, dynamics, and implications. In Z. Papacharissi (Ed.), A networked self (pp. 39-58). New York, NY: Routledge.

Hall, S. and T. Jefferson (eds), 1993. Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-war Britain. London and New York: Routledge

Lane, J. (2016). The Digital Street: An Ethnographic Study of Networked Street Life in Harlem. American Behavioral Scientist, 60(1), 43-58. doi: 10.1177/0002764215601711

Takhteyev, Y. (2012). Coding Places: Software practice in a South American city. MIT Press.

A planet afflicted by a high fever

July 22, 2016

Essential reading on our current global predicament by the anthropologist Thomas H. Eriksen.

The Pluto Press Blog - Independent, radical publishing

The world is ‘overheated’. Too full and too fast; uneven and unequal. It is the age of the Anthropocene, of humanity’s indelible mark upon the planet. In short, it is globalisation – but not as we know it. Leading anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen is the author of a new book Overheating:An Anthropology of Accelerated Change, which is linked with an international anthropological project, centered at the University of Oslo. In this post, he introduces the themes of the book, and the importance of the project.

‘What do the fateful Brexit referendum, the epidemic spread of Nintendo’s ‘Pokémon Go’ game, theOverheating escalating death of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the fivefold growth in tourism since 1980 have in common? The short answer is that they all express symptoms or outcomes of global accelerated change, or ‘overheating’, as I call it in my new book.

It is as if modernity has…

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