Differentiating “witnessing publics” The contrasting impulses that we have just examined adds a further layer to our understanding of how “witnessing publics,” once produced, go on to interact, intervene, and (re)constitute themselves on social media. As we have seen, a sense of interspecies empathy, framed by the palm oil narrative, forms the baseline of many popular engagements with orangutan causes. But what the simultaneous, if less frequent, circulation of no-contact messages does, I suggest, is push orangutan supporters to cultivate a more reflexive conservation sensibility through which they can tell what is right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate, in the context of human-orangutan relations. In effect, this means overcoming the “difficulty of disentanglement” (Kelly and Lezaun 2014:369) and developing the capacity to pull back: to know when to suppress that urge to cuddle and to re-erect the species boundary and all that comes with it.
Not all orangutan supporters, however, appear to have grasped this sensibility. And it is here that we can trace a more inward-folding, exclusionary form of politics on this social media-scape. Consider this short but illuminating exchange that ensued in response to COP’s “stinking paws” post. Most responses were typically succinct affirmations of the no-contact message: “I am happy to look not touch”; “Would love to cuddle an orang but know I can”t as it is the wrong thing to do. Just be happy to see them alive forever.” Soon after the post went live, however, a lady from Barcelona (LB) wrote, “I would to cuddle one in my arms with all my love ♥️”. COP immediately responded with an implicit rebuke: “Did you read the article [on non-contact] LB????” Two further comments followed:
CB [in response to COP’s question]: Im thinking NOT LOL [laughing out loud]
OB: [angry face]
A day later, LB responded with two comments: “You are right, i love them, and dont want to do anything for their detriment […]”; and “i want to say also, how sorry I feel. Look but dont touch,”. This terse conversation was a telling but not unusual example of how social media’s interactive affordances are deployed by certain orangutan supporters to educate and ostracize ignorant others: a process that, like the peer exchanges discussed earlier, can take place across time and space between individuals who have never met. Although nobody told LB why they thought her first comment was wrong, the snide, disdainful responses she received—together, perhaps, with the link to the no-contact document—had the effect of bringing her in line with the prevailing orthodoxy.
More than “educating” LB, however, this exchange also postulated a momentary but significant distinction between different members of orangutan conservation’s “witnessing public”: that is, between a set of more informed, reflexive orangutan supporters and relatively ignorant would-be orangutan huggers—posters like LB who didn’t know where to draw the line between cuddling and drawing back. For LB’s critics, these two impulses—and the “worlds of intent” that they represented—were not equivalent but ordered in a clear moral hierarchy.18 In this respect, this exchange serves as a lens onto another important feature of this social media-scape: the alliances, enmities, hierarchies, and exclusionary practices that striate it and, as my final example shows, the larger arena of orangutan conservation.
In 2013, a handful of orangutan conservation professionals and their supporters set up a public Facebook group to challenge the claims and practices of an Australian reality television-style film that followed the experiences of a group of young environmental activists in an orangutan sanctuary—a place that group members condemned as corrupt, unscientific, and unethical. Most of their posts adopted a “name and shame” approach, subjecting stories, videos, or comments related to the film and sanctuary to unbridled criticism. In one instance, a group member posted a photograph of a young female participant bottle-feeding a baby orangutan at the sanctuary, with the caption: “[Name] handling a baby orangutan at the … Prison [the sanctuary] without going through quarantine, and no gloves or mask”. The first few responses revolved around how to post a critical question about this picture on the film’s Facebook page. These were followed, however, by a query from a French user (F):
F: I see only the beauty of the picture of maternal gestures of the young girl for this baby orangutan..... / I can download this photo?
F: < I think not having understood all the comments here > beacause my english is very bad
The ensuing exchange is worth partially reproducing:
Group Administrator 1 [GA1]: F, that might be an acceptable interpretation had the person in the photo taken the necessary precautions to protect the health of the baby in her arms.
F: oh I understand better now .... ( in this case I do not download this photo ....) thank you GA1
GA1: ok! Yes basically we are concerned that this movie they make with these inexperienced young people do not take notice of experts who recommend that between 10 and 14 days of quarantine should be observed during which time the visitor has no contact with the animals (no closer than 5-7 meters). This is because the orangutan can die from diseases caught by humans […] The film makers say that they HAVE to be able to put these orangutans’ lives at risk...the word they used was that it was "unavoidable”. We believe there is no justification for this behaviour.
F: you right..... totally ..
Group Administrator 2 [GA2]: furthermore, this woman-- along with several other very naive individuals-- has been totally brainwashed by people who have their own agenda...
no respectable conservationists will have anything to do with this awful project, this orangutan prison or the ego-maniac in charge of it all....
F: i understand [...] this is really sad the risks taken for these babies.. :-(((
GA2: […] these selfish people are doing it for publicity for their ridiculous film... if they truly cared about the orangutans they would be sent to [another center] so they could receive professional care and rehabilitation.
