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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.

Webnographers.org: Resources for Virtual Ethnography

A recent expanse of free time has enabled me to finally get to work on a project that’s long been brewing in the back of my brain. Webnographers.org is now up and running: a communal wiki for the sharing of ideas, tools, and resources pertaining to virtual ethnography.

Currently, it is organized in the following manner:

  1. Ideas: For brainstorming new approaches to the practice of virtual ethnography.
  2. Tools: Useful tools for online fieldwork.
  3. Library: Books, articles, videos, course syllabi, and a dictionary of terms.
  4. Directory: Researchers in the field (with links to bio pages), upcoming conferences, and pertinent blogs.

There isn’t a ton up there yet, as the past few days have been spent primarily wrestling with the MediaWiki software (which is fabulous, but I’m no programmer). This is the first official invitation to my colleagues working in the realm of internet research to join in the fray. Your participation would be very much appreciated- starting with a Bio page, if you wish. It would be fabulous if together we could create a viable compendium of resources for current and future webnographers!

Check it out at Webnographers.org!

The Cyberanthropologist’s Toolkit

Over the past two years of conducting online ethnography, I’ve collected quite the bevy of resources I’ve come to think of as the cyberanthropologist’s toolkit. Adjust your bookmarks accordingly:

Alexa Web Information Inc; is the definitive source for website traffic data. Besides providing more general statistics such as world traffic ranking and total hit count, the site also breaks down the percentage of visitors by country, changes in ranking over the past three months, and average number of page views per visitor. Great tidbit for a footnote when introducing a website in your research.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project has been conducting surveys and analyzing online trends since 2000. Their extensive reports are archived on the site, and encompass the following categories: online activities & pursuits; demographics; Internet evolution; technology & media use; health; family, friends, & community; major news events; public policy; e-gov & e-policy; education; and work. I would recommend this site for anyone interested in changing attitudes over time, or merely as a source of inspiration for those searching for a controversial issue to explore.

Providing an historical overview is critical to any in-depth research. Nicole Ellison and danah boyd have put together a fantastic history of social network sites, which details the evolution of Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook, among others. Additionally, Facebook provides an official, month-to-month timeline of important events in the site’s history. Though I can’t vouch for its credibility, I was able to locate a blog post that details the evolution of MySpace.

Finally, my blog WebnographY contains a plethora of literature reviews on the topic of online ethnography, as well as links to my past research projects and assorted random  musings. Find links to a variety of pertinent articles on my Resources page. Cheers!

5 Great Tools for Conducting Online Research

Can you tell I’m pretty deeply immersed in the world of academic research these days? Sharing is caring, and I’d like it to be known that I support collaboration over competition when it comes to the production of knowledge. As such, I encourage you to forward this post to anyone you know who could use it (especially thesis writers).

1. EndNote Web – You may have heard of EndNote- a comprehensive program for organizing citations and creating bibliographies that is used extensively by thesis writers- but you probably didn’t know that you don’t need to download or buy the expensive program (sold online for $250), which has numerous compatibility issues, anyway. EndNote Web is, first of all, FREE, and secondly, maintains your personal database of citations online. So if you, like me, are poor and unable to obtain a compatible version of the program through the school’s software database, this online program is a godsend. Furthermore, with EndNote Web you can also search online journal and library databases within the site. Sweet.

2. bubbl.us – When crafting a paper, it can really help to visually outline it before you write. The best tool I’ve come across is bubbl.us, which allows you to fill in little bubbles and link them to one another either horizontally or vertically (see screenshot, below). In addition, you can share your bubble diagrams with others, and even let them collaborate in the outline’s construction. I always use this site to outline my thesis chapters, which I’ve shared with my advisor in the past.

3. Diigo – A really fantastic social bookmarking and annotation tool. Like del.icio.us, Diigo arms you with web browser toolbar that lets you publicly share and organize your website bookmarks. However, Diigo expands upon this premise by allowing users to highlight, clip, and make sticky-notes on the websites you bookmark- and this makes it a powerful research tool (especially if you’re me- prone to bookmarking websites that mention anything having to do with my thesis, and forgetting why they were important later).

4. The OWL at Purdue – This website is a must for anyone confused about the variety of citation styles and the rules for composing bibliographies. It extensively outlines MLA, APA, ASA, and Chicago styles, and in addition discusses various research issues. Most useful, in my opinion, is this page, which contains links to online guides for documenting electronic sources in various disciplines.

5. SurveyMonkey – This is the best free survey-generator I’ve come across, and I used it last year when conducting a survey on online social networking practices. The free version of the software lets you compose 10 questions, which can be multiple-choice, a rating scale, a matrix selection, or open-ended. You can also make it kinda pretty. After you make it, SurveyMonkey will help you collect responses by creating e-mail invitations, website popups, or simply a copy-and-paste link. You can also view responses, which are neatly organized for easy analysis.