¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Methods of fieldwork in this area are not well established, and so a great deal has been done in an exploratory manner. This is a situation which is not restricted to the digital domain; many fieldworkers have expressed what seems to be an inherent ambiguity of the experience of ethnographic study. To be a part of a group as well as an observer of its activities induced severe cognitive dissonance in one researcher; she “experienced a gestalt switch every two minutes” [Schiffman 1991: 78] between ‘being’ a participant and ‘being’ an observer. In cyberspace, these terms take on a special significance.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 An Ethnographic study of electronic communities has many similarities with ‘real world’ Ethnography, but this is an area where one finds striking differences. The ‘space’ that virtual communities inhabit requires no corporal presence, and therefore there is no aspect of communication which is beyond a member’s control. It is possible to observe social interactions without affecting those engaging them in any way. On the Internet this is known as ‘lurking’; an activity that, by making observation invisible to those being observed, seems to offer the possibility of a Positivist objectivity in fieldwork. [see Appendix 2] This has consequences, not just for the practice of ethnography in the digital domain, but for the continued existence of the groups themselves.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The same mechanisms which allow “experience-distant” [Geertz 1974: 119] observation of virtual communities also extend to the presentation of self in what one contributes to the community. A member of a text-based virtual community may call themselves by any name online, in the same way that one might sign a letter with a pseudonym. There is consequently great uncertainty as to the identity of participants, and, furthermore, the membership of the groups is highly fluid as contributors arrive and depart at will. As a result of this, the persistent text artifacts of conversation are all that remain verifiable.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The work of ethnomethodologists, and especially the technique of conversational analysis which Sacks and Schegeloff pioneered became helpful in extracting meanings which are independent of individual participants; “conversational analysis is… more concerned with utterances than with speakers and hearers. It is much less concerned with talk as a relation between persons than it is with conversation as a relation between utterances.” [Sharrock & Anderson 1986: 68] However, this study does not focus exclusively on the relationship between messages, but also seeks to illuminate the experience of virtual communities. Such experience is seldom gained without participation.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Participation implies that the researcher abandon the possibility of Positivist objectivity, immersing themselves in the life of the community in order to gain insight into the experience of membership. This “experience-near” [Geertz 1974: 119] activity – acting as if one were a member – enables some level of understanding of the effects of membership. The participation in newsgroups, conferences and mailing lists took place over the course of a year and generated in the region of 15Mb of text – or about 3 million words – during the fieldwork period. In addition, there have also been numerous ‘side-channel’ communications through emailing participants privately. This allowed comments to be made about the group without the entire group being aware of their content. It is the favoured means of communication for those messages which are not directly relevant to the intention of the group. The DIRECT-L list, for example would consider such discussions to be ‘off-topic’, or irrelevant to its function as a forum for discussing multimedia.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Data was also gathered through face-to-face conversation and interviews with regular participants of the electronic forums. Some subjects responded negatively to such means of investigation. One, for example, refused to be recorded on audio tape, since he felt that there was something inherent in the editing process which would misrepresent whatever he said. On the other hand, he was perfectly at ease with newsgroup discussions, since newsgroups are always archived. This would, in his view, make it possible for anyone to check the statements that he had made – in their entirety and in their original context. This awareness of media practices is unusual among subjects in more traditional ethnographic fieldwork, but is common among the denizens of cyberspace. It would seem to require a greater level of reflexivity on the part of the researcher; a continuous adaptation of the media practices they employ in response to the wishes of those whom they study.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Heider noted that “there is an old saying that each tribe gets the anthropologist it deserves.” [Heider n.d: 309] The implication of this is that the material that is selected for presentation, and the way in which it is presented, is as much a reflection on the person that carried out the study as it is of those who have been studied. Rabinow further suggests that “all cultural facts are interpretations, and multivocal ones at that.” [Rabinow 1977: 151] The sheer quantity and complexity of the interactions in virtual communities means that any description must necessarily be partial.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 The fieldwork was undertaken in the spirit of the “investigation of patterns of social interaction,” [Hammersley & Atkinson 1983: 1] and the interpretation of the activities of the newsgroups, conferences and mailing lists in this paper has been based around reflections on the adequacy of the models which have been proposed as descriptions of community, virtual or otherwise. What is different and challenging about electronic communities, and what Ethnography must contend with, is that, in cyberspace, even if conventional models eventually prove adequate for the researcher’s purposes, every facet of their descriptive power will be tested to its limits of its adequacy.