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reflections on writing a digital ethnography

Last week, a student in the Cyberspace Ethnography course taught by Maximilian Forte at Concordia University sent me some questions for a class presentation on The Virtual Campfire. Below are some of my reflections on the process of conducting virtual fieldwork, the advantages and disadvantages of digital ethnography, issues of immersion and techno-utopianism, and what it means to be a “digital native” studying and writing about the experiences of those grappling with the uncomfortable process of integrating new communication technologies into everyday life.



Do you think there is an accepting view towards doing an ethnography online?

Among those who have an understanding of what an ethnography is – a minority even among the highly educated – I would say most definitely. It’s certainly become well-known among the digerati thanks to the highly public work of, for instance, Mike Wesch at KSU (a professor of anthropology currently working on an ethnography of YouTube) and danah boyd (not “technically” an anthropologist, but a staunch advocate of ethnography via her work on youth and social networking sites).

In my research with danah through the Berkman Center, which focuses on pro-self-harm websites and online communities, it’s become clear to me that ethnography is a critically important methodology in promoting empathetic understanding of youth online practices and combating the moral panic that’s driving Internet censorship campaigns and related policy issues. Unfortunately, quantitative data tends to trump qualitative research when it comes to policy. I had to take statistics twice because I hated it so much I dropped not only the class, but my second major in psychology. I’m glad I came back to it, because in the world of research it’s important to know how to critically analyze a wide range of methodologies and the biases inherent in them. Anthropology as a discipline tends to be overly self-conscious, while psychology is just the opposite. Combining the confidence of quantitative psychology studies with the sensitivity of ethnographic accounts is truly empowering


Based on your work what were the advantages and disadvantages to doing an ethnography online?   Any major obstacles encountered?

Basically, I make a habit out of interpreting the human interactions around me as though they were originating from a bunch of crazy space monkeys. Then the whole cyborg element doesn’t seem so much of a stretch.

But seriously, as I mentioned in my thesis one of the most problematic aspects of virtual ethnography is the voyeuristic nature of ‘lurking’- being able to watch without being seen. I attempted to compensate for my voyeurism by participating fully in the communities I was researching, skirting along that longstanding anthropological borderline between participation and observation. People reveal a lot online, which is one of the greatest advantages of doing virtual fieldwork. Inhibitions are lowered, because social networking sites induce an illusion of privacy. One of my greatest difficulties was making distinctions between information intended to be publicly accessible and that which should be kept confidential.

Many of the advantages of cyberethnography are also disadvantageous: the potential for invisibility, while it eliminates the issue of “contaminating” the habitus in introducing a prominent gaze, may be ethically suspect; the absence of face-to-face interaction may decrease inhibitions, but it also frequently results in misinterpretation; immersion in internet culture may connect one to a wider world of information and interesting individuals, but it can also be addictive and painfully isolating at times.

There is the also the issue of the distance necessary for writing a quality ethnography. Most traditional anthropologists do fieldwork in a foreign land, then return home to reflect upon their experiences. With my virtual ethnography, the distinctions between fieldsite and writing collapsed entirely. Like most recent college students, I’d developed the habit of procrastinating from writing papers by regularly navigating to Facebook. So, I would log in to Facebook and notice so many things (clearly), and of course the technology is always changing rapidly. At a certain point, my advisor had to tell me to stop conducting fieldwork, and make a clear transition to writing and reflection. That was hard.


In doing ethnographic work, learning a new language may be a problem.  Did you encounter any problems with language? The glossary of words in your appendix were familiar to you beforehand?

When I first got into anthropology, I was taking Swahili classes and planning to travel to Zanzibar for field research. Having been an exchange student in Denmark the year prior to starting college, I was acutely aware of just how disorienting culture shock can be, and how incredibly difficult it is to understand the subtleties of a new language. It occurred to me at some point that a single semester of fieldwork in Zanzibar would hardly qualify me to write authoritatively about the subject – it would hardly qualify me as much more than a tourist, really.

