Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Where's #Anthropology? Hashtag mayhem at #AAA2021Baltimore

The American Anthropological Annual Meeting has come and gone after a year hiatus. But, courtesy of the continued pandemic, it was not business as usual, and a combination of uneven face-to-face/online hybridity and a buggy app meant continued confusion throughout the conference. Adding to that confusion was the multiplication of conference hashtags, a continuing source of ambiguity that I have chronicled on this blog over the years. This year, #AAA2021Baltimore was joined by numerous, other hashtags: #AAA2021, #AAABaltimore, #AmAnth2021. Here’s a sociograph of different hashtags:

In the lower left of the graph, you can see #AAA2021Baltimore, the “official” hashtag, mostly deployed by @AmericanAnththro--accounting for the “hub and spoke” pattern of that cluster.. The largest clusters, though, belong to the AAA--that is, the Asian Artist Awards--and, in particular, the popular vote category, which generated at least 80 percent of Twitter traffic around AAA2021 (congratulations Kim Seon Ho!) in Korean, Japanese and Thai. Other hashtags referring to the Awards likewise commanded large numbers of likes and retweets, and anthropology was fairly occluded under the white-hot glare of K-Pop fans.

Here are the top Twitter accounts by “betweenness centrality”: top betweenness: starnewskorea jonah_writer unitedmongjis_ anneekarika yoonbwii gummy88888 tsukicooky fkfkfk_kfkfkf korb_blog weareoneexo yukaseon18 nuestnews jseolhee 1exoklwkn americananthro kimsoen08051986 biancaphd Wickedwitcheso1

Note that @americananthro was the only anthropology account in the top counts.

Here’s the top anthropology tweet by re-tweet counts: “Interested in reaching a wider public with your research? Join us and @SAPIENS_org on Friday in Baltimore at the @AmericanAnthro annual meeting for our public scholarship event! Looking forward to learning and sharing ideas with you! @NapaAnthro @WennerGrenOrg #aaa2021” While here’s the top tweet by “likes”: “Speaking of sanctuary spaces she has found/created within anthro, Dr. Harrison says (and I paraphrase) "If I had to depend on a department of anthropology for my sense of self, I wouldn't be an anthropologist today!" SAY. THAT. AGAIN. #AAA2021Baltimore”

In terms of the resulting network of meaning, this resulted in a AAA with a distinctly KPOP feel to it. Here’s a semantic network that classifies tweets according to otheir overall theme:

“Obfuscation” is a term that Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum have used to describe the political mobilization of hashtags and other techniques to dilute messages, hide data or otherwise re-direct people for political ends. “Obfuscation is the deliberate addition of ambiguous, confusing, or misleading information to interfere with surveillance and data collection” (2015: 1). Brunton and Nissenbaum document the first instance of obfuscation in Russian attempts to quell protests over the 2011 parliamentary elections. By flooding the hashtag “#Triumfalnaya” (a Moscow public square where protests took place) with messages extolling Russian nationalism or just nonsense words, the Russian government rendered the hashtag useless as a rallying point and reference to protests resisting the Putin/Medvedev government. More recently, KPOP fans around the world have used to same technique to flood white supremacist hashtags with concert clips and KPOP news. But, here, we have the American Anthropological Association in essence obscuring itself through its dogged insistence on the “#AAA” hashtag, with AAA already a casualty of twentieth century efforts to select names that would appear first in the alphabetical yellow pages listings (AAA Bailbonds, anyone?).

Why does the AAA continue with this hashtag? I think it ultimately comes down to brand identity--in other words, placing the organization over the imperatives of its members who might use hashtags to build solidarity among anthropologists. And it also has to do with a firm misunderstanding of the way Twitter works. Events are temporal. Even though Twitter breaks the strict chronology of its feed with older tweets (“In case you missed it”), conference tweets are not going to persist more than a few days. And what is the goal? To communicate with anthropologists, or to increase the visibility of the American Anthropological Association? If it’s about anthropologists, then what about hashtags like “#Anthropology2021”? There’s no reference here to AAA at all, and the hashtag could be used by any anthropology conference. Why not? Are we afraid that this will compete with other anthropology conferences in late November? At a time when hybrid formats seem likely to persist, why not use hashtags to build links around the world to other anthropologies?


Bunton, Finn and Helen Nissenbaum (2015). Obfuscation: A User’s Guide. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

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