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Michaelanne Thomas on social justice, online communities and what it means to cultivate a ‘sense of wonder’

Michaelanne Thomas pictured in an alley with colorful graffiti

Thursday, 04/20/2023

Michaelanne Thomas is interested in the ways people create community and access information when the systems around them fail. Her research has taken her to Cuba, where she studied how gamers in Havana created their own internet structures despite long standing resource and information constraints.

Thomas is an assistant professor of information at UMSI. She began her journey at UMSI in 2019 as a President’s Postdoctoral Fellow. 

Tell us about your career before joining UMSI. 

I’m going to take you way back. In my undergrad I majored in Spanish and I also did communications. A large part of this is I love working with people and I love communicating messages to different audiences. And I’ve always wanted to pursue graduate school but was encouraged to get a practical degree. So, I was actually working in public relations. And I turned that into working at the Georgia Aquarium. When it first opened I started their new media department. 

This was back in 2006. Twitter had just started and there weren’t really people on these sites, but I got into doing social media management for the aquarium. The entire time though I really wanted to go back to school and get my master’s degree in anthropology. 

In my early childhood I grew up in different countries. My mom was born in Cuba and my parents worked in international contexts so I've long been drawn to communities at the margins and at the edges. I wanted to work with hispanic or latinx communities, but I also liked the technical and digital aspects of my job. 

Michaelanne Thomas pictured in an alley with colorful graffiti
Michaelanne Thomas

So I thought, wait a minute, what if I study these communities online? And that became my master’s thesis at Georgia State University. I started exploring this idea of activism and specifically, accidental activists. People who don’t have a choice but to speak out. Especially, at the time, there was a big push about the Dream Act and a lot of the Colombian women I was working with weren’t able to vote and so they would use Facebook to try to rally their American friends to vote on their behalf, which I found incredibly interesting. 

I wanted to pursue my doctorate in anthropology, but the finances weren’t there, so I ended up working in marketing and communications at the College of Computing at Georgia Tech after my master’s. I missed research and I volunteered to be a research assistant for a doctoral student whose work I was promoting. 

As a result of working with this student, I met her adviser who asked if I would be interested in doing a doctorate in human computer interaction. And initially, I said no, but long story short I ended up selling myself on the degree while promoting and pitching it to other people. 

I started that work in 2014. I worked in my field site in Cuba and I graduated with my doctorate in 2019 and started at UMSI in the fall of 2019. 

Tell us about your current research interests and what types of projects excite you the most.

I use ethnographic methods. It’s work that takes a lot of time because it involves embedding oneself within a community and building trust. I also love tying the online community to the physical world because there’s a lot of richness that comes with bridging the two of them. 

I’m interested in questions of power, social inequalities and structural violence, and the ways people from underrepresented groups work together to make up for infrastructure gaps. All infrastructures have gaps and breakdowns but I argue that people from lower socioeconomic groups are more heavily impacted by those breakdowns. I’m fascinated by the work they have to do to try to bridge those gaps, especially in environments of extended crises as well as the innovations that come from that. 

An example of this is I worked in Havana, Cuba. My dissertation looked at the various versions of the internet people have created. These are intranets that are planned out, underground and have their own coding language. They have about 10-30,000 users. 

Why did they create it? 

It started out for gaming. Local areas wanted to game together so they started connecting cables to each other’s houses. And then it grew and they figured out how to build antennas and how to get Wi-Fi routers. And they started having forums and dating sites and all the different services you would expect from the internet. 

It became very big and popular, and eventually the government shut it down. But this is an example of people building their own infrastructure. They saw they didn’t have an infrastructure that was provided, that met their needs, that was sufficient, so they built one themselves. 

And this is what I’m most fascinated by — the technical, social and political breakdowns. I don’t think avoiding breakdown should be the goal, but accepting that no matter what type of society you live in, there will be breakdowns. And in those breakdowns, that’s where there’s room for intervention and positive social change. 

Was there a particular person or book that influenced your decision to pursue this field? 

I’ve always been inspired by people’s work that is more anthropological, ethnographic and critical.  I would say Silvia Lindtner. I’m a big fan of her work. She’s at UMSI. 

Christian Sandvig, also. He’s at UMSI and in communications. His work on infrastructures is fascinating. For example he did this project about internet access initiatives among indigenous populations in the United States. 

And then also Kentaro Toyama and the work that he’s done in information, communication, technology and development. That was a major inspiration for me. 

And finally, Ruth Behar, who is also at Michigan. She’s a Cuban-American anthropologist and I knew about her before coming here but she writes fantastic books that inform how I bring emotion into my work. She writes work that is very intimate in acknowledging the world that we live in. 

Tell us something unexpected about you. 

Michaelanne Thomas pictured in an alley with colorful graffiti
Michaelanne Thomas

I really like tiny stuff. I have two boys and I’ve started to create little fairy doors throughout my house in random, unexpected places. I like to build little scenes and then let the boys find them. We have this fairy lore that my oldest and I have developed that the doors are portals. 

I guess the thing about me is I’m actually a child. [Laughs]. I have not lost my sense of wonder. I really lean into that with my kids. 


Learn more about Michaelanne Thomas’ research in her faculty profile