I came to realize today, that the applicability of the term “ethnography” or “netnography” to my own research is somewhat limited. A comical but unsettling story that happened today demonstrated the limits of treating social media like Facebook as social “worlds” to be investigated holistically. It became clear to me that applying ethnography to virtual worlds like Second Life or World of Warcraft (Boellstorff 2008, Nardi 2010) is different from integrating virtuality into ethnography.
Before breakfast today, as on most days, I stopped by the house of a friend and informant, Patricia,* for a chat. After some small talk, Patricia launched into a brief tirade about how rumours, misconstrued as truth, can sometimes lead to uncomfortable situations. An hour or two before my arrival, she said, friends and neighbours started to show up unannounced at her neighbour, Dwi’s, house, which opens into and is shared with her own home. They seemed shocked and confused that the place was so empty, asking Patricia why no one had yet arrived. Having not been informed of any events happening today, Patricia returned the question to them.
“We’re here for the funeral” they said, matter-of-factly.
“Who’s funeral?” asked Patricia, concerned.
“Dwi’s,* of course” they replied.
Incredulous, Patricia exclaimed “What do you mean, Dwi? She’s not dead, she’s doing laundry in the back! See for yourselves.”
The guests were taken to the back where Dwi, alive and well, was indeed washing clothes. Brushing it off as though it were a common occurrence, Dwi simply went back to washing after the situation was cleared up.
Confused about how something so untoward could happen, and how Dwi could be so nonchalant about it, I asked Patricia how they could have been so misinformed. She speculated that someone in the neighbourhood might have jokingly told someone that she had passed away, and taking the news seriously, that person might have begun to spread the false report.
I asked if this was something that happened often, and though Patricia denied it, she added that a few years ago, a similar thing happened. Someone had made the claim that Dwi had been hit by a car, and her leg being badly injured, was taken to hospital, to later recover at home. People started to show up at her home to offer fruit baskets and sympathies (the correct thing to do in this context), only to find Dwi in perfect health.
When I asked Patricia how news could spread so quickly, she explained offhandedly that people just “talk.” This implied that one person tells another and the news spreads mouth to mouth, often with people just chatting as they meet people along the street. In other cases where residents have actually passed away, I have heard that information is commonly disseminated through the Mosque’s loudspeakers, by pinning messages to community bulletin boards, and increasingly through text messaging and social media. I have personally seen death announcements posted to the Kampoeng Cyber Facebook page, offering the time and place of the wake and burial, along with condolences, but this is usually several hours after most people in the community have been informed, and preparations are already underway (funerals always happen at home).
This story, which involves different methods and different media for spreading information, whether true or false, made me reflect upon the ways in which such media need to be incorporated into a study about a “cyber village” like Kampoeng Cyber. Unlike studies of “virtual worlds” like Second Life and World of Warcraft, where the medium can be equated with the field of study, my own research requires that I treat social media like Facebook as one of many forms of media used for sociality and communication. In cases of death announcements for instance, we see the use of speech, text messaging, and Facebook to disseminate information, but the death itself did not take place in any of these media, as it could have in either Second Life or World of Warcraft.
The implications for methodology are that, as Tom Boellstorff, Bonnie Nardi, Celia Pearce, and T.L. Taylor have asserted in their book “Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method,” social networking sites like Facebook must be treated as “networked environments” rather than virtual worlds (2012:7). This means that rather than applying ethnography to the study of social media, I need to be looking for which tools within ethnography’s “palette of methods” (Boellstorff et. al: 2012:15) work for understanding how such media fit within my informants lives. While I can indeed conduct interviews through Facebook, and actively participate in online discussions while observing them, it is important to make the distinction that I am not conducting an ethnography of Facebook, but instead an ethnography that includes Facebook as an object of study.
*All names have been changed to protect the privacy of informants.
By Jessika Tremblay
Boellstorff, Tom, Bonnie Nardi, Celia Pearce, and T.L. Taylor
2012 Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method. Princeton: Princeton University