New geographies

Cross-posted from Ethnography Matters

xkcd’s Updated Map of Online Communities

I arrived in Nairobi last night after an absence of about five years. As I left the plane through the walkway, I took a deep breath and inhaled the familiar southern African smell that I always miss so much living in America. I walked through to customs and baggage claim and to my taxi and hotel and became aware of all the things I was noticing: my slight frustration at the absence of instructions about which line to stand in at the immigration hall; the fact that there was not enough room for my place of birth in the immigration paperwork; the fact that, in stark contrast to the Amsterdam Schiphol Airport that I had come from, this airport seems not to have changed in a decade or so.

I noticed how long we had to wait for our bags to come through, the nationalities of the people coming here, how closely they stood next to one another. And my driver, patiently waiting for me, familiar sign in hand. On the car ride to the hotel, I looked at billboards and noticed what was being advertised and who was being represented, the state of repair of the roads and the roadside flowers and how people drive and the smells of food and industry and bodies.

I thought: Is this the collection of noticings that constitutes a place? And if what defines a place is its signposts, its boundaries, the taken-for-granted ways of doing things, the expected and the unexpected, what are the equivalents in online spaces? How do we know that we have left one space and arrived at another? How does the experience of outsiders (or n00bs) differ from that of locals?

This new way of thinking about social media (new for me, at least) came about when I was asked to speak at a conference about the ‘crucial role of social media’ in the Middle East and elsewhere. Buried in the description of the session was the question: ‘Does what happened in the London Riots diminish the power of social media?’ As I thought about what to say and what was expected of me, it struck me that the problem with the current way questions around social media are framed is that they require defining technological artefacts as good or bad, when it might be more appropriate to talk about technology as a place where good and bad things can, and do, happen.

If we frame social media as places, we can understand more fully the role of people in those places, rather than talking about the technical characteristics of Facebook or Wikipedia as determining a particular type of behaviour. Looking only at the “bad” privacy features of Facebook, for example, we are tempted to assume that “privacy is dead” because of the “forced sharing” that is happening through changes in the technology. But this view fails to represent the ways that people self-censor or move to more intimate spaces in order to protect their privacy, something I noticed in my study of privacy in an educational context, for example.

Framing social media as places enables us to realise how we move between platforms (for example, Facebook and Google+) not only because of the new shiny gadgets we find there, but because of the people who inhabit those spaces. It is the flow of people and practices that defines the place as much as it is its landscape and architectural features. Facebook, for example, is defined by particular boundaries (my page, your page, a photograph that belongs to a particular group), taken-for-granted ways of doing things that define deviance and compliance among particular groups (don’t friend your teacher, don’t send too many updates and flood your friends’ streams, don’t tag drunk pictures of friends) and artefacts (the activity stream, wall and photo albums) that, taken together, define the place.

It seems kind of obvious when you think about it, and it isn’t a new way of thinking about technology: we’ve been talking about going online and migrating from different operating systems for a while. But the fact that we’re surprised that Google+ isn’t currently teeming with people, or that more Kenyans aren’t contributing to Swahili Wikipedia, or that women make up such a small percentage of Wikipedia edits suggests that we are thinking too much of social media as things rather than as places. If we thought about Google+ as a big, shiny, new complex, we’d begin to understand that people won’t necessarily move there just because the technology is better when few of their friends are there.

The key aspect that we miss in thinking of social sites as technological artefacts is that we tend to ignore culture and power – two really big and slippery aspects of what makes certain types of people have certain types of conversations in particular online spaces, and of what defines who feels welcome or unwelcome to participate. It has caused us to define Wikipedia or Facebook at a level of granularity that isn’t deep enough to really get an understanding of what is happening there, where the power is located and how we might engineer to encourage particular creations and conversations. This is not just about understanding the affordances of the software. In order to understand Wikipedia collaboration, I can’t only look at the MediaWiki software – in the same way that to understand Kenya, I couldn’t just read about its legal framework or look at the statistics about the country. Being there, experiencing how people to speak to me, noticing what the signposts say and what they leave out, is part of the necessarily long journey toward a full understanding of the place.

Perhaps most importantly, it is the culture of a place that will dominate my decision to come back or not. And this, in its essence, is at the heart of what every online community seeks, and is the same reason why it’s so hard to control. The government of Kenya can build better roads and speak on television about being welcoming to tourists, for example, but the majority of the experience of being in Kenya as a tourist or a local, is outside of government control. Culture, we find out, is a mysterious mix of so many different qualities in varying proportions that act together to define a place. Understanding culture is probably more art than science, but however we learn about it, it’s an important part of what makes us stay in some places to become loyal nationalists or merely return as tourists.

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