Are Online Communities Places or Artifacts?

I’m sympathetic to two ways of thinking about online communities that are somewhat inconsistent with each other. The web is a stack of communication technologies (both software and hardware) and should be studied in the same way that one would study the pony express, telegraphy, or the book. Yet, the web has communities, things that through ongoing social interaction where people spatialize the communication technology to “lurk” “hang out” and talk about the other kinds of people that do things different over there.  Online communities end up feeling like places and when we interact with people who are similar in some ways and different in others in those places we end up with cultures.

The Myth of Cyberspace and Possibility of Being There

I full well realize that the web isn’t a space. I’m with PJ Ray on the entire Myth of Cyberspace.  It doesn’t have dimensions, it is a stack of technologies (hardware and software). More specifically it is a constellation of technologies assembled in different arrangements by different individuals. However that stack/constellation  clearly creates cultures. Now sure books create cultures, telephones create cultures, and the postal service creates cultures. With that said, those republics of letters, and literary cultures aren’t really the same kinds of culture that one studies in an ethnography. I mean, imagine pen-pal-nography, telegram-nography—they just sound wrong. You can talk about a republic of letters all you like, but the moment you start saying you are doing an ethnography of letters someone is going to tell you you’re doing it wrong. When you study letters you are studying documents. We study documents as a species of artifact. Yes,  we learn about culture through that study (that would be the entire idea of material culture), but we don’t think of reading letters as “participant observation.”

With all this said, I still think the idea of “netnography” totally makes sense in a way that all those other –nographies doesn’t. Something about the medium of the web (I’d hazard its’ immediacy, two-way-nature, the placey-ness of URLs as locations) ends up giving us the things that we need to think about it as a place and gives us the experiences that we need to really make cultures happen. That is, we are thrown into a thing that works like proximity to others in which we interact with them and develop some shared ways of being in the world while retaining a whole host of dissonant and contradictory feelings about things.

Putting the Field in Computer Mediated Field Work

If you are unfamiliar with the idea of netnography I would suggest Kozinets book, Netnography: Doing Ethnographic Research Online. In contrast to the idea of “virtual ethnography” Kozinets is part of a group of researchers who gets behind the idea of “netnography.” (Rightly these folks acknowledge that there is nothing “virtual” about the web, it’s a real thing). The decision to shift to use netnography instead of ethnography comes from a sense that studying online communities is so substantively different from studying them in physical space that it needs a whole different term. That is, you can study how existing communities use the web alongside other modes of interaction, but there are also communities that exist solely as a result of particular web forums, listservs, and such.

In the last few weeks I’ve read and re-read Netnography, switching between modes of enthusiastic underlining (YES! That is it!). For example, when Kozinets talks about “alteration” recognizing that in online communities “the nature of the interaction is altered—both constrained and liberated—by the specific nature and rules of the technological medium in which it is carried.” (68) However, there are other moments in which I scrawl disapproving marginalia. For example, when I see terms like “online-fieldsite” (NO, the web is not a place and we shouldn’t pretend it is!). I think I can get behind “computer mediated fieldwork,” which he uses in other places, but I’m not sure I can go to “fieldsite.”

Can we talk of “Participant Observation” when we aren’t observing people?

I’ve gone back and forth in my head about Kozinets idea that we do “participant observation” when we study interactions in an online community. How can we talk of observing participants when we are actually observing artifacts? He suggests that our actions in online communities, our clicks, our keystrokes, are effectively utterances. Which is true, but at the same time when we study those utterances it isn’t like when we experience someone talking to us, documents are being created and we are reading them. It is effectively the same as reading a letter. Still, I think those specific features of the web mediums end up making this a situation where we can get away with the “participant observation” metaphor. Yes, if a netnographer jumps into an online community and starts to engage in the ebb and flow of exchange they are doing something that may have more in common with direct participation than with the hermeneutic interpretation of documents.

