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The TikTok of Anthropology

alex.clegg17 March 2022

Open access image from Pixabay

Author: Daniel Miller

I want to make a slightly surprising suggestion. That my current ambition in anthropology is to become more like TikTok (or its original Chinese form Douyin). Because TikTok captures something that is central to the ethos of anthropology as a discipline. Currently the ASSA project is developing an approach called Smart-From-Below. The premise of this stance is that smartphones are cresting a wave that consists of a historical shift of creativity back to ordinary people. Enabled by its extraordinary capacities anybody can come up with a significant and helpful use of their smartphones in, for example, helping develop heath care or organising information. The idea of smart-from-below is that the anthropologist learns from observing these and then re-packages them in order to make these creative ideas available to everyone else. The 150-page manual we have published by Marilia Duque on our website about how you can use WhatsApp for health is an example of this approach. You can download the manual here.

Eugene Wei has recently written three fascinating blogs about the algorithm behind TikTok of which the most relevant is available here. The two previous blogs demonstrate how the company ByteDance developed an extraordinarily successful algorithm that watches you as you watch TikTok. It quickly learns from this your preferences and feeds you more and more of what you evidently like to watch. I am particularly interested because I also have a PhD student Ken Zheng who has just competed nearly a year working as an intern in ByteDance for her PhD studies. The third blog is not about the algorithm but about how easy it is for anyone to make TikTok videos. In the tradition developed as sampling culture in music, much of this riffs off and comments on prior videos circulating on TikTok. There was a profound book The Signifying Monkey by Henry Lewis Gates Jnr that argued for the origins of this kind of cultural practice in jazz and before that in particular African cultural systems.

What this means is that ByteDance doesn’t really need to know anything about its users or their content. All that matters is that it developed the best current system for allowing peer to peer cultural sharing and trajectories of creative development. In other words, allowing people to observe and learn from each other, rather than trying to impose or develop content itself. At this point the analogy between TikTok and Smart-From-Below should be clear. Anthropology has never been that concerned with telling people what to do, or creating their `content’. Rather it stems from our appreciation of what people themselves creatively develop as cultural forms and practices, and then letting other people learn from that. It is not the only thing we do, but one of our primary contributions is in facilitating peer-to-peer cultural learning. I would like to do this more effectively in the future. In other words, at least for this purpose, I would like to become more like TikTok.

Updated 21/03/2022

On re-reading my own post I decided it required a short caveat just to prevent any misunderstanding. I am only suggesting we might become more like TikTok in relation to peer-to-peer communication. I fully recognise that there are all sorts of other aspects of TikTok, whether its potential for superficiality or misinformation that of course, I have not the slightest desire to emulate. 

Ramadan in times of Covid-19

Maya De Vries Kedem7 April 2021

BY MAYA DE VRIES AND LAILA ABED RABHO

The month of Ramadan is coming soon, and again, this holiday will be different in several places around the world. As the World Health Organization has advised this week on their Facebook page, while celebrating, people should still take care and keep social distancing, as COVID-19 is still with us.

Fig 1: World Health Organization Facebook page post, advising people celebrating religious holidays to maintain social distancing.

Muslim populations around the world are waiting for the month of Ramadan, and although it is a long month, it is also an opportunity to get some light in the shade: having family and guests around during this month is one of the positive things during this holiday. Time usually goes by quickly and some say time flies even though they are spending a long number of days fasting. Before they know it, preparations for Eid al-Fitr (the Festival of the Breaking of the Fast) will start. As the Messenger of God said: There are two occasions of joy for a fasting person: one when he breaks his fast, and the other, the joy of Eid.

Ramadan is a month of fasting: during this month, people refrain from eating and drinking between sunrise and sunset. Although fasting is one of the pillars of Islam, Ramadan is not just about fasting: a person must avoid everything that God has forbidden in this period and only adhere to acts of worship.

