Developing Cyberethnographic Research: Methods for Understanding Digitally Mediated Identities


Doing research in the "third age of Internet studies" (WELLMAN, 2004) and locating our work in the "critical cyberculture studies" (SILVER, 2000), we are concerned with social and cultural implications of producing, consuming, and using technology in various contexts. In this essay, we consider a research practice based on epistemologies of doing in order explore the production of selves at online/offline intersections. This cyberethnographic engagement plays into the critical research agenda of examining the contextual manifestation of oppression. In particular, we place race at the center of our exploration of social network systems, which experience increasing popularity among young people. In this paper, we discuss details of cyberethnography through the lens of epistemologies of doing and through a review of existing scholarship about race in cyberspace. Further, we theorize how the race gets produced and authorized in the minute instances of everyday online/offline praxis. Our work draws from undergraduate and graduate courses, where students are involved in service-learning projects and technology-facilitated activities. Thus, the major objective is to race the interface—to examine and interrogate the construction of (racial) identity in cyberspace.

The context of social networks

Social network systems, or sites, are essentially web based software which connect people and help them stay in touch with friends. Those who open accounts in social network systems establish and maintain friendships, hook up with dates, meet new friends, find jobs, and exchange recommendations and news. The systems share a few key characteristics: profiles, friends, and comments (BOYD, 2007). Individuals create profiles that represent their selves with photos and a plethora of information about themselves (for example, birthday, contact information, education, job, hobbies, favorite movies, books, music, and quotes). Also, the profiles in social systems depict one's network—a group of friends and acquaintances. Another common feature of the social networks systems is the interactive tools to build and maintain relationships within particular contexts and framings. Some of these features include message tools, notes, and comments. Users link their profiles and become connected through messaging systems, bulletin boards, blogging, and other tools.

Students, professors, journalists, political candidates, religious leaders, video fans, and musicians create profiles representing users through images and references to favorite activities and media content. Online friendship is pervasive and involves millions of members, who are collectively called "MySpace generation" (HEMPEL, 2005) because the most populated social network is MySpace. According to various sources, claims up to 100 million unique registered users worldwide and about 50 million of users in the US in August 2006. The population of another social system called FaceBook reached 18 million users in February 2007 (ABRAM, 2007). A virtual environment of SecondLife takes the idea of social networking to a cartoon-like reality where each participant has an avatar, which moves across the land and interacts with other characters as well as objects and places. SecondLife resembles a fantasy game, yet people collaboratively build the virtual world and live through vivid experiences of moving through and manipulating with physical space.

Together with the growing popularity of social network websites like FaceBook and MySpace among college and highs-school students, the concern about these sites is rising among parents, school administrations, police, and law makers because of the information openness, which may put the young users at risk. MySpace has become a notorious object of television and newspaper coverage focusing on possibilities of abuse and crime due to excessive personal revelations. Various agents responsible for social safety address the assumed dangers of social networks. Two bills have been recently introduced by the US House of Representatives to block access to any commercial social site that allows users to create a profile and communicate with strangers at federally funded schools and libraries. On university campuses, administrators warn students that the information posted on their profiles may damage the reputation of young people when they apply for jobs or to seek admission to college. Some schools start campaigns or initiate advising boards to recommend parents and students on how to post on social networking sites. Experts on privacy suggest that students do not reveal anything their employer or parents do not want to see.

The attempts to control and regulate online activities—from prohibiting and punishing to educating and training—reflect and play into cyberpanics or cyberphobias, according to Barry SANDYWELL (2006). He argues that cyberspace has been added to the inventory of monsters threatening life in the 21st century, along with various diseases, cloning, and weapons of mass destruction. Stanley COHEN (2003) who started the studies on moral panics emphasizes their focus on a threat to societal values and interests. The rapid technological development leads to deregulating market economy, expanding global capitalism, blurring borders, transforming everyday life, and reconfiguring social relations. The feeling of personal anxiety and uncertainty accompanies the dislocation from the normalized existence in communication limited to face-to-face interaction (SANDYWELL, 2006). COHEN suggests that moral panics originate from mass media or particular interest groups, and Stuart HALL et al. (1978) argue that it is the elite who engineer panics through political and judicial activity. One of the common themes in moral panics is the influences and behaviors of young people. With the case of social networks, the users give the food for thought and worries for adults and attract researchers studying techno- and cyber-cultural practices.


