Introduction to Social Media in the Anthropocene
How can a tweet, brief and immediate, encapsulate deep time? When Sverker Sörlin in 2014 claimed, “The Anthropocene is still on Twitter,” he invited exploration into the form and content of social media and the Anthropocene for the scholarly community.1 This special issue opens a space for conversations about how social media, digitization, and inter-disciplinarity work on and in the Anthropocene to transform conventions, boundaries, and accessibility to academic publication. This is reflected in the publication process of the special issue itself, which used an open review to explore how social media can allow for mechanisms of quality control that are more transparent and inclusive.
Social media magnifies different strands of environmental debate and reflects a growing number of actors taking part in shaping these topics. That said, we are not advocating for academics to enter the marketplace of social media, adopt the latest platform, or worship its cult of linking, sharing, and geocoding. You may find life just as meaningful if you go off-line and learn how to die in the Anthropocene.2 But what we do aim for is to begin in earnest using social media to explore, critique, and imagine the Anthropocene and its importance for academic labor.
The Anthropocene: Imagination . . .
The Anthropocene is the term proposed by Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen to name a new geological epoch caused by the effect of human activities [End Page 1] on the geological conditions and processes of the planet.3 Whether approached as Crutzen’s structural perspective on an overarching geological epoch or as an idea that brings to the fore human embeddedness in geological time, the Anthropocene invites you to think of how the world is (un)made anew. Social media and the Anthropocene meet, we argue, in what Arjun Appadurai calls the “work of the imagination” as media play a central role in making it possible to imagine and construct possible lives and worlds.4
The challenge that the sheer scale of the Anthropocene presents to such imaginings could be considered a “crisis of the imagination”—a phrase first used to describe climate change.5 Media and its space-time compression allow the distant to be brought within reach. John Durham Peters thinks of culture as a means to downsize a general environmental crisis to specific faces and formats in an effort to find metaphors for the crisis.6 The environmental crisis is, at the moment, a crisis of imagination as well as of communication. In anticipation of environmental catastrophes, potential futures become part of the meaning of the present. The actual and the imagined meet, are held together, and create tensions. Hence, as Beck and Willms note, “not only is the future indeterminate, but its indeterminacy is part of the meaning of the present.”7 Phenomena such as climate change can be “dramatized or minimized, transformed or simply denied, according to the norms which decide what is known and what is not.”8
In this sense, Mike Hulme illustrates the many reasons and ways in which people disagree about the very existence, characteristics, or implications of human-induced problems such as climate change. Part of the reason for disagreement, according to Hulme, is that climate is not a problem to be solved but is an “imaginative idea” through which to voice other ongoing societal issues.9 As Joni Adamson claims, “Imagination . . . is the first step towards solution.”10 For academic debate on the Anthropocene, these attempts at imagination correspond to analyses of the media used when working with the concept of the Anthropocene. In the dialogue between researchers, media, and the public, there are new platforms of social media central to how the Anthropocene is imagined. One indicative example of the process is the hydra-like etymology and decoupling of names with which different disciplines engage with or challenge the Anthropocene.11 As McKenzie Wark notes, [End Page 2]
Let’s invent new metaphors! Personally, I like the #misanthropocene, but don’t expect it to catch on. Jason Moore prefers the Capitalocene, Jussi Parikka the Anthrobscene. Kate Raworth suggests Manthropocene, given the gender make-up of the Anthropocene Working Group. . . . Donna Haraway offers to name it the Chthulucene.12
In response to this proliferation of terms, Wark settles on Anthropocene, at least for the time being. Similarly, our purpose is not to identify what is a sufficiently analytical definition but to acknowledge that a growing community has begun working through the concept: “It’s a task not just of naming, but of doing, of making new kinds of labor for a new kind of nature.”13
Social media are perceived as providing nearly instant information, and the Anthropocene is the transformation of our previous perennial nature toward the unstable, (con)temporary environment. It is at this crossroads where these two products of modernity, the Anthropocene and social media, can be said to intersect and form the point from which our special issue departs. For this reason, media must not just mean—instead, it must be (i.e., do things). To make a critique of the Anthropocene meaningful, we must find means of, or rather media for, working with it. “Social Media in the Anthropocene” is a juxtaposition, connection, and eventually exploration of two different things that act in symbiosis, reconfiguring the questions of environmentally interested researchers as well as the means by which this research is done. We interpret the amount of academic activity generated around the concept of the Anthropocene as a need for new concepts about the meaning of being human in a global context in which the human condition is changing. This crisis is not confined to academia, but academics from several disciplines are now busy rethinking their specific practices with reference to the Anthropocene, asking questions such as: Who is involved in the knowledge-making practices? What counts as knowledge? What dissemination tools could or should be used? Whereas the Anthropocene uproots previous distinctions between nature and culture, subject and object, and previous boundaries of academic cultures, we here add questions on how to bridge the meaning of it all in relation to the media we use for having that conversation.14 [End Page 3]
. . . And Social Media
But what are social media to begin with? Are not all media social? Indeed, they are! And more so, media are always in the middle, requiring other mediums to be used. Water becomes a medium when you have a ship to sail on it. And whereas Marshal McLuhan aphorized that media are environment, Durham Peters turned the statement on its head, claiming that “environment are media.”15 Contemporary social worlds are saturated in media and processes of mediation.