As I delved deeper into my studies, I found myself drawn to postmodern theory and autoethnography. Having been an awkward outsider for so long, the intimate community I’d begun building at Wesleyan was extremely important to me, and given how quickly college passes by, I didn’t want to miss a moment of the story we were writing together. When social networking sites exploded in popularity around 2004-2005, right as I was becoming obsessed with anthropology, they naturally converged. While I’d long considered my white, middle-class American background to be boringly average, it became apparent to me that my immersion in various cybercultures since adolescence granted me exactly the kind of authority I needed to deeply explore the increasing prevalence of social media in the everyday lives of those around me. As my friends and interviewees struggled to articulate the pleasures and conflicts they experienced through this new medium, I found myself drawing from my extensive experience of virtual life- making comparisons, filling in the gaps, elucidating connections. Comfortably connected to my campus community, friends and strangers alike came to me when they had a story to share about Facebook or MySpace.

In the beginning, there was much more of a stigma surrounding social networking – in group conversations, mentioning you’d heard about some piece of gossip from Facebook might’ve garnered some teasing, for instance. In my interviews, people expressed feelings and told stories they’d never felt comfortable expressing to others out of fear of being labeled narcissistic or shallow. It helped that I made it clear how immersed I was in online sociality and shared my own embarrassing tales. Being eager to talk about Facebook back in the day was pretty lame. They could be lame with me. 😉

So in sum – I maybe had *too* good of a grasp of the language, being so utterly immersed. When I wrote my first paper on Facebook back in 2005, my professor pointed out the need to define terms and practices I took to be self-explanatory. Rather than attempting to master the linguistic subtleties of my informants, the greatest linguistic challenge in writing this ethnography was explicating such subtleties so that readers who’d never been to these sites could understand them – hence the need for a glossary.


The campfire metaphor do you consider it to be idyllic?

It’s my belief that the heart of human connection is captured by just this metaphor – the warmth and intimacy of kindred spirits, nurtured by an ethic of mutual aid in the viscerality* of shared experiences. My view on the matter is certainly idyllic, for in the face of increasing disenchantment with the world it’s the duty of the idealist to work for its reenchantment.

To be entirely honest, it was only in the last two months of writing that I conjured up the virtual campfire metaphor, and I wish I’d thought of it sooner as there are so many ways in which it can be applied to this topic. The idyllic vision evoked by the “campfire” is more likely to stick with readers, but it’s important to keep in mind that while the warmth and light of connectivity is what draws us to gather around these new media forms, it is also what distracts us from the wolves watching in the surrounding wood (marketers, predators, identity thieves), the stars above our head (the universe beyond our “egoverses”), and the park rangers on the prowl for firestarters and underage drinking (‘net censorship advocates and moral panic propagators).

Basically, the internet is no more and no less than the people and ideas it’s made up of, which are not so very different from what humankind had been and thought of before it was invented – long before. Dispelling the myth that technology has “effects” on human experience is definitely what I was seeking to convey in writing this ethnography, though the degree to which I was successful in that endeavor is certainly debatable 🙂

*Apparently ‘viscerality’ is not a word. It is now 😛


What do you think the future holds for social networking sites?

These are unpredictable times and I’m no futurist, but the forecast looks good for more mobile, local networking technologies blending in with pre-existing business and community structures. Increasing integration of these technologies into our daily lives as we adapt to their existence – the Singularity approacheth! But who’s to know what technology we’ll think up next??


What is your definition of an ethnography?

An empathetic portrayal of the stories and everyday practices of a group of people, balancing one’s own experiences with the perspective of an alien from outer space – see ‘Body Ritual Among the Nacirema‘ for an amusing addendum to that last point.

mapping the readers of my thesis

The Virtual Campfire has been getting hits from all over the world! Roger that, interest in online social networking has reached pandemic proportions :):

The Virtual Campfire: An Ethnography of Online Social Networking [online]

I’ve been a bad blogger recently, and hardly a functional human being- this state of total liminality is both extraordinarily liberating and incredibly frustrating. I graduate on Sunday. If you would like to experience the fruits of my yearlong labors, I encourage you to check out the electronic version of my thesis, which I plan to add interactive features to in the future (I’m thinking more along the lines of a wiki than this rather average website). If you do read it, drop me a line and let me know what you think! I’m always eager to hear fresh perspectives and related stories.

