Illusory boundaries in the “cyber-sociality” of virtual teams: ethnographic methods, the offline in the online and cautionary tales of business cyber ethnography.
If cyberspace is “the total interconnectedness of human beings through computers and telecommunication without regard to physical geography” (Gibson, 1984), then cyber-sociality lies in the details of engaging, maintaining and indeed managing this disembodied, mediated interconnectedness, operating simultaneously within multiple “social worlds” (Strauss, 1978). Reacting to the embrace of graphical simulation, the emergence of “virtual reality” and the promise of artificially intelligent agents, Gibson’s dystopian cyber(meaning helmsman in Greek)space is a simulated structured world where one can “jack in”, away from this corporeal world.
“Cyberethnography”, by derivation and colloquial extraction, is the ethnography, the writing of the culture(s) of the computer mediated, tele-sociality of the physically disconnected. We have been using ethnographic methods (cyber and otherwise) to paint in the details of these acts of interconnection in “global corporations”, “virtual teams” and “cybercommerce” settings. Unlike many cyber-ethnographies (but entirely in keeping with ethnography unbounded by mediated or physically collocated locales of activity), we triangulate online and offline observation.
In this paper we present highlights from three case studies, which we believe lie along a continuum of Gibson’s ‘cyber’ness, with more or less latitude for personal agency and modification of the technology itself to manage the tele-mediated interaction. The first is a study of distributed teams collaborating primarily through video conferences and email. The second is a study of collaborative work in a text-based virtual environment where interaction take place mostly online but also face to face. Finally, we present interactions in massively multiplayer environments, where collaboration and commerce are growing, and where control over one’s presence is entirely in the hands of the individual. In all three cases, we present an ecology of communication technologies, but focus on those through the lens of an ecology of flows, spaces, and connection practices – within the context of the broader social settings within which the interactions we have observed take place.
These case studies are used to render visible the often tacit boundaries of ethnographic data collection methods and reportage. While we draw on methods in all cases that have been loosely called “cyber-ethnography”, interested as we are in sociality in mediated situations, we illustrate how an understanding of that which lies beyond the keyboard and screen frames what is understood, and therefore drives new forms of data analysis. Sometimes generating these understandings is positively maddening in its methodological complexity. Humans have always, in fact, lived lives beyond our gaze. But in these studies, we have experienced restrictions at many levels which can be broadly characterized as 1. what can be recorded (logistically, it is getting increasingly important that we are very technically oriented to gather our data; many field sites in business contexts create restrictions that curtail broad data collection; many ethical issues arise); 2. what can be analysed (time is the biggest constraint in many business ethnography settings, and this is amplified in studying these distributed settings), and finally 3. what can be reported (in many settings what is seen cannot be reported or will not be heard).
What does this mean for what we understand of sociality, and what does it mean for reflection of what can and cannot, has and has not been inferred. Ultimately in this paper, we consider what are data, and who owns the data for consent to be given for its collection, analysis and reportage: what does it mean for an avatar, one persona of many even in an organization for example, to grant me permission to record? Just as technology-supported communication generates new work practices, we are experiencing the old phenomena of multiple selves in interaction in new worlds. This paper reflects on the issues involved. Each example will consider 1. the importance for work practice analysis, 2. the need for agility in method, and 3. the importance of deep analysis for patterns over time and technologies.
Gibson, W. (1984) Neuromancer. Ace Book.
Strauss, A. (1978). A social worlds perspective. In N. Denzin (ed.), Studies in Symbolic Interaction, vol. 1, Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 119–128.