Applying Anthropology to Online Communities


This post is the last one in this on applying anthropology series. When it comes to tacking online issues and problems there is a need to understand the types of people who carry out these acts. This requires intelligence of the threats to be collected and because it is about gathering this information from people anthropology based methods can aid in this endeavour. By being able to understand online communities it enables companies, NGOs and law enforcement to tackle crime (cyber/online), hate-groups and extremists/terrorists. 


The Internet has facilitated the online interactions of dispersed groups of people with shared interests. These online groups exhibit a wide range of characteristics and serve a variety of purposes, from small groups engaged in tightly focused discussions of specific topics, to complex created worlds with hundreds of simultaneous participants, to millions of users linked by an interest in markets or exchange networks for goods and information. These online platforms can be mobilised to further particular political agendas or to bring together dispersed members of familial or ethnic groups, or they might be organised around commodity consumption or multinational corporate interests.

One of the reasons we need to understand how people view and interact with online platforms is due to opposing views of them because to some, Facebook, Twitter and similar social-media platforms are the enablers of communication by being better, even, than face-to-face conversations, since more people can be involved. Others think of them more as inhibiters of rash communication that fosters narcissism, threatens privacy and reduces intelligent discourse through generated memes. They might go as far as saying creates people who are incapable of reflective, individual, original thought and can only exist with echo chambers.

From research conducted by UCL they examined the types and why are used. The identities users have online can be a reflection of the person when they are offline or a persona of a particular part of themselves. When online communities form they serve to create spaces for groups that exist within the public sphere and private interests. This enables and aids interaction between real-world events and how they can proliferate or be shaped through online platforms. An anthropologist can offer a more holistic, understanding of social media platforms by questioning the assumptions.  The challenge is for researchers alike to how to grasp this dynamic, rapidly changing complexity of online communities. Anthropology can offer key skills to this research. First, they can offer experiences of immersion in varying communities and societies  Second, they can ‘follow’ groups and individuals in order to better understand them. Third, anthropologists have studied dynamic social systems, cultures and people for decades therefore as whole they bring a wealth of experience to research. 


The basic methods of anthropology include a combination of observation, identifying group dynamics,  tracing origins and developments and finally interviews. All of these methods are done in all branches of anthropology, ethnography and sociology to various degree. Application though will vary to the research situation. There are Six ways of carrying out the research when applying anthropology to online communities.
  1. Viral Contents: Tracking how new contents and media is created, spread and proliferates across online platforms. By the types of users and avenues media content is shared. 
  2. Digital Technologies: This includes the devices and applications people use access online platforms, social media and online communities
  3. Digital Technologists: Understanding the types of peoples who create the tools and platforms that are used by online communities. 
  4. A single field of contention: This focus on a single online platform or online community and the users interact within their own group or collective.
  5. A series of fields of contention: This focuses on how multiply online platforms or online communities how groups of users interact between their groups.
  6. Genealogically: Aims to determine where an online community first started and trace their origins of how they developed over time. 


When applying anthropology to studying online communities the main goal is to be able to understand them. This is vital in how they operate because the dynamics of online communities determine what type of actions they may undertake. The study of online communities should generate information and intelligence which can be acted on if they aim carry unlawful actions or malicious act. 



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