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An exchange platform for “trash”: Stories from the Object Ethnography Project

Editors’ note: In this final post of our Ethnographies of Objects edition, we talk to Max Liboiron, Founding Member & Project Leader of the Object Ethnography Project (OEP). The OEP is a project to facilitate the donation of objects among strangers. You can participate in the exchange by telling a story of what attracted you to the object and what you’ll will do with it, and then anyone else can trade an object for a new story. Here, Max shares some of the site’s most interesting stories – some strange, some wonderful and some just plain heartbreaking. Circulating objects in this way shows us how objects can be performative: their meanings arise through a performance with the object in particular contexts. The material boundaries of the object are important to understand in order to imagine their possible futures, but perhaps more important are the spaces they take up in peoples’ lives – in homes, within memory, as gifts and symbolic exchanges. We can’t wait to be a part of an OEP exchange and we’re sure you will too after you read this…

EM: What was the inspiration for the project? 

Originally, the Object Ethnography Project (OEP) was going to be an exchange platform for trash. NYU’s Lucrece Project was sponsoring interdisciplinary methodology projects, and I put out a call for people to create a cultural laboratory looking at waste and value. The original plan was basically an extension of my art practice: I create large-scale miniature dioramas made of trash, and people can interact with the art according to one or two rules of exchange. I use their behaviours to map spontaneous, usually non-capitalist economies.

But the OEP evolved beyond that through a collaboration with Marisa Solomon, an anthropologist, and Vincent Lai, a member of the Fixers Collective. We came together because we were all keen on waste, but we opened up the project so all sorts of objects could be part of an investigation about how terms of value are manifested via circulation and the varied relationships between people and things. Read More…

Faked photographs and objects of journalism in the late 19th Century

tucherEditors’ note: In our installment of August’s Ethnographies of Objects edition, we hear from Andie Tucher about the curious image below that of a ‘Silent City’ that was later found to be fake and about the celebration of faking as a response to the so-called “ultra-realism” of the time. Andie Tucher is an associate professor and the director of the Communications PhD Program at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Her exploration of faked photographs is part of a work in progress investigating the evolution of truth-telling conventions in journalism. A former journalist, she earned her PhD in American Civilization from New York University.

In 1888 Dick Willoughby, a prospector and certified “character” in Alaska, was charging 75 cents apiece for copies of this photograph, which he said showed the mirage of a “silent city” arising from the Muir glacier. Soon, however, critics unmasked it as the image of a random English city superimposed on one of a glacier, and explicitly condemned it as a “fake.” But while that effort at faking was clearly bad, it’s also not representative of what for a brief time photographic faking was understood to be. Less than a decade after Willoughby’s disgrace, many commercial and artistic photographers were cheerily and publicly discussing how faking could be good and deliberately applying the otherwise disreputable term to a range of generally benign retouching techniques.

For my research into the evolution of conventions of journalistic truth-telling, I often find it useful to analyze the ways a particularly resonant word was used by journalists and the public in the general and professional press—the closest a historian can come to exploring social meanings through participant observation. Read More…

Objects of Journalism: Bar Rags and the AIDS Virus


Editors’ note: Joe Cutbirth (@joecutbirth) is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Manhattan College, New York. He writes about politics and the media for the Huffington Post and at his home blog,, a blog by a Texas expat adjusting to life as a New Yorker. In this interview for this month’s ‘Ethnographies of Objects’ edition, Joe talks about his fascinating work investigating a particular object of journalism produced in his home state of Texas in the 1980s: the “bar rag”. Here, he talks about the journalism, the AIDS virus and what it means to live through a time in which he now is a scholar. 

EM: How can a deadly virus and a free entertainment guide become objects of journalism?


‘This Week in Texas’ cover image. March 17-23, 1979

One of the key lessons in modern media history is that journalism exists in a host of forms and delivery systems that are created and shaped by social, political, economic, and technological forces. Journalism is a term for both a set of social practices and the commodities those practices produce. Neither is static. Journalistic practices and products vary in different times and in different places and when done by different people for different audiences. They are fluid forms of inquiry that produce a fluid set of products that reflect factual events of public interest. Journalism is shaped and supported by objects. Some are innately journalistic; others are not.

Journalistic objects include cameras, tape recorders and other technologies that make it easier for journalists to practice their craft. They also include public records, news releases and other documents that assist in the inquiry that is the heart journalistic practice. So, what about nonjournalistic objects, items that aren’t created to help journalistic practice or to function as a journalistic product?

