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06 September 2009

Why I Left the OAC

Disclaimer (9/7/2009): Just to be clear, my intent in posting this is not to be vindictive or because of some petty disagreement I have with the OAC admins. Rather, I want everyone to know the full reasons for my leaving the OAC - that it wasn't just about the name. I was involved in the OAC from the very first twitter discussion, and had very high hopes for it when it first started. But those hopes have consistently and repeatedly been crushed. It is my opinion that the group, as it now stands, cannot achieve the goals that it originally embodied, and that it has become a meager repetition of many other similar online groups. So I've decided to move on, to invest my time and energy more appropriately and find some other way to work for the ideals that I originally looked for in the OAC.

Recently at the Open Anthropology Cooperative (OAC), there has been a great controversy over whether or not the group should change its name. Max Forte, the owner of the Open Anthropology Project (OAP), leveled a valid complaint that the OAC, by using a similar name, had co-opted (no pun intended) the political movement that he has worked for several years to promote (see here, here, here, and here - also see here and here for discussion on the OAC forum).
Although this controversy was part of my decision to leave the OAC, it wasn't the only factor that came into play. I am not a minion of Max, as some of the admins have claimed, but my quarrel with the OAC goes back to the start of the Ning site and my own time as an admin.

I left the admin team (before Max), because of a dispute over the structure of the administration and because a post of mine, which critiqued the admin structure and proposed a new, more diffuse one, was deleted arbitrarily followed by a message from one of the admins, who has repeatedly shown a tendency for abrupt and temperamental action.

Since I left the admin team, I have been doing what I can inside the site, working on my own small projects and advocating for more fundamental changes. Unfortunately, little has changed, and this most recent controversy sent me over the edge. Here are a few of my complaints against the OAC:

1) That the admins continue to discuss OAC policy behind closed doors. I don't buy Keith's rhetoric that it is necessary to keep certain things closed in order to make other things open. There is nothing either in the organization of the group or the structure of the Ning site that requires the admins to hide their discussion. Whether or not those policies are far-reaching or strict is irrelevant; the fact that the discussion is not open to the public or to public debate is unconscionable in a supposedly “open” group.

2) That the structure of the admin team was decided in a closed way, and resulted in a hierarchical, concentrated system of power, rather than the diffuse network that the word "open" implies to me. This power structure is not obligated by Ning either, which allows administration to be tuned so finely that a person could be in charge of a single page in the site.

3) That the OAC implemented a policy of not allowing users to share materials, other than those they have "rights" to, through the site. The policy is not written down anywhere (it's phrased officially as "users agree to follow the terms and conditions of Ning" which include a clause against using the site for file-sharing, but comes with a promise on the part of the admins to self-police rather than leaving it up to Ning), but there was a discussion early on (the reason why Max left originally) in which the policy was decided by only a handful of members. To me this is a group-wide disavowal of the principles of Open Access and Open Anthropology, which, despite claims by the admins to the contrary, was part of the original idea behind the formation of the group.

4) That the Ning site amounts to little more than a discussion area in which few people actually participating (the recent poll had over 200 respondents, but there were perhaps only 30 people participating in the discussion and even fewer initially). In my opinion, Ning is both too vast and too limiting to be genuinely considered "open." There is far too much space inside of Ning to navigate making it a little daunting to potential members who don't know their way around. This automatically reduces the membership to those who 1) have a computer and internet access and 2) those who are comfortable moving around in these types of sites. I have consistently complained about this, but received little response - at the very least, the admins could organize the site better to make it more accessible to outsiders. Ning is too limiting because it doesn't foster genuine collaboration – only discussion. The abrupt and unilateral decision to start the Ning group was, to me, the beginning of its downfall. In my opinion, unless the OAC expands beyond Ning, nothing significant will ever come from it.

5) That “no-one is ever kicked out of the OAC.” In fact, that's true. Instead they are bullied relentlessly until they “leave of their own accord.” This, to me, highlights the childishness that is brought out in any group by “social networking” sites – clearly, anthropologists are not immune.

Despite the fact that I was involved in the OAC from the beginning and that I contributed (I hope meaningfully) to many of the discussions there, I doubt that my presence will be missed. My leaving is not meant to be vindictive, but merely to separate myself from a project that, I believe, has taken a wrong turn, and to give me more time to work on other things. I'll consider returning to the OAC, if and when the problems I mentioned are remedied. Until then, however, there are far better things I could be doing, but I will continue to promote Open Anthropology and Open Access in my own way.


Emmett said...

Go Jeremy! Online discussion groups are always a bunch of malarcky if they lack any real world application. It's also absolute shenanigans that they would bare such a gross hypocrisy in their name. They are open, but the general public of the group are not allowed to openly discuss on the laws that they are meant to abide by. Hell it's not even representative democracy, flawed as it is, it's oligarchy! And your fifth point is just so hilariously common on the internet these days it's absolutely disgusting.
Well, keep on rocking the world with a hammer in your hand Jem.

Anonymous said...

