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Representation in Online Ethnography

Representation in Online Ethnography

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Published by: estudiosvisuales on May 21, 2011
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THE METHODS,POLITICS, AND ETHICSOF REPRESENTATION INONLINE ETHNOGRAPHY
Annette N.Markham
in cyberspace,one dwells in language.and through language.i exist as myself in language online...it feels more like being methan i sometimes feel offline...i think myself in language is morecommunicative of who i am.and because i’m a good writer,elo-quence makes me beautiful...
—Sherie, online interview participant
Here,I can edit what I think before I say it.This makes communi-cation easier between my friends and I.There are fewer errors inmeaning when our thoughts have been written clearly.
—Robin, online interview participant
My ambiguity makes you nervous.I can be many things at oncehere.Are they all me? Who am I? He...Her’...Per’...‘It’...‘We’...? Can’t you tell? Why do you want to know???
—DominOH!, online interview participant
W
hether one studies the Internet as a social structure or utilizes Internet-based technologies as tools for research,Internet-based technologieschange the research scenario.Computer mediation has a significant
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influence on many aspects ofcommunication practice and theory.The internet hassimilarities to many earlier media for communication,such as letter writing,tele-phone,telegraph,Post-It Notes,and so forth.At the same time,the capacities anduses ofInternet communication are unique in configuration and shape a user’s (andthus the researcher’s) perceptions and interactions.These influences extend beyondthe interpersonal;outcomes ofthese communication processes have the potential toshift sensemaking practices at the cultural level.We are,as Gergen (1991) notes,sat-urated in technologies.The Internet and associated communication media permeateand alter interactions and the possible outcomes ofthese interactions at the dyadic,group,and cultural level.
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Equally,Internet technologies have the potential to shiftthe ways in which qualitative researchers collect,make sense of,and represent data.In technologically mediated environments,self,other,and social structures areconstituted through interaction,negotiated in concert with others.The extent to whichinformation and communication technology (ICT) can mediate one’s identity andsocial relations should call us to epistemological attention.Whether or not we doresearch ofphysical or online cultures,new communication technologies highlightthe dialogic features ofsocial reality,compelling scholars to reexamine traditionalassumptions and previously taken-for-granted rubrics ofsocial research.In the early 1990s,as the capacities ofthe Internet became more publicly knownand accessed,the use ofthe Internet for the development ofpersonal relationships andsocial structures grew,as did the study ofcomputer-mediated subjectivity and com-munity.Through a phone line,access to the Internet,and specialized software,peoplecould meet and develop relationships with others from the privacy oftheir homes.People could do this anonymously ifthey chose,creating personae that were similar toor highly distinctive from what they perceived their physical personae to be.They couldcreate or join communities based on like-mindedness rather than physical proximity.During these early years when Internet and virtual reality technologies caught publicand scholarly interest,the study ofcomputer-mediated communication (CMC) workedfrom theoretical extremes:On the one hand,computer-mediated communication waslauded as a means oftranscending the limits associated with human embodiment.Byerasing sociocultural markers such as race and gender or escaping the body altogether,virtual communication would lead to a utopian society whereby democratic participa-tion in public discourse was unhindered by physicality and corresponding stereotypes.At the other extreme,skeptics critiqued CMC because it removed essential socioemo-tional or nonverbal cues and would result in impoverished,low-trust relationships at bestand social withdrawal,at worst.Citizens would resemble hackers:pale,reclusive,andprone to eating pizza and Chinese take-out.As time passed,use grew,novelty dimin-ished,and more measured accounts emerged based less on theoretical speculation andmore on study ofactual contexts.
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It became clear that meaningful and significant rela-tionships and social structures could thrive in text-only online environments.Thiscapacity is now taken for granted.The past decade ofcommunication has included forms
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COLLECTING AND INTERPRETING QUALITATIVE MATERIALS—CHAPTER 8
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new to many ofus:email,mailing lists,Multi User Dimensions (MUDs or MOOs),realtime chatrooms,instant messaging,Web sites,blogs,and so forth.We are now familiarwith the concepts ofcybersex,online marriages,Friendster,and other creative uses otechnology to enact identity and relationships through computer-mediation.Many ofuscan probably name close colleagues and friends whom we would not recognize in person.The computer-mediated construction ofself,other,and social structure constitutesa unique phenomenon for study.In online environments,the construction ofidentityis a process that must be initiated more deliberately or consciously.Offline,the bodycan simply walk around and be responded to by others,providing the looking glasswith which one comes to know the self.Online,the first step toward existence is theproduction ofdiscourse,whether in the form ofwords,graphic images,or sounds.Butas many scholars have taught us (e.g.,Bakhtin,1981;Blumer,1969;Buber,1958;Laing,1969),we understand our Selfonly in concert with Other,a continual dialogic processofnegotiation and a great deal offaith in shared meaning (Rommetveit,1980).In most computer-mediated environments,this process requires a more deliber-ate exchange ofinformation because people are not co-present in the same physicalspace and the nonverbal aspects ofthe process are,for the most part,missing.Theprocess is obfuscated because a person typically takes knowledge ofselffor grantedwith little reflection on the social,interactive process by which the selfis negotiatedwith others in context.Mostly overlooked by users,the production ofthe message isonly the first part ofthe process:Whether by receiving a reply message or by track-ing a virtual footprint ofa visitor to ones Web site,one can only know ifone has beenacknowledged through some sort ofresponse.MacKinnons insights in this matter(1995) warrant repeating here.He notes that the common phrase “I think,thereforeI amis woefully inadequate in cyberspace.Even “I speak,therefore I amis notenough.In cyberspace,the more appropriate phrase is “I am perceived,thereforeI am.(p.119).Implied in this last phrase is the fact that online,perception oanother’s attention is only known by overt response.So we can usefully note this byadding the phrase “I am responded to,therefore I am(Markham,2003a).The participant statements (from my previous research ofInternet users) at thebeginning ofthis chapter represent well the importance oftext to a persons construc-tion and negotiation ofidentityin online text-based environments.Sherie expresses adesire to be known solely as text (not through,but
as
text).For Sherie,computer-mediatedcommunication is a way ofbeing.Robin always uses correct punctuationand strives to make the meaning as clear as possible.Text is perceived as a powerfulmeans ofcontrolling,through editing and backspacing,the way the selfis presentedto others.DominOH!,unlike the other two,does not pay much attention to the textual,linguistic aspects ofthe medium.Rather,DominOH!uses the technology as an interac-tion space which protects anonymity and allows the social selfto be less firmlyattached to the body.Yet the text is vital to the researchers understanding of DominOH!’s persona online.
Markham:Online Ethnography
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