Centre for Digital Heritage, University of York, UK. email@example.com
Cite this as: Beale, G. (2015) Peer Comment, Internet Archaeology 39, http://dx.doi.org/10.11141/ia.39.2.com1
The complexity, diversity and politics of archaeological communities have been a matter of interest to archaeological researchers for some time (Marshall 2002; Smith 2004). There have been attempts to grapple with some of the issues associated with the development of archaeological communities online and the relationship between archaeological communities and technology; however, this is an area that is in need of further critical attention (Beale 2012; Lake 2012; McDavid and Brock 2014).
Richardson's article is of great value in this regard in that it begins to characterise the dynamics of online communities and deals with the role that mediational technologies (such as Twitter and Flickr) play in dictating the form and character of digital archaeological communities and the extent to which technologies facilitate and constrain certain behaviours. Richardson also deals with the interplay between offline and online communities and the extent to which these entities are comparable.
If we are to reach deeper understandings of the impact of online technology on communities of interest surrounding archaeology, it is important that we acknowledge the diverse forms taken by archaeological communities outside of an ostensibly digital context. To reach this point, we must consider the extent to which these groups can still be considered non-digital.
As argued by Richardson, the precise impact that technological mediation is likely to have upon the form and character of an archaeological community is poorly understood. Within this setting the addition of digital technologies serves to complicate a social space already characterised by social, political and cultural tension. There is a clear need to understand the ways in which technologies can be used to facilitate better and more rewarding relationships between individuals and communities. In order for this to occur it may be necessary to consider the processes at work in the development and marketing of technology but also its eventual appropriation by users.
Technologies, particularly technologies that are comparatively new and so poorly understood, are often described explicitly in terms of affordance; the extent to which technologies facilitate human action (Gibson 1982; Hutchby 2001). The concept of affordance allows us to analyse a technology critically, and apparently to deconstruct it to some kind of essential set of functional criteria. This means of describing technology has been contrasted with sociological definitions of technology, which suggest that technologies are formed by social activity (Sterne 2003). The appeal of sociological definitions (such as Bourdieu's) is that they are inherently political. They require us to consider the social, political and commercial forces that are at work in the development of technology and in attempts to characterise and control the use of technologies. In this case it is valuable to draw upon both of these approaches; while technologies do afford or constrain human activity they do so within a politicised space. Despite the enthusiastic discourse of democratisation and inclusiveness that has surrounded social media, the underlying social reality remains complex and democracy is (as ever) not easily won.
By and large, social media are not common spaces; their use and their development are in most cases constrained by the structure of specific platforms, including mechanisms for the formation, discovery and membership of multi-lateral relationships or groups. The design of social media platforms are developed in accordance with interests that are, at best, tangential to the needs of the broader heritage community. However, as in the physical world, spaces that are carefully managed and controlled can have value and can afford activities in unforeseen ways.
Drawing upon Bourdieu's ideas regarding the development of a reflexive sociology, Sterne (2003) argues that we must establish an epistemological break from the accepted wisdom of technology if we are to study it meaningfully. This is, he argues, necessary in order to establish a discourse that is independent of the hype, hyperbole and control emanating from the commercial world of technology. For those of us who study and use social media it may be hard to imagine what form this break might take or what the resultant communities might look like. The realisation that the affordances of social media are carefully orchestrated and designed in order to control behaviour is highly significant and is essential in helping us to negotiate their responsible and successful use.
Perhaps, as Richardson suggests, in order to better understand the value of social media to heritage we need to observe existing communities that are directly or indirectly involved with archaeology. Some of these communities may be consciously exploring the potential for use and appropriation of digital media while others may, through the use of different technology or through fluid development, have developed other organisational forms or group dynamics. Essential to this study is that we ultimately extend our focus to include a wider gamut of online communities but also that we consider the offline communities that underpin, overlap with, and exist independently of them.
A substantial body of literature surrounding the use of social media has begun to assert that in many cases the use of social media may serve to reinforce membership of social networks and exposure to views that occur in our offline lives (O'Hara 2014; Pariser 2012). This blurring of the online and offline, identified by Richardson as being key to the contextual reading of specific online archaeological communities, is also essential in realising the complexity and diversity of what may be considered to be archaeological communities of interest. The breadth and heterogeneity of communities that have a stake in heritage discourse has been demonstrated across a wide range of literature that has sought a more inclusive and democratic form of archaeological and heritage practice in the non-digital world (Marshall 2002; Smith 2004). Definitions of community that assert an offline/online dualism are increasingly untenable. Richardson identifies that the study of Twitter communities in isolation from a broader network of social and professional connections is to decontextualise relationships. Similarly, communities that have existed offline will very often now have some form of digital expression; the National Trust Facebook page, for example, has more than 299,000 followers (at the time of writing). Conversely, online groups very often have ties spread across different social media and even with real-world expressions.
An example of this is York: Past and Present, a closed Facebook group of c. 6500 people. The topics of discussion relate almost exclusively to the past of the city of York and its environs but feature personal reflections on wide-ranging elements of York's history, many of which would never feature in a formal publication or official narrative of the city. Therefore, while this is a digital reflection of a physical community, the affordances of the technology enable interactions and a form of publication that would not ordinarily be possible. Whether groups like this expand the community of people interested in heritage or whether they merely provide a focal point for those with a pre-existing interest is hard to say. They do, however, provide a forum for an unauthorised heritage discourse to take place, to be propagated and to be presented to a wide audience. In this way, heritage professionals come into contact with a far wider range of opinions and heritage narratives than might otherwise have been the case. An interesting development of the York: Past and Present group is that the digital community is increasingly taking a physical form through social events and structured activities such as building recording and consultation with local archaeological and heritage professionals. The Facebook group is the main platform for the organisation of these activities. This mobilisation of a community that previously did not exist is testament to the enabling power of social media but also to the power of self-organising groups to utilise technology in innovative ways; ways that do not necessarily respect the constraints of specific media or forms of interaction.
As we begin to see social media at work within a broader social context it may perhaps not be surprising to find the inequalities and barriers to inclusion that exist within heritage and archaeology at large being replicated. As Richardson points out, there is no reason to assume that technology alone would address any underlying social inequalities. The same battles for inclusivity and participation must be fought online as are being fought offline.
One way in which these asymmetries can be addressed is to be mindful of the range of voices that are already active within the sphere of online heritage discourse and to consider ways in which the range of voices present can be increased and also how those voices can be incorporated into academic discourse. It is important to acknowledge the power of groups and individuals from outside of expert or professional archaeological networks and organisations to initiate and to conduct meaningful discourse relating to archaeology and heritage. In her discussion, Richardson identifies the possibility of exploiting 'opportunities to leverage the interest of archaeological communities online', but it is also important that professional archaeologists and heritage practitioners listen to and participate in discourse that has its origins outside of our communities.
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