Our presumption, to use another of McLuhan’s dictums, is that the medium is the message. This has also been what our special-issue contributors were asked to reflect on in their use of media for developing arguments about the Anthropocene. It is not what social media are but what they do that is of concern for those dealing with the plasticity of the Anthropocene. So although all media are social, we are here interested in what is popularly labeled as social media.16 The first example is the syntax of Twitter, where use of hashtags and retweets emerged through use and was later adopted on other social media platforms. Users bring previously unrelated topics together and make connections both within and between the databases of other media.17 J. C. R. Licklider foresaw in the 1960s how (digital) communities would develop around computer-based social media, not defined by locations but by interests.18 Later, Guattari projected a shift toward postmedia through the reappropriation of mass media by a multitude of subject groups in rhizomatic patterns.19
The digitization and media reappropriation constitute a challenge to academia. We briefly wish to acknowledge the challenge posed in ownership, about the process by which reading, writing, and publishing becomes digitized as it goes with or against the grain of Internet ownership.20 When Google chooses not to index and rank areas on the web, these become like books deposited in the vaults of a library, un-read and subsequently seldom a matter of concern. When we apply this condition to what is researched digitally, Internet ownership operates ontologically.21 There are some reactions within academia over this development—for example, against the terms set by publishing houses like Elsevier who hold copyright over large portions of new publications. A petition in 2014 was joined by thousands of scholars in an “Academic Spring” to boycott peer review for Elsevier while also requesting [End Page 4] platforms for open-access publishing.22 Books and journals still prove to be the gold standard in academia, and their digital versions are also imitating the analog form. However, the main challenge provided by the digitization and reappropriation of social media is that the new platforms and formats traffic less in content and more in organization, calculation, and structuring of its users.23
The human condition in the Anthropocene involves a rediscovery of the symbiosis between nature and humans, both of which are being changed by human practices. The cognitive dimension of this is that media and formats are rapidly changing and are part of shaping considerations of the Anthropocene concept. This condition is increasingly relevant as social media involves a turn in media toward the personal, the unprofessional, the everyday life that is of interest for knowledge production. Social media platforms offer not only a means of resistance but, as Patrick Curry urged, a sense of humility in the face of changes in academia where overprofessionalization ends as scholars return to new forms of their old homes (i.e., publishing independent of academia). The amateur, meaning “one who loves a subject,” might well reclaim this original meaning.24 Academics are, by and large, amateurs with the new formats of social media as well as with the subject matter of the Anthropocene. The naming and dating of the Anthropocene demonstrates the richness and metaphorical character the term has acquired, as it entails vastly diverging narratives of its future trajectory. Message and media are in this together. The effort is to bring academia into a discussion of how the use of media influences the means and the messages of our research. In terms of social media, individual status updates do partake in a collective play where terms like Anthropocene meander through a host of users and abusers into the everyday life and discourse where it is practiced. Discussing the Anthropocene in social media differs from discussing it in books. Books are held, at least formally, to be the product of a single genius. Anthologies are the exception to this rule, and they tend to develop, like this special issue, when new and pressing interests make us unsure of where the intellectual development may lead.25 Yi-Fu Tuan describes succinctly the temptation and peril of anthologies:
Given the paucity of overarching concepts the effort is almost certain to fail. Yet it is worth making, for unless we do we shall not [End Page 5] confront the structural weakness of the field. Disparate streams of knowledge lead, ideally to fruitful marriage in a capacious mind; at the other extreme they share a common bed only through the bookbinder’s art.26
