11. Discussion

Studies of social network analysis models and 'weak tie' connections have suggested that online authority is, in part, derived from the density of ties to centrally located individuals — so these media facilitate collaboration as well as strengthen the sense of authority gained through network ties (O'Neil 2006). This is reflected in the results of the Twitter surveys undertaken for my doctoral research to some extent, in that the popularity, length of membership and regular use of the platform weights followers in favour of the information shared by these Twitter accounts above those of new or less frequent posters.

Opportunities for self-representation using social media reflect Corner's (1995) idea of a 'strategy of representation', where there are distinct choices about which aspects of the self to choose to represent, and the methods by which to present these. As Wellman and Guila (1999, 174) have argued "…before life on the Net, people didn't always go to experts…". This has some resonance today, since the distinction between archaeologist and non-archaeologist can be fluid online - the distinction between a professor and an undergraduate on Twitter for example, can only be seen in the context of a 160-character biography - the content of which is often obscure, and may not provide any links to identify the person tweeting as a member of a real-life institution. The content and quality of the communication is what seems to count. The presence of academic or institutional credentials is not what matters to techno-utopians such as Clay Shirkey: mass peer production (crowdsourcing) - the public performance of competence - online is absolute (O'Neil 2009, 2).

Yet these institutional credentials impact how we understand and acknowledge the notion of the expert and the way in which expert knowledge is presented and performed is vital to establish authority. In his seminal work The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), Erving Goffman conceptualised identity as a continual performance, and theorised that individuals should be able to manage or control private/public boundaries by selectively revealing and concealing one's identities in a continual process of interaction with other people (Marwick and Boyd 2010). So are these web-enabled changes simply a technologically-facilitated continuation of longer-term developments within archaeology as a whole? I would suggest perhaps that the online interaction between the non-archaeological, imagined audience and the professional archaeologist is the interface required to produce a Goffmanesque performance of archaeological expertise, and it is this conscious performance of identity, skill and knowledge that underlines the authoritative nature of being an authentic archaeologist, something that has also been explored by Rodden (2006) and Hearn (2010).

Based on the results of the online surveys discussed, and case studies presented in this article, we must seriously question whether new landscapes of participatory media can fundamentally change, open, or even threaten the authority of archaeological organisations and academic knowledge. The research presented here indicates that the ownership of online archaeological expertise and authority is robustly maintained and defended by archaeological organisations throughout the UK and that this is itself subtly stratified by institutional affiliation, real-life status, professional accomplishment and even the ability to leverage digital literacy and longevity on these platforms. The encouragement of audience participation in the production of archaeological knowledge by archaeological organisations seems to have gone only a small way towards supporting multiply-voiced, participatory approaches to heritage issues. Despite the considerable scale and intricacy of the many issues of information inequalities, and the nuanced variants in information literacy, and although the Internet is a repository of misleading information and advice on all topics, not least archaeology, the possibilities for mass-appeal 'bad archaeology' (Fitzpatrick-Matthews and Doeser 2014) in the UK seems minimal.

"the key … is to incorporate participatory techniques into organisational public engagement strategies, online and offline, without fear of misinterpretation or misrepresentation"

The behaviours involved in the interactions between the non-professional layperson and archaeology and archaeologists online through social media ('nano-endorsements' such as citation indexing, favouriting blog posts or tweets, rating, liking or tagging images, posts or comments) are passive activities that do not necessarily present any challenge to archaeological authority (Morozov 2011, 99; Bevan 2012, 3). Equally, commenting on the content of blogs, creating posts on Facebook pages or exchanging ideas and comments through Twitter could raise challenges, present different ideas, question interpretations and extend arguments between the public and the professional archaeologist. However, organisations have to welcome and embrace these types of interactions, actively seek out and support these kinds of online dialogue and multiple perspectives, and be prepared for the variety of responses this is likely to elicit. Technology will absolutely "lower the barrier to entry" to historical and archaeological detective work (Fisher and Adair 2011, 55) but will it sustain interest, support multiple perspectives and encourage organisations to really listen to their partners in participatory engagement?

Perhaps the fundamental answer to the question of how we, as professional archaeologists in the UK, can recognise elements of epistemic unrest lies in how we can work with the interested and opinionated public, without trivialising multiple perspectives to absolute relativism or ignoring them completely. In the prevailing atmosphere of economic austerity, it is all too easy to view enquiry into cultural heritage and archaeology as reduced in importance and value to wider society, despite the dichotomy of the rise of volunteerism in the heritage sector (Steel 2013; VisitEngland 2013), and increasing involvement of the public through the growth of community archaeology projects. Archaeologists need to demonstrate the value of their work on a consistent basis to a wide number of stakeholders, and the key to a successful approach in this carefully choreographed dance between archaeological expertise and public co-curation and creation is to incorporate participatory techniques into organisational public engagement strategies, online and offline, without fear of misinterpretation or misrepresentation (Simon 2011 30).

As the results of the data explored in this article have demonstrated very clearly, this recognition of multiperspectivalism is not, on the whole, undertaken through a process of actively acknowledging shared authority or through accommodating polyvocal responses to archaeological information at all. Organisations are generally very strongly defended against participation in difficult conversations, through the careful consideration and preparation of material to share online and the editorial process, and sometimes even through the implementation of organisational social media policies. Nor do most of the organisations or individuals responding to my research surveys attempt to facilitate digital self-directed exploration of archaeological data, without the exercise of 'top-down' expert knowledge and guidance. These trends provide a public archaeology model that sits firmly in the 'deficit', 'outreach', 'public relations', and 'educational' models of Merriman (2004) and Holtorf (2007). Exploring these models for public engagement with archaeology means we must confront "the structure of social relationships that we wish to foster" (Bevan 2012, 12).

I argue that we do not proactively support the interpretations and perspectives created and imagined by non-professionals within the framework of the participatory web (MacArthur 2011, 61), frequently because they simply do not exist, belong firmly in the realms of the uncanny or unreasonable, or are part of local history and folklore and therefore not part of professionally produced archaeological data or narratives. I would also argue that, these nuances aside, through the consideration of the types of social relationships we wish to create, guided by archaeologists and leading the public 'other', we remain trapped in an epistemic loop of 'top-down' public archaeology, even with the augmentation of participatory media. This creates a space for what I term 'participatory ventriloquism' where the top-down approach to public and community archaeology translates to the Internet, and we are at risk of performing our-self-defined roles as archaeologists in the digital realm, through advising non-archaeologists what to read, ask and contribute through Internet technologies and our social media platforms, rather than consider the needs and interests of the audience.


Internet Archaeology is an open access journal. Except where otherwise noted, content from this work may be used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY) Unported licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided that attribution to the author(s), the title of the work, the Internet Archaeology journal and the relevant URL/DOI are given.

University of York legal statements

File last updated: Tue Nov 25 2014