publications

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.

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.

My Personal SNS History

I’ve been a member of MySpace since December 2004 when I was a college sophomore, about a year after the site launched. I was skeptical. Over the past two and a half years I’ve acquired exactly 75 friends. I rarely searched for people, preferring to accept or (more often) reject friend requests. I emphasize the rejection bit in tandem with the aforementioned skepticism- the vast majority of friend requests I received were from emo boys with bands or men attempting to woo me. MySpace took on an identity, in my mind, of a virtual “meat market”. Rather than meat, however, what is being consumed seems to primarily consist of young women, CPU-heavy (not to mention gaudy) profile pages, and a seemingly infinite number of musicians. The friend requests from artists quite frequently piqued my interest, and musicians and bands make up nearly half of my MySpace friends.

I never made much of an effort on MySpace to accumulate friends, and my profile is somewhat “pimped out” only after a friend told me how lame it was. The *real” social networking service, the one all my friends used and that didn’t bombard me with crappy music and headache-inducing graphics, was Facebook. Simple, clean, neat- I didn’t have to worry that my parents would find me there, and practically everyone I knew at school used it (thus, for instance, it was highly likely I could find not only kids in my classes, but a phone number or screenname if I had a question about a paper). I have 350 friends on Facebook, and nearly every one is someone I’ve met face to face.

Last summer I lived in Boston, fell in love with psytrance, and discovered a new way in which I could communicate and solidify the casual friendships I made on the dance floor: tribe.net. Though I have a mere 40 friends on Tribe, what matters is not so much my own collection of friends and spiffy personal profile, but rather the groups (“tribes”) I’m a part of. The history of tribe.net is imbued with the sounds and styles of neo-hippies, as evidenced by its popularity amongst Burners (those who attend the annual Burning Man gathering) in the San Francisco Bay area. Activity on Tribe is quite unique from most SNCs I’ve been a member of: when someone adds you as a friend, they almost always include a personal message; I have several friends from around the globe who share things in common with me; each “tribe” consists primarily of topical forums (less a *badge* than a way to actually share information about a subject with others in the know).

I will continue to expand on this internet autobiography as the months progress, there are many good stories I should definitely get written down! To those readers I know are out there: feel free to share your own experiences… no, encouraged!