Theorizing and Interpreting Kinds of Online Community Data

Kozinats discusses three types of data. Archival data (data copied from “pre-existing computer-mediated communications of online community members), Elicited data, (data co-created with “culture members through personal and communal interaction”) and Fieldnote data (the researchers  own notes, observations and self reflections). He suggests that his categories are  similar to Wolcott’s notions of qualitative researchers “watching, asking and examining” and Miles and Huberman’s focus on studying “documents, interviews and observations” as kinds of data to interpret.  These are potentially useful comparisons, and as we need to come up with ways to fit new things into old boxes to make sense of them I can get behind the impulses here.

What’s at issue here is how much the experience of participating in an online community is like participating in a communities that occupy physical space. I think this is particularly tricky in that some of the features that make the web a rather unique medium are the things that give online communities their place-like qualities. To attend to the mediality of the web is to recognize it has this set of place-like or place-affording qualities.

“Archival data” Transcript, Recording, or Encoding

Kozinats struggles a bit to explain “archival data,” not that it is data that is being collected and organized by an archive, but in the much more nebulous sense of archival that has come to mean old-stuff-that-is-still-around-for-some-reason.  At one point, he suggests that the wide availability of this archival data in previous discussion on the boards or old email threads from listservs would be equivalent of “every public conversation being recorded and made available as transcripts.” However, importantly, a listserv archive, and old posts to discussion boards are not “recordings” of what transpired, they are what transpired. The creation of the “archive” is to some extent embedded in the act of communicating through these mediums. With that said, if you aren’t experiencing these exchanges as they happen then there are going to be issues that require you to reconstruct context and make sure that what you are looking at is authentically what was created at the time you want to make inferences about. That is, people edit their posts on discussion boards, users delete their accounts and the contextual information about who they were is often erased, site administrators prune away or remove posts over time. Generally, what we colloquially call an archive with these kinds of online communities is really a pile of things that have some connection to the past but haven’t really been worked over or documented. In any event, it is critical to not take for granted that you are looking at accurate recordings of the past, but to think about the provenance and particular constellations of technologies and users that made it possible for you to look at recordings of previous interactions between members of an online community.

So what can we do with these records of discourse? Kozinats suggests that  “Archival cultural data provide what amounts to a cultural baseline. Saved communal interactions provide the netnographer with a convenient bank of observational data that may stretch back for years.” (104) I’m not sure that this works. I don’t think we can talk about this archival data as “observational data.” It is not something you observed it is a set of documentary evidence that you need to establish the provenance and context of and can then engage in interpreting in the way a historian interprets any textual records. When it isn’t currently happening you aren’t observing it. These utterances become documents as they slide out of the present and into the past.

So are Online Communities Places or Objects

I feel like the answer here has to be something like, they are objects (or specifically assemblages of hardware and software technologies and protocols) that produce place-like experiences. So, it makes sense to try and figure out what it is like to be “a redditor” or to study how redditors interact with eachother and the kinds of communities that emerge there. With that said, reddit isn’t a fieldsite. Reddit is software, a database, and a set of bits on a series of servers accessible over HTTP.

All of that stuff, those objects create and log communication in such a way that they take on place-like qualities. People lurk in some sub reddits, they build relationships with the folks they come into contact with, they develop some shared and conflicting ideas about the world. In short, people create cultures through the affordances of the technologies. That cultural component, the way people use these things, gets rolled back into changing the structure and nature of the technologies that afford the place like qualities.

A Note on Determinisms and Co-Construction

Importantly, this does not mean that they “co-construct” each other. Kozinets nods to this in the beginning of the book. The idea that the forces of technological determinism and social construction of technology have come together in a kumbaya moment where technology and culture each construct each other feels too wishy-washy. Objects and artifacts afford and resist, people interact and interpret (often drawing on their own cultural tool kits or their internal representations of generalized others) and the social or the cultural emerges through this network of actors and actants. That’s at least my best stab at this for now. So yes, it’s not an either or, but I think it’s too much of a gloss to say its co-construction

Open questions?

I’d love to hear how other folks parse out these distinctions. What kind of thing is an online community and where are the limits of talking about them as places, as cultures, as technologies and as documents? Do you agree with how I am parsing this out? Or do you think I’m way off base here?

