Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Parasitic Twittering at the Anthropology Conference

I posted this at www.wfs.org as well . . .

I’m back from the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana.  As expected, 6000 of us shuttled between two, huge, corporate hotels on Canal Street, soaking up hundreds of panels, poster sessions, round tables and workshops organized according to our association's unique calculus—unpopular panels (like mine) should be held in cavernous banquet halls, while popular topics should be granted a room the size of a bargain berth on a Carnival cruise.
But there was also Twitter.  By all accounts, a few thousand tweets from a handful of people before, during, and after our conference.  You can see them all archived with the #aaa2010 hash code.

There was “Kerim” (as he is known at the anthropology blog, “Savage Minds” [savageminds.org]), alerting anthropologists to the “Twitter Meetup” at a restaurant near the hotel.  “Ethnographic Terminilia” to a party at Du Mois Gallery (uptown).  The jazz funeral for Walter Payton, the celebrated New Orleans bassist.  A book signing at an uptown bookstore.  Hints on getting around town; kvetching about the water “boil alert” (from Friday to Sunday).

Not exactly South By Southwest, was it?  It depends on what you were expecting.

Last year, there was an avalanche of blogging about the political power of twitter in Tehran—later (and rather embarrassingly for journalists who ought to have been more skeptical) revealed to be far less of a revolution than originally depicted.  But it’s par for the course for our society, where technologies are regularly accorded tremendous power to affect social and political change.  Malcolm Gladwell critiqued this tendency towards hyperbole in a recent New Yorker article.  He warns,

"It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability.  It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.  The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient.  They are not a natural enemy of the status quo.  If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you.  But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause." (Gladwell 2010)

In many ways, Gladwell is spot-on in his critique.  Too many essayists and academics write about Twitter the way people write about iPads or cell phones or whatever—as pivotal, ultimately deterministic technologies that are going to change the world in some beneficial way.   This is where marketing and scholarship meet: sales hype finds its hyperbolic echo in academic scholarship.  When the reality is less than game-changing, you’d think that these kinds of proclamations would become less common.  But the same commentators just move on to the next social media.

Ultimately, this distracts us from considering what social media do, and what they might do in the future.  Looking back at the modest twitter presence at the anthropology meetings, it would be hard to suggest that twitter represented an alternative to the main conference.  Nothing of the sort, really—most of the tweets were actually commentary, summaries or advertising for papers and presentations at the conference.  But the stuff that got retweeted the most were announcements for off-site events: little challenges to the monopoly of the conference site in the form of meet-ups, gallery showings and book signings.  In other words, nothing there that represented an actual alternative to the conference (not a new way to conference), but little nudges to conference attendees to consider supplemental events outside.

Here, twitter reminds me of Michel Serres on “parasite logic,” the way that a outside, third party (or media) intercedes in a dyadic communication and opens the possibility for new meanings or new action.  As Brown (2002:16-17) writes,

“In information terms, the parasite provokes a new form of complexity, it engineers a kind of difference by intercepting relations. All three meanings then coincide to form a ‘parasite logic’–analyze (take but do not give), paralyze (interrupt usual functioning), catalyze (force the
host to act differently). This parasite, through its
interruption, is a catalyst for complexity. It does this by impelling the parties it parasitizes to act in at least two ways. Either they incorporate the parasite into their midst–and thereby accept the new form of communication the parasite inaugurates–or they act together to expel the parasite and transform their own social practices in the course of doing so.”

Twitter’s power lies in its ability to interrupt, supplement and catalyze different kinds of behavior: a media to impel people to (briefly) diverge from their expected scripts at the conference and, say, take a trolley uptown. This is a powerful potential—one that people like Clay Shirkey have made a career off of extrapolating upon.

But it is, ultimately, a parasite technology, one that requires the presence of more monolithic institutions to function.  That is, it supplements the school, the meeting, the demonstration, rather than moves to replace them.  More than that, its ontology rests on the presence of these more permanent, more powerful structures.  This hardly represents some grand failure on the part of social media—it’s a just a reminder to look to the social contexts of media rather than media themselves.

Doing so can also free us to imagine other parasite technologies—cascades of social media that nudge, prod, intrude, implore.  We move to a future where social technologies will consistently fail to be transcendent—will fail to utterly transform the way we exist and communicate. But ultimately, the parasitic itself can prove transformative.


Brown, Steven D. (2002). “Michel Serres.” Theory,
Culture & Society 19(3):1-27.
Gladwell, Malcolm (2010).  “Small Change.”  New Yorker 10.4.2010: 42-49.