September 4, 2012 by Lorna Richardson
Friday’s Social Media & Archaeology session at the European Association of Archaeologists conference in Helsinki, organised by Don Henson and Thomas Kador, was a bit of a first for digital media and archaeology for a wider European audience, and I was very pleased to be able to play a part in the success of the afternoon. I was extremely nervous about presenting to an international audience, more than I’ve ever been before (note to self: don’t deliver presentations with raging PMS). I felt I bodged the delivery a bit by reading it out rather than going with the flow, as I had so much to say I didn’t want to miss any out, but thankfully the feedback I got was good.. Anyway, here’s a few of the highlights from my paper.
The paper was titled ‘An Internet Delusion: Public Archaeology Online’ and there was something of the Morozov about the content. It’s a bit of a theme developing out of my research findings and one I have presented on before earlier in April at the IFA conference in Oxford. Attitudes to archaeology as a discipline are shaped by the media – the practices of archaeological communication online are increasingly becoming the means by which we create communality with non-archaeologists, and, as with all media, we should ask, what are these media doing? Whose interests are being served? What are these communication platforms being used for?
The tools of social media have, to paraphrase sociologist Malcolm Gladwell (Gladwell, 2010) upended the traditional relationship between authority and popular will. Cornelius Holtorf, an academic and researcher of the archaeology ‘brand’ has said that archaeology must engage with popular culture if it is to survive (Holtorf. 2007). Public expectations for participation and interaction with anything, let alone cultural heritage, have grown as the participatory Web has developed.
Cyber-Utopians would claim that, through web-based communications, these technologies are able to foster multi-vocality and new dialogue in archaeology, present and encourage new interpretations, underpin new power relations between professional and non-expert, and support representations of community-constructed archaeological knowledge, all at the same time as subverting the creation and sharing of archaeological data from structural control, and redistributing access to cultural resources.
Instead, I think it should be argued that the time for radical technological evangelism has run its course. We need to be realistic – the Internet is not pro-democracy. It is not inherently emancipatory. It does not create equality and access to data by the simple fact of it’s existence. It is not always what we think it is. A combination of naivety, utopianism and reluctance to delve deeper into the social mechanics behind social media have prevented us from shining a light into the darker corners of Internet use..
There are many debates about the implications of the Internet for social inequality. Though the democratisation of online communication and production, thanks to tools such as blogs and wikis, have stretched the boundaries of belonging, the Internet remains an exclusive enclave for those that can use it. The barriers and inequalities propagated by the Internet are far more subtle and nuanced than those who have access and those who do not.
The inequalities and difficulties I discussed in my paper include:
- Inequalities of access to technology including hardware, software and connection speed.
- Inequalities in technical ability and confidence with technology
- Access to institutional and social support networks
- The freedom to use Internet technologies when and where needed
- Dispositional barriers, and the sharp ‘digital’ elbows of those with technical and social capital
- Trolling and intimidation
- Weak ties online and lack of a need for commitment for participation online
- Lack of social-technical capital creating inequalities in access to speedy campaigns and protest
- Lack of funding, resources, staff time, institutional commitment and draconian IT policies
- Redundancies of key digital development staff in archaeology
- Lack of ability to measure and react to audiences for digital media in archaeology
The most important questions we need to pose to ourselves as digital Public Archaeologists are: Why are we putting our information online, and is it useful to the general public? Who’s using our websites and social media and what are they doing there? How long can we realistically sustain our digital projects and how can we gain long-term support for digital Public Archaeology within our institutions? Historically, digital Public Archaeology has communicated blindly to an audience it does not quite understand, with little ability to examine the effectiveness of this broadcast, and discover whether the ‘archaeology message’ has been successfully received at the other end. The presentation of archaeology to the public within the realm of the Internet requires new skills and strategies. Although there will not be one easy solution, a deeper awareness of how, where and why the Internet is used or not would be a useful start.
Gladwell, M. (2010, October 4th). Small Change. New Yorker
Available at: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/04/101004fa_fact_gladwell
Holtorf, C. 2007. Archaeology is a Brand! The Meaning of Archaeology in Contemporary Popular Culture. Oxford: Archaeopress.
Morozov, E. 2011. The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. New York: Public Affairs