Professor Ananda Mitra is Chair and Professor in the Department of Communication, Wake Forest University, North Carolina, USA. Recently he was at Centre for Culture, Media and Governance, Jamia Millia Islamia, where he gave a lecture and also found time to speak to Arshad Amanullah on various issues related to social media, digital discourse, Big Data, cyber bullying, etc. Excerpts:
(First part of this interview is available here.)
Imagined Communities#Virtual Communities?
ARSHAD AMANULLAH: How do you maintain that arrival of social networking sites have made possible to form virtual communities and in that context I would like to ask you; how does the idea of virtual community relates to the idea of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities?
ANANDA MITRA: The idea of virtual community has been around and has been studied for nearly a decade now. In 1994-95, people like me working with things like Listurp and UseNet and so forth, there are several publication in that era, spearheaded primarily by another scholar Steven G. Jones; in his series of edited books like Virtual Culture: Identity and & Communication in Cybersociety and so forth.
Those books were looking at how people through discourse create identities and therefore communities and we are drawing quite a bit on the work of Benedict Anderson as you rightly said, makes the argument discourses form communities. The only thing we are seeing change is the way these discourse arranged thematically to some degree across traditional boundaries. Mainly Anderson’s work is based on presumption of community, which is community requires special proximity. What we started to argue is, not any more. You can have in those days, there was a virtual community called soft[dot]culture[dot]india, these are people who happen to be all over the world. Thus the notions of Diaspora begin to creep into the idea of community. All of that was fine but the technology changed. Technology made it easier for more people to enter into this community and thus come social media and if you look at the genealogy of social media, the first social media that became globally known was MySpace.
MySpace has a very interesting problem, MySpace said that, “you and I could be friend on MySpace but you and I might not know each other in real life”. So the friendship was primarily in the digital. When Facebook comes out, they changed the idea, look! To be friend there is presumption, you know each other already in real life. So, the notion of community changed. MySpace virtual community is more like UseNet virtual community. Facebook virtual community is more like your neighbourhood and now I not only know my neighbour in real life but I also know my neighbour through social media system and the narrative identity of that neighbour is the composition of these two different kinds of idea.
So several years ago, I published a piece in Journal of Computer Media Communication called not as the cyberspace, as much as cybernetics space, this word ‘cybernetics’ is drawn from original German word and the German world cybernetics makes the argument that, there is combination of the Human and the Machine and so at this moment of time I would make the argument we are cybernetics. At any moment in time you are in real life and you are in digital space through your smart phones, you have connected to many different communities. How often you see a person and it is a rude thing and I do this all the time and I am reminded by my friends. I am in a group sitting having a dinner; I pull out my phone and I am doing Facebook in it. I am connected to two different communities at same time.
The ‘Social’ of the Virtual
ARSHAD : In a way I am also trying to understand, the materiality of this conception of online or virtual identity. How does it acquire the ‘social’ around it?
ANANDA : The human being is no longer just flesh and blood being. The human being has two existences increasingly. One instance is flesh and blood human being for instance myself, sitting right now in Delhi, but I also have existence online and that online existence is made up of as simpler things as e-mail or as complex things as Facebook and even more complex if I had a blog. So these two identities are somewhat different. The material-real human being is social through the fact that the person is male, middle-aged, skin coloured. The Discursive digital human being could be social in different way, I am not saying deception, but they might not know everything, if they don’t see me, if they don’t hear me; they might know me in different way. That’s the materiality to some degree. And if you asked about the social part of it; the social part of it is these two human beings or these two manifestations of human being exist in two different social circles. Today I am in Delhi, my social circle is the Centre for Culture, Media & Governance; friends I have had here. At the same time, I am digitally in a social circle which is made up of people. I have 670 friends on Facebook, that’s my social circle. That is not restricted by geography at all, that is restricted not by anything of the fact, I have known these people through some variety of social circles at any time but in the digital presence I am connected with them all the time.
ARSHAD : I would like to mention, Khursheed Anwar, who was working on Communalism and other social issues, committed suicide in 2013. He was related to the NGO sector and used to write a weekly column in Hindi newspaper Jansatta. He could not cope with the propaganda launched against him on the Facebook. In his suicide note he wrote, ‘No one asked me, just doing propaganda against me’. Though the propaganda was launched by the people who are on the Right side of the ideological spectrum but his friends also got influenced by that propaganda and they didn’t ask him for clarification.
