"Trump won because he understood the digital is real," writes Tom Boellstorff in a provocative post on Culture Digitally, an NSF-funded blog. A Professor of Anthropology at UC Irvine and a pioneer in the study of virtual communities (the author of Coming of Age in Second Life, and full disclosure, a friend), Boellstorff argues it this way:
That’s not the only reason he succeeded, but it’s a pivotal factor and one with pivotal lessons for all of us whose scholarship, advocacy, and activism involves digital culture. I remain shocked by how many scholars counterpose the “digital” to “real life” or the “real world.” ... Opposing the digital to the real might seem useful as a way to claim relevance or tangible impact. But Trump saw that it is precisely in its reality that the digital is useful, relevant, impactful. Trump was “real” to voters when he was digital, and knew it.
Tom points in particular to Trump's supporters in the online alt-right subcommunity, from where many pro-Trump, anti-Hillary memes spread throughout social media first emerged. His advice for colleagues who want to study them?
“First, I think it’s very important to explore how what Trump’s followers are doing online is real, or not real, and how they are understanding what counts as 'real' in the first place," Tom tells me. "We see this, for instance, in debates over offensive images and memes and claims it is just a joke. What we want to avoid is assuming that because what someone is doing online means it’s not real (and on the flip side, that because what someone is doing offline means it is real)."
That includes in-person (so to speak) research:
“[A]s an anthropologist I would encourage researchers to incorporate not only interviews but participant observation into their online methods. Data analytics and other quantitative methods are extremely important," he says. "No one method is the best: all have something to contribute. But particularly with regard to the 2016 election, quantitative methods have been of limited effectiveness in isolation. (For a great discussion of this, see this post by Tom Ewing, as flagged by Cory Doctorow).
"Interviews are useful to be sure, but because what people say they do isn’t the same as what they actually do, fieldwork has a powerful rule to play. If the goal is to study Trump’s online followers, then get out there—and by 'out there' I mean wherever his followers are online, and hang out. Get to know the lay of the land, the debates, the activities, the interactions. The things people are saying and the things left unsaid because taken for granted as 'common sense.' It is that 'common sense' that we dearly need to better understand."
Image: Trump's Second Life avatar.
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