publications

Slow Dev: What the Open Source Software Community Can Learn from Anthropologists

Among technologists, for whom information and communication flow at hyper-speed and social bonds are increasingly interest-based, developing relationships with people and communities outside of your comfort zone of easy compatibility can feel frustratingly slow. The world of software development does not typically attend to the kind of bottom-up, community-based research process I’m accustomed to as an anthropologist – rather, rapid iteration is prized over emergent design and humans (who have a tendency to wield tools in unexpected and surprising ways) are reconfigured as ‘users’ of software that provides a ‘service.’ What follows is an attempt to articulate the process of doing anthropological research for developing technological tools, in the hopes of inspiring technologists to rethink the process of software development in a more human, culturally accountable manner.

Ethnographic research is the art and science of becoming attuned to the cadence of a culture. Largely, this entails the anthropologist’s direct engagement in a cultural milieu, the everyday observations of which are recorded as field notes. Field notes based on the anthropologist’s observations are accompanied by semi-structured interviews (typically recorded, transcribed, and coded) and occasionally surveys to incorporate the variety of roles, activities and perspectives that make up the cultural phenomena under study. An ethnography tells the story of a cultural group – incorporating field notes, interviews, historical research and critical analysis – and is the product of field research that relies on participant-observation as the principal methodological approach. Recent developments in the field of anthropology explore and experiment with new techniques for writing the ‘other’ that often entail treating the self as an other, first and foremost. Reflexivity is crucial for engaging in critical thinking about one’s own role and bias in cultivating cross-cultural understanding.

Multiple methods of analysis are employed in order to understand the complex dynamics of building technological tools for communities from the ground up. Semi-structured interviews are a primary source of the data and information gathered in the process of building tools responsive to community needs. Personal interviews allow community members to voice their opinions and share their biographies in a safe space of confidentiality and empathic listening, while group interviews encourage collaborative storytelling about the community’s origins and history, present issues and projects, and reveal collective visions and goals (as well as anxieties and fears). Focused discussions with community members are also a primary planning and implementation space, including sit-down brainstorming sessions aimed at raising issues and needs that could be addressed by the project.

Of further relevance is what’s known as Community-Based Participatory Action Research. Community-based participatory action research is a methodology that reorients authority horizontally. That is to say, the final product of community-based research is designed to facilitate alliances between local organizations that have vested interests in the community under study, rather than research designed to fulfill an institutional, governmental or corporate agenda. As such, community-based research tends to blend academic and activist agendas, ultimately producing something of value to the research “subjects” that is at once collaborative and politicized.

Always a fan of mixed methods, I’ve been working with the Open Oakland Digital Divide group to reach out to organizations that are already addressing access to technology in Oakland. Rather than reinventing the wheel, we thought it prudent to endeavor toward creating a hub of existing efforts by researching and documenting them on OaklandWiki. Providing such a service ideally demonstrates to the groups we’re reaching out to that we respect and appreciate the work they’ve been doing, enabling us to more effectively request their time for visiting and asking questions about what they need that we could potentially provide. It furthermore creates an opportunity for us to serve as bridges, building a coalition of those committed to addressing the digital divide by making them visible to each other.

The purpose of this post was not in any way intended to condemn the culture of open source communities. The collaborative research process of the Digital Divide group embodies the DIWO (Do It With Others) ethos that I so dearly adore about hacker culture – though it’s doubtful that many members of the group self-identify as hackers. Tidepools, the open source neighborhood mapping project I’ve been working on, was developed under the direct input of the Red Hook community through a unique hybridization of technological development rooted in ethnographic process. I’ve become ever more passionate about the intersections between cultures, the power and potential of fusing worlds. That excitement and fervor has found me racing between spaces, places, communities and meetings – constantly in action, constantly iterating an idea into refinement without allowing it to grow. Borrowing from the best of both open source culture and anthropology, I’m committing this blog to being a living testimony to transparent documentation, reflexivity and critical thinking – but for that to happen, I have to learn to slow down and allow thought to crystallize into language. Here’s to slow dev! 😉

Free the Means: Co-Creating Ethnographies of the Future

Below are crib notes from my 4th American Anthropological Association meeting. Enjoy!

