Monday, July 16, 2012

Tagging Anthropology

In a 2010 article entitled “Academic Search Engine Optimization (ASEO),” Joeran Beel et al sparked controversy in some circles by suggesting that scientists tailor their writing in research articles to search engines in order to maximize web visibility. 
Once the keywords are chosen, they need to be mentioned in the right places: in the title, and as often as possible in the abstract and the body of the text (but, of course, not so often as to annoy readers).  Although in general titles should be fairly short, we suggest choosing a longer title if there are many relevant keywords. (179)

Building on almost 15 years of literature and scholarship in web marketing and e-commerce, Beel et al extended the model to academic work, arguing that the goal in writing for academic journals is little different than writing copy for web advertising: “to make this content more widely and easily available” (190).  That could mean including keywords in significant fields (like the title) or it could mean increasing the number of inbound links, another method for SEO practiced by web developers everywhere.  It means, in other words, scientists utilizing the same methods as, say, websites selling Viagra and dietary supplements. 

Is anthropology the same?  In the era of “public anthropology,” isn’t the idea to reach a “public”?  But what is this “public”?   Despite lots of lip service and theoretical interest in expanding the audience for anthropological research, anthropologists seem to have little more than a vague sense of the public that might exist outside of the immediate academic context.   This question becomes more urgent with the advent of web 2.0 social networking.   When we’re blogging or putting something up on Youtube, it seems obvious that we’re making our work “public,” but that public is not synonymous with the “public” of television news or major newspapers.  Danah boyd has suggested a useful distinction in her definition of “networked publics”:
I am primarily talking about the spaces and audiences that are bound together through technological networks (i.e., the Internet, mobile networks, etc.).  Networked publics are one type of mediated public; the network mediates the interactions between members of the public.  (boyd: 125)
Neither entirely public nor entirely private, “networked publics” imply both the networked creation of a public (the public forged as a series of connections with content and with other members of that networked public) and the networked determination of the access to public content (through search engines, page-ranking, and meta-data).  Rather than an amorphous “public” made up of concerned citizens, these networked publics are forged consciously by people networking together and by corporations exploiting their sociality in order to add value to their social networking sites. 

The “public” here, in other words, is one that is consciously crafted, negotiated, directed and emergent.  It is one that we might enjoin through a variety of means: keywords, tags, links, repetition.   For the scholars and consultants who work on search engine optimization, this means maximizing the number of “hits”, but for anthropologists disseminating work through Web 2.0, the issues of the “public” should be more complex.  The construction of an anthropological public needs to be part of our research from the outset.

Of course, this seems counterintuitive to those of us socialized in more traditional academic publishing where write-up is followed by publication and dissemination.  In this linear process, the question of a public is ultimately the province of marketing.  But in networked publishing, there are at least two differences.  First, it’s up to us to forge those connections with a community of readers and writers (web 2.0 blurs that distinction).  Second, it’s also up to us to encourage the association of our work with a body of other works—e.g., our anthropological media of Baltimore with anthropological media about other cities.  The difference here is that we do this not for profit, but for the effectiveness of our intervention.   That is, a public anthropology in the age of networked media needs to create its public while it’s doing anthropology, a consciously forged interpretive community.


Beel, Joeran, Bela Gipp and Erik Wilde (2010).  “Academic Search Engine Optimization (ASEO).”  Journal of Scholarly Publishing 41(2): 176-190. 

boyd, danah (2008).    “Why Youth Social Network Sites.”  In Youth, Identity, and Digital Media, ed. by David Buckingham, pp. 119-142.  Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.