Cyberculture is a prolific area of research, and ethnography occupies a central position in studying cybercultures (BELL, 2001). In brief, ethnography is "a written representation of culture" (MAANEN, 1988). It strives to create descriptions of individual or collective subjectivities for the purpose of understanding different cultures. Typically ethnography involves observation of a group of people in their natural environment and description of one or more aspects of group life. Such descriptions are called to develop insights into group life and to understand and appreciate various forms and facets of culture. Ethnography studies the familiar making it strange or studies the strange making it familiar. The use of technology by the younger generation—high school and college age students—may seem taken for granted in the context where computers are widely available, yet focusing the scholarly gaze on this simultaneously mundane and spectacular activity allows challenging and questioning obvious characteristics of culturally and socially constructed technologies.

In conventional ethnography (which does not account for computer-mediated communication), a researcher immerses herself in the community she wishes to study. She becomes familiar with the people and participates in routine activities in order to gain insight into the experiences of her subjects. During the interaction, she attempts to grasp the significance of the language and the actions occurring in the studied community (MAANEN, 1988). The existing examples of cyberethnography suggest the necessity of involvement in multifaceted social settings where the Internet (or other technology) is a part and parcel of everyday life. Daniel MILLER and Don SLATER (2000, pp.21-22) argue that "ethnography means a long term involvement amongst people, through a variety of methods, such that any one aspect of their life can be properly contextualized in others." Their fieldwork in Trinidad includes not only textual analysis of webpages but also interviews with government officials, business owners, Internet providers, and ordinary users. They hang out in the Internet cafes, chat with people in addition to seeking for other formal and non-formal encounters with Trinidadians.

Even though participant observation follows the canons of ethnography, it retains the qualities of realistic study. This is because the authors maintain conceptual separation of online and offline contexts. The Internet takes its origin in the culture of science, yet this frame has shifted towards market-driven social space where the Internet is disguised as a medium of communication and a medium of choice delivering personalized service. This positivist conception easily yields to research which seeks for predictive decisions (JONES, 1999). In actuality, being online and being offline are intersecting and interweaving experiences. The question is: How the research practices can transcend the experience of computer-medicated interaction without creating boundaries and ruptures? Discussing Internet research in cultural studies, Jonathan STERNE (1999) suggests changing the primary concern with the interpretation of texts to the production of context for a text, event, or practice under investigation. In this case, the research considers not what a given event means to its participants but how the meanings are possible and what the conditions making particular practices are (JONES, 1999, p.262).

In response to this objective, we articulate the interactive methodology based on epistemologies of doing. This methodology suggests that subjects/objects produce selves—through typing, writing, image manipulation, creation of avatars, digital video and audio—and engage in practices of everyday life at these interfaces. Living at the intersections of online and offline underscores the significance and particularity of the context and pays specific attention to the social status of knower. Exploring the production of identity in MOOs (multi-user-domain object-oriented)—a multi-user, text-based synchronous and interactive virtual community/program, Jenny SUNDEN (2003) notes that a distance—both spatial/physical and between the mind/body—is created between the typist/programmer and subject typed into existence in encounters with digital interfaces such as computers. She argues:

"This distance is on one level introduced in text-based online worlds through the act of typing, and further reinforced by the mediating computer technology itself. By actively having to type oneself into being, a certain gap in this construction is at the same time created. The mediation between different realms, the very creation of texts by the means of computers, makes the interspace that always exists between myself and the understanding of this self particularly clear. Following the idea of a subject that can never have a direct and unmediated access to herself, that the I writing and the I written about can never be seen as one, cyber subjects are always at least double" (p.4).

The action of producing oneself in such an environment is enacted through typing; however, the particular participant's agency is produced both through the act of typing and the programming that results through her/his embodied negotiations of socio-cultural literacies, memories, histories, patterns and negotiations.

We argue that the ethnographic praxis in technology-mediated environments includes both production and consumption of technological artifacts. This position implies that behavior and activities do not stem from the characteristics of this artifact but from the cultural and social conditions/contexts in which this artifact has been created and used. In these cases, a researcher becomes a user and enters the environment she studies in order to live, to work, and to do things in and with these spaces. This philosophy emphasizes doing technology and building technospatial environment. Living within technology allows not only learning the code but typing oneself into existence while collaborating and interacting with others. In our research and teaching, we thus focus on building encounters in online settings, studying the discourses that emerge at the intersection of online/offline, and engaging the offline context through which the online worlds are entered. Producing and consuming digital realities thus help establish contingency of expectations about technological capacities and human qualities.

