New Connections, Familiar Settings:
Issues in the Ethnographic Study of
New Media Use at Home
This chapter develops a rationale for researching the context of new media use and for examining the connections between online and offline interaction and activity. It then introduces my ethnographic project on the domestic consumption of mass media, to give a flavour of a research approach that seems useful for understanding uses of the Internet.
Internet ethnographers have generally studied online contexts: focusing on CMC, they have explored texts. One pragmatic reason for this might be because of the ease of recording data. As Hine states, the ‘newsgroup as a record, an archive, is the ultimate field recorder’ (Hine 2000: 22). While utterances are preserved, however, the experience of participating is not, and the social world that is explored is confined to the electronic data that has been recorded. This focus has provided us with a range of interesting accounts of virtual communication which have explored, inter alia the implications of virtual communication for identities and communities. Although commonly supplemented by online interviews, the corollary of this focus is that we learn relatively little about the context of Internet use – at work, home or elsewhere. The ‘ultimate recorder’ is a strength only in relation to the text. The context of use, though usually missed by online ethnographers, is something that can be explored by the in situ observation of users. My argument in this chapter is that doing so provides a more extended and richer account of Internet use, complementing the textual analysis and online interviews that characterize much Internet research.
Nor has the context of use been addressed by the range of critics of Internet communication (for example, Robins 1995) who assert the continuing salience of ‘real-life’ or local, physically bounded communities. In arguing against many of the claims that are made for virtual communities and the multiple and fluid identities that are facilitated by virtual communication, they argue that ‘real-life’ and physically based communities are richer and more complex and nuanced than