Fasting is not just done for the sake of depriving oneself of food and drink, rather, fasting is considered to have many benefits: it tames the soul and gives the body rest and better equips the bodily organs responsible for food and drink, as well as giving people patience during times of calamities and making individuals better appreciate how people who live in food poverty may spend most of their days (not just during Ramadan). Such solidarity is significant nowadays, as following the COVID-19 crisis, the number of people who are struggling to make a living has only gone up.

In 2020, before the blessed month of Ramadan, the Coronavirus terrified the whole world, young and old. But as a virus, it was most threatening to the elderly population as it changed their lives almost completely around the world and in our fieldsite of Dar al-Hawa. It was no longer possible to hold weddings or any sort of gatherings of more than ten people in an enclosed space, and restrictions were imposed on everyone. Mosques closed their doors to the worshippers on most days, limiting services to a very small number of worshippers (not more than 10) who were allowed to attend on Fridays.

Last year, Dar al-Hawa was highly quiet during Ramadan, as families did not host any events or guests in their homes and barely met with other people. More so, the habit of going out to restaurants during the evening disappeared as places were shut down. The general feeling in Dar al-Hawa was that of despair. However, soon, an effective solution was found: families started to send food boxes and gifts to one another instead of visiting each other’s homes – boxes were also given to the poor.

During Ramadan last year, people were even prohibited from praying in the al-Aqsa mosque (a holy site). Because it was anticipated that during Ramadan, many worshippers would travel there from several regions (including Jerusalem and the areas of the Palestinian Authority in the previous year), everyone was prohibited from performing the obligatory prayer and Taraweeh prayer in the Al Aqsa. Jerusalem and Al Aqsa were sad and devoid of worshipers.

In 2021, the pandemic is still spreading across the world, but in Israel, the number of infected people has been in decline following a major vaccination operation, which has taken place over the past four months. At first, the population of East Jerusalem (including Dar al-Hawa) were sceptical of the vaccine and did not want to take it due to the abundance of fake news circulating online (see our latest blog post for more). However, vaccine uptake among the Palestinian population of Jerusalem has been on the increase, potentially because people have witnessed the lack of serious side-effects after the vaccine but also because entrance to many places is now forbidden if one does not have their green pass (this is a pass confirming that the person in question has had both doses of the vaccine). In Dar al-Hawa, 91% of the population has now been vaccinated! For now, only those who are 16 or above have been vaccinated, but this high percentage means that Ramadan, this year, as opposed to last year, and as opposed to other places in the world, can be celebrated almost as normal – in people’s houses, on the streets, and in restaurants – and people are really excited about it. The only place that is still limiting the numbers of attendees are the mosques – there is a limit on the number of people who can be inside and one must wear a mask while praying, but they are open to prayer and people can practice their worship and fulfil the holiness of Ramadan.

For this Ramadan, Islamic scholars and jurists issued Fatwas to allow people to pray inside the mosques for their relatives who cannot enter for various reasons: people who might have chronic diseases which means they are at greater risk of being infected and developing a severe form of the disease, people who have had an organ transplant, and those who have not been vaccinated yet. Their relatives’ prayers inside the mosque will be considered equal to them attending mosque themselves.

In Dar al-Hawa, people are impatient and eager to perform their Ramadan obligations the same way they would have done before Covid-19, by going to mosques and being gathered with their family and relatives to collectively eat breakfast (the Iftar).

People have already started preparing for Ramadan by decorating their homes and streets. A favourite dessert here is Ma’amuls – stuffed cookies with walnuts or cheese, and in some of the houses, people are already preparing the special dough for these.

Decorated house in al-Quds (1)

Decorated house in al-Quds (2)

In Dar al-Hawa, people are hoping that the current situation will continue to improve in order for restrictions to be lifted and celebrations to take place comfortably and with some reassurance. We are hoping that vaccine uptake will continue to stay high so that cases continue to go down during the days before people start gathering, so that religious and other daily duties can be undertaken freely and without restrictions. Until then, everyone is trying to follow the regulations set out by the Ministry of Health relating to masks and quarantine to slow down the transmission of the virus, while still celebrating Ramadan together.