Social media and professional archaeology in retrospect

This is the first of two posts directed at students enrolled in an online topic that I teach at Flinders University on Professional Archaeology.  The focus of this week’s module is to encourage students to critically evaluate the role of social media in professional archaeology. It is naturally the case then that this is an issue best explored publicly in the hope of encouraging some of my students to connect with each other and broader networks. As this is an introductory topic, it is written for an audience who is relatively new to archaeology.

I’ve maintained a long-standing interest in social media in archaeology, and have run and developed various blogs since ~2004-05. In this series of posts I want to consider the role of social media in professional archaeology  for aspiring professional archaeologists. In this post I offer a brief retrospective on where blogging in archaeology emerged from and why it is of such interest to us.

Social media

I don’t want to get bogged down in definitions of social media, but it is worth briefly paraphrasing the range of definitions provided on the relevant Wikipedia entry, which speaks to social interaction, often focussed on user-generated content (commentary, photos, video, etc), and using web-based applications (twitter, blogger, etc). Basically then, social media can be defined most simply as using web based technologies for social interaction, often focussing on user-generated content. If you have a different view of it, please post a comment!

Blogging is an important, if not dominant, form of social media where the ‘user generated’ content is text and/or other media dropped into a chronologically ordered website. Authors create ‘posts’ and in this way blogs are similar to a journal or diary. The WordPress blog provides a very good introduction to blogging, which is worth taking some time to read before reading further if you are completely new to it.
Image credits: kropekk_pl, via Pixabay

Why are archaeologists interested in social media?

The first issue that needs some consideration is why are archaeologists interested in social media? Many archaeology students will already be active in social media with personal Facebook or Instagram accounts packed with friends, family members and other acquaintances. Why might these tools be of value for archaeologists?

Archaeologists permeate the web because archaeology is fundamentally about the contemporary values held by people about (usually) the things (material culture, places, etc) that are emblematic of “the past”. For some archaeologists, the values that are of most importance are those held by intellectual elites in the context of western science. However, even the most ardent advocates of this form of traditional archaeology recognise that what they produce for highly specialised academic audiences is sometimes of wider value in the community. As a result, they produce media releases about the results published in otherwise inaccessible academic journals, promoting media coverage and community interest. Indeed, archaeologists have been active in the popular media in various ways since the early 20th Century and have featured in television shows since the 1950s (see Brittain and Clack 2007). So even though archaeologists often write for highly specialised academic audiences, most successful academics recognise the importance of converting their research work into outcomes that benefit the community at large.

Within the last two decades it has increasingly been the case that community engagement is grafted onto the intellectual rootstock of novice archaeologists from year one in their degrees. This is because many archaeologists now hold the view that not only do non-archaeologists (‘communities’, ‘lay’ people, ‘the public’) have strong interests in our ‘finds’, but as well as this, they are interested in the very knowledge and ideas that archaeologists produce and the way that we approach our research.

One of the key reasons for this were theoretical developments within the discipline through the late 1980s and into 1990s (i.e., post-processesual approaches) that contributed to increased reflexivity within the discipline. That is, greater reflection on the role of archaeology in society and in how we produce knowledge. This involved a reevaluation of what archaeologists actually ‘do’. For Shanks and McGuire (1996), for example, archaeology can be understood as a site or mode of cultural production, whereby:

Archaeologists take what’s materially left of the past and work on it intellectually and physically to produce knowledge through reports, papers, books, museum displays, TV programs, whatever. In this archaeology is a mode of cultural production or technology with a raw material (the fragmented past, result of formation processes) and with theories and methods that allow (or indeed hinder) the production of what archaeologists desire, whether it is an answer to a research hypothesis, general knowledge of what may have happened in the past, or a tool in a political armory in the present.

According to this view then, the knowledge we produce is not generated in a social or cultural vacuum but instead in dialogue with a range of varying interest groups. For proponents of this view, dialogue and engagement defines archaeology.

There are many different perspectives on how best to engage the public in a dialogue through archaeological research though this is beyond the scope of this post. Jeremy Sabloff—whose work students will be familiar with from earlier in the topic—has prepared a very useful summary. The key point here though is that moving into social media was a natural move for archaeologists of many persuasions. It gave us the opportunity to write more directly for the public, to enter into a direct dialogue with readers, and in doing so, to more fully realise fundamental philosophical positions on the nature of archaeological practice.

