writing a thesis requires the regular doing of nothing much.

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.

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.

writing ethnographies of the internet

For the past two years or so, I’ve been conducting field research on online social networks (MySpace, Facebook, and Tribe.net in particular), and am now in the midst of writing up my ethnography/thesis (tentatively titled “Webnography: An Ethnography of Online Social Networks”;). Hopefully, by May I will be once again walking to a podium, this time to receive my master’s degree in anthropology from Wesleyan University.

Cyberanthropology, as it’s often called, is a relatively new field. Nevertheless, I’m entirely overwhelmed by the vast amount of information and research available online. For those interested in the field, I’ve put together a fairly well-organized assortment of links to past studies, pertinent blogs, and must-read books on the subject. You can get to it by clicking here.

I chose to conduct my research in an area of human life that I felt I was already a part of. I’ve little desire to study the “exotic other,” as I believe true knowledge starts with an intrinsic understanding, which is then expanded through conversations with others, situating the topic within the broader context of history and philosophy, and engaging in dialogue with other researchers of the subject. While there are empirical studies out there, my own research is anything but. The only true claim to authority I have is over my own experiences.

“Language is a virus from outer space.”
-William Burroughs

In the words of Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message”. In other words, we’re not really saying anything new – how could we? What is changing, however, are the tools for communication. Each new medium takes on qualities of those which came before it, and extend our possibilities for communication. Thus, in the case of communication on the Internet, we experience the permanence and distantiation from time and space that print media has allotted for, as well as the immediacy and convenience afforded to us by the telephone. We are furthermore enabled to broadcast ourselves in a way that television could never quite encompass, even with “reality” programming. Unlike any previous private communications medium, our experiences on the Internet are enhanced by images, video, and sound.

“Technology is the campfire around which we tell our stories.”
-Laurie Anderson

Perhaps the greatest danger to writing about the Internet is that of technological determinism- the belief that technology determines changes in society. On the contrary, societies develop technologies that are always being shaped by the culture they’re embedded in. We are not a society being altered through our technologies- rather, we are human beings engaging in the same activities through the use of evolving tools (hence the “campfire” metaphor, above). The modern age, however, has arguably transformed humankind’s way of thinking and perceiving in ways that have yet to be fully determined. Understanding where we are, where we’ve come from, and where we are going is an important endeavor, I believe, if we are to understand the implications of modernization and the future of this planet.