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Life Online: Researching Real Experience in Virtual Space

Author: Annette N. Markham
Publisher: Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 1998
Review Published: February 2002

 REVIEW 1: Denise Carter
 REVIEW 2: Dennis L. Wignall
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Annette Markham

The focus of Annette Markham's book, Life Online: Researching Real Experience in Virtual Space, is the "lived experience of what it means to go and be online" (18). It constitutes a useful resource for students who like Markham find the writing of online ethnography "more slippery than I ever imagined" (19). Whilst acknowledging the fragmentation of a field that is experienced 'more by individuals that by collectives,' she succeeds in constructing an account that combines scholarly text and narratives into a reflexive ethnography that is eminently readable, both as a scholar and as an Internet user. Although the format of the book is laid out in chapters, Markham adopts the strategy of weaving Interludes into her narrative. These Interludes not only allow the reader to engage with her thoughts as she confronts the interplay of our fundamental, constructing relationships in both the real and the Virtual worlds. Interjected into the narrative are smaller parcels of text that represent her lived experience of her research enabling the reader to understand what she was thinking and feeling at the time. Both strategies act as signposts on the journey to discover how users make sense of their experiences in computer-mediated contexts. Along the way she asks new questions about the issues of self, identity, and embodiment that illustrate how her understanding of these concepts shifts and develops along the journey. Indeed, the notions of shifting contexts, shifting reality, and changing perspectives are dominant themes as the project progresses.

Chapter One, "Going Online," introduces us to Markham as both subject and object of study as she negotiates the rituals of language and technology that allow her to enter her field. Her experiences are presented reflectively and reflexively as a process of discovery, that begins with her fear and reluctance of online (inter)action, and ends with her logging on to a chat site as 'Bambi' and being propositioned for cybersex. This lively narrative, a mixture of fragments of online dialogue interspersed with her own thoughts and interpretations has the effect of drawing the reader into the narrative, a willing passenger on the journey to completion. She concludes the chapter by realising that online experiences are "just another context in which we all struggle with issues of self, identity and embodiment" (58).

Chapter Two, "The Shifting Project, The Shifting Self," is where Markham is concerned with problems and methodologies that allow her to gather, collate, and interpret her material. She illustrates the very real difficulties that any ethnographer faces in transforming thoughts into action. She continues the theme of shifting context and struggles with the "paradox of conducting a nontraditional ethnography in a nontraditional nonspace with traditional sensibilities" (62). Sadly, although we are treated to an in depth discussion of conducting a nontraditional ethnography, there is no corresponding discussion of what is meant by nontraditional nonspace. However, she does expand our understanding in later chapters as we see how users view this nontraditional nonspace differently.

Chapter Three, "Themes of Life in Cyberspace," examines how users frame their experiences of Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) along a continuum of "connection of self" (87). Markham develops three themes along this continuum that help her to understand online experiences. The first is that of CMC being a tool that facillitates communication, the second that cyberspace is a place to go to be with others, and the third is a way of being that is inseparably woven into lived experiences. Markham introduces us to the real experiences of her participants in a worthy attempt to capture the essence of self that best describes their position on this continuum at any one moment. Her attempt to capture this moment neatly illustrates the continuing theme of shifting contexts as users actively construct their experiences differently from moment to moment. Deftly woven into this narrative are her own theoretical discussions about self, embodiment, and place -- real and virtual. In them, she draws upon the works of Baudrillard (1988), Benedikt (1991), Rheingold (1991, 1993) , MacKinnon (1998), and others. In doing so, she reaches the conclusion that there is no distinction between real and virtual experience: "People experience cyberspace as they experience life -- it is not that profoundly different" (89). This chapter ends with a timely discussion of the position of text in cyberspace, and a rather nice quote from John Van Maanen: "Social reality is presented, not known. Culture is created, as is the reader's view of it, by the active construction of a text" (126). The outcome of Markham's role in creating this text as she interacts with her online subjects, is that she becomes actively involved in structuring the social world that she is investigating. This social world is in a constant state of change as the narrative continues to be written.

