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Virtual Ethnography

Author: Christine Hine
Publisher: London: Sage, 2000
Review Published: June 2001

 REVIEW 1: Julie Mactaggart
 REVIEW 2: Nils Zurawski
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Christine Hine

Many individuals have engaged in the foretelling of strange, wonderful, and potentially scary new futures based on technological innovation. Nicholas Negroponte's 1995 Being Digital and Bill Gates' 1996 The Road Ahead may well spring immediately to mind as two of the more recent of the "futurology" genre. Perhaps curiously, though, our potential technological revolution has yet to be fully realized. Humans are habit bound -- if something looks and behaves like a telephone we decide it must be a telephone, and use it accordingly. In her lucid and pragmatic text, Virtual Ethnography, Christine Hine, Director of the Centre for Research into Innovation, Culture and Technology (CRICT), offers insight into the development and execution of micro-level ethnographic analyses of current Internet practices that scrutinize the understandings users have of what the Internet is for.

Hine suggests that if we are to understand and realize the full potential of emergent communications technologies, it behooves us to study current everyday practices around the Internet, e.g., to illuminate the ways that Internet users make sense of the brave new world into which we have ventured. Our understanding of the Internet and its denizens has been limited, in part, by a tendency on the part of scholars to examine it either as a cultural context, in the sense that it is socially constructed and discursively performed, or as a cultural artifact, a technology shaped largely by the practices and products of users. It is, in fact, both, and failure to recognize this indeterminacy will obscure the "processes through which [the online/offline] boundary is itself constructed" (39).

Ethnography went through a kind of postmodern crisis in 1986, after the publication of James Clifford and George E. Marcus' Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography spurred a growing recognition that ethnographic writing was necessarily selective and was less about the "truth" of existing "real" culture than the creation of textual constructions of reality. Hine suggests that, far from ruling ethnography out as a legitimate research tool, the "crisis" presented Internet researchers with an opportunity to transform conventions and shape ethnographic projects in new and creative ways that reflect the changing cultural landscape.

The principles for virtual ethnography Hine outlines offer rich fodder for future research, and bear mention herein:

    Ethnography has traditionally entailed the sustained presence of an ethnographer in a field setting, intensively engaged with the everyday life of the inhabitants of the site. When the Internet becomes the focus for our studies, it is imperative that we examine not only how it is used for communicating, but also what it means as an object within people's lives and as a site for the achievement and sustenance of community-like formations.

    Cyberspace enjoys "rich and complex" connectivity with respect to the varying contexts within which it is used, and it depends on technologies for which use may be locally determined. As such, it should be understood as both cultural construct and cultural artifact (64). When we allow distinctions such as the on-line/off-line dichotomy to inform (read "limit") our analyses, such studies will be impoverished.

    The ethnography of mediated interaction is more usefully described as mobile than multi-sited, in the sense that it involves investigation of the elastic nature of connections.

    When we study a site, locale, or place, we risk missing new ways of understanding Internet culture that are based on connection and difference, or the way space contributes to the structure of social relationships. On the other hand, if we think of virtual ethnography as mobile, we can concentrate on connectivity rather than boundary and/or location as an organizing principle.

    Virtual ethnographies are shaped by an examination of how boundaries and connections are made and enforced, and limited by the researcher's constraints in time, space, and ingenuity (64). The concept of holism can be abandoned, because there will never be a "whole" ethnography of a specific site or object.

    Temporal dislocation is intrinsic to virtual ethnography. Neither the researcher nor her informants and subjects are on line 24 hours a day; immersion is, by virtue of the nature of the medium itself, only intermittent.

    Ethnographers themselves must explore the use of the Internet in context. Such engagement is an invaluable source of insight. One aspect of the reflexivity of virtual ethnography is the researcher's ability to draw on her own experience of interacting with the technology.

    It becomes a moot point whether informants are presently absent or present, just as the ethnographer can be seen as both absent from and present to the informants. The relationships developed across temporal and spatial boundaries may be either brief or sustained. Hine describes this principle as "ethnography in, of and through the virtual (65).

    Virtual ethnography is adaptive in the sense that it adjusts to the conditions and contexts in which it finds itself. Virtual does not only mean "disembodied," it carries a connotation of "good enough," or adequate even if not quite the real thing. In this case, Hine means an adaptive ethnography that suits itself to the unique conditions provided by CMC. Note that this is the meta-principle that makes the rest possible.