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The rise of blogging

Social media as we know it now kicked off in archaeology in the early to mid-2000s, though archaeologists were active on the web long before this. For example, Kris Hurst was writing at About Archaeology from the late 1990s and there were a few early news services that reported on new finds and results, such as, which, admirably, has changed little in its basic design since 2000. At this time, a lot of writing on the web involved writing HTML code with a text editor, which was a very slow and relatively inefficient form of web publishing by today’s standards. It also turned a lot of people away from writing for the web.

The development of the technology behind blogging software changed everything. I first became aware of blogging and the idea of web feeds (or RSS) in about 2002, stumbling across the work of those good folk at Boing Boing  who have been the forefront of blogging since the late 1990s. It was after 2003 that blogging took off, stimulated by the launch of more user friendly publishing platforms such as Blogger (1999, but acquired by Google and relaunched in 2003) and WordPress (2003) that allowed users to overcome previous technical challenges. In his fine history of archaeological blogging (2008), Caraher observed that academics were generally slow to move into blogging and only did so because it allowed them “to return to the public sphere without having to contend with the cultural and market forces that influence the national media”. This makes sense in relation to archaeology, where we are often unhappy with the extent and type of coverage given to archaeological stories in the media. Blogs suddenly allowed archaeologists to write their own content, which was a major shift and something of a new frontier. Instead of trying to push content into the mainstream media where content went through the cultural and corporate filter noted by Caraher, archaeologists could now write what they liked, how they liked and for whom they liked.

A few dozen well-established archaeology bloggers were pumping out posts by about 2005, typically offering commentary and information about fairly specialised topics. I’ve lost track of many of these early bloggers, but some have since emerged at the forefront of archaeological blogging today: Space Age Archaeology (run by Flinders University’s very own Dr Alice Gorman), Middle SavageryArchaeoastronomyA Very Remote Period IndeedA Hot Cup of JoeJohn Hawk’s weblog and the Aardvarkaeology blog. Indeed, the scope and depth of material on these and other sites is impressive. As John Hawk’s notes on his site index pages, his blog features some nine years of writing and represents many books.

Despite the early successes of these archaeological bloggers, archaeologists were still relatively slow to get into blogging, particularly in Australia. I recall participating in debates on several Australian Archaeology email list servers in the mid-2000s where, on raising the potential for blogging in Australian Archaeology, I (and several other colleagues) were lambasted by senior archaeologists who saw little potential for blogging to make any kind of contribution to the serious business of archaeology. Even in 2007-08 these views were regularly expressed. This didn’t help! On the one hand, global debates about the future of blogging were exciting and encouraging, but these were countered by the inward looking conservatism of dominant sectors of the Australian professional archaeology establishment. I know of two cases where Australian archaeological bloggers wrote under pseudonyms and dared not publicise their work for fear of public ridicule. My first blog, ‘Common Roots’ (2004-2006), was one of these and I remained anonymous. Although it attracted international readership, I made sure that it went under the radar in Australia. This was a mistake, now that I think about it.

Australian archaeology was notably slow to move into blogging and it was not until about 2012 that a major blog was established in the form of the Australian Archaeological Association’s website—which features a blog. I am only aware of several regularly updated blogs run by Australian archaeologists: the aforementioned blog by ‘Dr Space Junk’, and another by Gary Vines which provides some great perspectives on consulting archaeology in Australia There are many more I’m sure, and if you run something I’m not aware of please post to the comments below and I’ll update this post.

Blogging into the future

Internationally, the number of archaeologists who write blogs has boomed since the mid-2000s. For example, Doug’s Archaeology includes a list of many hundreds of archaeology blog sites covering an incredibly diverse range of topics. Most of these are run by individuals though this is by no means the only format that blogging takes today. Archaeology’s encounter with social media is much broader than blogging, of course, but for reasons I explain in the next post blogging is a more robust and tangible form of social media interaction than most other forms, and has more distinct professional benefits as well.