Lessons on the Internet for LAMs from The Oatmeal: Or, Crowdfunding and the Long Geeky Tail

Yesterday Matthew Inman (sole proprietor of the generally hilarious webcomic The Oatmeal) put up a post on his site to help raise funds to buy Tesla’s lab, Wardenclyffe Tower, preserve it, and make it into a Tesla Museum. At the time I’m writing this, 10,900  people have committed a total of $480,00  dollars to help make this happen.

I think folks who work at libraries, archives and museums need to pay attention to this. In particular, people who work at libraries, archives and museums that have a science and technology focus need to pay attention to this.

The Oatmeal and Tesla as the Geek of Geeks

If you don’t follow The Oatmeal you should, it’s a fun comic. If you do, you’ll know that Inman recently posted a funny and exuberant ode to Nikola Tesla as the geek of all geeks. It’s a story about an obsessive desire to make the world a better place through science and technology. (If you check that story out you should also check out this response from Alex Knapp and Inman’s critique of the critique.) The original cartoon uses Tesla to define what being a geek is. I like the sincerity in this particular quote at the front of it.

Geeks stay up all night disassembeling the world so they can put it back together with new features.

They tinker and fix things that aren’t broken.

Geeks abandon the world around them because they are busy soldering together a new one.

For someone who cares about the history of science and technology and the preservation and interpretation the cultural record of science and technology it is neat to see this kind of back and forth happening on the web. With that said, it is unbelievably exciting to see what happens when that kind of geeky-ness can be turned into a firehose of funding to support historic preservation.

How is this so amazingly successful?

As cultural heritage organizations get into the crowdfunding world it makes a lot of sense to study what about this is working so well. While one might not have the kind of audience Inman has, part of why he has that audience is that he’s a funny guy and he knows how to create something that people want to talk about all over the web. Even the name of the project,Let’s Build a Goddamn Tesla Museum, is funny. It is also participatory in the name alone. He is asking us to be a part of something. He is asking us to help make this happen.

Shortly after going up there were posts about this on a range of major blogs. It’s a great story and Inman is already a big deal on the web. Most importantly, Inman’s fans are the kind of people that can get really excited about supporting this particular cause. Aside from that, he publicly called out a series of different organizations that might get involved as sponsors. At least one of which was excited to sign on personally. Aside from getting the folks who were interested to just give money, he also asked them to reach out to the organizations. It just so happened that someone who has both Inman’s email address and the head of Tesla moters was thrileld to have the ouppertunity to connect the dots and help make this thing happen.  The project not only mobilizes supporters, it mobilizes people to mobilize supporters and in so doing lets everybody be a part of the story of making this thing happen.

Is this just a one off thing?
So Inman has been able to turn his web celebratory into a huge boon for a particular cultural heritage site. The next question in my mind is, is this a one time thing? I think there is a good reason to belive that this is actualy replicable in a lot of instances.

First off, Inman’s love for science and his audiance’s love for science isn’t an oddity. The web is full of science and tech fans and other web celebratories who might be game for doing this kind of thing to connect with fans and help support worthy causes.

Off the top of my head, here are three people I think could and very likely would, be up for this sort of thing for other projects related to scientists and engineers.

Jonathan Coulton

I would hazzard to guess that Jonathan Coulton fans would be thrilled to support at some archive to accession and digitize and make avaliable parts of Benoit Mandelbrot’s personal papers. Not sure exactly who has those papers but I am sure they are awesome, and I would hazzard to guess that the man who wrote an ode to the Mandelbrot Set and the fans who love it would come out in droves to support preserving his legacy.

If you haven’t heard Coulton sing the song take a minute and listen to it.

When you get to the end, you find the kind of sincerity about the possibility of science making our world a better place.

You can change the world in a tiny way
And you’re just in time to save the day
Sweeping all our fears away
You can change the world in a tiny way
Go on, change the world in a tiny way
Come on, change the world in a tiny way

We can change the world in a tiny way, and that is a message that Coulton’s fans want to hear. It’s really the same message for Inman’s geeks who are taking apart and rebuilding the world with new features.