 

A thesis submitted to the Faculty of Wesleyan University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in Anthropology.

Based on five years of participant-observation on the social networking sites MySpace, Facebook, and Tribe.net, The Virtual Campfire explores the increasingly blurred boundaries between human and machine, public and private, voyeurism and exhibitionism, the history of media and our digitized future. Woven throughout are the stories and experiences of those who engage with these sites regularly and ritualistically, the generation of “digital natives” whose tales attest to the often strange and uncomfortable ways online social networking sites have come to be embedded in the everyday lives of American youth.

Thesis as Academic Marathon

Last week, I finally sent in my thesis, which with appendices currently stands at 234 pages. I’ve been celebrating ever since, finally released from the constant strain I’d been under all year. The best comparison I’ve found for relating my experience is that of a marathon. I was a competitive distance runner in high school, and it would seem I transferred that competitive energy and masochistic endurance into my academic life. By “masochistic endurance,” I mean: the intentional sacrifice of the body’s needs for the sake of continually moving forward; when the brain separates from the body so as to control it, rather than being controlled by it-

ie- survival mode

Looking back, I see that the stress I put myself under, however much I rationalized the need for it, took a serious toll on my health, and ultimately affected every other realm of my life in the process. Take this blog, for example. I had all but abandoned it this past month, and for the most part it has been mostly a repository of snippets of my thesis and musings related to my research. In focusing my energies on the single-minded pursuit of one aspect of my life, I became unwell and overwhelmed.

The isolation I felt, despite the efforts of my friends and loved ones to support me, crept in during the loneliest hours- usually around dawn after spending a dozen hours at my desk. I recall searching the Web for stories of those in my position, looking for guidance and hope, or at least some solid advice on just when too much is too much. I couldn’t find a lot, but what I did find helped me immensely. Now that I’ve a clearer head, I thought I ought to do my part in returning the favor. What follows are some realizations I had to learn the hard way (damn), but maybe you won’t have to (sweet!):

One thing I realized is that staying awake for too long without pausing for rest is a huge time-waster. I would spend hours in a state of half-consciousness, struggling to put words to my increasingly scattered thoughts. Especially after 24 hours, my attention span and ability to articulate began to decline abruptly. Sleep is necessary. Your body cannot, in fact, be separated from your mind, no matter how much we wish it to be so.

I found it especially easy to rationalize such self-destructive behavior thanks to the discourse that surrounds university life. While my rational self knew I was in need of such human comforts as sleep and social activity, my competitive spirit clung to the vision fed to me through my environment and media consumption. That “vision” is in fact an irrational ideal of a superhuman superbrain. Now that I’ve stepped back from it a bit, it’s not nearly as alluring as it once was, this “success.” Success is happiness, and happiness comes about through wellness and ALLEVIATION, rather than perpetuation, of stress.

One thing that got me through during my frequent bouts of losing confidence was having mentors, in their various guises. Here I’ll take the opportunity to plug the potentially awesome benefits of this new “social web”- I was able to befriend and communicate with a variety of researchers and authors who might be considered experts, and their advice for me was enormously motivational. Inspiration and hope can be derived from even the briefest of exchanges at times. Reaching out is easier than ever.

Nevertheless, I cannot stress enough (heh) the incredible importance of grooming one another- face-to-face interaction cannot be replaced by any means. It is easy enough to become a hermit, but from my experience, we need others in order to keep it real. It is easy, also, through the process of isolation, to grow bitter of the world and to see yourself as separate and alone, a martyr. This past week has been one of reintegration; I now see that my biggest mistake this past year was neglecting so much of what makes me happy- people, especially- but I am lucky to realize now that the love had been waiting for me to return the entire time.