——
I’d like to begin by putting my story right on the table: I’m an anthropologist without an academy – a decision I made halfway through my Ph.D program for a variety of reasons that could be clustered under a personal inability to be complicit in a system that financially exploits young people for the purposes of paying off its debts to Wall Street.

Six months before Occupy began, I took my first leave of absence from my program, having befriended a group of wonderfully weird, idealistic brains up in the Bay Area. They were all super active at Noisebridge, a hackerspace in the mission open to the public. We were working on creating a live/work hackerspace in Oakland when I got pulled into working on OccupySF’s website at Noisebridge. I took my second leave of absence in the fall, swept headlong down the rabbit hole of revolutionary fervor.

Hackers and academics share a common challenge in contemporary culture: walled gardens. While internet freedom fighters rally against the walled gardens of Google and Facebook, activist-academics fight similar battles over the literal walled gardens of the Ivory tower and closed-access journals. From my vantage point, the solutions are the same in both instances: creating decentralized networks devoted to self-sufficiency, autonomous learning and grassroots, DIY community-building – making the very blueprints for such endeavors open source, aka freely available to the public.

To rewind a bit and cover any confusion over the oft-misunderstood term “hacker,” allow me to clarify: A hacker is not necessarily someone who maliciously breaks into computer systems – as mass media portrayals would have you assume. A hacker is a learning enthusiast, someone who is so curious as to take something apart completely in order to discover the fundamental components of a system. To “hack,” then, is to learn the process of creating something through doing it, and through modifying it to do what you want it to do. Put simply, in the words of McKenzie Wark (author of The Hacker Manifesto): “The slogan of the hacker class is not the workers of the world united, but the workings of the world untied.”

What I’m proposing, then, is “hackademia”. Hackerspaces and Occupy, like anthropology has always done, have created bridges for moving between worlds. It’s my adamant belief that the role of an anthropologist is simply that of storyteller. The very best we can do is transmute the mundane and otherwise hidden into vibrant and visible poetry; the worst we can do is keep our stories contained from those who have ears to hear.

So last night, I’m at the weekly meeting for the Oakland hackerspace I’ve been co-creating with a hodgepodge array of changemakers for the past year. I’d sent a callout for a ‘meta-organizational hacking’ meetup to take place an hour before the regular meeting. The goal was to identify where we could possibly refine our process, assisted by a Danish Kaos Pilot (the Kaos Pilots being a program focused around social entrepreneurship and leadership).

[SHOW SOME SLIDEZ]

This month marks the one-year anniversary of Sudo Room’s first meeting. Drawing from prior experience as well as the Hackerspace Design Patterns guide, we set up a mailing list, wiki, and IRC channel. We take notes together using an etherpad shared document, and post them on the wiki after each meeting. We decided to run by consensus without fastening ourselves to a binding agreement; iteration is invaluable, and we wanted to leave room for growth and change.

As a subculture, or even a ‘class’ according to Wark, hackers are remarkably meta-aware. Rather than genetic reproduction, hacker culture reproduces itself memetically. The hacker ethos of open source collaboration provides a roadmap, replete with tools for multi-maker storytelling. Our dedication to “copy / paste culture” means we have been committed from the first to the active practice of openness, transparency and collaboration – making this community an ideal laboratory for experiments in collaborative ethnography and multimedia storytelling. No confidentiality agreements needed when everyone is down to open source all the things!

While Sudo Room embraces an inclusive model of “hacking” that goes beyond hardware and software – to wetware, wearables, and even culture itself – there is certainly reason to resist confining ourselves to hacker culture alone. While not disregarding the admirable ethical core of lifelong learning, decentralization, and collaboration, the term is also connotative of an elite culture consisting of a privileged class of internet savants.

