Just hanging out: challenges in transmediated ethnography
Questions about the practice of ethnographic research, both as a method and as an analytic way of knowing, have been a focus of my dissertation work. The new Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method by Boellstorff, Nardi, Pearce, and Taylor has been helpful to think through my own ethnographic experiences. Although the subjects of my research do not inhabit virtual worlds as defined within this handbook, the bulk of their interaction occurs through networked digital media. The handbook defines a virtual world as requiring the following traits: place, worldness, multi-user, persistence, and user embodiment (p 7). The groups that I study construct a social world (Star and Clark) that exist offline and online across many different media platforms (for example, interaction happens in person, through text messaging, across Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and other online media), and as such they do not inhabit a particular virtual place. I have called this type of social engagement transmediated sociality (Terrell 2011).
While Boellstorff et al encourage ethnographers of virtual worlds to follow their informants into contexts (both online such as blogs, message forums, and Facebook and offline such as meetups and conferences) that extend beyond the in-world platform around which they are centralized (for instance, Second Life or World of Warcraft) ethnography of groups that are decentralized, spread across many online/offline spaces might be different in nuanced, but meaningful ways.
Doing ethnographic research with groups that are highly transmediated has presented a number of different challenges. Participant observation, a key component of ethnographic research, can be particularly challenging in transmediated settings. In my experience, participant observation can happen in two different ways. First one can attend, participate in, and observe events that are more formal and scheduled. In my work this is something like attending a wizard rock concert or a festival, which may be digitally mediated or may be in person. The second way one needs to participate is to just hang out, to be around to interact with others or observe interactions and cultural production as they happen in mundane everyday interaction, without a scheduled event.
Learning, knowing, and deciding where to hang out seems to be the most difficult aspect of participant observation of transmediated groups because one’s informants could be, and indeed are, hanging out in several different spaces all at once. As researchers we must struggle to define our field site. This never seems to be a simple task, even when our field site is apparently tied to a specific space; we must make choices about whom and what we include within our study. This is true for sites that are both virtual and non-virtual. While I recognize the difficulty in defining one’s field site, I wonder the extent to which the transmediated nature of the groups that I study give this struggle a new dimension.
In what ways is the lack of persistent placeness needed for the construction of a virtual world a challenge to the construction of the ethnographic field site? How does one decide where to hang out when the people she is studying could be interacting in several other mediated spaces? Are the challenges faced by the ethnographer of transmediated groups different than those faced by the ethnographer of virtual worlds where place is more strongly defined and more centrally located?
These are of course broad questions, but they are issues with which I struggle. I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences.
Boellstorff, T., Nardi, B., Pearce, C., and Taylor, T.L. 2012. Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method. Princeton University Press: Princeton, New Jersey
Star, S.L. and Clarke, A. 2007. The Social Worlds Framework: A Theory/Methods Package, in Hackett, E., Amsterdamska, O., Lynch, M., and Wajcman, J. (Eds.) Handbook of Science, Technology, and Society.(113-138). MIT Press
Terrell, J. 2011. Transmediated Magic: Sociality in Wizard Rock. In Proceedings of International Conference on Information Technology: New Generations (ITNG 2011), April 2011, IEEE