Kate recently posted a link to Michael Wesch’s anthropology of youtube, and all I can say is wow! What a comprehensive and oh so relevant ethnography!
In watching Wesch’s video, I was reminded of a great essay I read last semester on digital ethnography. In the last ten years especially, with globalization and the wide spread of the internet, the notion of the ethnographic ‘fieldsite’ has come up for debate.
Andres Wittel in his essay titled “Ethnography on the Move: From Field to Net to Internet” (2000) writes, “like the objects of ethnographic inquiry—people—ethnography itself is on the move”. He believes that ethnography is moving away from geographically defined and physical fieldsites towards “socio-political locations, networks, multi-sited approaches…and digital spaces”.
This also relates back to the idea of ‘culture’ or community being defined by activity rather than by geographic location- something that I remember Alicia bringing up earlier in the semester in relationship to her and Kate’s project on blogging.
He goes on to write that, “Whereas a century ago fieldwork in the natural habitat of communities had the immense advantage of integrating context, a dogmatisation of the same practice in contemporary ethnography seems to achieve the opposite. It rather excludes the context of the people under observation”. In other words, by leaving out the virtual space, which people occupy, we are essentially regressing back to ‘armchair anthropology’- piecing together a story using insufficient context. By including the virtual space in an ethnography, we are thus including the context essential for the modern day equivalent of a “thick description”, which Geertz advocated.
So, the question is then- How do we most effectively capture the virtual context?
This topic is incredibly interesting and relevant to the research all of us are doing this semester. My team is currently undertaking a study of niche classical music audiences for BADSK (The Bavarian Academy of Fine Art). We have been employing a variety of new techniques- recruiting participants via twitter, posting discussion topics on facebook group pages (as a sort of virtual focus group), constructing basic social network models using following patterns on youtube, etc, in an attempt to construct a more accurate picture of classical music enthusiasts today.
As design ethnographers we are always scrambling to keep up with rapidly transforming technologies in order to understand those we are interested in more completely. There is no seminal piece of writing to guide us, so it’s all quite new and exciting!
Here’s to more adventures in new territories!