Sociable Hyperlinks: an Ethnographic
Approach to Connectivity
The Internet can be conceptualized as communication medium, information infrastructure and ‘space’ of interaction. Thinking about which concept to use is especially central to ethnographic methods, since constituting ‘the field’ is determinant for the knowledge produced in this kind of research (Amit 2000).1 The Internet is frequently seen as a mediated environment, constituted by a myriad of socio-technical interactions which often leave traces behind. Traces often seem ready-made (logs, files, archives of messages, hyperlinks), forming both a stimulus for renewed interest in ethnography on the Internet and a source of discomfort with the idea that the Internet might constitute a viable ethnographic site (Clifford 1997; Beaulieu 2004). These traces have also been perceived as potentially shared objects between quantitative and qualitative approaches. They are seductive for the researcher (Star 1999), but must be understood as representations constituted by the context, the users and last but not least, the researcher’s own activities.
The term ‘trace’ is used in this chapter to evoke a sign left behind by an entity, the meaning of which must be understood and interpreted. The methods illustrated in this chapter address one particular kind of ‘trace’, the hyperlink, and its use as an ethnographic object to constitute a field of study. I suggest that an ethnographic treatment of hyperlinks can be a useful way to understand both social and technical dimensions of the Internet as a space for sharing and circulating data. Viewing hyperlinks as both functional and symbolic suggests ways in which traditional elements of ethnography might be adapted in order to constitute an online field site for the study of infrastructure. Specifically, this approach builds on the notion of connectivity as an important feature of networks on the Internet (Scharnhorst 2003)and suggests how connectivity can be further elaborated in an ethnographic approach. While the issues explored in this chapter arose from work in science and technology studies, the discussion may well be of interest to other streams of research in which ethnography plays an important role.