So I started hanging out in the #geekfeminism channel on IRC to get feedback on how we could create a more inclusive space. In turn, some geeky feminists started hanging out in the #sudoroom channel and contributing to some of the truly epic conversations we’ve been having around access and diversity.

There is something truly exciting about the interconnections between subcultures and the value of their hybridization in the spirit of creativity. What happens, for instance, when you combine botany buffs and hackers? You might get something like BioBridge, the amorphous DIYbio contingent of Noisebridgers, working on experiments in oyster mushroom growing and developing Arduino-controlled sensors for monitoring temperature and pH levels in kombucha brews and sourdough starters. Here you would also find overlap with Tastebridge’s Vegan Hackers night and perhaps some friendly Food Not Bombs volunteers.

While ‘collaborative ethnography’ as a form of ethnographic co-representation is not new – the idea was introduced in Writing Culture well before the turn of the millenium – the current milieu of rapid technological progress combined with what appears to be an earnest and timely revival of the commons is well-positioned for new experimental approaches to co-creating ethnography.

As resident cyberanthropologist (or, as others have called me, “that anthropologist who went rogue”), I find my skills uniquely situated to the task of creating replicable, transparent documentation, facilitating cross-cultural communication (particularly with groups representing marginalized voices), and providing meta-analysis of the culture we’re creating.

Some of these projects include:
-IRC bot, which anyone can contribute to, that logs channel conversations and enables bookmarking by participants in the chat.
-Autodocumentation Stations established in hackerspaces across the globe
-Connecting maker culture through a decentralized network of nodes denoting places, people, tools, projects, and blueprints.

One year ago, I stood up on a podium much like this one, making a callout to all the anthropologists present to take themselves down to the Occupy Montreal camp two blocks away from the posh convention center in which the AAAs were happening – closed to those without tickets costing somewhere between $200 and $500 – and to share their knowledge through outdoor teach-ins.

A lot has happened since that fateful weekend when I found myself more excited and welcome out there, sharing stories with haggard, weary occupiers, rolling cigarettes in the blustery wind not even thinking about just how cold my fingertips were. I remember walking through the publishing hall afterwards, in the polished corridors of the convention center, and being angry at how much everything cost, how it all just goes to the publishing companies anyway, how inadequate academia’s response has been to the liberation of information enabled by the internet and its dogged defenders

My aim in this talk is to illuminate a kind of “posthuman ethnography” that incorporates multimedia archives and community documents, the social organization of networked space, web-based communication tools and collaborative projects alongside the stories and shared experiences of individual members. In this sense, the end “product” is as collaborative, dynamic and diverse as its subject.

Human No More: Digital Subjectivities, Unhuman Subjects, and the End of Anthropology

Human No MoreI’m excited to announce that “Human No More: Digital Subjectivities, Unhuman Subjects, and the End of Anthropology” is finally out and available to order! Human No More began as a delightfully weird, interdisciplinary array of posthumanist scholars in an invited session at the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting in 2009. Co-edited by Neil Whitehead and Mike Wesch, the book’s topics range from the hive-mind of Anonymous, a wired indigenous tribe in Guyana, the disembodied simulacra of human-bot interaction, and the “humanity” of marginal groups in the context of state-sponsored dehumanization. My own chapter explores how the dead “live on online” through continued presence and interaction via online social networking sites.

This book is dedicated to Neil Whitehead, co-editor and rebel anthropologist, inspiration to us all, who passed away earlier this year. Check out his brilliant, evocative work here.