Writing that brought to mind the Desiderata, which I read every new year’s eve. That seems like a good note to end on- blunt simplicity.


Desiderata – Max Ehrmann

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible, without surrender,
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even to the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons;
they are vexatious to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain or bitter,
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs,
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals,
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love,
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment,
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life,
keep peace in your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

Hibernation and the Pursuit of Brilliance

This past month, I’ve sought to nourish myself through what is, for me, the most difficult period of the year. January. And I made it! I’m okay! And I’ve written a lot of things.

In fact, I was recently hired to join a team of bloggers, helping to create the “meat” of a pre-beta social networking site, iggli. You can check out my blog here, or by clicking on the title of this post. It’s where I’ve been writing regularly these days. Original writing, at that.

Having shaken myself free from the noxious syndrome of reading “research” and creating headers beneath which I can conveniently categorize the perspectives of others into “anxieties” and “utopias”, I have now reached what will be the butter on the bread of my thesis. That is, that which makes the dry foundation delicious. Not that ethnography is ever dry. My first chapters are rife with the stories, anecdotes, personalities, ideas that propelled me to do this research in the first place.

But now, allow me to be indulgent. I embark on a chapter I’ve hesitantly entitled “A Phenomenological Exploration of Online Social Networking.” This is where I tell my own story, where I deeply investigate my own integration of anxieties toward and utopic visions of the Internet and its potentials and failures.

And everything else.

The past week has consisted of moving into a new apartment (where I will no longer bother touchy neighbors with my entirely nocturnal rhythm and proclivity toward human interaction and [god forbid!] music), sleeping 10-12 hours a night, and battling the obvious onset of ill health with my finest vegetarian cooking, isolation, and relaxation.

I sit before the screen now resolved to put forth a testimony founded on inner truths, desires, sadnesses, attempts to bridge the increasing divide I see between individuals and community. The Internet, for me, is the “final frontier” in which we may remake ourselves, and in so doing, contribute to the remaking of this severely damaged world.

Though, as severely damaged as it is, it is because of my overwhelming love of the stories, personalities, and lives of others that I have become so enamored with the potential for anthropological research to promote human understanding, empathy, and that elusive yet all-empowering ultimate pursuit: community, connection, the sense of belonging and the extension of selfhood.

This has been a manifesto.

First Forays into the Cybernetic Jungle (Circa 1998)

