Onlife Ethnography: Researching Technologically Mediated Worlds (notes for a presentation)

Notes for the talk Oxford Digital Ethnography Group Seminar Series. March, 2014.

Acknowledgements and presentation

It feels good to be back at the OII. Many thanks to Heather Ford, Shireen Walton and the rest of the Oxford Digital Ethnography group for the invitation. I want to specially thank Eric T. Meyer for all his support to my career and his confidence in my work. It is a huge responsibility to be here while my predecessors in these series are people that I deeply admire and have read for inspiration and knowledge.

Since I’m still an apprentice I feel free to still experiment so, this paper is not an academic paper as usual, it is more a series of aloud reflections that I want to share with you all this afternoon. The plan for today is as follows: a small introduction to my personal history with digital ethnography, an introduction to my work about digital photography practices, and I’ll be discussing how I did it and what methodological decisions I took, focusing specifically in the role of the ethnographer in mediated settings, the construction of the field, the relevance of ethical decision-making, and some ideas about tools to gather analyse and present data in technologically mediated settings. But, since Helen told me this was an informal seminar, somehow this is a presentation à la carte. Please stop me in any specific moment if you are curious or interested in know more about a particular point. The ultimate goal of this talk is to share some thoughts about how I’ve been doing ethnographic research in mediated settings for more than a decade now.

Disclaimers

I confess it; I’m not an anthropologist. I’m “just” a communication scholar. To make it even worst for this audience, I studied Sociological Theory. Nevertheless, my PhD was supervised by an anthropologist. Many of the things I’ll say today are probably common sense (or nonsense) for an anthropologist or an anthropology student. For example, sometimes it will seem that I’m using anthropology and ethnography as interchangeable concepts, I’m fully aware of this problematic use of the terms and I hope this could fire the discussion. Nevertheless, I also think that many of the things I’ll present today could be useful to understand how ethnographic work in digital settings has been shaped as a fruitful territory for people in all sorts of disciplines.

Many of the reflections I will present today were partially published in three different papers (Ardèvol  & Gómez Cruz, 2014; Ardèvol & Gómez Cruz, 2012; Gómez Cruz  & Ardèvol, 2014).

Back to the future, an introduction to my story with digital ethnography (slide)

Before I talk about my photography or latest research, I’ll take 5 minutes to talk about my personal history because, as an academic “in progress”, my own story is interestingly attached to the development of digital methods. I confess that I began doing “ethnography of cyberspace”, in cyberspace, for three reasons:  it was easy, cheap and “effortless”. To be able to sit in front of a screen and observe the “entire world” as it was unfolded in front of my eyes was definitely easier than my first ethnographic fieldwork in the Night Rodeo –a very eclectic club in the north of Mexico where I spent 6 months between bulls, cowboys, skilful dancers and tons of beer cans–. By observing “life on the screen”, I was following the theoretical standpoints at the time (with a clear separation between “real” and “virtual”). It was fascinating but, let’s be honest, convenient for a master´s degree student with no money to spend on transportation, food and transcriptions. The main assumption at that time was that my data comprised the whole social interaction, the cyberexistence. I had access to the map that equalled the territory! It’s not that I was wrong (I was) but that I was following the excitement of a new object of inquiry and the shininess of tools that could give us access to social life as we had never seen before in a non intrusive, direct and cheap way (any resemblances to big data, I mean, new methods, are a mere coincidence).

And then, in 2000, with the publication of two books (Hine 2000; Miller & Slater, 2000), everything changed. I realised that people behind and beyond the screen were important and the virtual was not a world apart but just the “online” part of life that also happened to have an “offline”. Then, what would I do now? My magic trick was over and it seemed that I really had to “get the seat of my pants dirty”. I had to “stand up my real body” to encounter the others. I had to turn off the computer and move to interview and observe people in their houses, cafes and libraries. Nevertheless, I didn’t. I ended publishing a book on cybersex (Gómez Cruz, 2003) based solely on online observations and interviews. But even if I was avoiding to account them, there they were in front of me: issues about body and embodiment, gender, sexuality, intimacy, performativity and something that was there from the beginning and that is gaining more and more predominance in my thinking: imagination. I’ll return to this later if I have time.