‘Cyber Bullying’ vs Real Bullying
ANANDA : It is very unfortunate. I did not know about this particular incident. In very unfortunate way this is the demonstration of cybernetics space, where your real human body cannot tolerate, what is happening to your virtual humanness online and this is the extreme and most horrifying moment of that. But that goes on all the time because you are living in a two different societies. The real human body is surrounded by, what you would consider to be friend most of the times but the virtual is not always that on friends changed, people you are connected might not really be friend in analogue sense and that one of the example of that. Some of that pretty horrifying is ‘cyber bullying’. Bullying is the process that happens in social circle of youngster in schools. Real bullying is sometimes actually possible to be controlled through disciplining, but the cyber bullying is happening in different social circle and that could be completely out of control and in countries and societies where youngster, say fourteen –fifteen- thirteen years old, who exist in both the spaces often complain of that and it becomes very depressing and lead to suicide like that.
Arab Spring, Indian Election & End of Life Care
ARSHAD : Again coming back to your research, would you like to inform us about your recent research objects?
ANANDA : The idea of the NarB, theoretically seems interesting. Analytically it is possible but until you prove it, as you know well in academia proof is peer reviewed publication. So earlier on including the space you were looking at these were the theoretical pieces saying this can be done or something can be done; prediction can be done.
So the three projects are in different phases of completion that going on right now. One is, what we did we applied the analytic process to blogs of 300 people, not journalist or politicians but 300 people who have done blogging in English from Egypt and this was done following the Arab Spring which happened couple of three years ago. We analyse that and the outcome of our analysis if you look at this article I am talking about, ….. The outcome of all the analysis are ‘Narrative Maps’, it really maps, it visualises and for your blog I can give some maps. It visualises attitudes. What we did is looking at these visual attitude maps, we felt that my research kind be said that, look what the media tells us, what the institution tells us about, what happening relationally between the Arab world and the Western world is little bit different from what these blogs are telling us. So that was interesting piece of research which demonstrated that, it is possible to do this analysis, as I said that has been published.
The second piece of research which we are really excited about, that we are following the NarBs and in this case NarBs are Tweets of sixteen to seventeen different journalists in India and this work is done in collaboration with your Centre and Vibodh Parthasarathi being my collaborator in this. We are mapping their attitudes and attempting to figure out what they are saying about the upcoming elections in India. Because we are coming out of the partially theoretical position that these are important journalists and they set the agenda for the community. Thus, it is to some degree agenda setting, news framing and so forth. So we are in process of analysis and it is ongoing analysis and hopefully by the middle of February 2014 we will launch our website and which we definitely like to link to your Centre’s website in which we will be posting, on the public domain our analysis, ‘attitude maps’.
The third research project I am involved with in the US is doing traditional questionnaire based social science survey design. But we are adding into that questionnaire the opportunity for extensive open ended responses, when you are doing questionnaire and stuff like that generally speaking social science reminds us that these questionnaires need to be multiple choice, so the answers are easily analysed and so forth, we are moving away from that little bit, saying that’s fine. If we can hear the voices of the people, that could give us the better sense or different sense, real attitudes instead of using predefined statements. The focus of this is ‘End of Life Care’. In the United States there is system called Hospice System. The Hospices provide families and patients with End of Life Care so for instance you have a person in your family suffering from terminal cancer and has six to eight months to live; what kind of care do you need to provide. So these Hospices provide this care. Unfortunately people have very negative attitudes towards their Hospices. So our project is looking at what are those attitudes, and eventually we will be designing media campaign, public relation campaign so that the Hospice can began to attract more people, so that they provide a better quality of life. So the point is three things, Arab Spring, Indian Election and End of Life Care; completely three different things but all are using the idea of NarB and the analytic process to provide better information for decision making.
ARSHAD : As you mentioned the limitation of social sciences, with reference to your engagement with NarBs, so which discipline of Social Science you find most useful?
