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Notes on the 7th digital ethnography reading (Garcia et al 2009)

February 23, 2016

By Tresa Le Clerc
PhD candidate
Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC)
RMIT University, Melbourne

See other posts under digital ethnography reading group

The first Digital Ethnography Reading Session (DERS) of the year kicked off this month on 17 February 2016 with Allister Hill’s choice for reading:

Garcia, A. C., Standlee, A. I., Bechkoff, J., & Cui, Y. (2009). Ethnographic approaches to the internet and computer-mediated communication. Journal of contemporary ethnography, 38(1), 52-84.

This was an interesting choice as a sort of meta-review of ethnographic research on the Internet, computer-mediated communication and writings about conducting research online, but also a rather ambitious undertaking as we soon learned. Two talking points were discussed:

  1. The issue of online and offline research blending, or working as a dichotomy.
  2. Terminology, such as participant-observer being reworked as participant experiencer, and how well this functions in the online research context.

Garcia et al. identify three different areas in which ethnographers must incorporate Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) into their study design and consider this with relevance to the ways participants are approached. The first was that ethnographers must develop skills in the analysis of textual and visual data. The second advocated ethnographers learn to manage their identity and presentation of self in visual and textual media (email, chat, etc.). The third area held more interest, which was about the ethical issues of access and privacy raised with the blurring of the public and private online world.

Garcia et al. advocate getting past a binary division between on and offline in contemporary research. Some ethnographic research is purely online while the bulk of other research may take place predominantly offline, though we use CMC to pursue research projects. Yet this language of online and offline forces us into a dichotomy. Rather, the digital is shifting and there is a fusion of the two; mobile devices are getting smaller and more ubiquitous; phones provide us with immersion online – they record our lives and this in turn shifts our paradigm. Garcia et al. failed to come up with a single underlying point regarding the online/offline dichotomy. We only learn that there are some enduring principles that we need to be aware of, and these need to be reviewed and reshaped depending on your research topic. Some of us had already begun to look at the research that we are or will be doing and thinking if more or less digital considerations need to be included.

Taking interactivity as an example of a point where we often get stuck when discussing the internet, we find the algorithmic ontology changes and perhaps puts limits on the ways we interact online. The format of writing on Facebook differs from that of WhatsApp for example, and WhatsApp is not as algorithmic. The ideas of what the digital entails presented in the article seemed quite dated, perhaps more relevant to the 80s rather than 2009 (when the article was first published). Mobile phones, for example, provide us with the ability to access the Internet at any time (and this is far more common today than in 2009), but this is not made mention of in the text. It then becomes difficult to talk about internet because anything could be said about it, and the opposite of what is said could be true as well. Broad observations about what is going on simply do not work.

The vastness of internet and experiences of the digital may be to blame for this. In the 60s and 70s urban anthropologists attempted to replicate the traditional small villages size of traditional field sites when they started working within the big city, they looked for small and relatively contained ‘cultural groups/ communities’ to engage with. We as ethnographers of the digital may also need limit the scale of what we look at without artificially creating a small village – which is problematic, as we need to find different ways of coping with unbounded research possibilities without arbitrarily cutting things out. Especially now we are overloaded with sources and distractions.

Regarding the second talking point around the new terminology, participant experiencer, it was raised that this could be a case of ‘typing oneself into being’ (referencing Sundén’s 2003 Material Virtualities: Approaching Online Textual Embodiment). Though the group disagreed on the usefulness of the phrase.

To sum up, Garcia et al.’s review served as an effective device to stimulate conversation, particularly to reflect on our own research practices and the extent to which we ourselves engage in online ethnography. The datedness of the article itself further illustrated the speed at which online ethnographic practices are changing and highlighted the need for new ways of thinking and perhaps new terminology in order to engage and utilise it within our research.

See other posts under digital ethnography reading group



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