Netnographic Encounters

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Virtual Worlds vs. Networked Environments: A Question of Method

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A handwritten note announcing the death of a community member, pinned to an outdoor bulletin board. One of many media through which information travels in Indonesian kampung.

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

References

Boellstorff, Tom, Bonnie Nardi, Celia Pearce, and T.L. Taylor

2012 Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method. Princeton: Princeton University

Press.

How to do Netnography?

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Going out for dinner with friends is the perfect time to browse Facebook, in Yogyakarta.

How does one do ethnography of the Internet? In the early days of anthropology, stepping “off the veranda” to experience life from the native’s point of view offered a new holistic approach to studying society.   Is it appropriate, or even possible, to transfer that approach to study how social interactions manifest themselves online?

The immediate danger would be imposing an artificial separateness between the virtual and the real, a widely acknowledged drawback of attempting to integrate digital media into studies of the social. Yet despite the near ubiquitous rejection of the online/offline divide, the practical exigencies of designing research that treats the Internet as “embedded” within social life is less than straightforward.

I tend to adopt the view that Internet-based social media should be studied as part of, rather than as external actants upon, unbounded, yet locally specific social spaces. For this reason I decided to experiment with the method of netnography; what Robert Kozinets has dubbed a “specialized form of ethnography” (2010:1) adapted to the Internet.

I disagree that the purpose should be to investigate how social groups turn out online because that relies on the assumption that bounded groups reproduce their culture online. I prefer instead to emphasize, as William Mazzarella (2004) does, how all cultural forms are mediated, and that the Internet is one of many such media. For example, just as ritual simultaneously produces and represents an aspect of culture to its onlookers and participants, so does social media produce and document cultural meaning to its interlocutors and observers.

Practically speaking, this means that I have had to adapt my year of ethnographic study in Indonesia’s Kampoeng Cyber to incorporate systematic gathering of Internet-mediated social data. I have also come to the conclusion that any contemporary ethnography should also take the approach of gathering data from all media that feature prominently in the lives of one’s informants, be it television, cell phones, social media, or music.

For purposes of documentation and discussion (in fact I hope that readers can contribute to this in comments), I have roughly outlined my data gathering techniques below.

Apart from spending days interacting with Kampoeng Cyber residents as they work, socialize, and attend official events and ceremonies, I dedicate a significant portion of my time gathering data on the most frequently used social networking site here: Facebook. Although this was never intended to become and ethnography of Facebook, its consistent use by residents necessitates that I pay attention to how it mediates sociality.

On days when time permits, I take print-screens of the first ten or so Facebook status updates of residents of Kampoeng Cyber, whether or not they seem ethnographically “interesting.” I crop out the unnecessary background information to make space for comments and translations, which I add to a text box inserted to a simple “Paint” software.

Following this I upload the print-screens to the Atlas.ti software that I purchased for the purpose of archiving, coding, and analyzing the qualitative data that I have gathered. The software allows me to select the areas of the images I wish to code, add codes and definitions to those selected areas, and save them to a database. I always code the entries according to the date they were uploaded so that in the future I can also connect the Facebook posts to any field-notes that I have written on that day, which frequently document the relationship between the posts and day-to-day interactions. The field-notes are also uploaded to the same Atlas.ti “project,” and also coded, so that anytime I wish to explore a specific theme for dissertation or article writing, all I have to do is look up a code, like “marriage,” and see which field-notes and print-screens pop up.  I have also done the same for Twitter posts and profiles, though these are much less frequent.

What I have found to be crucial in this style of gathering online data is that it permits me to make connections and discover patterns that would otherwise be lost without archiving and coding. The typical “oh, no, it’s raining” post, for example, might go unnoticed as boring and irrelevant if not coded as a “complaint.” But after finding that many such posts often engender long comment threads mostly unrelated to the original post, it becomes clear that they sometimes act as conversation openers.

