For over a half-century now, computing technologies have been harnessed in the development of archaeological practice. The past 25 years have seen further change for the discipline as the capacities of the web have been drawn into everyday professional activities, from analysis to methodological refinement, data storage, collaboration, debate, information sharing, education, peer review, publicity and associated audience-building. Today, online forms of practice are seemingly ubiquitous among some demographics within the archaeological community, and are otherwise growing in use and diversity of application across the field. With the popularisation of social media, blogging and microblogging, archaeology is more visible on the web than ever before.
The opportunities afforded for the discipline by these developments are the subject of a growing body of scholarship (e.g. Kansa et al. 2011; Richardson 2013; see contributions to Bonacchi 2012; Lake 2012). Shanks and Witmore (2012; also Shanks and Webmoor 2013), for example, focus on the theoretical benefits of archaeological engagement with web-based digital media, particularly the way methodologies inspired by information-sharing can be used to develop new models of archaeological interpretation. Moreover, they recognise that such media facilitate the expansion of archaeological practice beyond academia, into an increasingly public space via varied forms of online communication. Richardson (2012) has focused on the role of Twitter (among other internet-based communication tools), demonstrating the professional communities and networks created by microblogging, which have the dual role of providing support and sharing information; while Pilaar-Birch (2013) has explored the role of video podcasting, underpinned by associated social media applications, as a means to extend disciplinary audiences and build public understanding of academic research. Morgan and Eve (2012) argue that digital media offer a challenge to the field, daring practitioners to join together and work cooperatively with these tools as enabling and potentially emancipatory forces. Morgan's (forthcoming) edited issue of Internet Archaeology goes further, drawing together a range of reflections on archaeological blogging and its potential not only to enhance communication, but to revolutionise publication, accountability and the nature of expertise overall in the discipline.
Unsurprisingly, many archaeologists, whether practising within commercial units, publicly funded heritage or museum contexts, or in the academic sphere, are already engaging with this participatory digital sphere with varying levels of proactivity. The swelling focus of universities, research organisations and funding bodies on knowledge transfer, impact, and research dissemination, when combined with the speed, seeming simplicity and relative accessibility of web-based communication tools, has arguably fuelled the migration of archaeologists online. At stake here is the active and still in-progress creation both of what Richardson (2013) labels a 'digital public archaeology', and of a larger intellectual and methodological project of digital humanism within archaeology (see Huggett 2012 for a review of the current relationship between 'digital archaeology' and 'digital humanities').
Yet, among the research sector, this mass movement is not unique to archaeologists. Among the earliest to theorise and investigate the potential of what we know now as the social web were computer scientists and media scholars, concerned with the relationships between networks and users, and the nature of the digital itself. These scholars developed 'handbooks' and associated manifestos deconstructing the make-up of so-called 'new media' and their various applications (e.g. Bolter and Grusin 2000; Lievrouw and Livingstone 2002; Manovich 2001). Interest in using these technologies grew and expanded in scope, with Whitworth and de Moor (2009) bringing together a multitude of ways in which social networks could be utilised for research purposes. By 2011, the Research Information Network had published a series of case studies demonstrating the importance of social media to academic work - outputs developed from a 2010 project, If you build it, will they come? (Cann et al. 2011). In 2012, Vitae Innovate and the Open University (Minocha and Petre 2012) produced their own guide to the use of social media by academic researchers, with its guidelines promoted via the JISC portal. Even more recently, the Vice-Chancellor (VC) of the University of Oxford, in his 2013 Oration, emphasised the significance of digital and social media for the future of the university system itself. As described by Oxford's IT Services team, the consequence of the VC's vision of a 'digital Oxford' is the 'requirement for our staff, academics and students to build their online presence, to engage with a wider audience, and their projects to have an impact globally' (IT Services 2013).
While the enthusiasm and momentum behind such uptake has been galvanising for the research community, the corollary is perhaps a naive and poorly developed understanding of the potential problems associated with its implementation. Graham (2013, 580) is overt about such naivety, speaking of the 'techno-economic determinism' that has pervaded appraisals of contemporary digital cultures, where the marketplace and supposed bleeding-edge affordances of information and communication technologies (ICTs) have eclipsed all nuanced consideration of their effects on social interaction, social processes, and the 'digital inequalities' they can beget (cf. Morozov's (2010) 'cyber-utopianism'). Within archaeology, digital media applications have long been recognised as tools for breeding empowerment, democracy, equality, and liberation (e.g. Joyce and Tringham 2007; McDavid 2004). But it has only more recently become possible to cast a critical eye on the actual audiences participating in their use - and, pivotally, the nature of such use. As Richardson (2013) indicates, persistent digital divides and discrepancies in digital literacy in the UK mean that able ICT and internet users still comprise an exclusive segment of the population. Indeed, Beale and Ogden (2012) hint that such divides can easily carry over into professional archaeological forums too, even where computing is the hinge between practitioners.
