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Review: Digital environments: Ethnographic perspectives across global online and offline spaces

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Budka, P. (2018). [Review of the book Digital environments: Ethnographic perspectives across global online and offline spaces, by U. U. Frömming, S. Köhn, S. Fox & M. Terry]. Anthropos, 113(1), 303-304.

The edited volume “Digital Environments: Ethnographic Perspectives Across Global Online and Offline Spaces” is a collection of 16 essays by students and graduates of the M.A. Programme in Visual and Media Anthropology at the Free University Berlin. This is the first special feature of the book. The second is the anthropological and ethnographic perspective from which the individual texts discuss a diversity of digital technologies, platforms, services as well as related sociocultural phenomena, events and practices. As Sarah Pink in the book’s foreword notes, these texts and the underlying projects “focus on central issues of the discipline … through the prism of visual and media anthropology” (p. 10). Being not part of the anthropological mainstream, this visual and media anthropology perspective holds the potential of providing exiting new insights in digital culture and our increasingly digitalised societies. The digital ethnography perspective, on the other hand, focuses on “the ways in which technologies have become inseparable from other materialities and human activities” including ethnographic fieldwork, as Urte Undine Frömming, Steffen Köhn, Samantha Fox and Mike Terry note in the introduction chapter (p. 15).

The book consists of two parts – “Digital Communities and the Re-Creation of the Self and Social Relationships Online“ and “Political Digital Environments and Activism Online“ – which are preceded by a brief introduction by the editors. In this introductory text Frömming et al. argue that the concept of “digital environments” allows for (ethnographically) describing “the mutual permeation of the virtual with the physical world” (p. 13). They understand digital environments as a “conglomeration of technologies, events and realities that interpenetrate each other” and that “have become a ubiquitous aspect of contemporary life and cultures” (pp. 13-15). Because of the close entanglement between digital environments and the physical world, it is misleading to conceptualize life in binary oppositions such as “the virtual” and “the real”. While they state that through the utilization of the notion of “digital environments” it is possible to avoid such dichotomies, they continue that this concept also allows for describing “when and how online and offline worlds intersect” as well as the related consequences for the physical world. This, however, looks like the continuity of dualistic conceptualizations rather than the transcending of dichotomies.

The following chapters of the book deal with a variety of issues and engagements with digital phenomena. From the meaning of home when participating to the digital lodging platform Airbnb to mobile dating apps in Chile to Facebook groups for blind and visual impaired people to bodily representations and new forms of censorship in (visual) social media like Instagram. Due to space restrictions, I am going to review only a selection of chapters; two from each part of the book. The book’s first part includes nine chapters about digital communality and sociality in relation to the construction and negotiation of digital selves. The second part consists of seven texts that focus on interconnections between the political and the digital as well as different types of digital activism.

In her contribution, Jóhannna Björk Sveinbjörnsdóttir examines online commenting systems as spaces for public debate in Greenlandic media. In doing so, she focuses on the portrayal and the discussion of East Greenlandic culture. After introducing East Greenland, its people and living conditions, she briefly discusses the concepts of “public sphere” and “mediascape”. Sveinbjörnsdóttir then identifies several reasons for commenting on East Greenland to conclude that the commenting sections in Greenlandic online media can be considered as public spheres to discuss cultural matters and to debate controversial (inter-cultural) issues. Ellen Lapper analyses in her chapter how social media have changed the way people grieve. She begins her ethnographic investigations by following the “digital traces” her late father left on several social media platforms (p. 128). After thoroughly reflecting on the meaning of sharing of memories via digital platforms and communication tools as well as the loss of digital presences and personal conversations due to technical complications, she comes to the conclusion that “as worlds between offline and online blur, we must become better acquainted in how to deal with the loss of an online presence” (p. 138).

Sue Beukes explores in her contribution how the digital discourse around inequality and race in South Africa has been challenged by young black South Africans via the social networking service Twitter. She utilizes the #Feemustfall protest movement that also became a big event on Twitter in 2015 as a “pivot for discussion” (p. 196). In her conclusion, Beukes argues that young black South Africans used Twitter and mobile technologies to disrupt the white, mainstream media narrative. Thus, opening a “wider, diverse, more robust discussion around race and inequality in South Africa” (p. 208). In her chapter, Karly Domp Sadof highlights how mobile phones and visual images became important means for new forms of citizen journalism during the #Euromaidan protests in Kiev. The impact of these events can still be witnessed and studied on photo-sharing platforms like Instagram. She remarks that in a “battle for self-representation”, the Maidan protesters’ use of mobile technology challenged “the modes of visual media production” (p. 249).

This edited volume provides a great overview of projects and approaches to the anthropological and ethnographic analysis of digital phenomena, processes and practices, particularly from a visual and media anthropology perspective. In doing so, the book achieves its aim of presenting and showcasing the variety of research conducted by young and emerging scholars of the Visual and Media Anthropology M.A. Programme in Berlin. However, the large number of single contributions limits the room for more detailed discussions of empirical results and theoretical contexts. So the strength of the book in providing an extensive collection of student and graduate projects is at the same time its minor weakness.

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