Years later, and after a period of changes, my encounter with sociological theory and STS perspective led to the writing of another small book (Gómez Cruz, 2007). In that text I discussed how the main concepts used to study the internet in the 90s (cyberspace, virtual community, and online identity) were shaped. These concepts, I argued in the book, were shaped as a melting pot of science fiction literature, post-hippie philosophy, early computer-networks enthusiasts and general audience magazines[1]. The book was also a mea culpa that was intended to serve as a breaking point in my thinking. I was still very interested in the relationship between technology and society but I decided to move away from Facebook, Twitter and the latest flashy platform and focus on an “old” technology, one that has been widely studied and researched but that I thought it was becoming different[2] and, upon all, increasingly present in the good old Computer-Mediated-Communication as we used to call it at the time. You may say that I arrived to photography by neglecting the idea of the new but, precisely because of this, I feel I was able to say something meaningful about the changes in digital photography practices.

Overture in Facebook minor

I want to begin the presentation of my digital photography practices fieldwork with this image. It is a screenshot of my Facebook timeline (March 4th, 2014). One of the key informants in my research, to whom I gave the book that was published based on my thesis, uploaded a photo on his timeline and “connected” the post to my timeline through an easy and effective Web 2.0 star function: tagging. The photo, made and uploaded using a smartphone, is an image of his hand holding the book. Below, it says:

I’m reading this book that was created by spending time with SortidazZ, a Flickr photography group. I’m amazed by how it is perceived, from the outside and inside, a group that I was part of…It is quite strange to read that what you do for fun and in a “natural” way, becomes part of several theories of human and group coexistence. I see myself as if I had been studied along many days of my life without noticing it, although we always knew there was a scholar that was analysing what happened within the group.

I can’t stop reading the book and I’m having a good time reading about what we used to do. If in Flickr there were meta-photography, in this book there are meta-gossip, I read it to see what the book says about us and about me, as if I didn’t know in advance!!!! And worst, like if I was not part of it!!

This single screenshot would be enough to talk for hours about digital ethnography and it presents somehow many of the elements I want to share with you today. Where is the field and when does the fieldwork end? What’s the relationship between the informants and the ethnographer in the “Facebook era”? What are the ethics of this relationship? What can we learn from a digital photo, of a physical book that discusses a research carried out in multiple settings, that is uploaded to a social network site using while referring to another network site and that is made with a mobile phone in Spain and read on a computer in Leeds?

The role of the ethnographer in mediated settings

So, I wanted to study photography ethnographically. Where should I start? At the time it was obvious, I had to start in Flickr because this was the biggest and most important site for photo-sharing and one of the “stars” of the “Web 2.0 revolution”.

I began constructing my field, without knowing it, the moment I decided to join Flickr in 2005. By the time when I officially began my fieldwork I already had 312 photos online and a couple of years of experience with the platform (I was part of 140 groups!). As a user I learned about the platform, the preferred forms of interaction and, upon everything, I began an active practice of photography myself. Howard Becker used to say that visual sociologists, are closet-photographers. Maybe we has right.

When I began my systematic observations, I looked for an “anchor”, some place to start to make sense of Flickr and locate digital photography practices. I decided to focus on a group since I realised groups were the locus of social interaction. After some time I found a very interesting group with several characteristics that were appealing to my research objectives: a) It was a very active group (with new threads every day, lots of uploaded photos and a growing number of participants). b) They organized gatherings, photo-walks and physically-presence activities. In Guber’s words, in the group I found “what I was looking for and how to look for it” (2001, p. 101).

Everything began with this message, posted on the SortidazZ group on September the 3rd, 2008:

Let me introduce myself. I’m Edgar Gomez, a Mexican based in Barcelona and currently writing my doctoral thesis on digital photography practices (an ethnography from a socio-anthropological point of view). I told Carles my interest in joining the group for research purposes and he told me to share it with the group. I am an enthusiast of photography myself and it is a hobby I enjoy. However, my interest in the group is two-fold as I’d like to share my concerns, questions and fieldwork with the group. Finally, you are the experts and the idea is to learn from you, with you. Let me know what you think; I’m in for the next photowalk. Regards Edgar