F: absolutely ...... these photos act the wrong way on people’s minds ..... luckily you are ALL here to “point the finger” the irréponsabilité of these people thank you for it....
Like the curt interactions surrounding LB’s post, this thread demonstrates in unusual detail the pedagogical dynamics of the social media-scape of orangutan conservation: that process by which individuals are taught to acquire a proper conservation sensibility. For these critics, one of the show’s participants’ many sins was the failure, selfish or naïve, to pull back—to preserve the human-orangutan divide where it was most needed. The center’s failure to prevent such dangerous, ethically suspect interspecies contact was portrayed as further proof of its immorality, illegitimacy, and profiteering agenda. This charge was often accentuated by posts that extolled the virtues and accomplishments of what were styled “real” conservation heroes.
Exchanges like these expose—but also publicly fan—the politics and tensions that fissure the wider field of orangutan conservation. In these moments, I argue, cuteness, the no-contact issue, human-animal relations, and the entire normative framework of conservation become political. These are instances in which different parties fight to delimit not only the “right” way of relating to orangutans, but also who has the right to determine what that right way is. It is worth noting that the film’s critics used their personal accounts, and that so publicly reproaching one organization is not commonplace among orangutan professionals. However, my earlier point about the circulatory and combinatory effects of social media also applies here. Just as different organizations’ images and narratives often produce a cumulative and relatively coherent version of “the plight of the orangutan” as they travel across social media, posts like the one above have the effect of hierarchizing this social media-scape: by parsing, and in many ways producing, different morally-laden categories and levels of privilege and legitimacy into which various players can (sometimes unwittingly) become slotted.
The sort of online politics to which these activities give rise is as “charged” as the politics of inclusivity and interspecies responsibility that we examined earlier. What it enacts, however, is not an opening up but a closing off: of humans from animals, and of different (social media-defined) types of orangutan supporters from each other. In this way, it tempers the ethos of inclusivity through which orangutan conservation’s “witnessing publics” are produced and enlarged. At the same time, it reveals how both posts and publics can acquire afterlives of their own, in ways that exceed their original moral and praxiological remits and the bounds of orangutan organizations’ control.
Conclusion As recent “multispecies” scholarship (Kirskey and Helmreich 2010) has reiterated, contradiction, tension, and ambiguity are endemic to human-animal relations—even in the most familiarly “Western” of settings (see, e.g., Alcayna-Stevens 2012, Candea 2010, 2013, Hinterberger 2016, Latimer 2013, Yates-Doerr and Mol 2012). My article adds to this growing ethnographic pool by exploring how the long-standing, quintessentially “naturalist” tension between “humans” and “animals” gets negotiated within a specific digital context: the social media-scape of orangutan conservation. It does so not by tracing how such negotiations unfold within specific groups (e.g. Spanish chimpanzee keepers, British behavioural scientists), but by sketching out the digital infrastructures of feeling and praxis that shape how diverse individuals scattered across the global North engage with orangutan causes—and occasionally, fleetingly, with each other. In this milieu, the species divide never remains static but is constantly recalibrated by orangutan supporters, who variously elide, uphold, and straddle it without fear of contradiction. Such activities, I argue, are not merely idiosyncratic reactions, but manifestations of contrasting regimes that give rise to morally and affectively laden figures—“humanity” and “the wild”, saviors and innocent victims, mutually available selves, ignorant and informed orangutan supporters, charlatans and “real” professionals—all engaged in an ongoing dance of drawing together and pulling apart, opening up and closing off.
Such regimes and figures form the circulatory matrix through which orangutan causes—like the human rights issues examined by anthropologists in the 2000s—are “charged” and made publically visible on social media. In this article, however, I have tried to push beyond the extant literature’s focus on production and circulation by examining how the “witnessing publics” constituted by such media activism reproduce, extend, and personalize such causes.19 The distinctive affordances of social media—notably their mechanisms of participation, visibility, and content-sharing—are pivotal to these processes, serving as means through which orangutan supporters can participate in the project of “saving” this charismatic species. In this capacity, I argue, social media are not simply digital glosses on the physical reality of orangutan conservation, but must be understood as constituting a potent “additional realit[y]” (Boellstorff 2016; see also Gerbaudo 2012:13) within this field.
