Lauren Zentz

Lauren Zentz on Digital Culture in 2018 and 2019

The Editors

Digitalization and digital culture are not only reshaping the world we live in, they also reshape social sciences and the humanities in particular. Diggit Magazine was curious about the impact of digital culture on academia. Now, at the end of the year, we at Diggit Magazine thought that we could use the traditional 'end-of-year question-format' as a pretext to seduce researchers from all over the world and from many different sub-disciplines to reflect on this impact, and to look back and forward. 

Instead of the traditional end-of-year questions, we asked them about the impact of digital culture on their research practice and field of research in general.  We of course also asked them what they expect to happen in 2019. The traditional end-of-year questions, but reinvented from an academic, and more specifically, a digital culture studies perspective. 

In this interview, we ask Lauren Zentz to reflect on the impact of digital culture. Lauren Zentz is associate professor at the University of Houston and author of 'Statehood, Scale and Hierarchy. History, Language and Identity in Indonesia.'


When did you notice that digitalization and digital culture was substantially reshaping your research field?

This became a nascent part of my research programme during my dissertation research in the 2009-10 academic year. However, I really didn’t give it much – or enough – attention. That is to say, I did not realize how much a part of my participants’ (and my own) everyday lives were lived online.

Interestingly, at that same time, in my own life I was noticing quite a lot how influential the internet was, as I was living in Indonesia and realizing that even online communities on Facebook are localized and nationally bound – that is, I posted more stuff relevant to my life locally in Central Java, and my Facebook news feed shaped itself more to the posts of people who were more physically proximate to me, with whom I was interacting more on- and offline.

The nature of ethnography is shifting, and old paradigms simply need to be updated – perhaps this is an ethnography 2.0….or maybe 5.0 by now!

I also noticed that the boundaries of the nation-state were perhaps more perforated, but still quite intact on the internet; for instance, when I tried to watch YouTube videos of some of my favorite singers, I would find that viewing permissions were not granted across national boundaries, despite what many of us often think of as the boundary-free nature of the internet.

Recently, in an interim project that didn’t amount to much, I completely failed to take into account the vitality of the internet in immigrants’ lives. This is a severely misinformed oversight, and as I recently spoke with one of my research assistants about going back to address this question, she too realized that there was so much information that we had not investigated – and that the lives of immigrants, herself included, revolved around internet resources in so many ways, from pre-migration planning, to the maintenance of cultural identity in one’s new home, and more.


How pervasive is digital culture?

I mostly have felt in the past that my field did not pay much attention to internet activities – it has seemed a rather niche area, and almost readily dismissed by some, including myself in many moments, as “lazy research” for people who don’t want to get off their bums and go meet people, or, ironically, research of an area of life that is “not real”, or at least not worth paying attention to as much as the “real” stuff of face-to-face interaction.

As I have dived into the general field of the study of online language use, though, I have seen that there is a substantial and growing body of research regarding online communication, but we do have a long way to go, and an ever growing mountain of research ahead of us due to the incredibly rapid pace of technological innovation, shift, and change that happens daily. Even in the group that I am both a member of and researching, Pantsuit Republic (see below), the ways of communicating among ourselves seem to shift sometimes monthly as we try to find the best ways to communicate clearly and organize ourselves well.

The nature of ethnography is shifting, and old paradigms simply need to be updated – perhaps this is an ethnography 2.0….or maybe 5.0 by now!

All of this change additionally has brought up for me major new ethical questions regarding the collection of data, and this all revolved around the public and private nature of online communications. The research I have encountered so far has not even addressed this question, and has mostly relied on public posts for data. This reliance on public posts ignores mountains upon mountains of online communications that are classified as private, whether or not the publishers of that information are aware of how they are classifying their online talk. And the issue of whether or not people know that what they’re publishing online opens up yet one more can of worms.

My current project is entirely about online activities, this time in political organizing.

This has been addressed somewhat in various ethical statements by research groups, including the American Anthropological Association and the British Psychological Society (these are just two recent guidelines that I’ve come across), but it is really wishy-washy territory that we need to discuss a whole lot more.

For instance, if someone publishes a post on a public setting but doesn’t realize it, should we treat this as public information? If someone responds to a thread on a public Facebook post without realizing that it’s a public post, should we treat this as public information? If a post is made in a private group of thousands of people, how private is this information? How can we document such speech if research ethics state that we need to get permission from everyone whose speech we use or publish as data? How is the collection of written threads attached to a knowing participant’s post any different from mic’ing one research participant and picking up the speech of their interlocutors as they move through the day, and what are the ethical boundaries or limitations to the use of these voices without speakers’ awareness of the recording, or awareness that their responses on social media threads are being captured?

This is a deep, vast rabbit hole that I intend to pursue more as I conduct this research project – in large part because I am facing these issues every day as I collect, and try to collect, my data.

Digital culture is simply a fact of life at this point, and we cannot understand how lives are lived and culture performed and shaped if we don’t examine online activities; however, the above conundrums and ethical dilemmas regarding how we collect data are quite difficult to navigate, in ways that we haven’t quite encountered yet.


Can you give a concrete example of the impact of digital culture on your research domain?

My current project is entirely about online activities, this time in political organizing. I can’t pinpoint exactly when I decided that this was a worthy pursuit, but it first arose in witnessing my husband’s activities in a Cuban pro-democracy group that he is a member of. This group, Somos Más, organizes entirely online, and encompasses members of the Cuban diaspora in countries on nearly every continent. When it started, it was headed inside of Cuba; however, internet access there is poor, and when the group was born internet access was even poorer. So, meetings revolved mostly around when the group’s president was outside of Cuba at various international events, so that he could hold meetings online with members throughout the diaspora.


Some time after my husband began to participate in this group, I myself became involved in the leadership of a group that arose in Texas after the 2016 US presidential election, named Pantsuit Republic. I joined the group with no eye to research – rather, I felt that the well-being of my own country and community/-ies were at stake and that I needed to find a way to be an effective agent of change for the better. I spent many months trying to organize a sub-committee that I had applied to lead, both online in a secret Facebook group as well as offline in face-to-face meetings, but I simply could not drum up participation and I couldn’t dream up enough activist activities on my own.

I became pregnant in Summer 2017 and decided that it was time to end my attempt at leading my subcommittee. I still attended the larger group’s events, though, and one friend from the group asked me if I would like to take on the role of secretary on the state board. This group coordinates their activities through multiple online and telephonic platforms. So it was sometime around then that I decided that I would like to do a research project on internet-driven political organization, examining the online activities of Somos Más, a mostly diaspora-driven, and almost entirely online group, and Pantsuit Republic, a localized group that is primarily coordinated online, in the interest of motivating in-person actions and activities. 


What was the most remarkable change in 2018 regarding digital culture and your research?

In my personal case, simply the fact that I “went entirely online”. This is exciting new territory. I am still interested in exploring my two main research threads of “nationalism” and “language socialization”, but investigating it in these on- and offline communities is exciting and novel, and I hope it will contribute greatly not only to our understandings of how online activities have reshaped cultural interactions, but also I hope it will contribute to our understandings of – and our perpetual game of catch-up in understanding – how to conduct sociolinguistic and ethnographic research that accounts for the power and even the ubiquity of the internet in many people’s daily lives.


What do you expect will change in 2019 regarding the impact of digital culture on your research?

I’ll keep chasing an endlessly moving target, and hopefully I’ll have some exciting new things to contribute to our understanding of language, politics, and the internet!