Connected by Radio

I spent a lot of this summer sitting in a small room in an NGO office, listening to a high frequency radio as people from across Haut Uele, one of the northeasternmost districts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, would check in with one another about the security in the region. News would come in every day – sometimes everything was fine; sometimes there were concerns related to health, weather, or other hazards; sometimes there were security incidents involving rebels – and the network of radios posted across the region kept everyone informed.

As I transition from my previous work on FM radios to focus on the HF radio network, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the radio fits within the media ecology – the range of media options that people can choose from. When I described my research to one Congo scholar, he expressed confusion as to why the phonie system still exists since cell phones have largely replaced it. But then I remember watching a driver for an NGO wandering up and down the street trying to get a signal to call the office and ask if the road was clear for the last leg of my trip to my field site. He would call, the call wouldn’t do through, so he would take a few paces over to try again. Vodacom only reaches so far.

I then also remember being in a small rural town where a HF radio was being fixed. We stopped by to greet the chief and the NGO staff explained that they were fixing the radio; the chief seemed grateful and said it was important to keep the town connected to the rest of the region. Almost to emphasize this, as we left someone handed a letter to our driver, asking that he take it back to town. There are few reliable ways to send messages even to the next town. When I was studying FM radio, I found out that one of the radio stations I was studying had asked listeners to respond to a sort of questionnaire. While some responses came via SMS, many came via motorcycle taxi or a chain of family and friends.

In a place where getting news from the next town over can be difficult or can take time, the HF radio does a lot of work. I’m still thinking about what all of this looks like, and what it means to be connected amidst violence (see also). As I continue to fumble through a year of courses, grants, readings, and exams, I just thought I’d take a moment to think aloud on here. More soon.

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Co-authoring Identities on Social Media

Over at Sapiens, Sophie Goodman has a short little piece on the socially fraught instances when someone tags you on Facebook, attaching your name – and profile – to something you hadn’t intended. The lede notes that “best friends and acquaintances alike contribute to your identity.” This is a fact on many aspects of social media, and one that people are increasingly aware of (perhaps nervously so).

While I remain focused on conflict and development, I’ve had a little side project on social media that recently took shape as a paper on Instagram that I’m tweaking a bit for future use. A central part of my work, though, is looking at this aspect of social media that includes different people co-authoring each other’s identities, and how people either try to police such behavior or revel in it.

Ilana Gershon has written about the former, in an article [gated, PoLAR] on how college students try to “sell” themselves on social media in order to get a job. To get a job in today’s employment market, Gershon says (emphasis added):

many in the United States are now expected to transform themselves into a brand so as to be (and remain) hirable as flexible agents in pursuit of other jobs. To brand oneself as a corporate person these days entails new media practices—orchestrating a single self-presentation across a personal website, Facebook profile, Twitter feed, blog, and so on—which ideally demonstrates that one is a recognizable, consistent, and employable self. To be employable these days is to appear coherent across media platforms, efforts that in practice are undercut for two reasons. First, in one’s daily life one might use different platforms for divergent social purposes. People often have to change their regular media practices when they start looking for a job (and will frequently revert back to earlier practices once they have found a job). Second, on many of these social media sites, the person putatively in control of the profile is not the only one who can contribute content to the profile, requiring the person supposedly in charge to monitor the account and delete potentially inappropriate statements and photos.1

Meanwhile, in Gershon’s other work – on break-up narratives – co-authorship occurs in different ways. If you’re trying to look for a job, you need to make sure you don’t get tagged in party pictures or crass jokes don’t get commented on your page. If you’re trying to break up with your boyfriend, however, you might need help on how to word things or advice on whether text or Facebook Messenger is a better place to start that conversation. Rather than shunned, co-authorship gets sought out. Gershon quotes one college student whose boyfriend broke up with her via MySpace:

So I start messaging him. And my friends come in and ask what is going on. So I say I am sending him a message, he broke up with me on MySpace. And they say, “oooh, let us help!” So it was like a conjoined big breakup letter that everyone was helping me with. Everyone on my floor was helping me with this breakup letter.2

Gershon (and Paul Manning, in the second article) cites Teri Silvio’s animation theory [gated]3, a useful analytic from which to analyze this type of activity. In my own work on Instagram, the “animation” of people’s images, captions, and even decisions to post came up constantly. Here’s a snippet of my work-in-progress on how college students4 use Instagram.

First, Sarah outlines the level of co-authorship in consulting whether she should even post things for others to see:

When I’m not sure if something will get a good amount of likes, I’ll ask a friend – or three – what they think. If they say go for it, I do… Conversations with my friends are more based around the question, ‘Do you think I should Instagram this?’ which is basically asking whether the picture is worthy of being posted. I think both the questions of whether the picture has likes potential, and if it’s generally just a good picture, are implied in that one question. If they say no, then I probably won’t post it.

Second, here’s Emily, who tends to take and edit photos on her own, but captions are another story:

I have two friends who are really funny and witty. I’m not, like… well, I think I’m funny but like nobody else does [laughs]… so a lot of times I’ll think of something and I’ll be like, ‘hey, Linda! Is this dumb? Like, is this funny? Because I think it’s funny.’

And here’s a paragraph straight from my paper, highlighting co-authorship:

The “self” being curated on a primary Instagram account is made up of posts, but also comments, tagged photos, and even the photos one likes appear in a list on her profile. One friend told me that he never posts photos to Instagram, but the section of his profile where it lists “photos of you” gets updated frequently because his friends and sisters tag him often. But the co-authorship of Instagram goes beyond merely contributing to each other’s profiles. Numerous Instagram users noted asking friends for advice on their posts at least on occasion. Lauren sometimes shows photos to friends near her to help select filters, but she knew people who would text photos to each other for advice before posting. She even admitted – “as lame as it is” – that she sometimes brainstorms captions with friends before even taking a photo for Instagram. “We like to plan out our Instagrams, like at night, so, like, if we’re going somewhere where I know I’m going to Instagram, we’re like actually crazy, but we’ll be like, ‘okay, we have to get us doing this,’ like ‘this will get a caption,’ and we’ll make sure that we do it.” Photos posted to Instagram, like other animated characters, are “the creatures of collectives, rather than auteurs” (Silvio 2010:428). And once the photo is posted, the very same friends may go on to like or comment on these pictures, further contributing to the social lives of these photographs.

Co-authorship is definitely a big part of social media – good and bad. While others have shown instances where it’s a place of worry or concern, there are other ways that it is sought out in mediating what ends up online. Here friends (online or off – some people sent photos to each other for approval before posting) don’t run the risk of posting something about you that won’t go over well with others – they’re there to stop you from posting something that won’t go over well.


1. Gershon, Ilana. 2014. “Selling Your Self in the United States.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 27 (2), 282. Emphasis added. 

2. Manning, Paul and Ilana Gershon. 2013. “Animating Interaction.” HauL Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (3), 125. 

3. Silvio, Teri. 2010. “Animation: The New Performance?Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 20 (2), 422-438.  

4. I changed the names of my interviewees. 

 

Turn Signals

I recently moved across the country, driving from Arizona to Connecticut with a dog in my back seat and my wife and the cats in the next car. At some point in the drive, somewhere along the I-40 between a Taco Bell in Amarillo, Texas, and a hotel room with no air conditioning in Clinton, Oklahome, a semi-truck passed another semi in front of me. Truck A had succeeded in passing truck B, with me in tow, but the driver was having trouble telling if he was far enough ahead to change back into the right lane. His turn signal was flickering, but he wasn’t confident enough to move. After a while, trucker B turned his lights off for a couple of seconds, signaling the all-clear. After changing lanes without incident, trucker A turned on his emergency lights for a moment as a sign of gratitude.

You don’t always get that much cooperation on the road, maybe a high beam or two, but the whole thing seemed like a norm for the truckers. Struggling turn signal, “may I?” Lights out, “all good.” Lane change. Flash a “thank you.” It reminded me of one of the weirder things I saw in Uganda.

Uganda’s roads rarely have lanes, but colonialism still says drive on the left. Whether you’re on the newly paved (and wonderful!) highways or on a pothole-riddled street, cars will be driving with turn signals constantly flickering left and right. It took me a while to get it, and I still might be missing something, but the conversation that I tried to decipher came to this: if there were cars behind you and you were going too slow, it was your job to let them know if they could pass you. A right turn signal would indicate that there was oncoming traffic, and that they should wait a little longer. A left turn signal was the go-ahead to pass.

