Cultural Anthropology and Online Communities

“The branch of anthropology concerned with the study of human societies and cultures and their development.” That’s cultural anthropology, per Oxford.

Elizabeth Koenig has a degree in cultural anthropology. She’s also an account manager at The Social Element (formerly Emoderation), where she manages teams of moderators and community engagement specialists that scale based upon client needs. We talk about how cultural anthropology applies to online communities. Plus:

  • What happens when companies rely on automated moderation too much
  • How to motivate community pros to invest in client communities when they don’t choose the clients
  • Why The Social Element, a company powered by a remote workforce, has a strong workplace community

Big Quotes

“Data science and anthropology had this baby, and it’s called sentiment analysis or emotional artificial intelligence. Instead of hiring an anthropologist to read through an entire community’s worth of data or every post or reaction to a new story and then writing a report on it, we have the power now with data science to use sentiment analysis to get an emotional report on how people react to certain stories within certain time frames. That technology is really interesting, because it works the way a filter works but with some artificial intelligence involved, because it attributes words to emotions, and then it keeps on learning from there. For example, if somebody says something like, ‘This makes me happy,’ the sentiment analysis would see the word happy and attribute that to a positive emotional reaction. That allows for brands or agencies like The Social Element to analyze huge amounts of data and to get a snapshot of the emotional reaction that people may have, which is like what anthropological field work is.

“But the thing about it is that it’s 70% accurate, which is pretty good; but you still need someone to take that and make it meaningful for the group that is interested in that data, whoever they may be. The combination of using the sentiment analysis stuff that’s coming out now, with someone who understands some basic social science procedures, can create a really powerful snapshot, a look at how community is feeling hour by hour, even. It could be real-time; it could be over the period of an entire election cycle.” -@ElizKoenig

“My favorite example [of what can go wrong if you just apply data without analysis] is C-3PO. I’m a huge Star Wars nerd. Of course, C-3PO is a droid [and] his whole primary purpose is to interpret languages. He’s just a language robot, but he has trouble with human emotion. That is the exact issue that we run into with any kind of artificial intelligence right now. I think that the sentiment analysis really struggles with sarcasm. It’s not going to get it right all the time. You have to have somebody on the ground keeping the process in check, doing quality assurance using real-time examples from the actual community. You could even interview people in a community, potentially, to get perspective on what’s really going on. I think it’s important to keep things human. These are tools that are here to assist us. They’re very powerful.” -@ElizKoenig

“People who rely 100% on automated moderation are, right now and, I feel, in the foreseeable future, doomed to mediocre performance when it comes to moderation. I think they’re doomed to mediocrity, which means mediocre communities, mediocre results from communities, and this role, this task, this discipline, being viewed as underperforming, because they’re putting in the effort that leads to mediocrity. It’s almost a self-fulfilling principle with people that go all in 100% on automation.” -@patrickokeefe

“A lot of people view moderation jobs as pretty low on the totem pole, when the reality is that that’s what makes everything work.” -@ElizKoenig

About Elizabeth Koenig

Elizabeth Koenig was born and raised in Columbia, South Carolina and decided she loved the internet through AOL Beanie Baby forums and making her own websites documenting email chain letters. Elizabeth went to college and got a Bachelor of the Arts degree in cultural anthropology and wrote her thesis about college student use of Facebook and how it was affecting the culture of being in college (this was when Facebook was new).

Since then, Elizabeth worked in recycling and waste management (by choice!) but ended up working for Mind Candy/Moshi Monsters on the side, which led her to Emoderation, who recently rebranded as The Social Element, where she has found a home and a career for her passion in digital culture as a moderator, project manager and now account manager.

Elizabeth has a hilarious dog, who is usually under her desk at all times. Her long time boyfriend is a blacksmith (he makes kitchen knives) and they love to go hiking and traveling.

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