Apologies for the delay since my last post but I have started a new job at the Cyberspace Research Unit at the University of Central Lancashire and that has been a bit hectic – I am now living in Lincolnshire, working in Preston and Lodging in Liverpool.
When I first began my research all I knew was that there were people ‘out there’ on the Internet and that I wanted to talk to them. I didn’t know how to do that, who was there, why they were there, or even where to find them. I simply had an unshakeable belief that cyberspace was a real place populated by real people. I remember discussing the problem of trying to find people with my then supervisor, Prof Allison James (now at the University of Sheffield). She told me a similar story regarding her own experience - of walking through the streets of a UK mining town watching the children playing and wondering how she could establish contact.
Much of my experience as a cyberanthropologist has been like that – a voyage of discovery – learning that anthropology as a practice is very similar in every field, not only as a discipline, but also in the minutiae of research… for example, learning a new language: for my friend Michaela it was French, for Julia it was Russian, for myself it was a new interactive text-based language.
I have come to realise that the Internet presents a unique challenge to ethnographers in that the written word is the key means of communication, and presented me with a key epistemological problem - how can I make sense of a culture that does not use verbal communication?
Unsurprisingly, written words are often seen to be either lacking in emotion, or lacking the ability to convey emotion without being supported by sight or sound. For example if someone says they are sad, it is a much more believable performance if their words are accompanied by the sight of tears and the sound of sobbing. Yet in cyberspace these physical modalities of speech are to all extents and purposes absent. As a result, in cyberspace, words have had to be transformed. They also express larger meanings in cyberspace. Words have become emotive and descriptive, active and performative. Thus my earlier question - how can I make sense of a culture that does not use verbal communication was largely irrelevant: instead the problem was one of showing that this is communication like in any other ‘real’ place.
Of course much more work has been done in the study of language and the Internet since I first began. But what I really want to share are the similarities with my colleagues who come back from the field to find their speech peppered with language from the field until they had fully integrated back into academic life. I was taking a walk with my beloved one evening when he said something amusing. To my chagrin I didn’t laugh, instead I said ‘LOL’.
This was the moment when I realised how difficult it was to leave the field behind.
John--I think its misleading to draw a line between "real world" communities aka "offline communities" and "online communities"
This is what makes it so interesting to me - my own research was in a virtual community where the residents said it was a 'real' community, and a 'real' place with 'real' people living there. Consequently I was concerned with understanding how their perceptions of 'real' of 'place' and of 'community' structured their social lives both on and offline.
And how come the understanding of online as 'not real' found it's way into academic writing and enrolled so massively. And what does this circumstance tell us about offline reality?
This is of course a simplistic argument but the development of language can tell us a lot. For example I make this point in my own work when drawing parallels with notions of 'real', 'place', 'community' and 'friendship' etc. The point being that if anything was radically different surely people would have developed a new term to describe it.