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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

Online computing technology allows us a window of insight into a unique ethnography where the author becomes immersed in a virtual maze of textual interactions creating and sustaining a number of interpersonal relationships. It is this virtual glass through which the author, Annette Markham, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois, Chicago, conducts her investigation. Peeking over her shoulder and through the window of her computer monitor, one is transported into the virtual worlds of MUD, MOO, and IRC chat users. The participants under study are both real and virtual, simultaneously. And this generates the primary focal point of the work as the author attempts to sort out, in her own mind, what is real, what is virtual, and perhaps even more importantly, how the author herself is being affected by this immersion into relational virtuality.

Markham employs a research and writing approach of interspersing her own reactive thoughts during her discussion of observed online interpersonal dynamics as data. One can see, even vicariously experience, the changes in the author's own sensitivities and reactions as she becomes more and more involved in the study. A variety of perplexing questions are posed, in her own voice, as she confronts the myriad complexities experienced by an online newcomer (at least within the context of the MUDs, MOOs, and IRCs). For example, her own frustration at being unable to express her humanity in the form of the treatment of text-based messages mirrors the frequent observation of many who enjoy computer mediated communication that it is a "cues filtered out" setting. That is, to follow Mehrabian's research that suggests 63% of the meaning derived from human communicative interactions is presented nonverbally, the online environment is berift of arguably 63% of intended meaning. The process of negotiating meaning between correspondents becomes at once both challenging to overcome errors in interpretation, and ultimately personally rewarding. It is interesting to note that as participants in these environments become more familiar with each other, they develop a unique way of suggesting message treatment cues. The pair-wise conditioning effects are unique to each dyad, with some carryover to other online, text based relationships. In effect, this constructs a complicated and setting-specific symbol system produced from keyboard symbols. Markham shares with us the many revelations that learning a new codifice or symbol system brings. She reacts with almost childlike glee at gaining entre into various 'rooms' and being accepted by the inhabitants whom she has not otherwise met or interacted with in other settings. This lends an endearing quality to her narrative and the emotions are not unlike those experienced by many others who enter into this technologically supported virtual arena.

One note to be explored here is the notion of the virtual arena in the mirroring of human behavior such as relationship development. Virtual can be defined as something existing in essence but not in fact. However, based on Markham's insight, one might argue that "virtuality" is something of a misnomer. The relationships generated by Markham were as real and existed in fact as any other relationship, with the only difference being the mode in which the relationship was originated and sustained. The author herself notes that "[r]eal becomes a double negative; simply put, when experiences are experienced, they cannot be Not real" (120). Indeed, "virtual," and its derivatives, may need to be discarded or more carefully defined during discussions revolving around Human Communication supported by CMC.

Along these same lines, the very human and compassionate act of becoming a psychologist to those with whom one is interacting is a frequent occurrence in both face-to-face interactions as well as those of a "virtual" nature. However, it is unclear that peeling away the layers of one's own psyche is a very accurate process, let alone the attempt to perform such rhetorical surgery on the motivations and verbal behaviors of online partners. There is simply too much room for error, even in the best of clinical circumstances. For example, it is well known that individuals reporting personal information online frequently bend the truth, as it were, in order to establish a sort of surreal persona made up of envisioned, personal, and idealized human qualities. How is one, online, to ferret out such deception and duplicity? Just asking for the truth seems a bit doomed. Perhaps, as an online relationship continues to develop, participants follow a path of more accurate self-disclosure. But again, how is one to know . . . really?

Markham's reactions to her respondents suggest an underlying problem with her methodology, not that the online environment immediately disqualifies the development of ethnographic research. She assumes the role of participant observer to immerse herself in what might be called an online culture. Participant observer, as a method for collecting data, is defined by John Van Maanen (1988) as ". . . (it) asks the researcher, as far as possible, to share firsthand the environment, problems, background, language, rituals, and social relations of a more-or-less bounded and specified group of people" (3). To this end, Markham succeeds admirably. A problem exists, however, in her willingness to shape her survey instrument during online interviews with volunteer online participants. Markham approaches the development and collection of data from a fixed set of questions. This is a useful and appropriate approach as long as the questions are consistent across all subjects. However, as each interview unfolds, each becomes a unique, almost isolated, data point. What is insightful for one subject may or may not even exist for another. Each relationship needs focused study based on the pair-wise conditioning effects mentioned earlier. Indeed, Markham frequently reveals a tendency to develop data collection processes in almost serendipitous ways. For example, she writes the following after realizing online respondents would answer after some delay: "One significant advantage of online interviewing is worth mentioning however: I had time to think of good follow-up questions" (76). This is methodology by the seat of one's pants, as well as being directed by the researcher herself as opposed to remaining more of a neutral observer. Respondents' answers generate additional research questions, and each respondent's answers are different to begin with, all leading to something that cannot be considered definitive or concrete. The study thus becomes very difficult to either generalize or to replicate. In fact, Markham admits to certain confusion as she ". . . struggles to make sense of this project" (78).

On the other hand, by conducting data gathering under the aegis of this loose methodology, she does allow us the opportunity to recognize the flaws, which, in turn, should generate an ethnographic study of online participants that results in more accurate and confirming data. This comes with a certain caveat. As with all interpersonal relationships, whether online or face-to-face, each relationship changes as a function of frequency of interactions, time spent interacting, the conceptual reasons for specific interactions, "room" social pressures, and the overall transient nature of the process itself. While Markham may generate one relationship with one respondent during multiple exchanges, she clearly develops a new relationship with each successive respondent as the study unfolds. It is fascinating to observe, through her writing, her changes as a result of the effects of a given online event. In this regard, there is little difference between the online relationships and those developed face-to-face. One goal of ethnographic research is to uncover trends in human behavior and from those trends begin to identify testable hypotheses. This is only one inherent value of ethnography, but the most important here given the current use of the methodology. It would have been helpful if the author would have advanced either testable theory, or suggested more definitive, improved methodological adjustments that better reflect the CMC mode and ethnography in general. Thus, Markham's work may well have more value in what it reveals about her, her changes as a result of the interactive environment, and the struggle to generate meaningful data via a less than adequate methodology. Indeed, she may embody the changes and influences that could be more closely examined to provide stronger theoretical understanding of this amazing and complex technology driven process.

The book concludes with a self-reflective view of the ending of an online relationship with "Beth," a persona, nee person, inhabiting a particular MOO. Much of the data Markman reports emanates from her virtual interactions with Beth and exists as Markham's own diary entries of the relationship established with Beth. In the end, Beth is no longer available as a resident of the MOO and Markham goes through a process akin to that of dying, where the stages are ". . . denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance" as originally determined by psychologist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Close relationships suffer these same stages as the relationship arrives at termination. However, unlike the more normal face-to-face relationship where we have pictures and occasional interactions after the relationship is over, the online relationship seems more final and permanent. This can be seen in Marhkam's last sentence: "I typed "@quit," and pressed the enter key. And then the screen went blank" (232).

Mehrabian, Albert. Nonverbal Communication. Chicago: Aldine-Atherton, 1972.

Van Maanen, John. Tales of the Field. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Dennis L. Wignall:
Dennis L. Wignall, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Communication in the Department of Communication at Saginaw Valley State University. In 1993, he developed the first Public Speaking course delivered exclusively online, as well as both the Interpersonal Communication and Organizational Communication courses. He continues to teach and conduct research in the area of Human Communication and Technology, particularly in regard to the effects of technology on human thinking, artificial intelligence, and social change. He is currently Co-Chair of Program Planning for the Human Communication and Technology Commission of the National Communication Association.  <dwignall@svsu.edu>

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