Today I am delighted to be at a guest seminar from Christine Hine, from the Department of Sociology, University of Surrey at the University of Edinburgh Department of Sociology. You can read more about the event here. Â I’ll be liveblogging her seminar and, as usual any corrections etc. are welcomed.Â
Kate Orton-Johnson is introducing us to the session and the format: a formal talk then an then informal Q&A
And now, for Christine Hine…
I am going to talk about Ethnography for the Internet (Hine’s latest book) and then I’ll talk in more detail about the idea of “minimal infrastructures” – the kinds of peer to peer infrastructures (I’ll be talking about Freecycle), and some work I’ve been doing with Alix Rufas Ripol from Maastricht University.
I am going to be talking about this three way conceptualisation of the internet – as embedded, embodied, everyday – to talk about why some strategies are useful in research on the internet. And I’ll go on to talk about some of the challenges about this.
In my background… I was writing a handbook chapter last week and looking back and found myself saying “yes, I’ve been doing ethnographies of the internet for 20 years”… And the internet has such a different meaning now. My work began as the internet was just beginning to be seen as an ethnographic space as a field site to work in. The internet has evolved as a phenomenon, and the way it has become embedded in our day to day life has changed – although I don’t neccassarily buy into this web 1.0/2.0 shift.
And I continue to find Science and Technology studies useful for understanding the internet and the ways in which the internet is an upshot of social processes and site for social innovation, the infrastructural inversions (see e.g. Jeff Balfhurst). And the invisible work which makes this thing function so smoothly. So these ideas have been important, as has the idea of the internet as both culture, and a cultural artefact. Our expetations of it are shaped by social interaction, it impacts on us but it is impacted upon by us. We are shaped in what we do with it by our peer networks, what we see others doing with it, how the mass media presents it.
So my key question has been “What do people think they are up to when they use the internet?”
So we are at the point now that online only ethnography is legitimate but only as one choice among many. And many of our theoretical questions are better addressed by multi-sited and multi-modal designs buy what Postil and Pink’s (2012) idea of the “messy web of interconnections”. We don’t know where the site is, we construct that.
Ethnographers of the internet are often drawn in two directions. They are drawn outward, into diverse frames of meaning making. But they are also drawn inward to auto-ethnographic approaches, aimed at capturing modes of experience and feeling and acknowledging that.
There are, what I call, the “three e’s” of the internet…
The Embedded Internet is rarely a transcendent “cyberspace”, we do not grandly “go online”. Instead it is meaningful within specific contexts. It is subject to multiple frames of meaning -making. So you might look at the way it is embedded in towns, in households, or in particular devices (e.g. Freecycle is different on my phone vs my laptop), backchannels (and conversations), institutions (e.g. biologists engaging with their disciplinary colleagues) – and how this embeddedness must make sense for the discipline, of being accountable and rewardable activity, workplaces, structures of reward, accountability and recognition. So if we are conducting an ethnographic study of the internet, or some aspect of the internet, we have to make choices of the frame of meaning making to pursue, both arbitrary and important.
The Embodied Internet is about the idea that “going online” is not necessarily a discrete form of experience. Being online occurs alogside and complements other embodied ways of being and acting in the world. That emphasises the significance of sensory sensitivity in ethnography as we navigate the mediated world. And thinking about contingencies and choices, and what it means to navigate this complex texture, where we cross between different ways of communicating. If we are not just engaged in one discussion or community, we are moving between different ways of being or knowing, we need to know and recognise that… That moment when you try to contact an informant or participant in an interview and you are thinking about how you might approach them, what you don’t know… Reflecting on that, what that means for you to be with these people, etc. and how that can mirror the experience of others. All of these spaces let us have the same experience, in some way, with th eparticipants in the setting. We may not be full participants, we are using the same medium and can use that as a resource.
The Everyday Internet is indexing a very specific methodological problem – the fact that what we want to look at and study is not neccassarily what our participants want to talk about. We want to look at varying visibility of the phenomenon “internet” and specific platforms…Ethnographers have always relied on observing and eavesdropping and that is much harder to do here. It is an issue of dealing with silence in everydat discourse. Examining the specificity of occassions when the internet is foregrounded as such. Sometimes. If you look at newspapers now, versus 15 years ago… There is some commonality about the coverage of the internet as a problematic, disruptive, corrupting space… But now it is not “the internet” but specific platforms. So it can be topical at the same time as being almost forgotten. So we have to treat the silence and the topicality of infrastructures as complementary methodological challenes.
So, the methodological challenges is that the world does not make sense one medium at a time, but many of our methods carve it up in this way. Ethnography is a really important tool to do that, it is a key resource here. Situations develop rapidly and unpredictably before we have stable methods to suit them. So an ethnography that can move through this terrain and reflect upon it is certainly an important part of the reportoire. And we are also in a world where there is a real complexity about understanding where “there” is. So we have to take responsibility for crafting objects to study to suit strategic objectives.
We have to turn to reflexivity, autoethnographu to explore the individualised experience – a way to deal with this silence that we encounter. We need to use connective and mobile methods to explore interdeterminate and emergent fields. Actually using visualisation and large scale data analysis can aid us to formulate questions. We also need responsive methods.
So, that was a swooping overview. I now want to talk about a particular example.