ANANDA : This becomes a very curious question because as you well know, Communication Research as we know it today, has been heavily influenced by American Communication Research, that started post Second World War; which in turn influenced by positivists and empiricists, who came from the European social science tradition to the United States. The entire thing that was argued at that point is for instance audience research; there is a fantastic piece by Prof. Jesse G. Delia on this, written way back in Communication Year Book. The argument was that, look if we follow the positivist approach, then we can understand the attitudes and behaviour of human beings, by asking them questions, which are structured questions with structured answers and that’s the proliferation of questionnaire, where you think scales like the Likert-type scales or semantic differential scale, all of that. Which over time at least in American system of communication scholarship and in the discipline, came to be known as quantitative approach. There are major universities like University of Michigan would be well known as a place where the quantitative approach was preferred.
However, in Western tradition of communication, going way back to the Greeks; there was the approach of rhetoric~ Aristotle’s Rhetoric , which for thousand years remained within the domain primarily in Western academia, in American academia; in the domain of the departments of English. During the War or after the War, the University of Chicago started to look communication from different perspective, they said that, look we can understand a phenomena by going deep into it, because anthropologist like Clifford Geertz comes out says ethnography…., there are different clan in a qualitative approach to the communication research.
In the United States, over time these two groups could not talk to each other very well because of lack of common language, common vocabulary. Furthermore, in the American System, which is the system I have grown up in, there were other influences for example British Cultural Studies, coming out of Birmingham. Some of the other influences of Neo-Marxist approach to communication, those thing also fed into it; most of the times fed into the qualitative realm. The qualitative realm has influence of the rhetoric; rhetoric had influence of cultural studies, etc.
If you notice the way I have characterised this, the difference is not in asking the research question, both the groups are interested in answering, may be the exact same question. The difference lies in what I will call data and how I will analyse the data, both ways are empirical because empiricism is data based. In one case the quantitative scholar says, data is number and those number can be analysed through statistical tools, the qualitative folks would say data is discourse and text and those discourse and text can be analysed through qualitative tools.
All I am arguing is that, look how about trying to find a synthesis, which is the Hospice project. Hospice project clearly has a whole questionnaire; you know where we will generate numbers, where my training in social sciences and statistics will allow me to analyse those numbers, in the way those numbers can be analysed. But this NarB approach will allow us to create the attitude maps, which supplements. And each one supplements the other, which is very interesting about the NarB approach. Eventually you can compute co-relations, even though we are starting off with data as discourse, we are able to take it down to the co-relation and with those co-relation come back with some prediction. So, this is a long answer to simple question and where does this fits in; I don’t think it fits either one necessarily, but I think it’s time we have to find a way to combine these things. Because the notion of data is changing, say for example in the traditional social science approach, surveys- how were the surveys delivered? Primarily, through a phone call, phone interview or through a mailed questionnaire. Both of these are expensive modes of questionnaire delivery and data delivery. Thus we will have to restrict to ideal of sampling or so forth. At this moment, you can deliver a question through internet and the cost is less. The data is delivered back to you through the internet and it automatically comes in a digital form therefore you have little restrictions on the size of the data. You could send a questionnaire out to the entire population of the United States (350-360 millions), even if seventy percent response come in, can you imagine the volume of data. So, we had analytics to do the quantitative analysis of the numeric data, but this provides us an analytic process to analyse the discursive data.
ARSHAD : In this long conversation, you talked about the process, methodology and synthesis between qualitative and qualitative, but I don’t know whether I got the answer for, which discipline you are drawing on more; which discipline you find more interesting, more useful?
ANANDA : Okay! At this moment I would argue that my analysis is very much based on machine processing of the natural language. That processing draws us from Communication, Linguistics, and English Language. So, these are three major areas, where I am drawing. The IBM tool has been designed by the people who have been informed by these three disciplines. Once I start looking at the output of what the tool does, then comes the interpretative moment. The interpretative moment is heavily influenced (in my case) by communication and its supplements, under communication frame of Cultural Studies. That is the part of the interpretation, but other part of the interpretation, when you go to the co-relation and the mathematical part of it. I would say that I am influenced primarily by Statistics; it is by social sciences like Sociology, Psychology and Communication. It understands of what those number mean and that’s basic statistics.
ARSHAD : Do you offer any course in the above discussed ideas?
ANANDA : No. Not yet. What I do for instance, when I go back to my university; I will be teaching a course on research methodology, quantitative research and within that course I will deal this part.
Image of cover of Virtual Culture: Identity & Communication in Cybersociety has been taken from Offical website of Amazon.com:http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51HlcOFu4FL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg)