Handling It: Acting Like a Team, Thinking Like a Society
From the Series: Being @CulAnth: Social Media as Academic Practice
From the Series: Being @CulAnth: Social Media as Academic Practice
Most members of the Society for Cultural Anthropology (SCA)’s Social Media Team (SMT) have been in their position for two to four years, but the SMT has existed and been run by graduate students since 2013. And some significant events have happened in that time when we handled the society’s social media account, @CulAnth. There was an unpaid graduate student managing the account when Donald Trump won the 2016 American Presidential election, and one when Biden won in 2020. There was a graduate student on @CulAnth when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, each time the pandemic was declared over, and with every decision that ensured the pandemic would continue despite declarations. We were on during the saga known as #HAUtalk. One of us was on when the U.S. Capitol was stormed. When the militaries of Colombia and Chile assaulted, blinded, and disappeared protesting citizens. During the summer uprisings of 2020, we were on the accounts; one of us got arrested during the protests in Washington, D.C. We were posting when the University of California, Santa Cruz fired its Teaching Assistants and sent police to beat up its students; one of us was fired in that strike and forced to leave the United States. We were on for countless school shootings. Roe v. Wade’s overturning. Memes that made no sense. John-fucking-Comaroff. On each of these mornings, a graduate student logged into one of the largest and active social media accounts in academia, surveyed the online mediascape, and asked, “How should we handle this?” As Social Media handlers, we feel responsible for responding with the accounts to contemporary events, and we use these moments in this post to think about our relationship as a team of early-career scholars and humans, as well as how we practice a form of anthropology and relationality we witness on #AnthroTwitter.
While the SCA has a Facebook account, most of its social media activity and interaction takes place on Twitter. Twitter, as Bruns and Weller (2016, 183) memorably phrase it, is a “first draft of the present,” which makes discerning world events from its timeline particularly difficult. We follow around 2,700 accounts, a mixture of institutions, scholars, activists, and other journals, all of whom have their own worlds and sense of what’s happening in them. Over the years, we have sought to diversify our Twitter feed, but our timeline likely still reflects the dominance North Atlantic anthropological institutions have over the discipline. Sometimes, our Twitter feed will descend upon something—a historical event, a “main character,” an ongoing discourse. We’ll try to collage enough information, either within Twitter or outside, to draw the issue’s outline, and begin to identify the object at its center. For instance, the first hint that Roe v. Wade had been overturned were in tweets that said, “Fuck these fuckers;” only with a little digging could those fuckers be identified.
In these vexed moments, we turn to one another. In our group chat, we might ask each other for support or insight, What’s going on with x? We respond in several ways to these emergent moments and discourses. For one, we might not respond. More often, though, we’ll dig through the SCA archive to find something the Society published that can speak to the present moment. We’ll also often respond with curation, spotlighting folks adjacent to or outside anthropology (a practice we also discuss in Live-Tweeting as Academic Practice, this series) who can respond to the issue quicker or better. In so doing, we produce a collective response that is ostensibly “from” the SCA—but one that happens much faster than a statement from the Society would. We’ll do all of this while trying to make sure our response doesn’t produce problems with the SCA Board, as previous posts have, or end up in phrenology blogs. Ultimately, the handler for the week will make the final decision, and the team will back the decision—and if the discourse appears to be ongoing, we’ll point this out to one another on the team; the phrase Just a heads-up…appears regularly in the handoff emails we send at the end of each week to mark what might be an ongoing issue.
Straightening out Twitter’s funhouse mirror of the present produces a response from the SCA that is not quite an announcement or a statement, but is close enough. The response will be written with the sensibility that the situation merits, be that sincerity, humor, scorn, or some internet-ly confusing mixture of all three. The @CulAnth Twitter account might be a little like what Kate Losse has called “Weird Corporate Twitter,” where brands and corporations use internet humor to garner more attention than standard advertising or promoting would (see also Greene et al. 2021). Big Fish Communications, a public relations (PR) firm that specializes in Web 2.0 marketing, suggests in their post on humanizing corporate Twitter accounts that “it’s much easier to build affection towards brands when they feel human, as opposed to the standard cold tone of a business playing it safe. When companies only use their Twitter for shouting promotions and responding to complaints, they’re squandering the unique interactive potential of social media by treating it the same as 20th-century mass marketing.” But weird corporate Twitter is perhaps not the best label for the SCA’s online presence. As M. M. Carrigan, Editor in Chief of Taco Bell Quarterly, points out: social media at the Paris Review and the New Yorker “suck” because they have a lot of money and haven’t had to worry about learning how to sell themselves. By necessity, our team of Extremely Online graduate students developed a sense for using the SCA platform to produce an academic discipline that is more responsive to the world.
But this mode of communication might cause some confusion as we usually respond to things quicker and more directly than SCA. Twitter users often ask why the @CulAnth account is so dynamic, interactive, and lively than other “staid” journal or academic society accounts. But this also means our responses are sometimes misconstrued as the Society having made a statement. For instance, when #ThatPaper in Qualitative Research was #AcademicTwitter’s main character, users wondered if “Might we recommend that you throw it into the sun” was the official society. It’s safe to say that when we tweeted it, a day or two into its fallout, members of the board might have had an individual opinion, but likely had not yet considered it worthy of a response from the Society.