More potently, this method allows me to observe how a particular conversation topic circulates through segments of the community, sometimes even revealing who feels excluded. For instance, after someone gave birth and posted photographs of the mother coddling her child in hospital, one photo comment revealed a pre-existing fissure in the community exacerbated by the geographic separation of its two main parts. A resident located farther away from the mother wrote: “You gave birth already, why didn’t you tell us?” Seeing this interaction online hints at who has been left of out of “big news” circles after I witnessed the family of the newborn hand out traditional food-and-flower baskets meant to announce the birth, evidently forgetting to notify some residents. Coding that particular comment as “Community – Fissure” will allow me to later investigate other instances of such an occurrence.

The point of this post is to show how I have been thinking about using method as a way to remedy the persistent problem of artificially dividing the virtual and the real, by treating Internet-mediated data as one of many forms of mediation that both produce and express culture.

By Jessika Tremblay

References

Kozinets, Robert V.

2010 Netnography: Doing Ethnographic Research Online. London: Sage Publications.

Mazzarella, William

2004 Culture, Globalization, Mediation. Annual Review of Anthropology 33:345-367.

Miller, Daniel, and Don Slater

2000 “The Internet: an ethnographic approach. New York: Berg.

Introducing an Urban “Cyber Village”

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In September 2013 I began systematically collecting data on a small urban neighbourhood in one of Indonesia’s “cultural hubs” – the royal city of Yogyakarta in central Java. This is part of a year and a half of anthropological fieldwork meant to unveil the ways in which ordinary Javanese folk make use of the Internet to overcome their economic and cultural marginalization. It is also a project that aims to contribute to the fledgling field of anthropological research on the place of the Internet and new social media in localized (Postill 2008) forms of sociality.

Inconspicuously wedged between the narrow alleyways, known as mouse paths (jalan tikus, I.) of a densely populated upper-lower class neighbourhood in Yogyakarta, Kampoeng Cyber (Cyber Village, I.) is an unusually appropriate place to explore the role of technology in the lives of Javanese Indonesians. This neighbourhood of about 125 individuals claims the title as one of Indonesia’s first Internet-saturated communities. Unlike most Indonesians, the majority of Kampoeng Cyber households benefit from inexpensive, high-speed cable Internet made possible by a community-based network sharing system. By sharing the infrastructure required to connect homes, community members have managed to reduce the cost of access to an affordable 4USD per month, a significant reduction for people who mostly make a living from modest home industries.

In an effort to market the neighbourhood as unique and different from adjacent communities that attract tourist traffic with their own gimmicks, Kampoeng Cyber has evolved into a brand. As part of this effort, the elected community leader frequently hosts free public PowerPoint presentations about the community’s successful use of the Internet to improve their livelihoods. Murals have been painted around the neighbourhood to showcase the harmony of traditional Javanese values and modern capabilities of social networking and search engines. Journalists and academics regularly visit the site to inquire about the secrets of a humble community that has risen to local fame for its unusual appreciation of the potentials of modern technology.

By living full time in this neighbourhood for an extended period of time, I hope to investigate in some depth the stakes involved in Kampoeng Cyber members portraying themselves as harbingers of technological salvation in an otherwise “primitive” place, as one of my informants put it today.  This blog will document some of my experiences, struggles, and lessons in applying a blended methodology of ethnography, the long-term immersion of the anthropologist in an alternate setting, along with what Robert Kozinets (2010) has called netnography, which involves a similar process of observation and participation in “online” interactions.

These experiences will reflect preliminary findings, which may later be subject to adjustment or change based on new information. They will also foreground personal experiences, questions, and ideas that I expect will be of some help to producing a dissertation and publications in the future, and which in the meantime I hope will fuel discussions and debate about the emerging and established fields of digital anthropology, urban anthropology, and anthropology of media.

by: Jessika Tremblay

References:

Kozinets, Robert V.

2010 Netnography: Doing Ethnographic  Research Online. London: Sage

Publications.

Postill, John

  2008 Localizing the internet beyond communities and networks. New

    Media & Society    10(3):413-431.