Hine uses the case of teenage British nanny Louise Woodward to illustrate what a connective approach to an ethnography of the Internet might look like. Woodward was working for a family in Boston. When Matthew Eappen, the child in her care, died in suspicious circumstances, she was charged with his murder. The case, which came to trial in October of 1997, became a prominent media event in the UK and the US. Although the jury returned a guilty verdict, under Massachusetts law, it was up to the judge to render judgment.

In the Woodward case, Judge Hiller Zobel announced that he would release his ruling via a Web site on the Internet. The media made much of this decision, as well as of subsequent developments in the case. Ironically, although the ruling of involuntary manslaughter was released on November 10, 1997, with jail time set at the amount Woodward had already served, most people learned of the decision by television or radio because of problems stemming from the Internet release. Woodward stayed in Boston pending an appeal of the sentence, ultimately returning home in June 1998. Through this period, there were high levels of both official news reporting and amateur Internet activity surrounding the case. A proliferation of Web sites was produced in Woodward's defense, and discussions in a wide range of bulletin boards and newsgroups focused on the case.

The idea of Internet as cultural object and Internet as cultural context are both evident in the description offered above. The media reportage of the judge's decision to use a Web page to release his ruling is perhaps the most obvious manifestation of Internet as cultural object; the dissemination decision itself was discussed at length by all of the mass media, and on the Internet itself (68). The Internet as cultural context became a major focus of Hine's study; her findings illustrate the complexity of the social and textual connections developed in response to the Woodward case.

Hine's study, focusing as it does on the temporal and spatial orderings of the Internet and the question of authenticity and identity, admirably illustrates not only the difficulties, but also the myriad advantages of the ethnographic methodology she suggests. The data she collected, which she freely admits are "necessarily partial" (82), encompass information gathered from the designers of Web sites, the sites themselves, and discussion groups.

One of the primary questions that interested Hine was how the Internet affected the organization of social relationships in time and space, whether this organization was different than the ways "real life" was organized, and how users reconciled the two (83). Web designers, both professional and amateur, felt the necessity to keep informational sites up-to-date. The timeliness of information was demonstrated either by display of the date itself, or through the use of tags such as "New" or "Latest News." Whether or not information was actually added to sites in a timely manner was due in large part to the site creators' need to honor other commitments and pressures. Frequently, amateur Web site developers could not react immediately to new information. As a result, while some Web sites were updated very quickly, others could remain in an outdated form for quite a while. Also, there was a lag in the updating of search engines. Frequently, when Hine went to look for a site to which she had been referred by a search engine, it had already been changed or deleted. The process of learning to read the resultant nonlinear narratives, or "temporal collage" (Castell, 1996), involved developing an understanding of the likely course of events, and recognition both that the Web developers were capable of error or could lack time to update information and that search engines had their own lag time.

The spatial orderings of the Internet revealed similar multiple orderings. Physical location was important insofar as it conveyed some authority, such as with the two main official campaign sites in Boston, Massachusetts and Elton, UK, Woodward's home town. Most of the amateur sites boasted prominent links to the two main official sites, while links from the main sites to supporter sites were far less obviously placed. In this manner, offline location was imported into online setting, and a hierarchy based on perceived value and/or importance was established. Yet another ordering was created by the media's representation of the Internet as the place to go for up-to-date, accurate information.

Finally, Hine addresses the question of authenticity and identity, a question that played out both with respect to the news agencies' verification of the authenticity of the judge's opinion, once it was posted, and in the strategies amateur Web developers employed to promote the legitimacy of their sites. With the amateur Web developers, identity was used as a resource for combating potential inauthenticity; either personal testimony was used, in order to position the data as sincere forms of support, or identity was erased altogether, in an attempt to present information as objective and trustworthy.

There is nothing orderly about Hine's Internet. It is a glorious place, "a text that is both read and written by its users" (147), where mediated communications violate traditional and spatial orderings, and identity performances are frequently used as strategic resources. Concurrently reactive and adaptive, it requires a similarly synergistic method of study. In discarding holism, reliance on time-honored dichotomies, face-to-face interaction, and an insistence on bounded sites of study in favor of connectivity and reflexivity, Hine offers the map for an entirely new way of understanding and experiencing the Internet.

Julie Mactaggart:
Julie Mactaggart is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Speech Communication at the University of Minnesota. She designed and teaches the university's first communication oriented course on cyber-ethics.  <jmactaggart@earthlink.net>

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