Monday, August 9, 2010

Standing by Your Brand: A Letter to Readers on the Banner for AiP

Dear Readers,

Supporters of Anthropology in Practice know that one of the issues I regularly explore here is the ways in which digital media shapes our lives. Digital identity and the issue of authenticity is a topic I’ve broached several times. And I have tried to project an accurate and meaningful image of AiP in my digital activities—from my Tweets, to the Facebook page, right down to the look and feel of the blog itself, I understand that the nature of my digital presence is integral to the relationship we will have with each other, even though our relationship may largely be based in the digital space. I am also very aware that there is a great deal of me in this blog. How can there not be? These are my thoughts, my ideas, my connections. You visit to read and review my output. I’m always thrilled when you agree, and I’m interested when you don’t. I like to talk—couldn’t you tell?—and I’m glad to dissect ideas and consider alternative views.

That said, I was alarmed when some questions arose about my banner. Someone on Twitter forwarded me two links that deal with the “march of progress” image in my banner and raised concerns about misrepresenting evolution. (You may view these links here and here.) I was really disappointed that these associations could be connected with AiP. I was particularly concerned with the first point because, as I told the link supplier, miseducation is not part of the plan at AiP. I began to think about alternatives for the images. I talked this over with several close friends (and S, of course), and despite my concerns, the consensus was that I would be crazy to make a change. This particular banner is me, they said. It captured the essence of AiP and of my mission, and it was not uninformative. They got it.

When I launched AiP, I had no brand. I wanted to convey a sense of connectedness but my banner didn’t actually send this message. I was using a standard blogspot image for the template. It was a nature scene. It was a mess in terms of identity. As I wrote more and AiP grew, its voice became clearer as did my own mission here. When I began to seriously think about a new look and feel for the blog I asked myself, “What is Anthropology in Practice?” It was anthropology in practice, which meant a few things: anthropology applied to daily understandings, anthropology taken out of the classroom, and a demonstration of how the discipline has changed.

When I put all of these things together, it was Darwin who came to mind. The Origin of Species in many ways typifies anthropology in practice: It is one of the most important written pieces that looks at the world around us and explains our connections. It is anthropology applied to daily understandings. It is anthropology taken out of the classroom. And now, years later, it stands a demonstration of how the discipline has changed. We know now that evolution is not the direct progression depicted here—the image in the banner is taken from the cover of Origin—because we have refined our understanding and have evidence to suggest otherwise. That resonated deeply with me. Nothing I write here, nothing about human behavior, in fact, is written in stone. I put my ideas out there to contribute to our understanding of ourselves, and if in 5 years or in 50 years, we have a better understanding of how people are connected and changed by technology, history, and each other, then all the better. AiP is meant to make you think about the ordinary in new ways.

So the second iteration of the AiP banner included the image from the cover of The Origin of Species. It still wasn’t quite right. But I felt it was closer to my goals than I had been previously. And then I teamed up with an amazing designer, and he took the image and showed me how it could actually say these things. And after considering the information shared with me, and visiting a few alternative ideas, I have decided that the banner will remain. Nothing else seems to tell this story—my story—in this way. I have added a disclaimer to the About page which explains this in brief and states that use of the image does not endorse a “progressive” idea about evolution. To clarify this point, I removed the chimp figure on the far left of Darwin's cover. I meant what I said: it is not the goal or intention of AiP to misinform.

The other issue raised by the links shared with me was the issue of racism. There has been a long and unfortunate history where "blackness and primitiveness are condensed into images of monkeys as human ancestors." This criticism targets my choice of black for the hominid figures.  I admit that I dismissed this critique flippantly because the objects in the header are silhouettes. They are not tied to a particular race or people—and there is nothing in the images that would stereotypically connect them with African heritage other than the color, and black is indeed a color of more than just people. The figures are not shown as sambos or mammies. They are shapes representing a view of evolution, and I ask you to look at them as such.

I also want to pause here and publicly thank designer Andrew Borys for his patience and willingness to help me shape my blogging endeavor. He has entertained every idea I’ve pitched, no matter how outlandish. He has let me make these decisions on my own, and offered honest feedback when asked. I also need to acknowledge S here because he has held fast to the original vision for AiP. Even when it became cloudy for me, he knew. And for this I am deeply grateful.

There is a story I often tell about the genesis of AiP: While I was in grad school, I held a full time job in the “real world” in my present field. I once explained to a colleague what I was studying and he said, “Anthropology? Shouldn’t you be studying tribes in a rainforest somewhere?” Rather than treating this as an ignorant comment and brushing it off, I began to think about the relationship anthropology has with the public. For the general public, the discipline has been defined by Indiana Jones, Lara Croft, and recently, the Discovery Channel. I developed AiP for this audience and also for those in academia who are willing to look beyond their classroom walls. It is anthropology for James Smith who has 15 minutes in the morning and surfs the web for something to read while he drinks his coffee. It is anthropology for the commuters, for the folks who buy lunch from the lunch trucks, for the folks who are willing to see the connections that bind us.

Your identity is your own—online and offline. And it's up to you to define it.

Thanks to all who visit and read and share.

- K


  1. I was struck by the assumption made by the person who feels that the image of evolution used on this site makes the claim that evolution is always toward improvement. The image shows a succession of creatures getting taller and more erect; are we to assume that both of those definitely mean improvement? Are we also to assume that this image represents all evolution? I don't see why either assumption would be automatic.

    In addition, while it is true that the image ignores some of complexities of evolution, I think we need to be careful how much we expect from one image. The famous "I Heart New York" image doesn't include all those days when it's humid and the trains are crowded and someone hasn't bathed and maybe that day you just don't love New York. The Statue of Liberty represents an aspiration rather than an achievement. The images on the doors of women's bathrooms usually include skirts, which are worn by fewer and fewer women. Images are shorthand. Shorthand isn't perfect.

    As for the supposedly racist connotations of the image: Yes, it is true that people insult African-Americans by calling them gorillas and apes. This image is hardly to blame for that racist stupidity, which, I believe, predates the image by centuries! I think that an image, an idea, a book, an essay, a right, should be judged by its correct use, not by its misuse.

    Humans, gorillas, bonobos, and chimps did evolve from a shared ancestor. Humans do share many traits with gorillas, bonobos, and chimps. To deny these facts in a mistaken attempt to give racists less ammo seems silly to me--racists will always find ways to be racist. It is bad enough that they exist and do the damage they do; we shouldn't let them cause us to censor the truth too.

    Krystal, I am glad that you chose to stick by your brand. No one person, no one image, can please everyone, and the best you can do is tell/represent your truth to the best of your ability at any given moment. It's actually the best anyone can do.