13. Six ways of doing digital ethnography
This is the thirteenth instalment in the freedom technologists series. A revised version appears in Pink, S., H. Horst, J. Postill, L. Hjorth, T. Lewis and J. Tacchi. 2016. Digital Ethnography: Principles and Practices. London: Sage.
IN THE 2000s I studied an internet-mediated social world that remained fairly stable throughout the main period of fieldwork, namely the field of residential politics in a middle-class suburb of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (Postill 2011). However, digital ethnographers will sometimes find that the social worlds they are researching will experience dramatic changes over a short period of time. In some cases, they may even witness the birth of a new social world whilst still in the field.
This is precisely what happened to me during fieldwork among Internet activists in Barcelona, Catalonia (Spain). In May 2011, with little prior warning, the small Internet activism scene I had been researching for ten months was swept up by a tidal wave of popular indignation involving millions of Spanish citizens who took to the streets and squares demanding ‘real democracy now’ (Postill and Pink 2012). This ‘wave’ soon came to be known as the indignados or 15M movement – a gargantuan social world demanding urgent investigation.
Here is a rough outline of events. When some forty protesters decided to stage a sit-in at Madrid’s main square, Puerta del Sol, in the early hours of 16 May 2011, they could not have anticipated the repercussions of their spontaneous action. After calling for reinforcements via Twitter and other social media, their numbers grew into the hundreds throughout the day. Yet it was only when they were removed from the square by the police on 17 June that their plight ‘went viral’. This led to the retaking of the square, only now by thousands upon thousands of protesters from all walks of life – an action that was soon replicated in dozens of other squares up and down the country. What started on 15 May as a series of peaceful marches, had turned within 48 hours into the Tahrir-inspired occupation of countless squares across Spain. The fledgling protests had morphed into a mass social movement, a social media phenomenon and a global media event. Within days, millions of Spaniards were exchanging a huge volume of 15M digital contents through email, Facebook, Twitter, Tuenti, blogs and countless other platforms, both on desktop computers and handheld devices (Rodriguez 2011).
Since those eventful days, I have sought to conceptualise the 15M social world in a number of different ways — often as a result of an invitation to contribute to a special journal issue or edited volume. We could regard these varied efforts as diachronic, ‘multi-timed’ versions (Postill 2012) of the influential ‘follow the’ approach to multi-sited ethnographic research proposed by Marcus (1995) twenty years ago. Here I review briefly some of them, namely following (1) the viral contents, (2) the digital technologies, (3) the digital technologists, (4) a single field of contention, (5) a series of fields of contention and (6) the protest temporalities.
First, I have argued elsewhere that we are entering a new age of ‘viral reality’ in which media amateurs and professionals are co-defining what constitutes a newsworthy story through citizens’ increased ability to choose which digital contents to share – or not – with their personal networks (Postill 2014, see also Nahon and Hemsley 2013). These ‘hybrid media systems’ (Chadwick 2013) or ‘convergence cultures’ (Jenkins 2006) pose formidable challenges to ethnographers, requiring as they do new conceptual tools and approaches. In this vein, I outlined a new research programme that I termed ‘media epidemiography’. This concept blends Sperber’s (1997) ‘epidemiology of representations’ with the ethnography of digital media. By analogy with medical epidemiology, its remit is to track the endemic and epidemic distribution of digital contents (or ‘representations’) across a given population – in this case, 15M contents across Spain – through ethnographic means. For a protest movement like 15M, I proposed four working types of viral form: campaign virals (i.e. campaign contents that ‘go viral’), viral campaigns (the whole campaign goes viral), niche virals (digital contents shared within a specific demographic, e.g. law students in Barcelona) and sustainable virals (contents that become endemic within a whole population, e.g. the slogan “Real democracy now!” across Spain). Given the speed with which digital contents will sometimes spread, media epidemiographers will have to develop new digital forensics techniques to investigate them retrospectively, e.g. through interviews with activists involved in creating campaign memes, Twitter trending topics, and the like.
A second avenue open to the ethnographer is to ‘follow’ one or more digital technologies as they traverse discrete social contexts (Marcus 1995, Spitulnik 2002). For instance, Arnau Monterde and I (2013) have retraced the uses of mobile phones by 15M participants during the first semester of the movement’s existence through both qualitative and quantitative data. We found a great deal of variation from one event or action to another, coining the notion ‘mobile ensembles’ to refer to the unique mix of digital media, participants and issues found in each instance. This term is derived from the earlier notion of ‘media ensembles’, introduced by the media theorist Bausinger (1984) to refer to the combination of radio, TV and print media typically found in a Western home in the early 1980s.