Turning an anthropological eye toward cyberspace, Human No More explores how conditions of the on-line world shape identity, place, culture, and death within virtual communities. On-line worlds have recently thrown into question the traditional anthropological conception of place-based ethnography. They break definitions, blur distinctions, and force us to rethink the notion of the “subject”. Human No More asks how digital cultures can be integrated and how the ethnography of both the “unhuman” and the “digital” could lead to possible reconfiguring the notion of the “human”. This provocative and ground-breaking work challenges fundamental assumptions about the entire field of anthropology. Cross-disciplinary research from well-respected contributors makes this volume vital to the understanding of contemporary human interaction. It will be of interest not only to anthropologists but also to students and scholars of media, communication, popular culture, identity, and technology.

reflections on writing a digital ethnography

Last week, a student in the Cyberspace Ethnography course taught by Maximilian Forte at Concordia University sent me some questions for a class presentation on The Virtual Campfire. Below are some of my reflections on the process of conducting virtual fieldwork, the advantages and disadvantages of digital ethnography, issues of immersion and techno-utopianism, and what it means to be a “digital native” studying and writing about the experiences of those grappling with the uncomfortable process of integrating new communication technologies into everyday life.



Do you think there is an accepting view towards doing an ethnography online?

Among those who have an understanding of what an ethnography is – a minority even among the highly educated – I would say most definitely. It’s certainly become well-known among the digerati thanks to the highly public work of, for instance, Mike Wesch at KSU (a professor of anthropology currently working on an ethnography of YouTube) and danah boyd (not “technically” an anthropologist, but a staunch advocate of ethnography via her work on youth and social networking sites).

In my research with danah through the Berkman Center, which focuses on pro-self-harm websites and online communities, it’s become clear to me that ethnography is a critically important methodology in promoting empathetic understanding of youth online practices and combating the moral panic that’s driving Internet censorship campaigns and related policy issues. Unfortunately, quantitative data tends to trump qualitative research when it comes to policy. I had to take statistics twice because I hated it so much I dropped not only the class, but my second major in psychology. I’m glad I came back to it, because in the world of research it’s important to know how to critically analyze a wide range of methodologies and the biases inherent in them. Anthropology as a discipline tends to be overly self-conscious, while psychology is just the opposite. Combining the confidence of quantitative psychology studies with the sensitivity of ethnographic accounts is truly empowering


Based on your work what were the advantages and disadvantages to doing an ethnography online?   Any major obstacles encountered?

Basically, I make a habit out of interpreting the human interactions around me as though they were originating from a bunch of crazy space monkeys. Then the whole cyborg element doesn’t seem so much of a stretch.

But seriously, as I mentioned in my thesis one of the most problematic aspects of virtual ethnography is the voyeuristic nature of ‘lurking’- being able to watch without being seen. I attempted to compensate for my voyeurism by participating fully in the communities I was researching, skirting along that longstanding anthropological borderline between participation and observation. People reveal a lot online, which is one of the greatest advantages of doing virtual fieldwork. Inhibitions are lowered, because social networking sites induce an illusion of privacy. One of my greatest difficulties was making distinctions between information intended to be publicly accessible and that which should be kept confidential.

Many of the advantages of cyberethnography are also disadvantageous: the potential for invisibility, while it eliminates the issue of “contaminating” the habitus in introducing a prominent gaze, may be ethically suspect; the absence of face-to-face interaction may decrease inhibitions, but it also frequently results in misinterpretation; immersion in internet culture may connect one to a wider world of information and interesting individuals, but it can also be addictive and painfully isolating at times.

There is the also the issue of the distance necessary for writing a quality ethnography. Most traditional anthropologists do fieldwork in a foreign land, then return home to reflect upon their experiences. With my virtual ethnography, the distinctions between fieldsite and writing collapsed entirely. Like most recent college students, I’d developed the habit of procrastinating from writing papers by regularly navigating to Facebook. So, I would log in to Facebook and notice so many things (clearly), and of course the technology is always changing rapidly. At a certain point, my advisor had to tell me to stop conducting fieldwork, and make a clear transition to writing and reflection. That was hard.


In doing ethnographic work, learning a new language may be a problem.  Did you encounter any problems with language? The glossary of words in your appendix were familiar to you beforehand?