In Chapter Four, "Stories of Tools and Places," Markham begins to develop these themes through an analysis of her online interviews. We are introduced to Matthew, Jennifer, Mist, and Michael who appear to be connected at different points along Markham's continuum. Markham's analysis of their position is neatly chronicled as she continues with her strategy of allowing the reader to engage with her, as she confronts her interviewees experiences in both the real and the virtual worlds. Matthew is least connected, using the Internet as a useful communications media where online interaction is "primarily information transfer" (139). Jennifer appears to see cyberspace as a space between people who are communicating through technology; for her it is a "reminder that you're not with the other person" (145). Mist has found that online communication is much simpler than offline, and she is more in control. Markham speculates that one reason for this could be the dislocation of real personal identity from the common referents of gender, race, authority, age, etc. This would effectively encourage a more equal participation in online conversations. Michael believes that everyone has an singular and authentic self that will always assert itself. This self is not affected by the dichotomy between Real and Virtual, and therefore he assumes that everyone he meets online is authentic. Consequently, Michael is able to conceptualise the online worlds he visits as real places occupied by real people. Michael is connected at the centre of Markham's continuum. He focuses on the relationships he has with others online, rather than on the means by which they are achieved. A moment of reflection at the end of this chapter illustrates Markham's shifting perspectives as she concludes that going online is "not as wildly otherworldly" (163) as was supposed. Although cyberspace is new and unfamiliar, it can be experienced as just another aspect of real life.

The interlude between this and the next chapter is worthy of a mention here. Entitled "Drawing Boxes," it draws attention to the problems of limited understanding that are compounded when the categories of real/virtual, online/offline, and nature/technology are falsely dichotomised. There is no solution offered, only awareness of the problem, as remedial attempts merely lead to drawing different boxes and creating different categories.

In Chapter Five, "Stories of Places and Ways of Being," Markham continues to develop her contextualised continuum of connection through her analysis of more online interviews. We meet Beth, Sheol, Terri, and Sherie. Their experiences are infinitely more complicated to understand than those of Markham's previous four informants. Beth finds it easier to write how she feels than to say it out loud. Online, she is divorced from those commercial or idealised images that might diminish her relationships with others. It is solely through the exchange of texts with other Internet users that she constitutes meaningful relationships with them, leaving her embodied life behind. Sheol's interview was interesting in that it compelled Markham to investigate the possibility that stereotypical assumptions about behaviour may be unknowingly translated into a text-based environment. Upon receipt of gushy, emotional, and expressive emails, Markham had assumed that Sheol was female, when in fact Sheol was male. Terri finds it useful to contrast her performances of self online and offline in order to find balance in her own overall sense of self. Sherie's offline self is "based in and trapped by the body, and its various roles" (204). In cyberspace, she "dwells in language and through language" (204). The end of this chapter chronicles Markham's struggle as she attempts to categorise each of her interviewees along her continuum of connection, according to her reading of their texts.

The final chapter, "Reflecting," closes the book with a few general observations about online communications, the project itself, and our future with a technology that challenges traditional notions of community, identity, and place as we engage with it.

What at first sight seems to be a messy text full of changing fonts, italics, and ellipses, unfolds neatly to illustrate Markham's enthusiasm for the subject. Life Online is both an analysis of the project itself and a study of the process of engaging in virtual ethnography. It reveals interesting implications for social research and the practice of cyberethnography. She counsels researchers to discard their frames of reference and study online contexts in their own contexts, "without trying to impose alternative categories, false dichotomies, a priori assumptions and templates" (210). This book is an excellent starting point for those sociologists and ethnographers looking for methodological guidance on researching the cyberfield. It should be required reading for anyone who is attempting to "study a new and rapidly evolving cultural context" (221) of online experience.

Baudrillard J. (1988) The Ecstasy of Communication. New York: Semiotext.

Benedikt M. (1991) Cyberspace: First Steps. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rheingold H. (1991) Virtual Reality. New York: Touchstone.

Rheingold H. (1993) The Virtual Community: Homesteading in the Electric Frontier. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Denise Carter:
Having gained her BA (Honors) in Applied Social Science, Denise Carter is now a Doctoral student in the department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Hull. She is currently engaged in an ethnographic study of an online community with particular interest in the performance of cyberspace, and the (re)production of self and community in cybersociety. 

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