23 members reply to my post with jokes and welcoming. At the end of that week, I was traveling to a beautiful town in the Catalan countryside. I was lucky to find, that very first day, what I called the Virgilio of my fieldwork. One of the moderators of the group lived in Mexico for a number of years and he “adopted” me right away. Fieldwork with random luck is always welcome. My relationship with Juan opened many doors for me, real quickly, and helped me a lot to get a fast understanding of the group’s dynamics and get fast access to key people. As this situation has nothing to do (at least directly) with technology, photography or Internet. The mediation that worked at that early stage of my fieldwork was the good-old cultural affinity. The tacos and chilli opened the field for me. This is not only an anecdote; it directly talks about epistemic approaches and knowledge constructions. Not all human behavior could be accounted by algorithmic exploration (at least yet) because it involves historical, cultural, contextual and personal elements that are richer than a simple connection. Although we are digital humans, at least in my fieldwork I’ve found again and again that we still are humans in ways that can’t be accounted by big data.

My position, as a researcher, was always the anchor of my study. I became the “weaver” of the field while, at the same time, I was learning how to perform my position as an ethnographer. My PhD was, somehow, the process of becoming a digital photographer while trying to understand photography practices. For everyone, I was the tesista, the “thesis maker”.

Shared agency with our tools

The famous McLuhan aphorism, “our tools shape us and we shape our tools”, could be taken further, when talking about ethnographic research on mediated sites, by saying that “we are our tools and our tools are us”. My social media profiles (blog, twitter, Facebook and Flickr accounts) were not only representative (and representations) and extensions (to bring McLuhan again) of my presence on the field. My profiles became an active part of the field by intermingling myself on it. While the group was my “transport” within the field, by following and tracing their practices, my social media profiles were my home base (and eventually part of the practices of the group, for example when they read my blog and comment on it or when they posted info on my Facebook page). My position as a researcher was extended as to comprise my position as a photographer, as a social media user and as a member of the different groups I participated with. But, more importantly, by doing this I was also weaving the field that I was studying. Researcher, field and object became entwined in multiple forms and levels. It is reflexivity, as a key epistemic device, what helps to keep these connections accounted. The constant reflexive exercise and dialogue with our informants is key to maintain this balance focused in our object.

Related to this, my relationship with my informants was also built upon trust and self-disclosure, and in constant dialogue with my tools and my embodied subjectivity. This means that ethical decisions were indeed methodological ones and viceversa. One of my informants, when I approach him during a photo-walk, asked me “are you coming with the camera or with the notebook”. This is an example of how they were aware of both of my roles, as a researcher and as a member of the group.

The embodiment of success, the importance of participant observation

The classic question about how to develop an ethnography account of doctors without being able to perform an operation was in the back of my head when this happened: In all of the interviews, people said they didn’t care for “success” or recognition. They minimize the use of the complex statistics that Flickr pro users had and they were very humbled and almost indifferent to them. Nevertheless, every time a member of the group had an “explore” (a Flickr’s ranking system of “interesting photos”), they all advertised it publicly and were congratulated by their peers. I couldn’t figure out why of this disconnection between what they were saying and what they were doing until I had the first “explore” myself. I realised that it was indeed a great deal and the satisfaction of it was exciting. But it passed really fast (the explore change hour by hour) and the success is never permanent and therefore it was better to navigate through it with pubic elegance. This is one of the smartest features in the design of social media and it doesn’t seem that different from, let’s say, gambling. And although it is possible to do an ethnography of gambling, the rush, excitement and “empowerment” felt when winning could be better described once you feel it yourself.

Constructing the field, performing research

“A realization that the fieldsite is in certain ways constructed rather than discovered is crucial to contemporary practice” Jenna Burrell

After Marcus’ reflections about “multi-sited” ethnographies, the idea that community and place were central to the definition of the ethnographic field site has been contested. The big challenge for contemporary ethnographies in urban, mobile and fluxed settings is to how to construct the field (see Amit, 2000). The construction of an ethnographic field, understood as the empirical locale where research is conducted, in mediated setting is never straightforward and “involves efforts to accommodate and interweave sets of relationships and engagements developed in one context with those arising in another” (Amit, 2000, p. 6).