The introduction of the Internet in my life occurred at the pivotal juncture between childhood and adolescence. Moreover, for me this transition was made even more definitive by my family’s move from the countryside of upstate New York (where our backyard merged with a local farmer’s berry crops) to the nearby small college town of Clinton. The move was made in large part so that I could legally attend one of the better public schools in the area, having graduated from a tiny private Catholic elementary school in the same town. Not only was I the new kid, but I was a shy bookworm who still let her mother choose the clothes she owned. Overwhelmed, I found solace and freedom on the Internet, where it didn’t matter whom you knew or what you wore. Certainly, my online interactions were not always pleasant, but I at least had time to craft a witty response, unhindered by my tendency to blush furiously and lose the ability to speak in response to direct confrontations.
Like all adolescents, I sought an environment in which I could experiment and play. Many of these explorations were marked by transgressions of the “social laws” that typically guide young adolescent behavior, such as adult supervision, as well as more general social norms of aggression and sexual conduct. My first forays into the veritable human jungle of online chat rooms were my own secret dramas, the social risks of which were null (in the “real world,” anyway). Early on, I learned to avoid the America Online chatrooms, preferring the more anonymous, explorative diversity of Internet Relay Chat (IRC) . On AOL, I was frustratingly limited to a single username linked to my main e-mail inbox, meaning that anyone I conversed with in AOL channels could send me messages whenever I was online (unless, of course, I blocked them). With IRC, I was free to create a new name for myself each time I logged in, free to experiment without risk of exposing my true identity. Often, I attempted to pass for a college-aged woman with a name like “Wildfire,” and was delighted to find I could successfully banter intellectually with my faceless peers. Many of the more popular chatrooms felt a bit like entering a bar: one would immediately be asked “a/s/l? (age/sex/location?)”. To expose oneself as a young female would be a fatal flaw, indeed; it would inevitably result in a barrage of messages, the likes of which taught me a good deal about men, sex, and danger. Oftentimes, when I didn’t feel like dealing with the lecherous come-ons of lonely men, I would choose an androgynous handle. Over time, I developed the ability to discern between the aforementioned squalor and “quality” chatrooms, and came to spend a good deal of time competing with other users in word games monitored by a robot, or gossiping in fan-based chatrooms about the last episode of The X-Files.
“Jenneh,” as I was known to those I considered my closer (albeit still faceless) Internet friends, was the creator of a website composed mostly of favorite quotes, self-fashioned graphics and animations, and long lists of “favorites.” Anyone who was at all Internet-savvy during this time period (often younger users) had a personal webpage, usually obtained by creating an account with a free web-hosting provider such as AngelFire or Geocities. Usually, these pages were loaded with bad HTML, such as flashing text and continuous GIF animations. Creators of such sites linked to one another based on the relevancy of another site’s content (a direct recommendation), or through interest-based “webrings” located on the page (typically not affiliated with the site owner herself) . Such custom-made, egocentric webpages parallel today’s online social networking profiles, where everyone is an author without an editor. Today, such webpages/profiles are usually linked together through social networks increasingly based on offline ties. Certainly, the medium for self-expression on the Internet has evolved, but the desire for transgression, the search for connection, and the allure of anonymity and fantasy continue to be key factors in why people choose to engage with one another online in the way that they do.
My first sexual “encounter” occurred in the ethereal realm of cyberspace at the age of 13, where I also fell in love with a boy I would never end up meeting face-to-face. Though it would be another two years until my first offline sexual interaction, the sense of intimacy, excitement, awkwardness and joy felt no different. We’d gotten to know one another in the chatroom of a downloadable game called HoverCraft, where players met in the game’s chat rooms to challenge each other to virtual races in virtual hovercrafts. In this world, I was a renowned “expert” at the game, and so was he. After races, which we usually won, we would often linger on the course, represented by our little red hovercrafts, typing to each other into a void made somehow more visceral by our frequent games of hide-and-shoot. Though we chatted for hours each night for several months, when he finally called me on the phone our conversation was stilted. His voice sounded too feminine, too young. I realized that my attraction to him had hinged in large part on fantasy, fueled by the titillating unknown. Nevertheless, our bond was not entirely imagined; it was, most certainly, the result of what I have come to call “mind-melding,” when empathy, vulnerability, and love coalesce to allow for the kind of connection that transcends the petty hierarchies of appearance, social status, and even spatial proximity itself. That year, following a recent divorce from her cheating husband, my best friend’s mother moved to Germany to marry and live with a man she’d met over the Internet and gotten to know over a period of 10 months. As parents raised eyebrows and murmured their disdain for such “impractical,” “pathetic” behavior, I remember thinking to myself, “the world is certainly evolving faster than they can understand.” My friend’s mother remains happily married in Germany to this day.

Emergence for an Update

The past six weeks have been spent throwing myself into the writing of my thesis. Currently, I have 53 pages of solid writing, and in the process have discovered an emergent structure that belies that which I’d previously been naively imposing on myself. It has become clear to me that I am able to provide a kind of phenomenological perspective that is notably absent from much of the preexisting literature on computer-mediated communication, generally, and online social networks, particularly. 

I have found a lot of journalism, a lot of psychology, a lot of sociology, and various intersections of the three. Don’t get me wrong, there is some great research out there, but the vast majority is either biased to some degree (not that there is such a thing as being unbiased, but that’s a whole other post) or somewhat dehumanizing, Anthropology, in contrast, is the analysis of individual voices and perspectives that make up webs of meaning and power. Humanism and science spring forth and coalesce! But I digress: in tandem with the written thesis, I am also creating a website. A website that is both a blog (this blog) as well as a wiki, so as to better articulate a) my personal ethnographic and research process, and b) the various media sources involved in the construction of my knowledge (images, blogs, videos, online articles, public forums, the sites themselves, etc;). 

