Empowering Anthropological Research in the Digital Age

As a doctoral student in anthropology at Yale University, Spencer Kaplan often relies on the Internet Archive for his research. He is an anthropologist of technology who studies virtual communities. Kaplan said he uses the Wayback Machine to create a living archive of data that he can analyze.

Doctoral student Spencer Kaplan

Last summer, Kaplan studied the blockchain community, which is active on Twitter and constantly changing. As people were sharing their views of the market and helping one another, he needed a way to save the data before their accounts disappeared. A failed project might have prompted the users to take down the information, but Kaplan used the Wayback Machine to preserve the social media exchanges.

In his research, Kaplan said he discovered an environment of mistrust online in the blockchain community and an abundance of scams. He followed how people were navigating the scams, warning one another online to be careful, and actually building trust in some cases. While blockchain is trying to build technologies that avoid trust in social interaction, Kaplan said it was interesting to observe blockchain enthusiasts engaging in trusting connections. He takes the texts of tweets to build a corpus that he can then code and analyze the data to track or show trends.

The Wayback Machine can be helpful, Kaplan said, in finding preserved discussions on Twitter, early versions of company websites or pages that have been taken down altogether—a start-up company that went out of business, for example. “It’s important to be able to hold on to that [information] because our research takes place at a very specific moment in time and we want to be able to capture that specific moment,” Kaplan said.

The Internet Archive’s Open Library has also been essential in Kaplan’s work. When he was recently researching the invention of the “corporate culture” concept, he had trouble finding the first editions of many business books written in the late 80s and early 90s. His campus library often bought updated volumes, but Kaplan needed the originals. “I needed the first edition because I needed to know exactly what they said first and I was able to find that on the Internet Archive,” Kaplan said.

2 thoughts on “Empowering Anthropological Research in the Digital Age

  1. Christopher DeLaurenti

    I agree that the wealth of first (and early) edition technology texts, guide books, and user manuals on archive.org offers an invaluable trove for researchers.

    Subsequent editions will remove or update chapters on obsolete technology (e.g. radio cart machines, DAT, the MiniDisc); scans of ancient and antique catalogs help establish relative prices and proliferation of various technical devices. Many of those ostensibly obsolete texts have proven essential to my research!

  2. Emmanuel Katto Uganda

    “Empowering Anthropological Research in the Digital Age” sheds light on the transformative potential of digital tools in the field of anthropology. The article emphasizes how technology can amplify research capabilities, enabling anthropologists to collect, analyze, and interpret data more efficiently and inclusively. By harnessing digital platforms, researchers can engage with diverse communities, preserve cultural heritage, and address pressing social issues with greater accuracy and impact. The integration of technology holds tremendous promise for the future of anthropological studies, fostering cross-cultural understanding and promoting collaborative research practices. This insightful piece encourages scholars to embrace digital advancements as essential tools in their pursuit of knowledge.

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