When I first got into anthropology, I was taking Swahili classes and planning to travel to Zanzibar for field research. Having been an exchange student in Denmark the year prior to starting college, I was acutely aware of just how disorienting culture shock can be, and how incredibly difficult it is to understand the subtleties of a new language. It occurred to me at some point that a single semester of fieldwork in Zanzibar would hardly qualify me to write authoritatively about the subject – it would hardly qualify me as much more than a tourist, really.

As I delved deeper into my studies, I found myself drawn to postmodern theory and autoethnography. Having been an awkward outsider for so long, the intimate community I’d begun building at Wesleyan was extremely important to me, and given how quickly college passes by, I didn’t want to miss a moment of the story we were writing together. When social networking sites exploded in popularity around 2004-2005, right as I was becoming obsessed with anthropology, they naturally converged. While I’d long considered my white, middle-class American background to be boringly average, it became apparent to me that my immersion in various cybercultures since adolescence granted me exactly the kind of authority I needed to deeply explore the increasing prevalence of social media in the everyday lives of those around me. As my friends and interviewees struggled to articulate the pleasures and conflicts they experienced through this new medium, I found myself drawing from my extensive experience of virtual life- making comparisons, filling in the gaps, elucidating connections. Comfortably connected to my campus community, friends and strangers alike came to me when they had a story to share about Facebook or MySpace.

In the beginning, there was much more of a stigma surrounding social networking – in group conversations, mentioning you’d heard about some piece of gossip from Facebook might’ve garnered some teasing, for instance. In my interviews, people expressed feelings and told stories they’d never felt comfortable expressing to others out of fear of being labeled narcissistic or shallow. It helped that I made it clear how immersed I was in online sociality and shared my own embarrassing tales. Being eager to talk about Facebook back in the day was pretty lame. They could be lame with me. 😉

So in sum – I maybe had *too* good of a grasp of the language, being so utterly immersed. When I wrote my first paper on Facebook back in 2005, my professor pointed out the need to define terms and practices I took to be self-explanatory. Rather than attempting to master the linguistic subtleties of my informants, the greatest linguistic challenge in writing this ethnography was explicating such subtleties so that readers who’d never been to these sites could understand them – hence the need for a glossary.


The campfire metaphor do you consider it to be idyllic?

It’s my belief that the heart of human connection is captured by just this metaphor – the warmth and intimacy of kindred spirits, nurtured by an ethic of mutual aid in the viscerality* of shared experiences. My view on the matter is certainly idyllic, for in the face of increasing disenchantment with the world it’s the duty of the idealist to work for its reenchantment.

To be entirely honest, it was only in the last two months of writing that I conjured up the virtual campfire metaphor, and I wish I’d thought of it sooner as there are so many ways in which it can be applied to this topic. The idyllic vision evoked by the “campfire” is more likely to stick with readers, but it’s important to keep in mind that while the warmth and light of connectivity is what draws us to gather around these new media forms, it is also what distracts us from the wolves watching in the surrounding wood (marketers, predators, identity thieves), the stars above our head (the universe beyond our “egoverses”), and the park rangers on the prowl for firestarters and underage drinking (‘net censorship advocates and moral panic propagators).

Basically, the internet is no more and no less than the people and ideas it’s made up of, which are not so very different from what humankind had been and thought of before it was invented – long before. Dispelling the myth that technology has “effects” on human experience is definitely what I was seeking to convey in writing this ethnography, though the degree to which I was successful in that endeavor is certainly debatable 🙂

*Apparently ‘viscerality’ is not a word. It is now 😛


What do you think the future holds for social networking sites?

These are unpredictable times and I’m no futurist, but the forecast looks good for more mobile, local networking technologies blending in with pre-existing business and community structures. Increasing integration of these technologies into our daily lives as we adapt to their existence – the Singularity approacheth! But who’s to know what technology we’ll think up next??


What is your definition of an ethnography?

