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The cultural significance of Internet practices

August 2, 2009

Review article in the making, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (JRAI)

BOELLSTORFF, T. 2008. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

HINKELBEIN, O. 2008. Strategien zur digitalen Integration von Migranten: Ethnographische Fallstudien in Esslingen und Hannover. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Bremen.

KELTY, C. 2008. Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

ROIG, A. 2008. Cap al cinema col.laboratiu: pràctiques culturals i formes de producció participatives. Unpublished PhD Thesis, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya.

Draft outline /proposal

The ethnographic study of Internet in 2000 gives us useful baseline: Miller and Slater, Hine, Zurawski. Key debate was whether you could study online phenomena in their own right, without tracing them back to their everyday offline contexts. On one side of the debate, Miller and Slater argue starting point should be the myriad practices and specific contexts of daily life, including online practices as part of – not apart from – those contexts. They back this up with ethnography of Internet on the island of Trinidad and among Trini diaspora. On the other side, Hine argues you can indeed study online practices and communities in their own right, and seeks to demonstrates this with own ethnographic study of online groups formed in support of an English nanny accused of killing a baby in America.

In this article I review four works completed eight years later, in 2008. What are the debates now? What’s the state of the anthropological/ethnographic study of the Internet eight years on, the new baseline? I argue that the online/offline methodological debate has been revived with Boellstorff’s ethnography of Second Life and should not be dismissed or explained away as it remains important. But I also suggest we need to pay heed to the great labour of the new generation of anthros studying the internet of empirically documenting and seeking to understand Internet practices both ethnographically and historically (esp. Kelty). These include online/inworld practices studied in their own right (Second Life) as well as practices that traverse sites and domains (Free Software, internet filmmaking, digital integration projects).

The theoretical approaches adopted in order to assess the cultural significance of these new Internet practices merit attention as well: recursive publics (Kelty), techne (Boellstorff), actor-network theory (Hinkelbein), practice theory (Roig). I conclude by suggesting that this latter approach – practice theory – shows the greatest promise for the pending programme (proposed by Miller and Slater in 2000) of a comparative ethnography of the Internet. A more explicit, grounded, and collaborative practice-theoretical approach to Internet research will allow anthropologists and others to begin to gauge the cultural significance of this explosion of practical innovation.

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