Such living/lived cyberethnography relates to auto and critical ethnographic engagements. First, the cyberethnographer becomes a part of the setting, living and providing the framework for the interpretation of experiences. She is included in the epistemological space of the practice under investigation. This implies becoming a part of the online community, while building and maintaining one's own networks. Therefore, this involvement invites a reflexive dimension of ethnography. Bud GOODALL (1991) explains that reflexivity corresponds to scholarly and personal reflection on the lived experience to reveal the connection between the writer and the subjects. Ethnographic reflexivity implies theorizing and analyzing how subjectivities of the researcher and the subjects get mutually constituted in the interaction. The participation in the environment under study leads to autoethnographic writing, which places emphasis on research process, culture, and self as well as exposing and connecting social and cultural aspects of personal experience. The first-person autoethnographic narratives breach the separation of researcher and subjects and establish intimacy with the reader as a co-participant of the dialogue. Stories often focus on a single case thus breaking with the concern for generalization across the cases and striving for generalizations within a case. Such texts emphasize the procedural nature of inquiry, and individualized, fragmented, chaotic, and disorganized qualities of reality (ELLIS & BOCHNER, 2000). Stephen BANKS and Anna BANKS (2000) argue that autoethnography has a pedagogical value as it teaches lay and academic audiences about themselves, illustrates a new forms of scholarly writing, and explicates the mode of critical attitude and self-disclosure. Critical here refers to the process of questioning commonsense assumptions while scrutinizing otherwise hidden agendas, power centers, and assumptions that inhibit, repress, and constrain (THOMAS, 1993). Such ethnographies invoke a call for action and use knowledge for social change. The objective is not only hermeneutic—understanding of cultural symbols of one group in terms of another thus supporting the status quo—but also emancipatory—challenging culture and pointing at implications of descriptions and constrains of discourse.

Contemporary culture is technological because science and technology mark the pervasive and the predominant role in shaping modern societies (BIJKER, 2006). The existence-in-culture happens in a variety of practices that constitute everyday life. The notion of practices connects material actions, principles guiding the actions, discourses, as well as moments and places of acting and meaning making. For example, Michel FOUCAULT (1996, p.276) defines practices as "places where what is said and what is done, rules imposed and reasons given, the planned and the taken for granted meet and interconnect." Pierre BORDIEU (1977, p.72) uses the term habitus to describe "systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles of the generation and structuring of practices and representations." However, ordinary members of society are not "cultural dopes," who passively carry and obey rules, but are creative appropriators of technology," who actively make decisions (SANDYWELL, 2006, p.56). To study practices means to examine how "everyday life invents itself by poaching" (CERTEAU, 1984, p.xi) as "users make (bricolent) innumerable and infinitesimal transformations of and within the dominant cultural economy in order to adapt to it their own interests and their own rules" (p.xiv).

Reflecting the complex character of technological culture, the cyberethnographic research practice is multidimensional and multimodal. It takes into account multiple contextual factors through epistemology of doing. Sally MUNT (2001) writes that habitus as the practice of everyday life is written in or performed by the body. On the one hand, the body re-enacts its placement and configuration—class, gender, and sexuality, etc; on the other hand, these practices shape how we move through the world as gendered, sexed, and classed subjects. Online production of self expresses the bodily physicality through the acts of knowledge and ignorance, conversation habits, recognizable movements within familiar sites, and memory encoding. Such engagement in self-production constructs knowledge of self, others, and the interactions with others through building objects, or, literally, doing. Thus, we dialogically produce our selves as well as engage our colleagues and students in becoming interfaces to focus on the users' experiences manifested in specific constructions of accounts, oral histories, interviews, journal, or blog entries. [14]

The original source of this post is:

Volume 8, No. 3, Art. 35 – September 2007
Developing Cyberethnographic Research Methods for Understanding Digitally Mediated Identities
Natalia Rybas & Radhika Gajjala

Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 8(3), Art. 35,

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