For this presentation I tried to draw a map of my field site but, just as the God metaphor from Alain de Lille, my field site was a sphere “whose centre was everywhere and whose circumference was nowhere”. Nevertheless, by locating digital photography practices as the center of inquiry and by weaving the field around me and the connections I was tracing, I was able to account for the relationship between practices and the groups, between digital and cultural mediations, between technologies and uses. My field began in Flickr and lead me to Oxford University Park; I met an important informant in a tapas bar in Granada and then followed her in twitter; I did a great face-to-face interview with a Chilean that was on holidays in Barcelona and that I met online. As I usually say, in my fieldwork, beers, patatas bravas, cameras, internet platforms and cultural settings were of equally importance.

I understood that my field had to account the traces of connections once I was in an informant’s house. He was organizing a weekend photo-trip. He sat in front of three monitors. In one he had the Flickr group’s main page, in other he had his email opened and in the third one he was engaged in a conversation on the closed Facebook group that the administrators of the group had to discuss policies about the group. They were worried because they wanted to invite certain people and not issue an open call in the group. Suddenly, my informant took his phone and opened his skype in one of the monitors. He later explained that, with certain people, it was better to talk on the phone while with some others the chat or the skype was preferable. This Sociotechnical Tuning (that Boellstrof calls, elegantly, “modality of articulation”) could never be understood just with the online. And at the same time, many of the situations that happened in the photo-walks and encounters couldn’t be explained without the online interactions that were the source of them. The “like I read on your twitter” or “As I explained to you in Facebook” or “let me show you this video on youtube” while having a beer in a bar was very common.

Tools to gather analyse and present data.

My ethnographic database, at the end of my fieldwork, comprised:

  • More than 700 hours of participant observation (with several fieldnotes)
  • 23 blog posts (along with the comments)
  • 15 open interviews in audio (between 2 and 4 hours each)
  • 5 open online interviews (between 10000 and 20000 words)
  • 21 threads in the “my thesis” group in Flickr (between 9 and 72 replies)
  • Thousand images (photos, screenshots, images)
  • 36 press articles about digital photography

It is important to note that not all the registers are necessarily data and this is also a challenge to the “scientific imagination” as Geertz mentioned in one of the books that was key for me: Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author (1988)

As we stated somewhere else:

The ethnographer becomes a reflective and heuristic figure who bridges the gap between the reliance on ethnographic techniques (participant observation, in-depth interviews), field experience (immersion, building of trust, bodily engagement), and analytical tools (software for textual and visual analysis, analytical categories)” (Ardèvol & Gómez Cruz, 2014, p. 512).

Digital Methods and ethnographic tools

In my case screenshots, hyperlinks and search engines were key tools to my inquiry. It was just by accounting the connections that practices gained their gradation and importance during the analysis. For example, interviews and casual conversations online were very useful to access the person/archive. It was very common that, while having a conversation about photography, people tend to talk about their own photos or about the photos they were interested and send me the link or the image. This was very useful as some sort of elicitation-photo (in the opposite direction that when using an image to trigger a conversation). Also, it was very common that I asked about other pictures related to that showed online and have access to those images via email or messaging system.

“My thesis” group was of special importance, it allowed me to turn the platform I was trying to explain into a tool to gather data about it. An online survey, statistically representative, was conducted using an online platform that gave me an excel spread sheet ready to use in SPSS. Like an instant data factory.

And finally, one of the most flexible and interesting tools, especially in the last part of my fieldwork: the smartphone. My iPhone became, at once, a gathering data tool, a constant connective device with the group members, a field notebook, a camera, a recorder, a source of images to talk about and a long etc. There is still and underdeveloped reflection on the use of smartphones in ethnographic enquiry[3] that has to be theorized.

So, what is an “onlife ethnography”?

Let me begin with a flash forward story: I just finished a small chapter for an edited book on mobile creativity. The chapter is about mobile mediated intimacies. Let me show you a verbatim quote from one of my informants.

Because I think is a new interesting way to create and sustain erotic relationships…in my case it is another path for sexual fun…It is great to be able to have sexual or erotic contacts with more than one person despite the distance. It is amazing to be able to create new ways of having sexual experiences.

Now let me show you a verbatim quote of a research about cybersex I carried out in 2001.

Cyberspace is a new place when I can play and enjoy new pleasures and fun. With cybersex you can do whatever you want with as many people as you can and there are no boundaries or distances. It is great to experiment new ways of sexuality

Interestingly, the first quote is referring to photo-exchange in whatsapp, the second one is referring to chats. Between one quote and the other 13 years have passed. If we were interested in this topic, then, shouldn’t we focusing on how sexuality is legitimised and normalised instead of focusing merely on the technologies?