Intrinsic to that reality, however, is the ever-present possibility of both causes and publics taking on (after)lives of their own. And it is here, I suggest in closing, that the motifs of “opening up” and “closing off” might also be brought to bear on the nascent anthropology of social media. Hirschkind et al. have recently noted that “today, new media bears the promise of universal political enfranchisement in the form of ‘access,’ the term by which projects of democratic inclusion are being reimagined and reengineered” (2017:S4). Like many ethnographies of social media activism, these discourses center on the radical new—and, it is often assumed, progressive—possibilities that such media can bring into being. What this article underscores, however, is the need to attend simultaneously to the other side of such processes: to how the very same affordances that open up causes and issues to wider public participation can also close things off by forging of new differences and inequalities.20 Thinking in terms of opening up and closing off, I suggest, can undergird a much-needed anthropological critique of social media’s “promise of the new” (Hirschkind et al. 2017:S4). While not denying the very real novel possibilities—even ontologies—that social media can conjure into being, such an approach mitigates against the “breathless optimism” (ibid.) that often infuses contemporary discourses about them. As Miller and his colleagues (e.g. Miller 2016, Miller et al. 2016, Miller and Slater 2000) have consistently reminded us, the anthropology of social media is, in many ways, simply the anthropology of everyday sociality in all its messy and not always pretty complexity. This is not to suggest, however, that ethnographers of social media should therefore confine their analyses to their “sociality”—particularly when contemplating those digital gray areas that generate highly charged affects, moralities, and sensibilities without ever creating strong or enduring socialities. What I have tried to foreground in this article, rather, is the need to appreciate the temporal and processual fluctuations of social media: how relations and realities are variously forged, reworked, or indeed broken over time, sometimes in ways that cross-cut “new” and “old” social configurations. In this view, what matters are not so much categories or modes of “the social,” but the processes by which they emerge, evolve, and unravel. And as I have tried to show, it is by taking these processes seriously that we can develop a nuanced and, importantly, critical understanding of how online “publics” are produced, move, feel, and act—but not always in the most expected of ways.
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There are also a few Indonesian orangutan organizations that post in Malay and English for Indonesian and Western supporters. While fascinating, they demand an entire article of their own.
2 Such platforms also come with problems and complications (see, e.g. Couldry 2015, Gillespie 2010), but these are not the focus of my article.
3 While oriented towards animal welfare, such bodies do have a stake in conservation strategies and debates, and often help draw public attention to larger environmental challenges confronting orangutan populations.
4 In practice, cooperation in this field is tempered by an awareness of the competition between organizations for a limited pool of donations, sponsorship, and support. Consequently, organizations try to avoid either promoting competitors’ causes to their own detriment or being seen to poach others’ material for their benefit.
5 Such programs enable supporters to “adopt” individual orangutans through a one-off or regular monetary contribution to the centers where these animals live. In return, “adopters” get a package containing (among other things) a certificate, a photograph and biography of “their” orangutan, and updates on his or her progress.
6 The Ketapang team sends regular updates and footage to its UK counterparts, who then edit and transform selected material into discernible “stories” that will appeal to their supporters—a complicated process that I lack room to discuss here.
7https://www.facebook.com/internationalanimalrescue/photos/pcb.10153201649784910/10153201633369910/?type=1. None of posts and comments featured here have been edited for typos or other errors.
9 This powerfully simplified narrative frequently encompasses other related threats to orangutans, including human-animal conflict, hunting, and poaching. These are often attributed to the effects of oil palm-related deforestation, which is seen to push humans and animals into dangerous contact. Moreover, the narrative glosses over two important realities: 1) Western consumer action has only limited utility since most palm oil is used domestically or exported to China and India, and 2) many orangutan organizations do collaborate with oil palm companies in practice—albeit without much fanfare. For fuller accounts of the drivers of orangutan extinction, see Davis et al. 2013, Marshall et al. 2006, Meijaard et al. 2011.
11 OUTrop (now the Borneo Nature Foundation) is a conservation science outfit run mainly by British scientists; the OULT is an NGO that channels donations to field projects and promotes sustainable solutions for orangutans’ survival in the wild.
17 Well before the advent of social media, scholars were already identifying similar tensions and contrasts in both scientific and popular engagements with orangutans (see, e.g., Russell 1995 on “Orangutan as Child” vs. “Orangutan as Pristine” narratives, Siegel 2005 on the complexities of anthropomorphism, and Sowards 2006 on orangutans’ consubstantiality and incongruity with humans). My conversations with conservationists and charities also reveal how professionals themselves continually negotiate these tensions in their everyday work (see, e.g., Russon et al. 2016 on internal debates about how much contact orangutans should have with human “babysitters.”)
18 While prevalent, this hierarchy is not always clear-cut on social media. Some supporters, for example, have complained about what they construe as unnecessarily clinical behavior on the part of orangutan carers at rehabilitation centers.
19 This article thus contributes to a growing ethnographic corpus on how activist and other cause-related media are responded to, appropriated, and disrupted as they move across different circuits (e.g. Fattal 2014, Gray 2016, Juris 2012, Postill 2014, Rasza 2014).
20 Although some have tackled these concerns (e.g. boyd 2014, Gerbaudo 2012, Miller 2016), anthropologists have generally devoted less attention to them than counterparts in fields such as gender and cultural studies (e.g. Brickell 2012, Gajjala 2014, Nakamura 2008).