Neither our rejection nor our embrace of social media seem adequate to make sense of each new medium’s control, individualism, and collective play. To explore social media in relation to the conceptualization of the Anthropocene is to acknowledge the processes by which the intellectual labor of the academic is itself changing. The special issue invited contributors, and now you dear reader, into this detour among differing media and possible ways whereby we can imagine, discuss, and portray the Anthropocene. We acknowledge social media as a new array of media that both magnify the Anthropocene and reflect its everyday knowledges. From this follows that we do not chiefly ask what is the Anthropocene, social media, or social media in the Anthropocene but that we pragmatically ask where it is.27
The Open Review Process
To stimulate and facilitate the openness, which we envision the concept of the Anthropocene to contain, the articles submitted to the special issue had to pass through an open review process. Over the last two decades, technological innovation has driven a change in the publishing landscape in academia—for example, through the introduction of the PDF format. Consequently, as Ford notes, parts of the scholarly community have started to question the need for journals to publish printed volumes or issues and also how publishing can open up the review processes involved in academic assessment. At heart are some recurring and fundamental questions on whether peer review fits into an ethos of openness and what we are to make of the double-blind peer-review system if we also aim to open up the process of peer review.28 These questions informed our design of the review process, but they are not addressed in-depth in this introduction.
What does it mean to conduct an open review process? While there is variation in how to design the open review, the common denominator is that it involves transparency about the identity of authors or reviewers. Mulligan succinctly phrased this as “Open Peer Review is where the [End Page 6] reviewers’ names and authors’ names are known to one another, and often also to the public at large.”29 Brito et al. add that “peer review is a conversation,” that academic knowledge production relies on human connections and relationships.30 One of the most prominent and reinforced myths about peer review is its watermark of an objective, reliable, and consistent process.31 Regardless of the degree to which peer review fulfills this promise, the hope for open peer review is to trade the traditional academic gatekeeping process for a supportive, constructive process of collaboration between peers and mentors.32 In order to facilitate such a conversation, we planned the open review to be accessible. Although digital formats are not necessary for conducting an open peer review, they facilitate the process and enhance its reach. We set out to find the means of mediating this process without being technologically deterministic. We started with open-source software, but these were quite elaborate. We then turned to social media platforms for scholars, like Academia and Research Gate, but only users with accounts were able to use their built-in review service. Eventually, we settled for Google Docs for three reasons. First, we could make the articles of the special issue accessible regardless of which web browsers you as a reader were familiar with. Second, we were able to facilitate a live online conversation through the commenting system, whereby multiple users could submit and answer comments simultaneously. Third, we here had a space of open review in a single forum with shareable links to distribute and access.
Like the call for contributions, the information about participation in the open review process was distributed through our networks and presented at the 2016 Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) Anthropocene Campus. We assigned two scholars for each article, to ensure they would all be reviewed. The assigned scholars provided a thorough review, filling in a form for comments on content, suggestions for revisions, and assessment regarding its overall suitability for publication—with the significant difference that it was not blind. Participants in the open review could access and comment on all articles but were also asked to focus on specific ones to ensure that each contributor received ample amounts of feedback. The open review lasted for five days during which all the articles were accessible for commenting. We established a calendar so that the reviewers’ attention would focus on a different article each day; the corresponding authors remained online during the [End Page 7] day their article was being reviewed, replying to the feedback given. All in all, approximately twenty-seven people participated in the open review, with each participant submitting a number of comments and engaging in several articles and conversations. After the open review process, the editorial team summarized the forms with the peer reviews and compared them to those provided through the open review. While we gave precedence to the peer review’s assessment for publication, all comments from the open review were used to write up instructions for what were necessary revisions for the contributions. We found that the open review provided a vast and detailed reservoir of comments, which further underlined the collaborative process for developing the authors’ arguments.
The contributions in this special issue all address ideas of knowledge communities—how they shape knowledge production and dissemination and how they are shaped by the media through which they communicate. The contributions use multidisciplinary approaches: environmental humanities informed by climate sciences, digital humanities combined with dramatization techniques, and interdisciplinary social learning. The contributors are academics seeking to expand the academic community, particularly exploring how the media, tools, and technologies increase, limit, or delimit access, creativity, and participation in knowledge production.
Zev Trachtenberg et al. respond to the exclusivity and linearity of academic publishing as well as explore a different approach. “(Inter)facing the Anthropocene: Representing an Interdisciplinary Interaction” outlines the authors’ collaborative project on the Anthropocene, conducted by eight scholars originally based at Oklahoma University. The first phase of the project involved face-to-face seminars as a form of social learning, which was particularly important in shaping a community and enabling communication between scholars from a wide range of disciplines. This was followed by writing blog posts, which were visualized and built into a network on an online platform. The article both reflects on this process and functions as an introductory manual in how to use the interface. Although Trachtenberg et al.’s blog posts were authored individually, they achieved a form of multiple authorship, using [End Page 8] a combination of the digital platform and the social niche out of which their discussions emerged. In formal terms, this is discussed in the article as a move from synchronic, or linear, text to diachronic, allowing the reader to choose the order in which it is read among different network-like layouts. The establishing of the posts’ quantitative and qualitative connections additionally highlights the role of arrangement and sequence of information for knowledge production. In Trachtenberg et al.’s original blog, there is specific awareness of the role of the temporal production of entries and also awareness of the influence of an author’s choices on the readers.
Whereas Trachtenberg et al. develop interdisciplinary knowledge production among colleagues at the same location, Anna Åberg et al. explore a geographically dispersed academic community in “Around the World in 143 Days: Times at the Scale of the Anthropocene.” As with the preceding article, the project began with encounters between the authors (Åberg, Almeida, Wodak, and Kirstein) at a specific time and place (the Anthropocene Campus at the HKW in Berlin, 2014). A chain letter was sent between the authors based in Berlin, Lisbon, Sydney, and Paris, with each reflecting on the Anthropocene and related notions such as human and other-than-human migration, environmental degradation (“natural” and anthropogenic), mutation, natural restoration, and carbon footprint. Åberg et al. documented their project through text, photography, and a comic, while using email to coordinate and publishing the results on Tumblr. This combined traditional, slower, analog media and newer, faster, digital media in their conversation. The article similarly reports the process, highlighting the centrality of changing relations to time and space to both the Anthropocene and social media. In exploring slow and fast media, they reflect on the hybridity of the media used and their own experiences of materiality versus immediacy, in which slow media was self-consciously valued as more personal.
Correspondence is particularly connected to travel as a means for communication and knowledge dissemination. “The Travelling Scientist” by Johan Gärdebo, David Nilsson, and Kristoffer Soldal addresses the importance travel holds for academic practices of building and maintaining knowledge communities—for instance, through conferences and field research. They contrast traditional forms of communication with flying, as academia in these anthropogenic times has become [End Page 9] dependent on having a large carbon footprint. They ask, “What are the values of travelling as a researcher?” “Is a successful academic career even possible without flying?” and “How do environmentally aware researchers deal emotionally with the dilemma of their flying dependence?” The blog The Travelling Scientist, like Trachtenberg et al.’s “(Inter)facing the Anthropocene,” is a social media tool through which different voices and perspectives are gathered. But rather than being a step on the way to a separate platform, The Travelling Scientist blog is itself adopted as a dynamic interface. The authors are not the only contributors to the blog but, again, take on a more facilitating and curatorial role. The blog format was itself an experiment in expanding a conversation that initially began as a question of morals, rationales, and practices of traveling within a specific academic institution. Its contributors were known to the authors, but its debate expanded further through the comments function, which was used both by guests of the institution and, in turn, by people interested in traveling. In the end, the blog’s size and format resembled the digital version of “an academic seminar or a smaller conference.”
Whereas “The Travelling Scientist” hints at social media as a means to expand participation in the knowledge community, Tom Payne explicitly situates alternative media to escape the ivory tower of academia. Tom Payne’s contribution, “Dramatizing the Anthropocene through Social Media: The Spatiotemporal Coordinates of Hydrocitizens,” originates from a project situated in the Welsh context and connections to the global water crisis, social alienation, accelerating climate change, and the Anthropocene. Payne designs an online platform to function as a virtual community with forums, a wiki, blogs, and several sections for uploading digital files as well as facilitating links to other social media platforms. Moreover, the community could converge and meet physically at different events organized in connection to the overarching project of hydrocitizenship. Unlike the previous contributions, Payne’s piece aims explicitly at integrating and involving artists, activists, and any other members of the community. In Wales this means that connection to the vernacular and the local are intimately intertwined. Payne’s article outlines in particular one event organized as part of the larger project of hydrocitizenship, situated at a seaside town in Wales where rising sea levels have begun eroding the shoreline. In a polyvocal account of the event, water becomes not only the element under analysis [End Page 10] but also the stage and witness of communal action. As with Åberg et al., the time-place nexus is foregrounded, particularly in terms of the local in relation to external (national and global) forces. Payne’s article is formally the most experimental of all the contributions, using dramatization in order to accommodate as many and as diverse participant voices as possible. Thus, the dedication to an inclusive knowledge-making practice, which is both locally and globally defined, is directly reflected in the experimental choice of form. This creates a vivid, albeit fragmented, glimpse of parts of the community. As this inclusivity proved unfeasible when composing the article, Payne adopted the dramatic script as a compromise format, himself assuming the role of its stage director. The focus is on community building and engagement with common concerns rather than arriving at concluding knowledge claims. The challenges of producing a polyvocal narrative—especially when facilitated by new media not accessible to everyone (a point also raised by Åberg et al.), as in the case of the inhabitants of the Welsh town—are at the core of the analysis.
Metareflections: Community and Communication
All the contributions, despite their differences in topics and methods of analysis, address the question of which kind of knowledge communities are needed in the Anthropocene, with several contributions pointing to the necessity of including vernacular and local knowledge and community members in the knowledge-making process. Most contributions therefore analyze or present the possibilities and challenges of composing and communicating coauthored and polyvocal narratives, in different forms, integrating the various actors at different stages of the process. In terms of formal innovation, all the articles addressed the question of the dissemination and accessibility of knowledge. The tensions and boundaries between the personal and the professional (i.e., the academic) logically arise in such works. All of them, moreover, analyze how notions of time and space are negotiated in the Anthropocene and through social or traditional media, in terms of travel, knowledge dissemination, and communication. Social media play a key role in all these various aspects as potential enablers. Social media platforms shape knowledge production and dissemination as books or PDFs do, albeit in different forms and ways. How the content is thought through [End Page 11] depends greatly on the format through which it is going to be displayed. Issues of ownership for the information uploaded, privacy policies, and access to the respective platforms are potential obstacles for people who wish to participate in knowledge production. And though these conditions are also prevalent in traditional publication, they are increasingly visible through the emergence of new formats. Adding to this are the difficulties of acquiring and using smart devices and a stable Internet connection and keeping one’s privacy and (intellectual) property rights. In short, there are power structures in social media usage that present challenges to knowledge accessibility.
“Social Media in the Anthropocene” emerged through courses, coffee-table discussions, and participation at the Anthropocene Campus in Berlin, 2014. The common denominator is an interest in how descriptions of the Anthropocene relate to how we work with it (i.e., the media used for discussions, idea development, and imagination). In particular we were inspired by the slow-media seminars of the Anthropocene Campus and envisioned this issue as an exhibition where visitors—that is, you the reader—would access its content not only as written text but also through the media platforms used to develop the contributions, to comment and share and continue coproducing its content. Ideally, the visual disposition would resemble the nonlinear process by which the knowledge production had occurred in the first place.
In any exploration there will be trial and error. This was particularly visible in the open review process, where discussions with and among participants gave voice to differing ideas of what constitutes solid knowledge production. We, the editorial team, found ourselves taking an agnostic position toward the promise and perils of open review, seeing as we ourselves are amateurs in its use. But so is much of academia, and this is also the point of adopting more open approaches to the scholarly conversation. How are we to interpret the open review process within the scope of the special issue? In these times where messages of different disciplines converge on the Anthropocene and media formats conflate, we found the open review process to be a test in “staying with the trouble” of a situated technical project.33 The test meant using social media both to generate contributions and also to facilitate a meaningful forum for comments with respect to the differing messages of the Anthropocene. The open review process is part of our considerations of what the Anthropocene is, presuming that electronic [End Page 12] media increasingly facilitate our social imaginations. As we noted earlier, what the Anthropocene is must also be understood in relation to how we work with it. There was also an element of trial and error in the contributions themselves, which ended up being more conventional than they were initially planned, particularly in regard to how to represent the social media component in the article itself. This is in line with the goals of the project, to allow the authors to try new or other ways of thinking, knowledge production, and communication. However, it is also a reminder that there is reason to be cautious in experimenting with conventional formats. While more brief and immediate formats such as Twitter and blogs are potentially better suited to communicating and community building in times of anthropogenic change, this can be at the cost of clarity, continuity, and grappling with complexity. There is already an increasing pressure on academics to publish frequently and increase visibility, often at the expense of slower, more reflective research. More discussion is needed on the extent to which academia should welcome trials, mess, and confusion or, now more than ever, resist such pressures and safeguard its conventions and boundaries.34 The open review process behind this special issue has both allowed for the slowness of the academic process, with inbuilt quality control, while increasing transparency and increased participation.
Johan Gärdebo is at the Division of History of Science, Technology, and Environment at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology.
Tom Buurman is at the Department of Media Studies at Stockholm University.
Ma Isabel Pérez-Ramos is at the Division of History of Science, Technology, and Environment at KTH Royal Institute of Technology. She is also a member of the research group GIECO-Instituto Franklin.
Anna Svensson is at the Division of History of Science, Technology, and Environment at KTH Royal Institute of Technology
1. Sörlin, “Object ‘Mirror.’”
2. See by way of comparison Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene.
3. Working Group on the “Anthropocene,” “What Is the ‘Anthropocene’?” [End Page 13]
4. Appadurai, Modernity at Large.
6. Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds. Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media, 348.
7. Beck and Willms, Conversations with Ulrich Beck.
9. Hulme, Why We Disagree about Climate Change.
11. Moore, Anthropocene or Capitalocene; Latour, “Telling Friends from Foes in the Time of the Anthropocene”; Malm and Hornborg, “Geology of Mankind?”; Raworth, “Must the Anthropocene Be a Manthropocene?”
16. See Papacharissi, Affective Publics.
18. Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds. Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media, 76.
21. Use and ownership do have other ontological impacts beyond the scope of this editorial introduction. We wish to acknowledge that you could study and define social media as an Internet business model with networked users building a database that converges public and personal communication. As an Internet-based business model, social media users function not as customers but as products of the media they use. Users provide this information for free and constitute in this respect the unpaid labor of social media. See Meikle, Social Media, x–xii.
In contrast to Licklider’s vision of digital communities no longer tied to location, social media is an infrastructure with linkages to the exploitation of cheap labor, the poisonous extraction of minerals, and the release of carbon, see Maxwell and Miller, Greening the Media. The most visible component of this network of global-media culture is the personal computer; the least visible are the servers; see Parikka, Geology of Media, 137. Google’s servers monthly burn electricity worth millions of dollars, producing heat that in turn requires cooling. For as long as information is about carbon, all data have dirt on it. While these areas are worthy of further studies, they do not form the foci but the general background to our inquiry into social media in the Anthropocene. See Durham Peters, Marvelous Clouds toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media, 323–33.
22. Dzeng, “How Academia and Publishing Are Destroying Scientific Innovation.”
23. Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds. Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media, 7.
28. Ford, “Defining and Characterizing Open Peer Review.” [End Page 14]
30. Brito et al., “Love in the Time of Peer Review.”
31. Smith, “Peer Review.”
32. Bali, “A New Scholar’s Perspective on Open Peer Review.”
34. Regardless of what origin story we choose, there are several scholars stating that the book is proving a difficult format for thinking and feeling about the Anthropocene. Art, to name one area of interest, has for some time been swelling over the paginated production format. See Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin, “Art and Death: Lives between the Fifth Assessment and the Sixth Extinction,” in Davis and Turpin, Art in the Anthropocene, 3–4.