Category: "GUEST BLOGGING"
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.
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.
Savage Minds has recently done an excellent job in hosting guest bloggers. During the following weeks and months, you might also read entries from guest bloggers here on antropologi.info. My main objective is to to broaden the anthropological community / blogosphere by recruiting anthropologists that have never blogged before, but you might also find texts by other bloggers on specific topics.
PS: While both anthropology.net and Savage Minds follow the American 4-field-approach, the focus here on antropologi.info is rather on the British tradition of social anthropology (or lesser known traditions).
First Guest Blogger: Denise Carter. Her first post: The Birth of a Cyberethnographer: The MU5 is to Blame