An empathetic portrayal of the stories and everyday practices of a group of people, balancing one’s own experiences with the perspective of an alien from outer space – see ‘Body Ritual Among the Nacirema‘ for an amusing addendum to that last point.

Webnographers.org: Resources for Virtual Ethnography

A recent expanse of free time has enabled me to finally get to work on a project that’s long been brewing in the back of my brain. Webnographers.org is now up and running: a communal wiki for the sharing of ideas, tools, and resources pertaining to virtual ethnography.

Currently, it is organized in the following manner:

  1. Ideas: For brainstorming new approaches to the practice of virtual ethnography.
  2. Tools: Useful tools for online fieldwork.
  3. Library: Books, articles, videos, course syllabi, and a dictionary of terms.
  4. Directory: Researchers in the field (with links to bio pages), upcoming conferences, and pertinent blogs.

There isn’t a ton up there yet, as the past few days have been spent primarily wrestling with the MediaWiki software (which is fabulous, but I’m no programmer). This is the first official invitation to my colleagues working in the realm of internet research to join in the fray. Your participation would be very much appreciated- starting with a Bio page, if you wish. It would be fabulous if together we could create a viable compendium of resources for current and future webnographers!

Check it out at Webnographers.org!

Sussing Out the Issue of Pro Self-Harm Websites

I’ve come to a point with this Berkman/danah boyd project on pro-self harm websites where I have a reasonable grasp of the discourses surrounding the issue. Pro self-harm websites (eg; pro-eating disorder, pro-cutting, pro-suicide) are yet another example of an underground movement demonized by mass media and made into a binarized issue of battling moral agendas. However, moral panics serve the primary function of legitimizing a subculture based on rebelling against popular discourse (interestingly, Sarah Thornton is once again the scholar par excellence when it comes to youth and subculture theory). 

The best studies I’ve read so far call for a middle-path approach. Rather than continuing to enforce the black-and-white thinking of pop journalists and those who subscribe to the disease/illness paradigm of self-harm purported by the medical industry and the field of psychiatry, these scholars call for a dialectical approach that involves empathic understanding and collaborative participation in reconstructing the meaning of “pro self-harm” from within the communities in question. In a word, ethnography.

Word.

In pursuit of the bonfire…

From the mid-19th century California Gold Rush to the turn-of-the-20th century cinematic fame of Hollywood, the furthest-west segment of the United States has inherited the legacy of the New Frontier. Today, the San Francisco Bay Area serves as the nexus of American utopianism, home of Silicon Valley and the dot-com frenzy, haven for hippies new and old. 

I seek not to conclude my research of online social networking, but to extend its implications and apply it toward understanding the interconnected mysteries that keep me captivated by anthropology. The literature of cyberspace has quite literally predicted the future now within which we are currently living. The first step, then, is to become familiar with this literature, ranging from science fiction books and films to new ways of crafting contemporary folklore through the use of modern media technologies.

I’ve been chatting with James Curcio, author of Join My Cult! and, more recently, Fallen Nation. They’re also on my summer reading list, and fit quite neatly into the literature I’m looking to submerge myself in (indeed, our chats have been a substantial part of the inspiration behind this post). I’m hoping to contribute to one of his new projects,Mythos Media, which seeks to produce contemporary myths in new ways through the use of new media. Thus, the second step is my own active participation in storycrafting, immersing myself in the mythology of the future-now and constructing parables utilizing new technologies.

From the open source culture of the Internet to the gift culture found at Burning Man and psytrance parties, the mythological legacy of California depicts all the essential dramaturgical elements: a paradisiacal land of angels and devils replete with struggles for power, legitimacy, and authenticity in an age where the world stands poised on the brink of apocalypse, anxiously awaiting salvation in the form of a charismatic prophet, a new world order, scientology, etc;

Or global consciousness.

