Ethnographic Presence in a Nebulous Setting
Jason Rutter and Gregory W. H. Smith
In this chapter we examine some methodological and ethical aspects of our first venture into the developing realm of online ethnography, reviewing our specific ethnographic experiences in light of some of the more general concerns of ethnographic researchers. Our focus in this chapter is upon ‘presence’ and ‘absence’ as they are recast by online ethnography and yet resonate with the concerns of ethnographers in more traditional settings. We have chosen to organize our chapter following a conventional structure shaped by the ethnographic practicalities of getting into research settings, getting along with members of the setting and getting out of the setting (Goffman 1989). We also comment on some ethical issues raised by the research. First, we give a brief overview of the basic conceptions that informed the project.
Our approach to ethnographic work was shaped in part by our prior research experience. Jason Rutter had just completed a study of live stand-up comedy acts using transcribed audio and videotaped data (Rutter 1997, 2000). Gregory Smith (2001) had used observant participation and semi-structured interviewing to analyse the public harassment of runners. In both these studies we drew upon some standard interactionist and ethnomethodological conceptions. We planned to use interview and observational methods to describe and analyse the everyday activities and experiences of newsgroup members. We were interested in examining the ‘native’s point of view’ and in constructing ‘thick descriptions’ (Geertz 1973) of the lifeworlds of newsgroup members. In particular, we were struck by the opportunity to capture on computer file all the messages transmitted over a given period – to ground our analytic observations in the details of message exchange.
Our original research design involved a comparison of general newsgroups offered by four Internet Service Providers with a significant presence in the North West of England. We sought to analyse the nuts and bolts of sociability practices in newsgroups, seeking to discover how sociability is discursively constructed in a