¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 These fateful words open Nigel Barley’s entertaining account of how the ethnographer fares in environments to which they are – in the main – utterly unaccustomed. The book details the many disasters that he encountered during his fieldwork among the Dowayo of Cameroon. At first, the physical suffering seems in stark contrast to the kinds of problems the researcher in cyberspace might anticipate. “By collapsing the geographical divide between home and field-site, hitherto an assumed element in anthropology’s self-definition, the concept of fieldwork is changing.” [Houtman & Zeitlyn 1996: 2]
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 It may be thought that the worst that can befall the fieldworker on the Infobahn would seem to be a case of RSI, or perhaps a few insults, but there are more similarities than might at first be imagined. Although all the excursions into virtual communities have been from the relative comfort of a chair at home, from that point on, the methodological and experiential differences evaporate. Fieldwork, it would appear, is no respecter of context.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 If, in the past, ethnographers have primarily focussed on difficult-to-reach, small-scale communities, communities that might be loosely characterised as sufficiently ‘other’, then virtual communities fit the profile too. The process of accessing the communities under investigation has been one of periodic encounters with a variety of boundaries. The bureaucratic difficulties Barley encountered when trying to reach his intended fieldwork location reflects the technical difficulties of getting to ‘where’ virtual communities take place.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The Internet happens ‘within’ the computer, and yet happens simultaneously ‘beyond’ the particular hardware that the fieldworker is using. ‘Getting online’ involves configuring the hardware and communications software to access the network correctly, requiring considerable technical proficiency. This may be considered as constituting a boundary between the physical and the virtual worlds. Cyberspace is not something one can enter in the same way one might enter a country; it is as if one had to solve a series of puzzles at passport control before proceeding.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Language difficulties are also a feature of the Internet. There is a welter of technical jargon that confronts the Internet novice, or ‘newbie’ as they are referred to in online-speak. Finding one’s way around means deciphering cryptic header messages and unfamiliar acronyms, which form a significant proportion of the content of online communication. [see Appendices 4 & 5] There are some dictionaries of the most common acronyms, but their development is so rapid that dictionaries are often out of date before they are published. There is also a use of language which Barry calls ‘technobabble’ to contend with:
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 “This paper-based bookware module is designed to support the robust implementation of a friendly, context-driven interface between the developer and the end-user. Did you understand this sentence? If so, you are fluent in technobabble.” [Barry, J. 1993: xiii]
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Becoming proficient with the technology and getting access to the site of the fieldwork on the Internet can be seen as being as mentally taxing as the journey to distant lands is physically taxing.