By the way, if anyone reading this has any career advice, throw me a bone!

Survey on Online Social Networking Habits!

I am conducting a short survey for users of Facebook, MySpace, and/or Tribe.net.

Your participation in this survey is entirely voluntary, and you may terminate participation at any time prior to the completion of this survey without penalty. Please understand that the information you provide will be viewed only by the researcher, and that any responses published will not enable identification of me in any way. 

Questions and concerns can be directed to Jenny Ryan (researcher) @
jaryan@wesleyan.edu.
Further information and future publications can be found at http://webnography.blogspot.com

I Agree, Continue to Survey!

Changing Attitudes Toward Facebook

As the tech world continues to grow wild for Facebook, the veteran users in my midst- college students- continue to grow indifferent, even annoyed- or so their group discourse would have me believe. “The applications were pretty fun at first,” said one energetic, people-loving friend, “I like throwing food at my friends and turning them into zombies… but it got old real fast.” “They’re stupid, they’re annoying, I just really don’t care at all anymore,” said another friend, who’d spent his past semester abroad, “I mean, I guess it’s useful for keeping in touch with people you don’t care enough about to e-mail.”

“Well, I care so little that I let her,” Dave points a finger at his girlfriend, “go in and change my whole profile around. It’s ridiculous, and I haven’t even changed it back.” They giggle for awhile.

“There are some useful applications,” I point out.

“Well, there’re so many of them, I don’t feel like sifting through all of that crap. Facebook’s turning into MySpace.”

At the same time, I’ve found that my friends on Facebook continue to be highly active, having become skilled at interacting with the more useful features of the site. 25% of the most recent 50 emails in my inbox are Facebook notifications of some sort- generally, event listings, friend requests, wall messages, and pokes. These are some of the ways in which we attempt to connect to one another through forming and maintaining relationships and collective cohesion, digitally.

My conclusion? It’s just not “cool” to like Facebook- one is better off being critical- but many of us depend on it in some way or another as a way of maintaining social bonds. We’ve grown addicted.

Log the Third

Today, after my sister expressed her love for me on my Facebook wall (as she is wont to do), I recorded my first video wall post. Unfortunately, I’m unable to “repost” the video here, but I will say it was quite simple, and rather successful! Facebook recently implemented a variety of options on what was once a user “wall” constrained to text alone. Now, one can record video, post a link, post a band (one needs to first register their band at ReverbNation and upload a few songs, which can then be posted on one’s profile, or linked to on another’s wall), send a randomly-generated fortune cookie, give a “zombie hug”, send a cookie, give a daisy, or post a popular song (when I clicked on this, there was a search bar, as well as 3 popular songs listed: Avril Lavigne, 50 Cent, and Death Cab for Cutie).

I also spent a solid 15 minutes taking screen captures of my friend’s MySpace profile. I made myself stop at 50 shots, that’s how long his profile page is. Lots of links, artistic images, poetry, politically-oriented buttons and banners, the usual favorite books and movies and such, a long introduction (that is prefaced with:
“TOTALLY NOT INTERESTED IN THE FOLLOWING:
your band (unless your organic/synthetic spiritual sounds and presentation could totally wow me, DON’T EVEN BOTHER)
Promoters of any kind!(go away)
spiders, crawlers, spammers, etc go away i don’t like you!
people…who freak me out. (it’s pretty hard to accomplish)

and now! on to the good stuff!”

His comments were nearly as fun to sift through as the profile itself. Beautiful images, replete with some animated sparkles or color shifts, adorned his walls. The requisite “Thanks for the add!” comment was also a strong presence. The majority of the content was “New Age” in nature- faeries, Alex Grey, and my favorite: