Saturday, February 16, 2008

Diversifying Readership?

Hey, here’s something interesting… my blog posting on the Lindh investigation photos got some discussion on a Special Forces discussion forum. Actually, the posting didn’t get much discussion, but it raised what seem to be two very sensitive hotspots – US citizens like Lindh, who are reviled as defectors; and the uncontrollable damage that photos can do to the military’s public image. Check it out. I know that this blog has discussed by anthropologists, but until now I didn't realize that military personnel might be reading and talking about it.

People like the posters in Shadowspear are well positioned to correct my misreading of official DoD policy documents, and will likely do so quite vocally if they pay any attention to what I’m writing about. Even though I spend a lot of time reading government documents and trying to make sense of them, it’s difficult for outsiders like myself to grind through the mind-numbing rules and regulations in the military, and even harder to get a sense of how the rules play out in real time as human beings engage in military operations. So Shadowspear is a valuable potential counterperspective – and while I don’t plan to spend a lot of time blogging about such forums, as I’m really focusing on the FOIA collections, I’ll check in from time to time.

That said…one really striking thing about the Shadowspear discussion forum is the avatars that the posters use. Some of them are quite funny: Varsity, the person who found my blog, has an animated kitten doing pushups, while Chopstick – a member of the “Verified Estrogen Brigade,” has a line drawing of a polar bear with the caption “Polar Bears: The White Trash of Bears.” Others choose more serious avatars: “razor_baghdad” has a skull with glowing eyes and what looks like a hole in its temple, while Car, an “old NCO,” has an image of a soldier split by what looks like lightning: half of the soldier's body is in fatigues against a desert background, half is a Terminator-like figure against a background that reminded me of the movie Tron.

These avatars brought to mind my colleague Lani Gunawardena’s work on the formation and projection of a “social presence” online. She’s a distance education researcher who studies online learning communities, where social presence is important in creating an affective environment in which people transmit and acquire knowledge. Avatars are important in establishing the boundaries that demarcate membership in a community of practice – and they give insight into the collective identity shared by a community’s members.

Given how disconnected US society tends to be from the day-to-day experience of its military personnel, discussion forms like Shadowspear are important windows into a culture that people like myself don’t encounter every day. Read though some of their postings, then compare their voices to the relentless officialese of, say, the DoD's website. It strikes me that few anthropologists attempt to really study military culture, despite the centrality of the military in American political life. Sociologists and political scientists do a much better job than we do, but that's a different can of worms.

Blah, blah, blah. I'm working on another post about the Lindh files and will get that up later today.

No comments: