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Why we are all digital anthropologists

By Olivia Bellas, Special to CNN
May 29, 2013 -- Updated 1515 GMT (2315 HKT)
Advances in digital technology and social media have helped people across the world share their stories and have their voices heard.
Advances in digital technology and social media have helped people across the world share their stories and have their voices heard.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • MyStreet is a website where people can tell their stories by uploading short films
  • Films are submitted from all over the world and geo-tagged to a location
  • Olivia Bellas says that social media and digital tools have opened up anthropology to non-experts

Editor's note: Olivia Bellas is director of cultural consultancy The Original Ranch. She continues her creative practice by writing, directing, and producing a range of arts initiatives at ScreenDeep.

(CNN) -- A couple of years ago, I came across a film about London's East Street market which in the 80's was a regular Sunday outing for my family.

The memories flooded back, I sent the link to my brother and we vowed to visit soon to buy cheap greetings cards and show our support. And then another film grabbed my attention. A young Afghan girl learning to drive allowed us a slice of her life. It made me sit up.

MyStreet is the website hosting these films and many others -- encouraging the use of digital tools to open up the experience of making and sharing your own 'story'. Both local and global audiences can tap in -- a connection to something familiar or a learning of something unknown.

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Anthropology as the 'science of humanity' has broadened, and the idea of the anthropologist has evolved. Like with many professions, the baton has passed from trained individuals to you, to me, to a big wide world.

These days, user generated is the norm, online communities have the power, and social media allows us to create a running commentary of our lives.

In the 1930's, the Mass Observation project was first carried out to provide a fair representation of life in the UK. Over 500 untrained volunteer observers and investigators were enlisted to record man-in-the-street conversations, keep diaries, and complete questionnaires.

Today we continue to do the same, only now using our own personal devices to create our own updates - and comment on everyone else's.

MyStreet is a modern day Domesday Book, a moving image census.
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MyStreet was created in the Anthropology Department of University College London by Dr. Michael Stewart, as an international online film archive that incorporates a strong sense of collaborative anthropology.

Films are submitted from all over the world, linked to a postcode, town, street, appearing as pins on a geo-tagged map.

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Its global context is important and growing - our stories are placed alongside each others', all just as valid, with workshops being carried out on the ground to teach basic filmmaking skills.

It runs an annual UK competition with the actor Jeremy Irons chairing the jury, for which the deadline is May 31.

As an arts producer I initially saw it as a film channel - a platform for short documentaries - curated, so not a free-for-all YouTube. And then when catching wind of the map element, it became a heartfelt version of Google's Street View.

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These are not documentary films made by experienced professionals. Some are admittedly beautifully shot, some made on mobile phones, some by 12-year-olds.

Some have a simple story to tell, some a major issue to get across. It is used as a citizen journalism and campaigning platform, and there's an obvious home for activism here.

MyStreet is a modern day Domesday Book, a moving image census - a consolidated archive that can be looked upon in 100 years time showing 'that's how they lived.'

But it makes everyone's voice important, and all those who contributed can call themselves anthropologists. They made the most of the digital tools we have available to tell their story.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Olivia Bellas.

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