What is a digital anthropologist? What do they do?

It’s a question we get asked a fair bit. Perhaps in part because it seems like an oxymoron? Digital speaks to the future, computers, smartphones and social media. Anthropology seems to be about old bones and ancient societies, jungles, rain forests and strange rituals. Both are true, and both also come together in our digital world. Remember that saying, what is old is new again? So here’s what a digital anthropologist does. We think it’s kind of interesting and well, over 200 research projects later, so do a lot of our clients.

Anthropology is all about studying and understanding what makes us human. It is the study of the human experience, which is called holism. In the analog world of anthropology, it looks at what makes up our biological bodies and genetics, from bones to diet and health. Then there’s the social and cultural factors that make up a society from rituals to beliefs, practices and music. It’s really about trying to understand who we are as a species, how we got here and where we might be going.

In the analog world of anthropology the four main sub-fields are archeology (the stuff we make and build), biological anthropology (how we adapt to different environments), cultural anthropology (how we live and make sense of the world around us) and linguistic anthropology (how we communicate with one another.) I’m very much abbreviating and simplifying here.

What is Digital Anthropology?
There’s no one single definition as it’s a fairly new sub-discipline. Anthropology as a field has broadened in recent years. There is design anthropology and technology anthropology for example, as sub-disciplines. Purist anthropologists aren’t fond of these branchings, but they are important and reflect the development of humanity.

Perhaps the biggest difference is that digital anthropologists study culture and society through participant observation in digital environments. Anthropologists in the real-world may embed themselves in a remote village in say Papua New Guinea (a favourite spot of anthropologists for very sound reasons) or even sub-cultures in a major city like Toronto or Paris and stay there for a long time, sometimes years. They study these cultures and societies using a methodology called “ethnography”, taking copious notes, getting to know the locals, studying languages, rituals of birth and death and often times needing various medications when they eat something disagreeable to their gut.

A similar process is used in digital anthropology called “netnography”, the word developed by leading digital anthropologist Dr. Robert Kozinets a Canadian now living and teaching in the United States. He literally wrote the book on it. There’s also the writings of Daniel Miller and Heather Horst who’ve also written some books on the topic and make sound academic arguments to further it within academia. You can find them here.

Netnography is very much about studying online groups, societies and cultures. Sometimes broadly and sometimes more specifically, such as diaspora communities, online gamers or crocheting enthusiasts. In the digital world, there are as many different social groups as the real world. We look at what they talk about, how they perceive their world through their lens and so on.

We may also work with software and hardware companies to help them develop better user (i.e. human) experiences and products. I’ve helped a few technology startups design better products or explore how their technology is used in the real world. This becomes especially important for Internet-of-Things products that may feature a device that is also controlled by a smartphone app.

What Does a Digital Anthropologist Do?

There’s a couple of considerations here. I work more in the commercial space. So I study online communities in social media for brand reputation, competitor insights, product insights for proposed or newly launched products and marketing insights into consumer behaviours. Some digital anthropologists look at the same online communities but from a more academic lens.

Sometimes, we collect large amounts of text data via screen-scraping, buying bulk data from resellers or through manual collection. The methods vary depending on the research project and client. It can often take many hours of cataloguing commentary, cleaning data and then manipulating it into a story that makes sense. Story telling is a key component of what we do.

It is fascinating work if you’re into humans and how we behave, do things, make decisions and mix our digital and real-world lives together.

Here is an example of a digital diaspora community we did for GlobalWelsh, a non-profit organisation working to build the Welsh brand globally. We examined mostly North American online Welsh communities and views and discussions by people about Wales across social media. You can read one of the articles here.

Some of the work a digital anthropologist does;

  • Help design software applications to be more “human”
  • Research how humans use technology hardware and devices at work or home to assist in product development.
  • Help urban planners and architects understand the digital world and views of residents in a community when designing buildings and communities.
  • Help brands understand their customers better to engage with them in more meaningful ways.
  • Help companies find the right technologies for their organisation.
  • Develop digital business strategies.

Ethics in Digital Anthropology
This is very important. When we study online communities that are open to the public, we are simply observing and analysing. In our work, we never identify individuals without their explicit written consent. Otherwise this would be an invasion of privacy and just creepy. When we collect mass data, we use various ranking methods or text analytics tools that leverage Artificial Intelligence and we do not use any personal, individual information.

If we are going to study a particular online group or community, it is best practice to introduce ourselves to the community and the administrators, clearly state the reason for our research and obtain consent of the group as a whole. This is good, because then we can often ask questions to gain deeper insights in a trusted manner.

What is the Purpose of Digital Anthropology?
To understand our digital world. How humans behave online is often very different from our real-world selves. We may participate in an online community for our hobby or work, but how and who we engage with is different from the relationships and behaviours in the real-world. But they often translate. What we learn in the digital world often impacts the actions we take in the real-world, from the products we buy to how we cook a meal or where we take a vacation.

We Live in a Phygital World
The reality is, whether you like it or not and even if you don’t agree, that we live in two worlds today. Our physical and digital worlds have come together.Giles Crouch

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