Anthropology of life online

Online experiences made possible by computer — such as Twitter, Facebook or games — will be valuable cultural artifacts in the future, predicts a university professor.

Ray Siemens, professor of humanities in English and computer science at the University of Victoria, said online sessions will provide information for future researchers in the same way shards of ancient pottery or ancient books do.

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Siemens’ specialty is a kind of modernist blend, examining the human experience as it applies and intersects with the digital world. This blend makes him especially excited about Congress 2013 at UVic, which kicks off Saturday. With 7,000 delegates, it is billed as the largest annual conference in Canada for specialists in the humanities and social sciences.

Online experiences are a modern form of artistic, cultural and information sharing, Siemens said in an interview this week. They are also part of a continuity of expression stretching back to acts like writing on the walls of an ancient temple.

“If we want to understand how social media, like Facebook and Twitter, fit into the grand scheme of … how we as people interact with each other, we can look to the past,” he said.

For example, about 500 years ago, people would pass around books, adding information, pictures, poems or comments before passing them along. It was like blogging or Facebook, although at a much slower speed.

“The way that interaction occurred was made possible by the technology of the book, and was not unlike the way Facebook or Twitter or blogs have enabled us to interact today,” Siemens said.

“What technology adds is a possibility of doing more of that, speaking to a broader audience.”

He said computer games, such as Skyrim or Call of Duty, are also interesting on a variety of levels.

Siemens said he agrees with the idea these games are like modern-day books or literature. They have characters and narratives that players can take in a number of directions.

Something like this narrative selection, however, was also done in the recent past with books, where a reader could select another narrative outcome by choosing to go to different pages.

But the modern computer-game player can also hook up with other players online who adopt different characters. This makes playing the game an interactive, social experience that is different from the solitary act of reading a book.

Also, game players routinely record sessions and post them on YouTube or even write about them online.

Game players will sit and watch recorded sessions of other people playing a game. This amounts to one player creating a story that is then told to others.

“I find that absolutely fascinating,” Siemens said. “There is a game-playing mechanism which in itself tells a story.

“It’s an unusual development that might lead to a more enduring archive of an experience that is more like a performance or a play than like a book,” he said.

One element of Siemens’ work is studying how best to preserve some of these online interactions so people in the future can better understand the experience of today.

“Many of us are now engaged trying to understand these new artifacts that are being created,” Siemens said.

“But we also want to understand how to preserve them so [people in the] future can understand our own human experiences as we use a computer.”


Siemens will be part of a panel Tuesday morning to discuss the increasingly digitized research landscape and explore the pressing questions facing scholars, such as how can scholars and decision-makers leverage this wealth of information to the benefit of society.


For a schedule of Congress events and workshops, go to

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