Social Media and the Professional Archaeologist

This post spawns from a few recent experiences that have led me to consider the role of the professional archaeologist on social media platforms. We all recognize the power and potential of social media as a communicative device, especially as it relates to the communication and translation of scientific information for the general public. Whether a social media presence is meant to convey points of view or simply to report current news within a discipline or progress on particular field/lab projects, many of these platforms are situated to communicate anthropological/archaeological research to the public.  I am specifically interested in exploring the presence of professional archaeologists on Facebook, especially in regards to many of the Facebook pages that have popped up in the past few years that are described as places for the sharing and discussion of archaeological/anthropological research. To illustrate, below are a few descriptions provided by some of these public Facebook pages:

 

“If you’re an archaeologist get yaself in here, post some pics and vids, share some stupid stories, birch about the heat, the rain, the mud, the flies, the public, the contract. Maybe tell us about an amazing or not so amazing dig you’ve been on, whatever grabs ya. Feel free to post a link to something interesting but please leave with the link a quick synopsis of what it relates to, why you think it’s interesting, that sort of thing. Of late we’ve been getting a fair few airy fairy links and discussions about magical mystical fairy lands and we’re pretty chock a block full of all that for now. So in future if you post something along those lines, it will be removed, if you are a repeat offender we’ll then remove you. Enjoy the group, we have some great discussions and links and pics and fun in here.” (“Archaeology” FB Public Group)

 

“This group was formed to share and discuss information about archaeology. Pseudoscientific stuff will be removed; the poster of such will be warned once and removed from the group upon a second offense. Spammers will be removed upon the first offense.” (“Archaeology” FB Public Group)

 

“This is a meeting place for those interested in biological anthropology. We’ll post interesting current articles and various announcements to keep you tuned in to happenings in our subdiscipline.” (“BioAnthropology News” FB Public Group)

 

Now for an anecdote. As I was scrolling through my Facebook news feed a few weeks ago I came across a post on one of these pages (I won’t name names) that had linked to a notorious Southeastern conspiracy theorist (again, I won’t name names). Knowing that the links generated and shared on this pages come from professional researchers, students, as well as members of the public, I thought it appropriate to note that the link and the story were from a very unreliable source (I’ll note that no description was offered with the link itself). I was quickly met with a reply noting that this person knew the source was unreliable and that it was posted to incite discussion. I was somewhat taken aback and responded, noting that the public page itself had roughly 16,000 followers, and that highlighting pseudoscience may be counterproductive to the public outreach efforts of the page itself. At this point the moderator of the page (a professional anthropologist) chimed in and pointed me towards the page’s description noting that they post “the good, the bad, and the ugly” content related to the discipline, and that it was important to keep up on how the media portrays the field. At this point I decided not to respond any further, but was very uncomfortable with the scope and aims of the page, its moderators, and the experience itself.

 

(I will point out, before I move on, that despite this experience and the concerns it evoked, there are also very wonderful and well moderated Public Groups on Facebook aimed at sharing and discussing archaeological research.)

 

This experience bothered me for some time. It especially hit home because the unreliable story that had been posted concerned Southern Appalachian indigenous populations, the region in which I conduct research. This was a professional archaeologist who actively facilitated, if not encouraged, the sharing and discussion of pseudoscience among the public, among 16,000 members who come to the page to learn about anthropology because anthropology is fun and exciting! As professional archaeologists we wield an incredible amount of knowledge that people are actively fascinated with! People are enamored with archaeology, discovery, and the deep past; we know this. So, with the proliferation of social media as a communicative tool, what becomes our role in controlling the dissemination of archaeological research? What becomes our role in the complicated (even fragile) dance between the media’s sensationalization of archaeology, the public (who now consumes this media at a rate never before possible), and professional archaeologists?