As handlers, we’re pulled in multiple directions: representing the social media account that we all work on; representing the Society with which that account is associated; representing the discipline that we’re all a part of. But we should say the second two directions are not terrifically important for how we navigate @CulAnth. Despite what precarious academic employees are expected to feel, we’re not full of academic passion for the SCA as an institution, even if we appreciate the work published here. We may each feel quite ambivalent about the discipline, its public status, or its longevity. The thing is that despite having studied, taught, or published for a decade or more in anthropology, we’ll probably never participate in the academic discipline because there aren’t enough jobs (Cultural Anthropology 2018), and we don’t attend those schools that fill departments and hire only each other (Kawa et al. 2018). But in those moments of overlap between the “we” of the social media team, the “we” of the Society for Cultural Anthropology, and the “we” of anthropology, we find space to shape disciplinary discourse a little, and to work toward cultivating what we think anthropology might be. When making a swift response (that can be interpreted as an SCA statement) and in defining what we consider to be “anthropology-adjacent,” @CulAnth handlers can shift academic anthropology toward something more capacious, more dexterous, and more attentive to what’s happening on a moment-to-moment basis in the world.
“When we handle a situation, in that gray area between the Social Media Team and the Society for Cultural Anthropology, we’re handling it with and for the relationships we’ve been building #OnHere over the last several years.”
To this end, what matters to us as social media handlers sits at two registers. First, we craft a response that resonates politically and ethically with us as a team, something that sits well with us as graduate students, as junior-but-probably-departing scholars, as people caring about the world and the people in it. But we’re also thinking about #AnthroTwitter more broadly. #AnthroTwitter is a broad online space composed of casual anthropology readers and #VeryOnline people that has been emergent for several years. Particularly through the work of Jenny Shaw and Hilary Agro—previous section leads of @CulAnth (see also Shaw and Agro 2017)—the space has become an anthropological community that fills the gaps that departments, conferences, professional associations, and the discipline itself carry. It is increasingly common to see #AnthroTwitter feature in acknowledgment sections of dissertations, for making people feel less isolated, for tracking down sources, for helping with syllabi, for crafting literature, and for working through feelings related to the discipline. To this end, it’s an online space that plays a vital role in democratizing anthropology’s knowledge practices (Jenks 2021), and is, at least in Ryan Cecil Jobson’s opinion, “as robust a source of anthropological theory as any anthropology journal” (Jobson, Clarke, and Cantero 2020). When we handle a situation, in that gray area between the Social Media Team and the Society for Cultural Anthropology, we’re handling it with and for the relationships we’ve been building #OnHere over the last several years.
In becoming an account “handler,” logging in and producing the @CulAnth social media presence, each team member takes up not only the mantle of the position, handed off from the previous team member, but also the account handle—the “@CulAnth” username. A handle is not only an online nickname, but also a place to hold, from which to use an instrument, to drive something forward: a vehicle, ideas, practice, or relations. “To handle” is to feel or manipulate with one’s hands, to manage something, whether it be an account, a difficult historical moment, or a disciplinary “crisis,” in a public-facing manner. Having worked with one another for years, our practice of handling @CulAnth is communal, grounded in an ethical understanding that attends to context, content, and relations with one another. Ethics here, following Montgomery and bergman (2017, 90), is understood and practiced as a “dynamic space beyond static morality and vapid self-interest: it is the capacity to be responsive to the relationships that make us up.” In this sense, camaraderie, colleagueship, and friendship is valued “not as a bond between individuals but as an ethical relation that remakes us, together, in an ongoing process of becoming otherwise” (92). By foregrounding this ethical relationality, our playful or even irreverent engagement with online conversations attempts to ensure that our privilege as the SCA’s most public mouthpiece is not misused.
To enact an ethics of “handling” is to move, as our group does, from the individual practice of “I’m handling it,” to the relational dynamic of “How should we handle this?” or “How can we do good here?” Beyond dealing with a pressing situation, this ethic of “handling” is always to handle with care, providing support, and picking up for others. It is to hold each other (in our quiet polyphony of social media writerly voices, sequentially, week after week, in moments of care); to hold each other up (celebrating each other’s account-handling victories or larger work or life successes; supporting and covering for each other when the latter gets in the way of social media), and; to hold space together (creating affective capacities and moments in time where open communication and aid can flourish). The historical events for which we’ve collectively composed the SCA’s responses are locus points through which we not only think our relationship as a team of early-career scholars and humans, but also practice the form of anthropology and relationality we witness on #AnthroTwitter each time we log into the accounts.
Cultural Anthropology. 2018. “Academic Precarity in American Anthropology: A Forum.” Member Voices, Fieldsights, May 18.
Greene, Tenay, Carla Seet, Andrea Rodríguez Barrio, Dana McIntyre, Bridget Kelly, and Marie A. Bragg. 2021. “Brands with Personalities – Good for Businesses, but Bad for Public Health? A Content Analysis of How Food and Beverage Brands Personify Themselves on Twitter.” Public Health Nutrition 25, no. 1: 51–60.
Jenks, Angela C. 2021. “Building a #COVIDSyllabus: Lessons for the Future of Collaborative Pedagogy.” Teaching and Learning Anthropology 4, no. 1: 111–21.
Jobson, Ryan Cecil, and Kamari Clarke. Interviewed by Lucia Cantero. 2020 “The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn? Considerations and Reflections.” Interviews, American Anthropologist. July 20.
Kawa, Nicholas C., José A. Clavijo Michelangeli, Jessica L. Clark, Daniel Ginsberg, and Christopher McCarty. 2019. “The Social Network of US Academic Anthropology and Its Inequalities.” American Anthropologist 121, no. 1: 14–29.
Montgomery, Nick, and carla bergman. 2017. Joyful Militancy: Building Thriving Resistance in Toxic Times. Chico, CA: AK Press.
Shaw, Jennifer, and Hilary Agro. 2017. “Open Access Meets Social Media.” Anthropology News. August 4.