Nonjournalistic objects, such as the AIDS virus and free entertainment guides known as “bar rags,” are easy to overlook because they exist outside the routines that make up the everyday world of journalism. Yet, that very condition makes them essential to explore. A scholarly examination of the circumstances and processes that bring nonjournalistic objects into the world of journalism opens an important window into both journalistic practice and product. Read More…

About a bot: Materiality, multiplicity, and memory in the study of software agents

Stuart Geiger (@steaiou)

Stuart Geiger

Editors’ note: The next post for our Ethnographies of Objects edition is by one of the people who inspired it when he talked about an ‘ethnography of robots’ for EM last year. Stuart Geiger (@staeiou) is a PhD student at UC Berkeley’s School of Information and long time Wikipedia editor who has been studying Wikipedia bots for many years and who has brought us really great insights: not only into how Wikipedia works but also on new ways of thinking about how to do ethnography of largely-online communities. In this thoughtful post, Stuart talks about how his ideas about bots have changed over the years, and about which of the images below is the “real” bot.     

A few weeks ago, Heather Ford wrote to me and told me about this special edition of Ethnography Matters, focusing on the ethnography of objects.  She asked me if there was something I’d like to write about bots, which I’ve been struggling to ethnographically study for some time.  As I said in an interview I did with EM last year, I want to figure out how to ethnographically study these automated software agents themselves, not just the people who build them or have to deal with them.  Among all the topics that are involved in the ethnography of objects, Heather briefly mentioned that she was asking all the authors to provide a picture of their given object, whatever weird form that may take for bots.

At first, I started to think about the more standard epistemological questions I’d been wrestling with:  What is the relationship between the ethnographer and the ethnographic subject when that subject isn’t a human, but an autonomous software program?  What does it mean to relate an emic account of a such a being, and what does ethnographic fieldwork look like in such an endeavor?  How do classic concepts like agency, materiality, and the fieldsite play out when investigating what is often seen as more of an object than a subject?  What do we even mean when we say ‘object’, and what are we using this term to exclude?  I could take any one of these topics and write far too much about them, I thought.

As always, after jotting down some notes, my mind started to wander as I entered procrastination mode. I shelved the more ‘theoretical’ questions and moved to what I thought was the easier part of Heather’s request: to provide a photo of a bot.  I thought that finding an image would be a fun diversion, and I had so many great cases to choose from.  There were humorous bots, horrifying bots, and hidden bots.  There were bots who performed controversial tasks, and bots whose work was more mundane.  There were bots I loved and bots I hated, bots that were new and bots that were old.  There were bots I knew backwards and forwards, and bots who were still a mystery to me.  I just had to find an image that I felt best encapsulated what it meant to be a bot, and then write about it.  However, I didn’t realize that this simple task would prove to be far more difficult than I anticipated — and working out how to use imagery rather than text to talk about bots has helped me come to articulate many of the more complicated issues at work in my ethnography, particularly those around materiality, multiplicity, and memory.

Read More…

An object of journalism: the hyperlink

Juliette de Meyer

Juliette de Meyer

Editors’ note: Juliette de Maeyer (@juliettedm) kicks off this month’s edition focusing on Ethnographies of Objects with a response to two questions posed to her: ‘Why is the hyperlink an interesting object of journalism?’ And ‘What’s the best way to approach this object methodologically?’ Her work on hyperlinks is a fascinating exploration of materiality, stubbornness and methods for trailing the object. 

An object of journalism?

First things first: why do I even claim it is an “object”? A link is not exactly a thing that can be touched… However, a link has a material existence in the digital realm, with a beginning and an end — it is clearly defined by chunks of code, the <a> and </a> HTML tags that border it. We can define what’s a link, what’s not a link and, even, what’s almost a link: the six news sites I have extensively studied for my dissertation all contain what I call « plain text links », that is a URL effectively written in the text of the news story, but which is not a link. The idea of indicating another place on the web is there, it’s a reference to another web page or site, but it’s unclickable.

Hand cursor

The 3D hand cursor that appears over a hyperlink. Image by StockMonkeys on Flickr CC BY

The material boundaries that define the object itself suddenly become blurry, and that’s exactly where it becomes interesting. Why did the journalists produce almost-links or anti-links? Same goes for the apparently very simple distinction between internal and external links: internal links lead to pages in the same site, the same domain, defined by its URL, whereas external links point to other sites. Alright, but what about links that lead to other sites belonging to the same owner? News site A is the online counterpart of a tabloid, and sometimes links to articles published by news site B, the online counterpart of the quality paper — all are owned by the same company, and due to convergence efforts, news sites A and B are produced in the same newsroom. Formally, that’s still an external link. The material boundaries again become interesting when they are challenged.

A link also has an unambiguous existence for the actors involved in online news making. Ask a journalist, a blogger or an editor: they know what a link is. They can recognize one, they know when they produce one. This may seem a very mundane quality, but many things that we claim to study academically don’t have such an obvious existence. Try to ask journalists about their Bourdieuan habitus… Of course, this is not to say that the Bourdieuan habitus is an invalid concept. There might even be a portion of habitus involved in the ways journalists deal with links. It’s simply a question of vantage point: studying objects—things that exist—is a bottom-up approach that allows to iteratively discover concepts, theories and issues. It’s an empirically-driven, inductive perspective: instead of saying “Hey! The issue of sourcing is an important concept in news, let’s see how journalists use links to show their sources”, the logic sound more like this: “So there’s this thing that seems quite unique to online news, it’s called a hyperlink: let’s see why journalists use it… They use it to show their sources, but also for many other reasons!”.

