Academic journal article Nebula

A Method for the Times: A Meditation on Virtual Ethnography Faults and Fortitudes

Academic journal article Nebula

A Method for the Times: A Meditation on Virtual Ethnography Faults and Fortitudes

Article excerpt

Increasingly, identities and relationships are realised and performed in virtualised communities and spaces. To cultural and social interrogators, traditional ethnographic methods represent a contextually rich pathway to mapping intimate and meta-behaviours online. However, conventional techniques must innovate and transform to accommodate a polysemous eco-system and population.

In this paper, I explore key strengths and weaknesses of the ethnographic method when applied to computer-mediated collectives, and highlight specific imperatives that should be considered by researchers. My goal is to offer insights into the deployment of ethnography in diverse digital fora, including how it can be adapted or combined with other techniques to create a hybridised methodology. I support the theory that "new media" is historically relative--and argue that--while unique qualities of contemporary connectors must be practically addressed in research, a macro-epistemological approach is most helpful to contextualise findings to, move scholars toward a best practice for virtual situation.

A method for change

The latter decades of the twentieth century saw the ascendancy of expansive communication technologies that dazzled and commuted individuals, networks and economies with fresh momentum. These technologies have given rise to new sites of convergence, news tools for expression, newly situated socio-cultural tensions, and new vocations to manage the exchanges that occur in these ephemeral territories. Recent statistics from the USC Annenberg School for Communication's Center for the Digital Future indicate these territories and their residents are growing more numerous. Their 2008 Digital Future Report indicates that membership in online communities has grown over 100% in the last three years. In record numbers, individuals are identifying as a 'member' of these microverses, visiting them regularly, publishing media-rich content within their 'walls', forming heterogeneous, disembodied and physical ties with their inhabitants:

More than half of online community members (54 percent) log into their community at least once a day, and 71 percent of members said their community is very important or extremely important to them. Fifty-six percent of members reported meeting their online counterparts in person ... And, a large and growing percentage of members--now 55 percent--say they feel as strongly about their online communities as they do about their real-world communities. (2008 Digital Future Report, USC Annenberg)

The "messy, chaotic enterprise" (Pahl, 2003) of ethnography seems uniquely suited for research within the virtual collectives of our times: nebulous, shaded and polymodal. Ethnography's reflexive DNA allows it to probe the human fibre of cyberspaces. There is ample air traffic control analysis of 'online community'--reductive assessment of its movements, distilled into linear metrics such as 'hits' or registration numbers. But to understand what and who we are when we connect (and disconnect) online, scholars need to tap the 'grey areas' of social motility. Informed observation, participation and interpretation insulate debates around digital existences from banality, rhetoric or uncritical evangelism. As Howard Rheingold, the 'father' of virtual community, has argued, it is only through immersion at the community coalface that researchers will advance our understanding of our 'bloodless' networked publics (and privates).

What--and where--is 'online community'?

Technologically-mediated social behaviours raise unique challenges for researchers, beginning with underlying definitions and assumptions (Wang & Gloviczki, 2008). Unpacking challenges in studying the World Bank's ICT4DEV project, a part-virtualised network of stakeholders around the globe, Casper Bruun Jensen described the project itself as "an ontologically heterogeneous, variable and distributed entity, which does not respect any of the taken-for-granted levels and boundaries in the social science vocabulary. …

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