Randall Munroe
I would similarly hazzard to guess that XKCD fans would follow Randall in any given campaign he wanted to start around a scientist or a technologist. You can see the same enthusiasm for science and technology in a lot of the XKCD comics. Here are a few of my favorites. For a sense of what people will do based on XKCD comics I would suggest reading the section on “Inspired Activities” on XKCD’s Wikipedia article.

For starters, there is the ever popular “Science: It Works” comic.

For a specific example of actual scientists check out this Zombie Curie comic.

Kate Beaton

Kate Beaton makes funny, clever, and rather nice looking historical comics. Many of those comics, like the comic about Rosalind Franklin below, are about scientists. I would hazard to guess that her fans would follow her to support these kinds of projects as well.

So these were just a few examples of other folks that I think could potentially pull this kind of thing off. I could also imagine all three being up for this sort of thing. In all three cases, you have geeks who have been able to do their long tail thing and find the other folks that geek out about the same kinds of things.

As a result, I think we could be looking at something that has the makings of a model for libraries, archives and museums to think about. Who has an audience and the idealism to help champion your cause? The web is full of people who care about science. Just take a look at what happened when someone remixed Carl Sagan’s cosmos into a song. There are some amazing people out there making a go of a career by targeting geeky niches on the web. If they are up for helping, I think they have a lot to offer. I’m curious to hear folks thoughts about how these kinds of partnerships might be brokered. What can we do to help connect these dots?

Glitch, Circuit Bending & Breaking as a Way of Knowing

A big idea in the digital humanities is that building is a hermeneutic, an iterative interpretive process that leads toward knowing and understanding. I saw this great video on The Art of Glitch toady that made me think a bit more about how much breaking can is an essential related way of knowing. I realize I’m not necessarily breaking any new ground here, but I think these few examples I’ve pulled together do a nice job at getting at what it is we learn when we break the slick world of computing a bit.

You should watch the whole thing, its’ great (you should also watch their video on Animated Gifs). But the part that I found most compelling was Scott Fitzgerald‘s basic demonstration of how to glitch some files (change a .mp3 to a .raw and open it in photoshop or open a .jpg in a text editor and delete some chunks of it. It’s fun, in that it is something you can follow along at home with, but the act of doing these things actually teaches something about the nature of digital files. He does a good job of explaining this in the following statement.

“Part of the process is empowering people to understand the tools and underlying structures you know what is going on in the computer. As soon as you understand the system enough to know why you’re breaking it then you have a better understanding of what the tool was built for.”

In short, breaking the files exposes their logic. In a way it helps us escape screen essentialism and see a different side of the nature of the files, file formats, compression algorithms, and structure of digital objects. The whole experience reminded me that I never got around to sharing some of the amazingly cool exhibit on circuit bending at Milwaukee’s Discovery Zone.

Breaking and Bending the Hardware

Circuit Bending at Discovery Zone

If you are unfamiliar, here is how Wikipedia describes Circuit Bending.

Circuit bending is the creative customization of the circuits within electronic devices such as low voltage, battery-powered guitar effects, children’s toys and small digital synthesizers to create new musical or visual instruments and sound generators.

Here is a little video I took of messing with the dials on the bent NES.

In this case, messing with the hardware is producing glitches. In this case, the artist (Luke Reddington) bent a series of different devices. He went in and put a bunch of toggles on this NES that lets you flip a bunch of different switches inside the device that no one is supposed to be messing around with.

In my mind, this works just the same as changing the file extensions. When you poke around inside the Nintendo and set a few different switches to toggle things that aren’t supposed to be toggled you can get this. Sure it’s art, there is an aesthetics to the whole thing, but there is also an element of coming to know in here. I think these are all examples of the ways in which breaking is as much a way of knowing as building.

Breaking & Bending as Knowing & Learning about the Machine

In each case, much like what happens when you set an augmented reality app like wordlens to the wrong language and have it try and read things that aren’t text, or when you go on a quest to find oddities in the digitized corpus of google books, circuit bending and glitch art draw out attention away from the way things are intended to be presented, away from being seemless things that obfuscate their nature, and get us to peek behind the curtain of the technologies and see a bit of the logic of computing.