Analyses of the outcomes of various social media projects in the discipline suggest that their audiences are often unknown or insular. For instance, Pilaar-Birch (2013) speaks candidly about the 'amorphous nature of the audience' who engaged with her video podcasting work, while Richardson (2012) highlights Twitter as 'a niche tool for intra-archaeological networking' employed by a 'small and unrepresentative' population of desk-bound American and British practitioners. Walker's (2014) critique, among the first to seriously deconstruct what he calls the 'largely positive, occasionally near utopian, discourses about the democratising and decentering impact of the web' in archaeology, heritage and museological contexts, is clear that social media usage may be fortifying and even heightening marginalisation, reinforcing insularity, producing unequal benefits primarily for institutional players, and otherwise cementing the status quo. On top of this, Law and Morgan (2014) are among the only observers to highlight the risks of relying on 'free' commercial web-hosting services in archaeology, where stability is evanescent (although taken for granted) and little consideration is given to the consequences of investing in a concentrated online presence over which one has no guarantee of control or long-term access (also see Jeffrey's 2012 discussion of the 'new Digital Dark Age').
Of concern to us is the fact that such tensions, alongside the dismal lack of evidence regarding online media's impacts, have blatant consequences for engagement and the replication of structural inequalities within and beyond the discipline. Following Walker (2014), the nature of communication through these media seems often to be glossed over, discussed in a predominantly affirmative light (presumably to reinforce a sense of impact), and subject to nothing more than quantitative counts of contributor comments and followers. In other words, the existing measures of efficacy (where they exist) are highly debatable.
Outside of archaeology, various applications of online media have been exposed (via far more robust systems of evaluation) as clearly problematic, in terms that range from data storage, privacy and identity protection (e.g. Cain 2008), to harassment and abuse of users. Research into the latter has tended to centre upon the experiences of young people in the context of often prolonged subjection to cyber-stalking (e.g. Alexy et al. 2005; Reyns et al. 2012; Spitzberg and Hoobler 2002; but also see Sheridan and Grant 2007) and cyber-bullying (e.g. Erdur-Baker 2010; Wolak et al. 2007). Related studies speak to significant levels of such cyber-abuse across all age groups, with particularly distressing impacts upon those victimised by known individuals from the offline world (Staude-Müller et al. 2012).
Early enquiries into online communication oscillated between deep concern over the potential abuses of its anonymous open formatting (Adam 2002; Spitzberg and Hoobler 2002), versus praise for its promise to cultivate more egalitarian spaces for peer-to-peer communication (see discussions in DiMaggio et al. 2001; Price 2006). But Herring (2011) is clear about the false hope behind any belief that such engagement would naturally generate equality. Indeed, investigations suggest that it is often fundamentally structured along gender lines (e.g. Guiller and Durndell 2006), making true equality a seeming pipedream. As Herring (2010, 1-2) puts it, research testifies to the fact that computer-mediated communication (CMC) 'constrains human interaction in systematic ways', not least in terms of the deepening of gender and other power-related disparities.
Nowadays one might posit that effective CMC depends upon a sense of trust and authenticity, usually established through a direct link between one's online and offline profiles. Yet the creation of such profiles arguably results in a form of hyper exposure, and a digital form of dividuality (cf. Strathern 1988). The potential vulnerabilities created by such visibility are the subject of no significant research whatsoever within the archaeological and heritage sectors. This is in spite of the fact that major public figures in the field, most notably classical archaeologist Mary Beard, have been victimised by persistent, high-profile, deeply derogatory and sexualised harassment via online media (e.g. see Beard 2013). That the rhetoric of impact and public intellectualism could be touted so vociferously within the discipline (and by its funders), and yet that the risks associated with such visibility could go completely unspoken, is both profoundly ironic and demanding of further study.
In the sections below, we discuss the application of digital social media in archaeology in the context of critical theory, equality and, in particular, feminist and intersectional practice. Situated here within what we perceive as a fourth wave of feminist engagement in the discipline, we review the implications of participating in online communications as part of one's archaeological responsibilities, and we report on the outcomes of a survey of more than 400 interdisciplinary practitioners (over 30% of whom self-identified as specialists in archaeology, heritage or museums) on their professional experiences with such communications. The results suggest that nearly 1 in every 3 archaeologists have been subject to abusive or otherwise problematic online interactions in the course of their work, and that such interactions are often gendered - but with different implications for men and women. We conclude by arguing that while the online world may help to cultivate what are seemingly widespread problems of harassment, it also provides the tools for negotiating such problems, therein hopefully enabling the safe and empowering web-based engagements that have long been anticipated by the profession.