In 1974, fascinated, I pressed my nose to the window at UMIST and watched huge tapes turning on large metal boxes that filled the ground floor of the building – yes – it was that big! Operators and programmers were hurrying around wearing white lab coats, anti-static caps and shoe covers. My awed guide informed me in hushed tones of the need for a dust-free, climate controlled environment. It was a computer (I believe it was the MU5).
Twenty four years later I had one of my own, albeit slightly smaller, sitting on a table in the corner of my living room at home. What’s more it was connected to the Internet. I was still fascinated, I could go anywhere in the world and speak to anyone in the world. I had to know more: who was out there; what were they doing; why were they doing it and how. So I turned up in the Anthropology Department at the University of Hull in September 1998 and announced that I was going to do an ethnography of the Internet. Little wonder then that they didn’t quite know what to do with me!
Academic works on the subject were pretty thin on the ground, and the approach was mainly that the Internet would revolutionise social relationships. Turkle (1995 Life On The Screen) and Stone (1991 Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?) both wrote extensively about how the perceived anonymity provided by Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) would allow people to explore alternative aspects of their identity and of themselves like never before. Even Benedikt (1991 Cyberspace: First Steps) and Rheingold's (1991 Virtual Reality) early assessments of the revolutionary nature of the Internet led them to believe that it would bring about immense transformations in social life. However, the text that influenced my own work the most was Markham’s 1998 book Life Online: Researching Real Experience in Virtual Space.
At the time I wrote for the RCCS:
The focus of Annette Markham's book, Life Online: Researching Real Experience in Virtual Space, is the "lived experience of what it means to go and be online" (18). It constitutes a useful resource for students who like Markham find the writing of online ethnography "more slippery than I ever imagined" (19). Whilst acknowledging the fragmentation of a field that is experienced 'more by individuals that by collectives,' she succeeds in constructing an account that combines scholarly text and narratives into a reflexive ethnography that is eminently readable, both as a scholar and as an Internet user. Although the format of the book is laid out in chapters, Markham adopts the strategy of weaving Interludes into her narrative. These Interludes not only allow the reader to engage with her thoughts as she confronts the interplay of our fundamental, constructing relationships in both the real and the Virtual worlds. Interjected into the narrative are smaller parcels of text that represent her lived experience of her research enabling the reader to understand what she was thinking and feeling at the time. Both strategies act as signposts on the journey to discover how users make sense of their experiences in computer-mediated contexts. Along the way she asks new questions about the issues of self, identity, and embodiment that illustrate how her understanding of these concepts shifts and develops along the journey. Indeed, the notions of shifting contexts, shifting reality, and changing perspectives are dominant themes as the project progresses.
I loved the book (and still do) - it was one of a series of ethnographic alternatives - I almost ran around the department shouting 'look! see! A real ethnography! I am not the only one!' It is still the first text that I advise anyone to read, both inside and outside of academia.
Join me over the next few weeks as a guest blogger here as I chart the changes in perspectives that have informed both my own work and anthropology as a discipline, and discuss the challenges currently facing anthropologists in cyberspace. The Internet has not changed anything. Instead we use the Internet to change the ways we do things.
I'm coming from the place of someone who has no trouble seeing why cyberspace is a 'real place,' and perhaps I've grown up too embedded in the Internet to see things differently?I think in that respect our discussion quite neatly illustrates the differences in perspectives between the early Internet theorists and now, and of course one of the reasons for my guest blogging here was to 'chart the changes in perspectives that have informed my own research'. I often struggled with this issue in the late nineties but research has moved on and now it seems like a pointless exercise most of the time. You have the advantage of starting from the point where cyberspace is a 'real place' - I had to argue that it was!!