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.
Good comments - its a wonderful way to experience the way that a social setting can pull you in, and you can watch the mind adapt itself without your consscious efforts.
Nice thoughts. But I wonder how you handle the fundamental disconnect between Internet communities and real world communities where sex, violence, exploitation and helping hands are all well…real?
John–I think its misleading to draw a line between “real world” communities aka “offline communities” and “online communities” . Theres some pieces of research having examined whether there really is big difference between those, as online communities do manifest also in offline representations (think of annual user meetings for example) and “real world communities represent themselves online, too.
Consider to have a look at Wellman/Giulia: Netsurfers don’t ride alone. Virtual communities as communities (1997); online here.
I share Denise’s perception of reality in the virtual space since the very beginning of my i net experience.
oh and John, for ps, don’t miss “A rape in cyberspace” by Julian Dibbell (1993) and Lisa Nakamura’s Race in/for Cyberspace. Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet online here
John–I think its misleading to draw a line between “real world” communities aka “offline communities” and “online communities”
Absolutely - I agree, a great deal of my own work is concerned with dissolving the boundaries between on and offline life. We can conceptualise ‘virtual community’ in terms of what we understand community to be, and of course that also (re)produces ‘community’ as being a concept without an absolute definition (Amit and Rapport, 2002: 14 The Trouble With Community: Anthropological Reflections on Movement describe community as a ‘slippery notion’ ). As a cyberanthropologist I am most concerned with WHY people describe virtual communities as ‘real’ - in other words - as a meeting of place, people and culture, and one that incidentally exists on the Internet.
“As a cyberanthropologist I am most concerned with WHY people describe virtual communities as ‘real’…”
I’m sorry not being familiar with your work. I was looking for it or at least for pieces of it when I prepared my presentation on online identity in April/May, but then, in a need for an adequate frame, I decided to base my synopsis on Open Access supporting cyberanthropologist’s syllabi.
What brought me into cyberanthropology was that, based on my personal experience of having actively participated in a certain online community that is/was centered around a number of german and englishspeaking ubb boards (some of these boards are off now), surprisingly many people there claimed right the opposite of your concern, namely that their i-net ID resp. their i-net representation was not real, while remarkably fewer people considered their i net ID to be ‘real’.
I kept asking myself for how is this possible? And why do they do so? 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?
I think I will answer that first with a list of statements that I feel are fundamental to my understanding of the Internet (and I use the term Internet loosely because I realise there are differences between the WWW and the Internet)
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?
I have one small theory that it is partly about the language used. For example if we use the term ‘cyberspace’ it sounds like a new kind of place. But, if we use the term ‘virtual space’, then our understanding of the term ‘virtual’ as a descriptor is imprinted upon the type of space we envisage. Consequently, ‘virtual space’ is understood as being in opposition to ‘real space’, whereas cyberspace is simply a new kind of place. I might even say that cyberspace is another place where virtual space is an other place.
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.
what aload of rubbish….have you people got nothing better to do with your time an your lives???
how about studying something more relevent like of the world wide atrocities seen every day in war zones…what about researching the behaviours of those…"real” people..??? oh and by the way how much do you get paid for your ridiculous bullshitting?
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