The third and simultaneous step is a paper I am currently writing for an edited collection on psytrance culture, entitled Weaving the Underground Web: Neotribalism and Psytrance on Tribe.net. 
Essentially, I’m building on the segments of my thesis that dealt with Tribe.net and subcultural capital theory, discussing the ways in which members of Tribe.net utilize the site as a facilitator of local scenes as well as a conduit for the spread of a global subculture.

The culture of the New Age (defined by Steven Sutcliffe [2003] as “a diffuse collectivity of questing individuals”) circulates through the intersection of a wide array of beliefs and lifestyles that coalesce with the aid of such liminal spaces as the internet and international psytrance gatherings. Today, this mythology pervades in American popular media, which circulates readily on a global scale. Proper experience of this “global underground” is thus twofold, entailing both online ethnography of Tribe.net as well as adventures around the world- but that will probably have to wait until I find a Ph.D program suitable for this project. That would be step four.

Comments, suggestions, conversation welcome and encouraged.

The Cyberanthropologist’s Toolkit

Over the past two years of conducting online ethnography, I’ve collected quite the bevy of resources I’ve come to think of as the cyberanthropologist’s toolkit. Adjust your bookmarks accordingly:

Alexa Web Information Inc; is the definitive source for website traffic data. Besides providing more general statistics such as world traffic ranking and total hit count, the site also breaks down the percentage of visitors by country, changes in ranking over the past three months, and average number of page views per visitor. Great tidbit for a footnote when introducing a website in your research.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project has been conducting surveys and analyzing online trends since 2000. Their extensive reports are archived on the site, and encompass the following categories: online activities & pursuits; demographics; Internet evolution; technology & media use; health; family, friends, & community; major news events; public policy; e-gov & e-policy; education; and work. I would recommend this site for anyone interested in changing attitudes over time, or merely as a source of inspiration for those searching for a controversial issue to explore.

Providing an historical overview is critical to any in-depth research. Nicole Ellison and danah boyd have put together a fantastic history of social network sites, which details the evolution of Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook, among others. Additionally, Facebook provides an official, month-to-month timeline of important events in the site’s history. Though I can’t vouch for its credibility, I was able to locate a blog post that details the evolution of MySpace.

Finally, my blog WebnographY contains a plethora of literature reviews on the topic of online ethnography, as well as links to my past research projects and assorted random  musings. Find links to a variety of pertinent articles on my Resources page. Cheers!

Arranged-Marriages Online, Social Network-Style

Several months ago, someone told me about social networking sites that function as matchmaking tools for arranging marriages- a cultural practice that is common for nearly half the world’s population, including India, China, and Indonesia, as well as Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists. In a fit of brainstorming for my next research project, this conversation came to mind and I quickly discovered Shaadi.com, an Indian version of an online dating site. Curious, I filled out a profile of my own to see what kinds of categories one could choose amongst for self-representation.

Well, first of all, it’s clear that most of the profiles on the site are filled out by parents, who are traditionally responsible for the search for and approval of potential husbands and wives. Among the more salient identity markers are Religion/Community (Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Jain, Parsi, Buddhist, Jewish, “No Religion,” “Spiritual- Not Religious,” and “Other), Education, Profession, and Lifestyle (diet, smoking and drinking habits). Arranged-Marriages are ideally between two members of the same caste or sect, and Shaadi.com certainly covers the gamut. Potential matches are also frequently judged by education level and profession, as well as the aforementioned “lifestyle habits,” which are heavily informed by religious beliefs.

A few other things I learned about while creating a profile on the site:

• The alignment of the stars at one’s birth determines if a person is a Manglik, and Shaadi.com inquires as to one is. In Indian astrology, Mangliks are destined for difficulties in marriage. In order to balance out these negative forces, it is often suggested that a Manglik marry another Manglik, based on the idea that two negatives make a positive. Astrology in general is quite important for many Indians, especially Hindus, when it comes to marriage, and Shaadi.com users may incorporate a variety of astrological readings in their profiles.