The concept of onlife, contrary to Boellstorff positions (2012), don’t look to “blur” the division between online and offline but to recognise how, for a number of people, many of their everyday practices are seamless between both, digital and analogue mediations because many everyday practices use actually both. I once saw how, one of my informants were texting to friend of his while in the car (no, he was not the driver), then, after a while, he called him by saying “I’m tired of texting” and, after we arrived to the place where the person he was talking to was, my informant continued the conversation that they had on the phone just minutes ago, like nothing had happened in between. There’s a need, as researchers, to account for practices both on and off line because both form the cement of the everyday life, but the possible division between and on and an off would only makes sense if the division is important for the people we are studying with. If it´s not the case that is important, like in my study about photography, what we are actually doing is onlife ethnography, ethnography about life and its mediations, or, to be fair with the method, what we are doing is simply called ethnography.

Lessons learned

There are three main lessons that I’ve learned through all these years and, although for an anthropologist could seem naive, for me had been the consequence of many past mistakes. These three “golden rules” form, in fact, three sides of the same problem:

 

From theory to data? No, from data to theory

During the first stage of my “ethnographic” inquiry, I was trying to find the occurrence of the phenomena I was reading in Mexico. So, my Master’s thesis was about a “virtual community”. By “following” the clues of the references I was reading, I created a self-fulfilled prophecy and, evidently, I found that the group of people I was interviewing felt that they belonged to a “virtual” community when asked about it. It was a rookie mistake but one that seems to be a common one.

 

Avoid the metaphors trap

Connected to the first point, there’s a need to keep our heads more in the field and less on the books. It will always be a temptation to create metaphors to help us navigate the uncertainty of the encounter with the other and that could help us relate our work to probed important issues. The other day I heard that social media and medieval texts are alike; a colleague of mine was describing google earth from a theological perspective (the omnipresence of god). And I felt so impelled many times to describe the “likes” and “favourites” as “tokens” in Mauss’ terms. Nevertheless, I consider important to remain grounded in our data and use theories, as Castells says, as a toolbox.

Don’t look for the next buzzword, stay with “working concepts”

When we “name” phenomena we are observing we tend to use these concepts as a theoretical scaffold for our data. Nevertheless, it is always a risk that the same structure could become our cage if we try to turns from descriptive to normative. Specially as ethnographers we should always be faithful to the data and the worlds that we study.

Towards and Anthropology of the Imagenation

Into the future……

References

Amit, V. (2000). Constructing the Field: Ethnographic Fieldwork in the Contemporary World. London: Routledge.

Ardèvol, E., & Gómez Cruz, E. (2014). Digital Ethnography and Media Practices. In F. Darling-Wolf (Ed.), The International Encyclopaedia of Media Studies: Research Methods in Media Studies (Vol. 7): Wiley-Blackwell.

Ardèvol, E. & Gómez Cruz, E. (2012). Digital technologies in the process of social research: theoretical and methodological reflections through virtual ethnography. En Knowledge Politics and Intercultural Dynamics. Actions, Innovations, Transformations. CIDOB/CEPAL: Barcelona

Flichy, P. (2007). The internet imaginaire. MIT Press.

Gómez Cruz, E. & Ardèvol, E. (2014). Ethnography and the Field in Media(ted) Studies: A Practice Theory Approach. Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture, 9(3).

Guber, R. (2001). La etnografía: método, campo y reflexividad. Bogotá: Editorial Norma.

Lister, M. (Ed.). (2013). The photographic image in digital culture. Routledge.

Mitchell, W. (1998). The Reconfigured Eye Visual Truth in the Post-photographic Era. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press.

Turner, F. (2010). From counterculture to cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the rise of digital utopianism. University Of Chicago Press.


[1] To see similar (and better) texts regarding this same topic I recommend Turner (2010) and Flichy (2007).

[2] I was, by no means, close to be the first one to think about this. Texts like those of Lister (1995) or Mitchell (1998) already signalled these changes a decade before I became interested in the topic.

[3] While apps like evernotes are becoming increasingly important for fieldwork, there is a growing number of apps advertised as ethnographic tools!

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