As it happens, the way you were treated was a big wake up call for me. Immediately after Hart baring his real, authoritarian face with you, he started a discussion about forming an "inner circle," under his leadership as always, of course. Now he chooses to hide his misdeeds behind a superficial and uninformed democratic vote, but all along he has been keeping a great deal from the OAC membership, and most of those who involved themselves in the recent "name" debate were painfully clueless of that fact.

When that "inner circle" discussion got underway, I decided to drop out as an admin: my question was why was it needed, and around what exactly were we circling? No answers, as usual. However, as Hart likes to call the OAC a broad church (I detest churches by the way), clearly he intends to be its high priest, incorporating and laying claim to everything he can get his hands on in anthropology.

When I decided to drop out came as a result of the fact that, after rejecting this inner circle thing, Hart seemed to dedicate himself to popping up wherever I went in the network, to pick on whatever I was saying, usually reading the most hostile and sinister intent behind every word. In a debate with someone -- much politer than anything we saw him tolerate recently, where members could freely call me a prick -- he would intervene just as I spoke, to remind people of the need to be calm. Then any words of mine that I tried to refer to, he deleted. He then used that Justin Shaffner to repeat after him.

Since I have reached the age and a position where such paternalistic control, censorship and surveillance is unacceptable from anyone, I asked myself a simple question: WTF I am doing here? I don't need this place, I already have plenty of other space where I can be free to speak my mind without having it vetted by a boss. So fuck them.

I have learned a lesson: never again will I get into another project with anthropologists. The projects I have done, at the heart of Open Anthropology, were with non-anthropologists, so it was major breach on my part to turn back toward the academics. As a result, in recent days I have been purging almost ties with anthropologists on my sites, in Twitter, etc., except for a tiny number of people like you. I don't want anyone to mistake my sites as part of some online anthropological community, I don't want reciprocal ties, and even the presence of the word "anthropology" one my site, as much as it is a target (not a medal nor a shield), seems offensive. Nor do I like the kind of silent, anthropological gawking of academic anthros in Twitter. Unfortunately, for various ranking services, my blog is listed as an anthropology blog.

You say your presence won't be missed, and that itself is an indictment of that OAC. You were one of the key players in getting the whole thing launched, never receiving as much as a passing thanks for your energy, enthusiasm, and ideas. If the active members of the OAC knew anything about the OAC, and had the honesty and ethical spine that they clearly demonstrated they lack, then they would bemoan the loss of active people like you. Without the work of people like you, they would not even be there. I say this honestly, as someone who, as you know, came at the very end of the discussion that you really pushed forward.

Anonymous said...

At some point, more people may realize that this was just Hart's grab for control and a way to write his legacy. The name debate shows his modus operandi:

(1) Appropriate -- take over a name, pay lip service to certain ideals;

(2) Deviate -- start claiming that a name and a project might really be, or ought to be, about something very different; and,

(3) Evacuate -- empty the name and project of all meaning and purpose, rendering it merely Keith Hart's private patch. Hart's responses to Ryan Anderson have been very illuminating in this regard, about the utter emptiness of Hart's "open anthropology" -- see here for example, at the tail end of the discussion.

For me the whole episode has been telling of the megalomania piggy backing on servility that is common in academic politics, yet rarely played out in the open. Rather than try to understand the issues, get to know the points of view of others, inform themselves, and understand that ethics is about a lot more than where you store your interview audio files, we saw a bare naked face of anthropology, in public. And it was extremely ugly and left me entirely disgusted with them and the repulsive colonial discipline they uphold.

When it's gone, its passing won't be mourned or cheered. I think most won't even take notice.

Jeremy Trombley said...

Emmett, Thanks for your solidarity. You're characterization of the group as an oligarchy is right on the nose - even Keith describes it as such. In my view, there is no reason why the organization had to be structured that way, but that's what it's become and it's truly unfortunate.

Max, Thanks for your comments and your support. I had no idea how far the discussion of the "inner circle" went after I left the admin team. Had I known, I probably would have left a lot sooner. In any case, I'm not sure any of it matters, because they are not offering anything new or unique. In fact, because of the way they have it structured, the group will probably fade into non-existence pretty soon anyway. It seems to me that, at the very least, they should be grateful to you for reigniting activity on the site, which was generally becoming moribund. Without this debate, it probably would have faded away a lot quicker.
I wish you luck in your struggle against the OAC; I'll be watching how things go and hopefully doing my part for a real Open Anthropology.

Stacie said...

Hey Jeremy! I'm glad I found this. I noticed you disappeared from the OAC but forgot to check your blog to see what was up. I deleted my account a little while back.

I'm working with a couple other people to try and put together a blog focused on... well... public anthropology. Themes are still up in the air but we started off with health care. Mostly, it depends on what people want to write about. The goal is some kind of mix between anthropology and journalism, and you're totally welcome to contribute. I could forward you some of the emails where we were discussing it if you want, to get a sense of where the conversation has been headed.

The site is here:

Email here:

Hope to hear from you!

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