Another option available to the digital ethnographer is to follow not the technologies but rather the technologists. For instance, as we can see in the present blog series, I am currently following a specific subcategory of political actor I call ‘freedom technologists’, i.e. those people who are deeply invested in exploring the limits and possibilities of new digital technologies for progressive political change (e.g. bloggers, vloggers, hackers, geeks, online journalists,
civil digital rights lawyers). In this context, ‘following’ does not necessarily entail physically shadowing participants in real time. Digital ethnographers will often retrace the steps of key participants after the fact, by means of interviews, Web archives, social media platforms, field notes and other materials. Thus I am currently translating and editing a series of transcripts of YouTube interviews with Spanish freedom technologists available on a 15M website. The interviews were not commissioned or conducted by me, but rather by a collective of freedom technologists named 15M.cc. I am then sharing these ‘para-ethnographic’ materials (Holmes and Marcus 2008) via this research blog. In turn, these posts are being recirculated through Twitter and other sites by the research participants, thereby reaching non-academic audiences. As digital technologies and free/open ideals and practices continue to spread, such intersections between the work of ethnographers, activists, and other political actors will become more habitual.
The 15M social world can also be conceptualised as a field (Postill in press). More specifically, as a movement-field or field of contention, i.e. a highly dynamic political domain in which variously positioned field agents (including freedom technologists) struggle over a small set of pressing issues and rewards, often through digital media. By contrast with more institutionalised fields such as art, sociology or journalism studied by Bourdieu and colleagues, a movement-field (particularly in the digital age) is characterised by its mercurial dynamism, i.e. by the swiftness and unpredictability with which it can expand, contract, mutate and migrate (Postill 2011). Rather than a static ‘community of practice’ with a shared membership, the 15M field resembles the ‘affinity space’ of a massively multiplayer online game (Gee 2005). This is an open, inclusive socio-technical world in which ‘players’ can find highly diverse routes to participation and accomplishment, regardless of prior qualifications or social identity.
Alternatively, we can regard 15M not as a single field but, as we saw in a previous post, as four distinct (sub)fields of civic action (15M, 17M, 25M and 24M) interrupted by a long period of unorganised civic space. These fields can be regarded as games of a kind. They are not games like chess, tennis or Minecraft, but they are still contests in which civic ‘players’ with unique skills and trajectories enter into relationships with other players (both individual and collective) in pursuit of the same rewards or prizes. Freedom technologists bring to Spain’s streets, squares, TV studios, newsrooms, social media sites, seminar rooms, etc., a unique experience and passion for exploring the limits and possibilities of mixing technology with politics, a capacity for civic experimentation and for freely sharing its fruits, and a growing realisation (which came as a shock to many in late May 2014) that we live in hybrid media systems in which we dismiss ‘old’ media like TV at our own peril.
Finally, the digital ethnographer can approach a social world like 15M genealogically, that is, by teasing out its entangled processual lineages. Eschewing the received notion of non-linear time – popular in anthropology since the 1980s – I favour instead the idea of multi-linearity (Postill forthcoming). Reworking a conceptual trinity developed by the historian William Sewell (2005), I distinguish between 15M events, routines and trends as three distinct forms of temporality with their own unique trajectories (or lineages). Not all ‘media events’ in Dayan’s (1994) classic formulation qualify as 15M events in the Sewellian sense of the term. To qualify as such, they must transform the movement-field. For example, when 15M participants throughout Spain abandoned the occupied squares in June 2011 to relocate to local neighbourhoods, this move had a profound effect on the movement, marking a new stage in its evolution. Events such as this will have a direct impact on a social world’s web of routines: whilst some square routines survived the relocation (e.g. holding assemblies), others perished in the process. Finally, trends are of interest not only to the diachronic ethnographer, but also to movement-field participants themselves. Perceived trends push 15M collective action towards traits regarded as desirable, e.g. non-violence, and away from those seen as undesirable by most participants, e.g. a turn towards violent ‘direct action’ (on trends, see also Robbins 2014).
Back to freedom technologists series…
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Image credit: NPS Ethnography