 

I considered these questions for a few days and, seeing as this is really an ethical discussion at its core, decided to look to the SAA’s guide on archaeological ethics to see if social media presence has been considered. I guess it wasn’t really a surprise that the exhaustively lengthy 750 word ethical guide provided by the SAAs mentions nothing about social media. I did however pull a few passages that could be informative:

 

“Stewards are both caretakers of and advocates for the archaeological record for the benefit of all people; as they investigate and interpret the record, they should use the specialized knowledge they gain to promote public understanding and support for its long-term preservation.”

 

“Archaeologists should reach out to, and participate in cooperative efforts with others interested in the archaeological record with the aim of improving the preservation, protection, and interpretation of the record.”

 

Of course what stood out to me here were the lines “promote public understanding” and “improving…interpretation of the record.” As I sat there thinking about where social media fits among these aims and ethical guidelines, and especially how “promoting public understanding” and “improving the interpretation of the record” related to defining our roles among consumers, producers, and brokers of archaeological knowledge, I received an email. This email contained the current newsletter, “The European Archaeologist” produced and distributed by the European Association of Archaeologists with a special section outlining the proceedings of a meeting that debated the relationship between archaeology and the public.

 

The proceedings, titled “Tübingen Theses on archaeology,” was produced by the annual meetings of the German Society for Pre & Proto-history from the session “Does the public create itself a different archaeology? Analyses of a power shift.” From the session, six theses were outlined concerning public participation and the role of archaeologists in facilitating the exchange of archaeological information. I want to summarize two of these theses here. The most relevant to my own interests was Thesis No. 5:

 

Thesis No. 5: Communication in social media improves the public debate on archaeology

It might be argued that the development of social media, i.e. blogs and platforms like YouTube, Wikipedia or Facebook is ostensibly a purely technological change. Actually, a major change in communication is behind this – towards dialogue with a potentially high reach within very short periods of time. In social media, numerous non-archaeologists have built up vast audiences, so that their interpretations of archaeology have an impact on many people. Archaeology which refuses to be present on such platforms, voluntarily renounces a role in public archaeological debate. Professional archaeology must be present on such platforms. Colleagues who engage in social media and who are, for example, blogging or interacting via Facebook, should be recognized for their commitment. They make a key contribution in archaeological debates with non-archaeologists. Measurable success in social media should be acknowledged as part of formal publication activity and a contribution to the positive reputation of the discipline.”

 

The important point here, to me, was that “In social media, numerous non-archaeologists have built up vast audiences, so that their interpretations of archaeology have an impact on many people. Archaeology which refuses to be present on such platforms, voluntarily renounces a role in public archaeological debate. Professional archaeology must be present on such platforms.” But what is the character of that presence? This is the question that remains unanswered, and the one that I first became curious about exploring. While we all recognize that a presence is necessary, we don’t seem to be exploring what it means to be present. Are we facilitators? Do we create spaces for discussion and sharing of information? Do we heavily moderate and filter? Do we voice our perspectives? What do the interactions between archaeologists and the public within a social media environment look like? How should they look?

 

These questions become even more critical when we consider the role of the media in reporting the information we generate to the public. I recently came across an article posted by a friend on Facebook about the ways in which journalists are often flawed in their reporting of social science research (link to the article: http://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2016/1/22/10811320/journalists-social-science). The points made in this article are nothing new, and are all to be expected. The flaws however become increasingly important to consider as the wide majority of posts, articles, etc… posted to public archaeology groups on Facebook are presented in the form of popular articles. Thesis No. 4 of the Tübingen Theses touches on why this may matter to us:

 

Thesis No. 4: Archaeology should not be controlled by media suitability

Communications of archaeological institutions, like press releases, increasingly display the use of superlatives, the emphasis of historically well-known personalities and blatant references to breakthroughs in science. This tendency can be summed up in the keyword “mediatization”. As a consequence, the expected better usability of issues, interpretive patterns and questions means that scientific projects, or the work of competent authorities are aligned towards ‘media suitability’. It is certainly acceptable when archaeological projects prove to be media-suitable. But this should not become a key criterion for the selection of funding of topics, activities, questions, persons and projects. In an appropriate communication of archaeological work, also the illustration of the needs, requirements and of failure has to be integrated.”

 

Popular media articles are the majority of what is shared on social media platforms that target public audiences. These articles are probably the only source of information on archaeological research available to, or sought out by, the general public. The funding for archaeological and anthropological research comes from the public (in a way). The question of the archaeologist’s presence on social media platforms becomes more critical when the relationships between social media, public outreach, and potential funding trends are realized.

 

I know that I have strayed somewhat from the main point of this post, which was to explore our presence on social media platforms, but I think it is vital that we critically evaluate our place within those environments not only for ethical reasons related to public outreach, education, and the promotion of the archaeological record, but also for reasons that may, even indirectly, affect us and our ability to continue to conduct research.

 

I have no answers to these questions, but I hope this post was thought provoking, especially considering many of us write for blogs, post to Facebook, and even include social media outreach into the Broader Impacts sections of our grants. I know this post is preaching to the choir, but I think these are issues that deserve productive dialogue as the control, production, and consumption of the archaeological information that we ourselves generate is being shared, presented, and consumed in ways that are brand new to our discipline at a rate that has never been seen before (which should be exciting!). The power dynamics between the media, the public, and professional archaeologists have rapidly transformed over the last decade or two with these technological changes (which have very much induced a cultural revolution). To me, our role in these changing dynamics remains very unclear, and even contested, among professional archaeologists. We could benefit from a more critical evaluation not only of the role of archaeologists but also the role of research institutions more generally (university departments, museums, research institutes and centers, etc…) as effective brokers of anthropological knowledge and research between scientists and the public within a social media setting.

Jake Lulewicz

Links

SAA Principles of Archaeological Ethics

http://www.saa.org/AbouttheSociety/PrinciplesofArchaeologicalEthics/tabid/203/Default.aspx

The European Archaeologist

TEA-Issue 47 Winter 2015

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4 comments on “Social Media and the Professional Archaeologist

  1. Jessi Halligan says:

    Hi Jake,
    Thanks for the thoughtful post. I have also been thinking about this very topic in recent months, especially since I teach a number of introductory courses, which may well be the only course a given student ever takes in anthropology, let alone archaeology, so I feel that there is a definite responsibility to try to present archaeology in a complete light, but at the same time in a way that students will actually read, so I use a lot of articles from popular media…which is very sensational. However, in response to your first set of comments, my awesome cousin, a political scientist at Boston College, recently presented some of her research in the Washington Post showing that presenting misinformation, EVEN IF it is immediately corrected, stays with people, and strongly influences them, even months later. She was doing this in relation to political candidates, but I think the implications for what you were discussing are very clear. I know I will no longer present completely outlandish ideas to discuss them without a whole lot more careful consideration than I had previously used. (see link here if you are interested: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-correcting-donald-trump–or-anyone-else–doesnt-work/2016/01/08/9e5ef5d4-b57d-11e5-a842-0feb51d1d124_story.html)

  2. dover1952 says:

    I really need to be doing something else right now, but because you have put so much effort into writing this post, I will try to make it worth your fine effort by stating a few impromptu thoughts—admittedly not totally well thought through:

    1) Here in the Southeast, I operate two archaeology blogs and an archaeology website that you and anyone else are welcome to visit at any time—the more the merrier:

    https://contextintn.wordpress.com/

    https://archaeologyreconciliation.wordpress.com/

    https://archaeologyinoakridge.wordpress.com/

    2) As professional archaeologists, I think we owe it to our assorted “publics” to be as honest and truthful as we can about archaeological information and issues—or at least our viewpoint(s) on them. For this reason, I do not post primary pseudoarchaeology content on my blogs. However, generally speaking, I am not inclined to delete a citizen blog post response that contains pseudoarchaeology information. We archaeologists should not be in the business of censoring or running away ordinary American citizens who have a sincere interest in American archaeology—but have been misled by some element of pseudoarchaeology. We need all the help we can get from our assorted publics. I only very, very, very rarely get such responses from ordinary citizens, but when I do, my policy is to very nicely and politely debunk any pseudoarchaeology notion that they might present and replace it with truth. However, after doing that, I will not endlessly debate the subject with such a person because pseudoarchaeology is a lot like politics and religion—such debates go nowhere and almost always end in a climate of bad feelings.

    2) I do not allow any primary poster who is famous for pseudoarchaeology (like that guy with the stupid-looking hair) or one of their rabid followers to use my blog as a platform for pushing pseudoarchaeology onto the public. If they try it, their responses will be deleted as a warning, and if they keep it up, future access to my blogs will be denied. I do not allow guest posters who push pseudoarchaeology. As an interesting aside on this, many Wikipedia articles on southeastern archaeology are written by a lovely acquaintance of mine—an artist in New Orleans who goes by the handle name Hieronymus Rowe. Basically, he has quit posting these interesting and generally well-done archaeology articles because of the free-wheeling editorial environment that goes on behind the scenes for every article on Wikipedia. Apparently, one of the most serious problems knowledgeable archaeological writers have on Wikipedia is that pseudoarchaeologists come in right behind them, undo editorial changes they have just made to clarify text, and insert their own tentative bullshit in its place. Huge editorial arguments ensue. The bullshit sometimes makes it into the text anyway, and the knowledgeable writer often has to go to the mat in a hard fight to get it taken out. Apparently, according to my acquaintance, it became so exhausting for him that he just gave up on writing new southeastern archaeology articles for Wikipedia.

    3) But we need to be careful too—in a reasonable way—because every once in a great while, a position that is thought to be pseudoarchaeology in its own time later turns out to be true. For example, at one time, Ales Hrdlicka and others had a choke hold on American archaeology in their strong belief that Native Americans arrived late in the New World. Folsom. Clovis Game over. When I was in graduate school in the 1970s, the extremely early arrival hypothesists were thought of has having one foot in real archaeology and the other foot in fantasyland—then came Goodyear and others. Nowadays, Dennis Stanford is getting that rap. Who knows if that may change? Bottomline: We need to be respectful and careful in dealing with other peoples ideas on archaeology—or risk get egg on our faces.

    4) Along with my friend Dr. Doug Rocks-MacQueen in the UK (probably the world’s most well-known archaeological blogger), I have noted that it is nearly impossible to get readers to respond to and discuss primary blog posts on American archaeology. Doug notes that only about 1 in every 99 readers who visit archaeology blogs will ever post a response or comment. People are loathe to discuss archaeology for some odd reason. Personally, I have found that to be true on my blogs as well. This sort of puzzles us really. You would think people would be eager for discussion. You know. Rub elbows with the archaeologists. Get listened to in a world where everyone is a number and no one listens. We have a few operating hypotheses:

    A) Ordinary citizens are afraid they do not own enough personal knowledge to enter an archaeological discussion. I think this is a ridiculous and ungrounded fear. No one expects an ordinary citizen to be an archaeological Einstein. All we expect and hope for is real public interest, regardless of knowledge base.

    B) Professional archaeologists, archaeology graduate students, and archaeology undergraduate students are scared shitless to express their true thoughts, opinions, or feelings on archaeology blogs because they are afraid “one wrong move, one wrong thought, one ever so slight misstep—and my archaeology career and ability to get my next archaeology job will be gone—a whole career flushed down the toilet because of a single response to a blog post.” C’mon people. If American archaeology has become that dangerous, every damned one of us ought to close up shop instead of voluntarily living in our own little North Korea. The people who need to be drummed out of American archaeology are any American archaeologists who would create such a climate of fear—and I personally do not give an “F” in hell what those archaeologists think about it. So, whoever you buttholes are out there, up yours!!!

    C) The cyberworld in general has indeed become a dangerous place. The most recent edition of the world’s most famous and beloved job hunting manual, “What Color Is Your Parachute?,” recommended by the business school at Harvard University, notes that up to 70 percent of employers regard every last word you have ever posted on any electronic social medium or website as being part of your formal job hunting resume. How many of you knew that? Moreover, many of these same employers use special investigation subcontractor organizations who specialize in tracing down every last word you have ever said on social media to find out “what kind of person Jennifer really is.” Remember that insane, angry rant with all the cuss words you posted on social media in 1994, and it is still floating around out in cyberspace. It could come back to haunt you at hiring time. As a result, many people today are beginning to pull back from putting too much of themselves on social media. This too hurts frank archaeological discussions on social media.

    5) In my opinion, formality hurts American archaeology on any social medium. Dressing your archaeology up in a tuxedo will repel interest and discussion on social media. We have a problem in American archaeology. We are not taken seriously by much of the American public—checked your funding lately? Americans are in love with archaeology—or at least the idea of archaeology—but they are not beating down the doors to hug you or send you money. Like Rodney Dangerfield, when push comes to shove: “We don’t get no respect.” Many American archaeologists think this is because the American people, and particularly people in American business, do not accept American archaeologists as real professionals like medical doctors, attorneys, or licensed P.E. engineers. Therefore, in their minds, the answer to getting respect is to put on the starched shirt and expensive tie of professionalism and do everything they can 24/7 to look and act like a “true professional” in public—and the respect will one day come. Some even think state licensing of archaeologists will bring that desired respect because medical doctors, geologists and engineers have licenses. “Yeah!!! Licenses. That’s the ticket!!!” Wrong!!!! The key, critical, important thing these archaeologists always miss is the reason why we do not get the respect we often desire, and it is nothing that putting on a tuxedo will fix. Our problem is not WHO WE ARE. Our problem is WHAT WE DO. Many Americans—probably a vast majority—do not think archaeology and history are important—for anything. They do not see them as being relevant to their everyday lives, and that is not at all surprising when you consider one of the most important foundational facts in traditional American culture: “America is All about the Future.” Go back and read that again. For those who do think it has some value, as our friend Ken Sassaman has rightly observed and complained, American archaeology (and history) are often viewed by the public as being little more than adjuncts to the entertainment industry. That being the case, I see no reason to dress overly formal or put on “highfalutin” professional airs on social media sites that deal with American archaeology. Being informal, warm, kind, friendly, frank, open, and welcoming in the long run on social media will buy us archaeologists more interest, and people will be more open to any case we might make for our relevance in American society and culture.

    6) Finally, and this may upset some of you, we American archaeologists tend to—wait for it——-condescend to our publics. Indeed, we often accuse our publics wrongly. One of the things that burns my spinal column to a crisp is when a fellow American archaeologist makes some version of the following statement—and I see it all the time:

    “I believe in public archaeology, but the most important thing in dealing with the public is to dumb down our presentations so we meet the members of the public at their own level.”

    In other words, you are saying that you are sitting on a high cloud of God-like privilege, but you might just consent to throw a few simple beef bones down to the poor, ignorant peasants who toil and sweat on the landscape beneath you—with the most important operative words being “beneath you.” Here is a wake-up call—just in case you have never noticed: AMERICAN ARCHAEOLOGY IS NOT ROCKET SCIENCE. A great many people have excellent educations and academic skills, albeit in disciplines other than archaeology and anthropology. People can understand a lot more more than you might think. I was reading archaeological literature on my own just out of high school and before ever taking any college courses in archaeology, even formal archaeological site reports and professional megabooks by V. Gordon Childe. I was not lost in any of those publications, and I know other ordinary folks who were not lost either. Get off your high horse!!! Avoid condescending to your assorted publics on social media sites that deal with archaeology—and strike a good balance in dispensing information to the public. Some of your public is a hell of a lot smarter than you are, and some of your public is not nearly as smart as you are. Strike a good balance for both—and always remember—on social media people who do not understand something can ask you questions. Be sure to answer them, and do it nicely.

    7) Here is one last thing. Face-to-face archaeology with the public is important too. You might think of it as social media via air molecules. The second thing that fries my spinal column to a crisp is the field archaeologist who treats citizen visitors as a nuisance when they visit his or her in-progress field excavations—and treats them like aliens who just arrived from Planet X. The operative mandate:

    “Tell them as little as possible, get rid of them as fast as you can, and never show them any of the artifacts you are finding. If you must say something, talk about your field methods and why you are using them.”

    In other words, bore your visitors to death, and they will leave. This is no way to treat the public whose tax dollars you are often using to excavate. It engenders bad will between archaeologists and the public, it turns people off, and it makes people angry. I was treated this way when I, as an 11-year-old kid, visited an archaeological site in Nashville with two of my adult relatives. I never forgot it. It is bad news for American archaeology. Instead, pre-plan for the inevitable visitors. Be friendly. Be welcoming. Make sure your crew members do the same. Do not take the position that you are the PI or crew chief—and all your crew members need to shut up, stay quiet, and avoid answering questions for citizens or visiting news media. This is not Hollywood, and this is not your chance to be a television or movie star. This is your chance as an archaeologist to put your best foot forward with the American public. And oh by the way, that thing you have about not showing a few of the artifacts to the visiting public because some of them might be local artifact collectors or looters. Chances are high that they already knew about the site you are excavating three decades ago, they were there years before you and your crew were, and they already know what kind of artifacts you are finding. Those of you who entered American archaeology via National Geographic Magazine, a stimulating Archaeology 101 course, or The Discovery Channel would have no real feel for that sort of thing. I do. When I was growing up in the Nashville area, there were no professional archaeologists—only avocational archaeologists and artifact collectors. Given our deficient public libraries, if a kid—any kid—wanted to learn something about local archaeology, she had to get to know those guys and know them really well. Believe me—those artifacts you want to hide from the public—the looters and collectors already know your site and they already know your artifacts. All you are doing by hiding them is robbing the uninitiated public of a good education.

    All done.

  3. Thanks for the post, Jake! There doesn’t seem to be a clear cut answer for how to deal with conspiracy and pseudoscience in archaeology, particularly on social media, and in light of research like that which Jessi linked to above. Facebook shares can be such an ambiguous way of presenting information. It sounds like in the anecdote you mention, the sharer hoped it would bring attention to the group, and in the best case maybe promote a discussion that would be enlightening–but how often does a comment thread like that really inspire enlightenment? And if we’re talking about Facebook specifically, there is always that uncontrollable list of related links that show up underneath a posted article, and those can be entirely unreliable and contradictory.

    I don’t think there can be any one way that archaeologists should conduct themselves on social media, even when they are considering themselves to be representatives of the field. Some people might find themselves driven to refute all the archaeological misinformation they see, but to me that seems like an impossible task. I do agree that it’s not helpful to further disperse misinformation just to attract attention, or with the assumption that everyone will see immediately for themselves that it’s “the bad” or “the ugly.” I would think that just having reliable and well-researched information out there is itself a valuable corrective. Of course making that information accessible, and finding a balance between coming off as either esoteric or condescending is a challenge. To dover’s points above, I don’t think most archaeologists believe the public are all too unintelligent to understand our research, but often the things that we are absorbed in day-to-day are not what the casual visitor wants to know about, whether on site or online.

    For a long form example of an archaeologist making the most of social media to refute pseudoscience, see the blog of Michigan grad Andy White: http://www.andywhiteanthropology.com/blog . I haven’t been keeping up with the recent “sword gate” issue but his series of posts on giants was a very thorough example of using evidence and reasoning to make a case against fantastical claims. Of course, one of the things that quickly becomes clear is that the people who are already convinced will not be un-convinced. But having solid and well-researched sites to point people to can be one way of making the most of the potential for social media to promote the sharing of information.

  4. […] have been focused on contemporary archaeological problems, from Jake Lulewicz’s piece on the ethics of social media and archaeology, to Sian Halcrow’s descriptions of the obstacles specific to women in […]

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