With recent developments in social browsing, understanding online social networks has become critical to the success of any PR or marketing campaign. At the core of social networks are people who are brought together by different interests and ideas. Each social community is shaped by different rules and behaviors, and success depends upon your ability to understand and behave by those rules. In short, you need to become a digital anthropologist. Digital ethnography is the study of online communities and human-technology interactions through the use of qualitative research methods. There is no universal approach to digital ethnography, and there are diverse methods to learn from. Ranging from the study of hackers to Internet Freedom in the Middle East, below are five digital ethnographers on the cutting edge of studying online social networks and digital culture.

Dr. Michael Wesch

In 2007, Wired magazine nicknamed Michael Wesch “the explainer” for his work in the field of digital anthropology. Wesch, a cultural anthropologist by training, explores the impact of new media on society and culture in his research through the use of Web 2.0 tools. As a professor at Kansas State University, he founded the Digital Ethnography Working Group, a team of undergraduates who explore how individuals use digital technology. In addition to the launch of this group, Wesch created a short video, “Web 2.0 … The Machine is Us/ing Us,” in part to explain the necessity of using Web 2.0 tools to help articulate and define online experience. Released in 2007, the video has generated more than 11 million views on YouTube to date. It was this video, as well as other videos, that made Wesch a central figure in the field of contemporary digital anthropology. Wesch’s videos are part of his efforts to rethink the way ethnographies are created and presented.

Dr. Gabriella Coleman

Similar to Wesch, Gabriella Coleman is also an anthropologist by profession and training. Coleman’s work researches the ethics underlying online collaborations and institutions, as well as the relationship and role of law and digital media in political activism. Coleman has conducted fieldwork with hackers San Francisco and the Netherlands. She has also studied hackers who work on Debian, the largest free software project. Her work with hackers also examines the relationship and tensions between forms of digital labor and ideas of pleasure and play. She recently published an annotated syllabus for her course “The Anthropology of Hackers” in The Atlantic. She is completing a book manuscript, Coding Liberal Freedom: Hacker Pleasure and the Ethics of Free and Open Source Software, and is starting a new project on patient activism on the Internet. She is an Assistant Professor in NYU’s Department of Media, Culture and Communication.

Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York’s work focuses on the freedom of online expression, especially in the Middle East. York explores issues of race and identity in her work, as well as exploring the future of journalism and social media. Since 2008, she has worked at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society as a research coordinator. She also coordinates testing for the OpenNet Initiative, a consortium of American and Canadian research groups testing global internet filtering and surveillance practices. Some of these practices include DDoS attacks, ISP blocking, and other internet circumvention tools and technologies. She is involved with Global Voices Online, where she serves as an author on the Middle East/North Africa team, as well as Global Voices Advocacy. York is also a member of the Committee to Protect Bloggers. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian and Al-Jazeera English.

Danah Boyd

The most well-known researcher of the group, danah boyd, is considered a rockstar in the field of Internet research. danah, who intentionally writes her name in lower case letters to honor her mother and poke fun at the importance of capitalization, gave the keynote address at this year’s SXSW conference. Her speech discussed online privacy issues, social networks, Facebook and Google. boyd is a Social Media Researcher at the Microsoft Research New England center and a Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Her work examines social media, youth practices, tensions between public and private, social networking websites and other relationships between culture and technology. In an article discussing boyd’s work, FORTUNE magazine noted, “boyd’s research is the real deal, a potent blend of theory and ethnographic data. And she has real tech street cred too, courtesy of a degree in computer science from Brown.”  (Microsoft is an Edelman client.)

Amber Case

Recently named one of the most influential women in technology by Fast Company, Amber Case describes herself as a “cyborg anthropologist.” Amber describes cyborgs as having organic and nonorganic components that work together in a symbiotic relationship. She considers most digital natives are “low-tech cyborgs,” because the technological devices we use are extensions of our bodies (e.g., smartphones, netbooks, tablets, etc). Amber studies “low-tech cyborgs,” the use of smartphones, and the influence and ability of technology to control parts of our daily lives. She also manages Cyborg Anthropology, an online resource for information about digital anthropology and ethnography. She will be a speaker at this year’s TEDWomen conference.


Image credit: See-ming Lee 李思明 SML


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