Approaching the study of the hyperlink methodologically

Studying a single object of journalism has a great advantage: because it is so focused, it allows the use of mixed methods. It’s a very pragmatic argument, verging on stubbornness: I’m studying the link, and just that. Sure, other online news features are fascinating, but I don’t want to know anything about the latest multimedia fad or the craze of users’ comments. This is why I can cope with doing a big data content analysis, a historical discourse analysis, and some ethnographically-inspired newsroom observations — and graduate in due time (hopefully). All these methods are extremely time-consuming: being highly selective about what I was actually going to look at was a matter of survival.

And it produced interesting results. Let’s consider, for example, the ancient debate of how outdated CMS weigh on bad or non-existent linking practices. I’ve conducted ethnographically-inspired work in two newsrooms. CMS-wise, one of the newsroom was a classic case of print-centric tools forced upon web people: journalists in charge of online news had to use the same tools as print folks. Visually, it meant that they had to write their stories in an interface that looks like a printed page, with columns and stuff. No HTML allowed, of course. Hence, no links — or more particularly, no inline links: side-column links are another story. If they wanted to add inline links in their stories, they had to circumvent the automatic workflow and log in into another system. Everything was incredibly ugly and counter-intuitive. It involved many clicks and did not exactly fit well with the pressure to publish fast. When asked about their linking practices, journalists in that newsroom complained that there were many technical barriers. They claimed that they did not produce a lot of links, because of the print-centric tools they had to use.

In the other newsroom I’ve visited, journalists worked with a spanking new CMS, a blog-like interface where everything could be dragged and dropped effortlessly. The possibility to add inline links was smoothly integrated and it could be done at any stage of the process. Journalists claimed they added links “whenever it is necessary”.

Guess which site produced more inline links? The first one, with the print-centric CMS and many alleged “technical barriers” to linking. This surprising result was only visible when looking at aggregated data over a long period of time, it wasn’t obvious when looking at a handful of articles because both sites produced rather few inline links (around 10% of articles contained at least one inline link in the second site, whereas the proportion was a bit more than 20% for the first newsroom). This is exactly why it was important to complement newsroom observation with a large-scale content analysis. Or to complement the content analysis with newsroom observation, if you prefer. Looking at a specific object allowed me to do just that: multiply the vantage points while keeping my research feasible with the time and resources I had. Nothing new, really, just good old triangulation with a pragmatic twist.

All in all, the “object” is a very useful lens. It allows a research stance focused on what’s material, but does not limit it to the study of artifacts. Discourses, representations and meaning all play an important role in my research — as much as large-scale content analysis and ethnographic inquiries. Focusing on the “object” is the only way I know of keeping it all together.

Featured image by JanneM on Flickr CC BY NC SA

August 2013: Ethnographies of Objects

This month’s edition is co-edited by CW Anderson (@chanders), Juliette De Maeyer (@juliettedm) and Heather Ford (@hfordsa). The three of us met in June for the ICA preconference entitled ‘Objects of Journalism’ organised by Chris and Juliette. Over the course of the day, we heard fascinating stories of insights garnered through a focus on the objects, tools and spaces surrounding and interspersed with the business and practice of newsmaking: about faked photographs through the ages, about the ways in which news app designers think about news when designing apps for mobile devices and tablets, and about the evolution of the ways in which news room spaces were designed. We also heard rumblings – rarely fully articulated – that a focus on objects is controversial in the social sciences. In this August edition of Ethnography Matters, we offer a selection of objects from the conference as well as from an open call to contribute and hope that it sparks a conversation started by a single question: what can we gain from an ethnography of objects – especially in the fields of technology, media and journalism research?


Hardware. Image by Cover.69 on Flickr CC BY

Why an *ethnography* of objects?

As well as the important studies of body snatching, identity tourism, and transglobal knowledge networks, let us also attend ethnographically to the plugs, settings, sizes, and other profoundly mundane aspects of cyberspace, in some of the same ways we might parse a telephone book. Susan Leigh Star, 1999

Susan Leigh Star, in ‘The ethnography of infrastructure‘ noted that we need to go beyond studies of identity in cyberspace and networks to (also) look at the often invisible infrastructure that surfaces important issues around group formation, justice and change. Ethnography is a useful way of studying infrastructure, she writes, because of its strengths of ‘surfacing silenced voices, juggling disparate meanings, and understanding the gap between words and deeds’.

In her work studying archives of meetings of the World Health Organization and old newspapers and law books concerning cases of racial recategorization under apartheid in South Africa, Star ‘brought an ethnographic sensibility to data collection and analysis: an idea that people make meanings based on their circumstances, and that these meanings would be inscribed into their judgements about the built information environment’. Read More…