• Like pretty much every social networking site, one can fill in an open-ended “About Me” box. However, on this site, there is also a significant section called “About My Family.” Shaadi.com offers a few pointers for users filling out this section, the first of which suggests describing the family’s outlook and approach towards life. Early on in the registration process, one could select whether her “Family Values” are traditional, moderate, or liberal. Clearly, the degree to which one’s family embraces more traditional or more liberal attitudes and values has a significant effect on the matrimonial process.

• Admirably, the site also inquires about users’ HIV status. Though figures place the percentage of HIV-infected people in India at a seemingly minute 0.36%, with the country’s enormous population this amounts to between 2 million and 3.6 million Indians living with HIV. While there is some evidence that the rate of infection is currently declining, likely due to successful prevention and awareness campaigns, there is also plenty of evidence to the contrary. Given the rampant fear and stigmatization of HIV-positive individuals in communities everywhere, marking oneself as HIV-positive on the site likely drastically reduces one’s chances at finding a spouse. However, as with both Mangliks and “Special Cases,” another profile category wherein one can indicate mental and/or physical handicaps, the site makes finding others who share their “condition” a much easier process in many ways.

This semester, I am taking only one class as I complete my graduate thesis, the last class I will ever take at Wesleyan: Nationalism and the Politics of Gender and Sexuality with Professor Kauanui. Like most of the classes I’ve taken, I’m to conduct a semester-long research project, giving me the opportunity to conduct another mini-ethnography related to online social networking. As such, I’ll be regularly posting my most pertinent and interesting findings. Stay tuned!

5 Great Tools for Conducting Online Research

Can you tell I’m pretty deeply immersed in the world of academic research these days? Sharing is caring, and I’d like it to be known that I support collaboration over competition when it comes to the production of knowledge. As such, I encourage you to forward this post to anyone you know who could use it (especially thesis writers).

1. EndNote Web – You may have heard of EndNote- a comprehensive program for organizing citations and creating bibliographies that is used extensively by thesis writers- but you probably didn’t know that you don’t need to download or buy the expensive program (sold online for $250), which has numerous compatibility issues, anyway. EndNote Web is, first of all, FREE, and secondly, maintains your personal database of citations online. So if you, like me, are poor and unable to obtain a compatible version of the program through the school’s software database, this online program is a godsend. Furthermore, with EndNote Web you can also search online journal and library databases within the site. Sweet.

2. bubbl.us – When crafting a paper, it can really help to visually outline it before you write. The best tool I’ve come across is bubbl.us, which allows you to fill in little bubbles and link them to one another either horizontally or vertically (see screenshot, below). In addition, you can share your bubble diagrams with others, and even let them collaborate in the outline’s construction. I always use this site to outline my thesis chapters, which I’ve shared with my advisor in the past.

3. Diigo – A really fantastic social bookmarking and annotation tool. Like del.icio.us, Diigo arms you with web browser toolbar that lets you publicly share and organize your website bookmarks. However, Diigo expands upon this premise by allowing users to highlight, clip, and make sticky-notes on the websites you bookmark- and this makes it a powerful research tool (especially if you’re me- prone to bookmarking websites that mention anything having to do with my thesis, and forgetting why they were important later).

4. The OWL at Purdue – This website is a must for anyone confused about the variety of citation styles and the rules for composing bibliographies. It extensively outlines MLA, APA, ASA, and Chicago styles, and in addition discusses various research issues. Most useful, in my opinion, is this page, which contains links to online guides for documenting electronic sources in various disciplines.

5. SurveyMonkey – This is the best free survey-generator I’ve come across, and I used it last year when conducting a survey on online social networking practices. The free version of the software lets you compose 10 questions, which can be multiple-choice, a rating scale, a matrix selection, or open-ended. You can also make it kinda pretty. After you make it, SurveyMonkey will help you collect responses by creating e-mail invitations, website popups, or simply a copy-and-paste link. You can also view responses, which are neatly organized for easy analysis.