The Diversity of Cyberethnography: Approaches to the Study of Sociality in Virtual Lifescapes

Submission for EPIC 2005: Methods Paper (10 page limit)

Title: The Diversity of Cyberethnography: Approaches to the Study of Sociality in Virtual Lifescapes

Authors: E.F. Churchill, B. Jordan and R. Moore

Abstract:

If cyberspace is “the total interconnectedness of human beings
through computers and telecommunication without regard to physical
geography” (Gibson, 1984), then cybersociality lies in the details of
engaging, maintaining and indeed managing this disembodied, mediated
interconnectedness. For ethnographers, for whom seeing, observing,
recording and analyzing patterns of activity across and through time is
the very foundation of understanding sociality, such disconnectedness
is more than Gergen’s postmodern fragmentation of the saturated,
information loaded self; it is positively maddening in its
methodological implications (Gergen, 1991). It highlights that humans
live lives beyond our gaze – palpably so – and often actively operating
simultaneously within multiple “social worlds” as they switch between
different mediated engagements (Strauss, 1978).

“Cyberethnography”, by derivation and colloquial extraction, is the
ethnography, the writing of the culture(s) of the computer mediated,
telesociality of the physically disconnected (Gajjala, 2002; Hine,
2000). We have been using ethnographic methods (again, cyber and
otherwise) to paint in the details of interconnection in “global
corporations”, “virtual teams” and “cybercommerce” settings. Unlike
many excellent cyberethnographies which focus solely on life “online”,
we have triangulated online and offline observation.

We present highlights from three studies, which lie along a
continuum of ‘cybersociality’ and ‘cybermodification’ possibilities
(i.e., offering more or less latitude for modification of the
technology, the virtual experience and therefore, presumably, the
social experience). The first is a study of distributed teams
collaborating through video and digital shared workspaces; the second a
study of collaborative work in a text-based virtual environment where
interactions take place mostly in the virtual environment, but also on
occasion, face to face; and the third, interactions in massively
multiplayer environments, where virtual commerce is growing but where
people never meet in person, always in persona (avatar). 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.

We illustrate how, in our studies, an understanding of that which
lies beyond the keyboard and screen frames our understanding of what
takes place “virtually”. We consider what can be recorded (technically,
ethically and legally); what can be analysed (time, distance, data
complexity issues), and finally what can be reported effectively.

Finally, we reflect on cyberethnography itself. While we have drawn
on data gathering and analysis methods in cyberethnography texts, we
ponder what the prefix ‘cyber’ adds to the encompassing, entirely
worldy word “ethnography”. Ethnography, after all, means to write
culture. We reflect on how questions raised (e.g., what is “the field”
and where it may be found; what are appropriate data for reflecting
sociality in these contexts; what does it mean to get permission to
record from an avatar, one persona of many?) differ from debates within
ethnography as a whole. In our online/offline ethnographies, have we
seen anything that makes us more ‘cyber’ than we were before, or is it
just what we have done?

References
Gajjala, R. 2002. An interrupted postcolonial/feminist
cyberethnography: complicity and resistance in the ‘cyberfield’.
Feminist Media Studies 2 (2): 177-93.

Gergen, K.J. (1991). The saturated self: Dilemmas of identity in contemporary life. New York: Basic Books.

Gibson, W. (1984) Neuromancer. Ace Book.
Hine, C. 2000. Virtual ethnography. London, Thousand Oaks & New Delhi: Sage.
Strauss, A. (1978). A social worlds perspective. In N. Denzin (ed.),
Studies in Symbolic Interaction, vol. 1, Greenwich, CT: JAI Press,
119–128.

Hine, C. 2000. Virtual ethnography. London, Thousand Oaks & New Delhi: Sage.
Strauss, A. (1978). A social worlds perspective. In N. Denzin (ed.),
Studies in Symbolic Interaction, vol. 1, Greenwich, CT: JAI Press,
119–128.

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