Tuesday, 26 September 2017

The Promise and Peril of Digital Engagement

In this post, I want to bring up examples of “participatory digital archaeology in action,” and how this might affect the discipline and expectations placed on archaeologists. What is the promise and what are the pitfalls of digital engagement? The article by Morgan and Eve (2012:522) speaks of the positive impact of archaeologists such as Mary Beard, Michael Smith, and Rosemary Joyce taking an active online role. The idea is that we can enable digital media in archaeology as an emancipatory force. Morgan and Winters (2015) continue to advocate tools such as blogging as a key tool in enhancing communication and even potentially revolutionizing publication. As researchers struggle with publicizing their work, many are turning to blogging (it was actually recommended to me and some other students this morning). Additionally, as it was pointed out in class, many online conversations over archaeological finds and/or heritage continue with or without archaeologists. This implies that archaeologists (and other researchers) have a certain responsibility to engage online to contextualize their work and/or dispel misconceptions. In contrast, Perry et al. (2015) address the potential negative consequences to the researcher from such engagement, such as harassment, abuse, and threats to physical safety, as well as the lack of institutional support for targets of abuse. Public backlash, and even harassment, has always been a risk in academia, but now the internet provides unprecedented levels of accessibility to targets. While proponents of digital engagement espouse creating a more open and inclusive environment, it may paradoxically create a chilling effect on participation. Having personally seen the sometimes tragic effects of online harassment, I share their concerns, though I appreciate (and read) the efforts of archaeologists that voluntarily engage in public online discussion. As archaeologists are becoming more expected to create an online presence (be it through blogs, personal pages, or funding mandated project websites, etc.), I believe it’s important to be aware of these challenges as well as potential resources for online engagement.

As we consider the potential of digital engagement in archaeology, what role do you see archaeologists taking, especially when confronting different concepts of cultural heritage, “alternative” histories, pseudoarchaeology, and refuting public misconceptions?

My first example is the continued discussion over Confederate monuments in the United States: http://blogs.berkeley.edu/2017/08/16/losing-the-past-or-changing-the-future-archaeologists-and-modern-monuments/

Second is this example of an archaeologist attempting to put together a guideline for spotting misinformation about the Maya in online resources:

Finally, there is Trowel Blazers: http://trowelblazers.com/
Which is a site "dedicated to outreach activities aimed at encouraging participation of women and underrepresented groups in archaeological, geological, and palaeontological science."

What about these attempts at outreach do you find effective? Ineffective?


Arwen Johns said...

I find the idea of academics in general utilizing blogs and other platforms as a way to promote and facilitate connections and discussions with the public to be a promising, albeit potentially wild frontier. As we discussed in class last week, engagement with the public in this way opens up avenues for productive conversations and engagement, however it also leaves academics open to toxic attacks by those who are not of the same opinion on various topics. Within reason I believe that such confrontations can be catalysts for new types of discussion outside of the white-tower of academia, but I'm left wondering what exactly the role of the institution is when one someone on its payroll comes under attack. I'm not talking about a simple disagreement here, and am more focused on when threats (or equally virulent comments) are directed at an individual who works for an academic institution. Does the university have any responsibility to take action in these cases, or because the interaction occurred in a public forum, they are removed from any association with the individual under attack? These are the sort of questions I would like to see clearer answers being provided for, especially since more and more we see blogging and other types of public engagement being promoted to academics by universities.

Amedeo Sghinolfi said...

I agree with Arwen. I think that the involvment of academics on websites, blogs, forums it is a way to keep in touch with laypeople and archaeology enthusiasts, share our opinions, "guide" them or provide them the tools to avoid pseudoarchaeological contributions (e.g. the webpage about resources on the Maya). Though, the Internet is full of "trolls" and "flamer", ready to attack others' opinions. These attacks might be challenging; well-articulated and data supported answers should have the power to silence these people.
The presence of filters, non-anonymous registration, webspace hosted and controlled by universities or government institutions might be a way to both avoid the degeneration of the discussion and prevent the participation of potential "flamer"

Trevor Fowler said...

Neal brought up the pervasive commodification of, well, everything in late-stage capitalism; here's another idea to add:

The apparent need for an online presence negotiates, as you say, promise and peril. On the promise side, we have the opportunity to engage the public, dispel inaccuracies, and generally grow interest in the discipline. On the peril side, archaeologists are increasingly mandated to wade into troll-infested digital waters, and even if we aren't, we sense some anxiety of being left out of the conversation or worse, being left behind.

Acknowledging that archaeological teams are increasingly interdisciplinary, I can envision - if it doesn't already exist - an outsourced PR unit focused on managing the public-facing elements of academic archaeological work. Rather than engaging directly with the public or asking a woebegone graduate student to do so, archaeologists could contract an organization to meet the obligations, navigate the perils, and capture the opportunities of social media.

This sounds a bit vulgar at first, at least to me. However, for the introverted among us, how much would you rather be in the field or lab than in the centre of a social media "conversation"?

i-ing the past said...

I can think of CRM firms that employ communications and public outreach officers, and of course governments do this, too, so looking beyond the individual academic, social media as communication is a robust part of practice today. But for a discipline that explores what is generally a contested heritage in some dimension if not more wherever practiced, this kind of social media engagement has the potential to impose a reflexivity in how we frame messaging beyond archaeology... and if it doesn't, there tends to be perspectives out there that are quick to jump on that lack of nuance... in other words, the messaging is the message and medium!