Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Media Ethnography in Virtual Space: Strategies, Limits, and Possibilities

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Media Ethnography in Virtual Space: Strategies, Limits, and Possibilities

Article excerpt

The interpretive turn in audience studies has grown in two decades from an exploratory foray into many vibrant areas of theory and empirical research. While such issues as the locus of sense-making and how media practices lead to the reproduction of social structure are still debated, the arguments and methods for studying media interpretation are now well known (Anderson, 1996; Jensen & Jankowski, 1991; Potter, 1996; Schoening & Anderson, 1995).

Recently, forms of distributed "audience" activity have emerged with networked digital media to confront interpretive analysts with new versions of old issues about the study of mediated communication. The most widely used of these systems is the global "network of networks," the Internet, whose growth in the 1990s was fueled by several developments: the rapid upgrading of the infrastructure to allow high-capacity data traffic; introduction of the hypertext-based World Wide Web and search tools; the growth of access providers; fiercely competitive pricing of high-performance computers and modems; and the emergence of a consumer desire for access to an abundance of electronic texts. The Internet's decentralized structure provides its users with the ability to receive, create, and send information in many forms, including electronic mail, Usenet news groups, Listserv mailing lists, simulation spaces, and World Wide Web sites. Most of these are in the public domain and foster a concept of the Internet as home to many virtual communities of interest (Rheingold, 1993).

Private companies have also rushed to colonize the Web with multimedia versions of their products and services. For example, television stations and networks have launched Web sites in order to promote their programming and other services and to invite viewer response (Puritz, 1996; Tedesco, 1996). Some of these ventures, such as NBC and Microsoft's MSNBC, create original content for the medium. Familiar genres are also crossing over to the Web, as exhibited in the "cybersoaps" that have gone into production since 1995 (Levere, 1996). Usage of media Web sites is now measured by Nielsen Media Research's PC Meter service in terms of page requests, minutes per request, and total minutes of usage for each household. For some events, the number of page "hits" approximate what might be considered a mass audience in the traditional sense.(1) Industry observers now wait to see whether new products such as video-streaming, "push" technology, and Web/TV units will widen Internet access beyond its current 20-25% share of U.S. telephone homes (Hof, 1997; Tedesco, 1997).

Despite these efforts at making computer usage compatible with television viewing, computer-mediated communication (CMC) is very different from other forms of attendance. In contrast to the reception of a fixed content schedule, CMC is transient, widely distributed, multi-modal, and allows for a high degree of end-user manipulation of content.(2) Except for workplace monitoring of employees' Internet usage (Gabriel, 1996), there are few codes of conduct governing consumption. Locality of source is also largely irrelevant in the sprawling Internet--a condition that offers new possibilities for civic life, shared learning, and intercultural contact free of geographic limits, but that also opens spaces for explicit sexual content, hate speech, rumor propagation, alcohol advertisements aimed at children, and other problematic material.

The Internet encompasses an array of settings in which symbolic culture is performed and in which participants mean to express something coherent. The global, yet perceptibly intimate, nature of these settings and the social affiliations they spawn has attracted interest from interpretive analysts. Certainly the culture of networked computing is a prime example of the challenges that a mobile world economy poses to ethnographers, who are far more accustomed to single-site studies of a community or a stable subjectivity (Escobar, 1994; Marcus, 1995). …

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