It was a fascinating thing to see if you had no idea what was going on, because the truck in front of you would constantly be signaling in every direction while going straight on a highway across the country. I don’t know how it arose or if it occurs in other countries, but I’d love to know. If you know more about this, or about other communicating-while-driving customs, I’d love to hear about it.

What the Internet is For

Over the last week, and really the last few months, I’ve been expanding my internet reading. Out of the dozen or two blogs I’ve been perusing, I can’t remember which one said that the internet began in its adolescent stage of instant messaging, pornography, and video games, and that it’s about time the internet grew an interest for long articles (Google Scholar) and academic work (TED Talks). This brings me to what I’ve been trying to corral into my browser: academic blogs.

And I’m doing all of this heavy reading right at the end of my undergrad. It’s an interesting culmination to think about. I’ve spent the last three years trying to find the most eloquent way to slaughter Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations,” only to find poetic critiques of orientalism on WordPress. I’ve been tip-toeing the whole peace versus justice thing with Peskin before finding pretty strong arguments for one or the other. And, probably the most important, my slow shift on activism.

Through most of college I debated whether I’d find my calling in activism or academia. More recently I’ve been leaning on the academy or even shifting on over to development. Over the last year and a half I’ve been running headlong into the reality of how activism and development have great potential – and squander it. In Uganda I ran into some critiques of Invisible Children, and in McElwee’s course I encountered some really strong rebuttals to the Darfur-is-an-ethnic-conflict and the conflict-minerals-are-barely-the-problem narratives. I only wish I ran more into the Darfur-is-a-genocide rebuttals, as I’ve only just been trying to unearth more of that now. Anyways – all of these topics have resurfaced in the last week or two in the blogosphere, and it has been enthralling to say the least. I find myself learning and re-learning some great arguments, and also seeing some of the established media in an even more critical light than usual.

I’m starting to get the hang of this internet thing.

Tweeting the Revolution (or at least the Rescue)

The internet has been pretty a-buzz over Malcolm Gladwell’s recent article in the New Yorker.  It’s called “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted” and it’s generated a lot of backlash.  Gladwell’s main argument is that modern social networking – through Facebook and Twitter – won’t translate into revolutionary social activism.  He points primarily to the differences between strong ties and weak ties and what type of actions each tie generates.  His primary focus is the sit-ins in Greensboro in 1960 and he contrasts that to a recent online campaign to get people to register as bone marrow donors.

So far, I’ve only read a few responses.  Angus Johnston provides a critique that follows the 1960s activism theme by contrasting SNCC with SDS and showing the strength of weak ties in organizing.  Patrick St. John did a pretty good job of showing how effective decentralized non-hierarchical networks can be. There’s also a good article at Wired that provides some great evidence as to why weak ties are useful for organizing.

I just wanted to provide a short contemporary example that hasn’t been added to the deluge of responses.  For years I’ve grown a number of weak ties with friends across the country for an idea that few others share: that a war in a far off place can end with our help.  It was called The Rescue. In April of 2009, we tweeted and facebooked our way to tens of thousands of people attending events simultaneously in 100 cities.  Some of my friends whom I convinced to initially show up were weak-tie friends.  And when the Phoenix event closed up shop and people caravaned to Albuquerque (then Wichita, then Chicago) the weak ties kept me updated as to what was going on.  Peruse the #therescue hashtag.  Watch “Together We Are Free,” the film about how The Rescue played out over six days and brought 500 people to Chicago.  Most of the Rescue Riders started off as weak ties and grew stronger.

Now, spending a week living on parks, vans, and church gyms is one thing.  Changing the world can be a bit different, I know.  But the attention that peaked with the Rescue carried into something huge.  A year-long local lobbying effort led by young people started off with the biggest Africa-related lobbying initiative in Washington history and culminated with the most widely co-sponsored Africa-related bill in modern legislative history.  And since the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act passed, we are anxiously awaiting the Obama administration’s response.

As one of the ones who abducted himself, I say that weak ties have power.