I started thinking about digital anthropology back in 2008 when I was writing a book on Web 2.0. I interviewed more than 50 people about the impact of Web 2.0 – also known as the social web – on the workplace. And listed ways new social media were being used as a toolkit for improved knowledge sharing, transparency, innovation and engagement.

Triarchy Press published the book in 2009. But even then I was still scrabbling around in the foothills of digital anthropological knowledge. I didn’t know there was such a thing as digital anthropology. In fact, I knew zero about ethnography, fieldwork or other social research methods. I didn’t have a proper vocabulary or framework to put around what I was doing. I thought I was a journalist.

In the foothills

In February 2010, I ran an event on the anthropology of social media for London Social Media Week. We discussed 10 questions looking at the impact of social media on people, society and culture. Because that’s the thing that’s always excited me about social media. I’m interested in the long term human impact, not marketing or monetisation.

But – of course – I got sucked into those. For the next 10 years I held a series of head of social media or engagement roles.  I learned how to use analytics, run social media campaigns, develop digital strategies, manage communities and edit blogs, as well as coach and train colleagues.

I worked with small business owners through my consultancy and advised nonprofits like The RSA, 3Space and TechMums. In 2014, I came first in Brandwatch’s Top 10 Twitter influencers at London Social Media Week. People began to call me up and I’ve been interviewed on the BBC and ITV News, and in The Guardian.

Getting dark

Stories began appearing about fake news on Facebook in 2016. I started following Carole Cadwalladr’s reporting on what she then called the rightwing fake news ecosystem. By the time the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke in 2018, I was concerned and unhappy about what was happening to social media.

My newsletter became less full of tips and more focused on online activism and politics, data protection and privacy, censorship and disinformation. Digital anthropology is a great lens through which to view these types of stories, but I still didn’t quite appreciate that.

In 2017, I was working in government when a colleague gave a presentation on the history of user research, focusing on ethnography. It was a great talk – and inspired me to think more deeply about how social media is making us as humans behave and feel differently.

Designing things

In 2018 I cofounded Design Club, a social enterprise supporting volunteers to teach design thinking to children through after-school clubs. I also joined Women Leading in AI and took up a place on their education committee. Both actions were in response to the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal. I wanted to see if design thinking can encourage a more ethical approach to digital product development.

In 2020 the pandemic forced us to pause our Design Club programme. I signed up for UCL’s course, Why We Post during lockdown. The course opened my eyes to a new way of exploring and talking about social media. I contacted Dr Hannah Knox about the Anthrocovid project and wrote about it on my blog. My own response was published in September 2020.

Back to the future

I applied to UCL’s masters programme in Digital Anthropology because I want to learn new perspectives about digital media, improve my academic vocabulary and better understand (and apply) theoretical frameworks. I want to find ways to include those who feel excluded. And I’m concerned about data privacy, and the impact of biased algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) on human behaviour and emotional wellbeing.

It’s great to be a student again. It’s a luxury to be discussing ideas all day long. There’s a good energy on campus (it’s the first proper year back since Covid). And it’s lovely – though strange – to spend so much time in libraries, reading books about digital technology.

How ironic is that?

Photo by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič on Unsplash