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?

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2 Responses to Are Online Communities Places or Artifacts?

  1. Mike Gushard says:

    I studied the built environment all through school and now for a living. A lot of my time on the bus is spent trying to sort out similar questions about online places and their inherent placiness. I wondered if the ideas and theories of Historic Preservation, which seeks to identify and preserve important places and share them with the future, were germane to conversations about online places. I wondered if there would ever be a movement to maintain the integrity of an important online places just as it was because it was beautiful or because it was significant. To some extent I guess that’s what the Internet Archive does but its not about saving the experience of place, it is much more about saving documents.

    I think I always hoped I could use my background in preservation to intuit reasons to “preserve” online communities and think about them the same way we think of “preserving” buildings and cultural landscapes. I came to the realization about 20 minutes ago that, without community members to animate it, without interaction ,an online “place” loses its sense of placeness and reverts to being a document. The main character defining feature of a place online is that there are participants who constantly craft it into being.

    While that doesn’t do much to answer your question it gives me a much better sense of how much “real” places lose without their constituent culture or population to animate them. It makes me wonder if I am in the wrong gig. Who cares about buildings if we let the cultures that built them vanish or abandoned them? Without the context of interaction places are merely documents. The cityscapes and mediated landscapes we live with today are a lot like the edited messages boards. They’re just archives. But since the “real” world does not have limitless “space” they’re archives we’re forced to live inside and alter.

  2. It seems to me that focusing too much on the technology “place” tends to ignore the “social place”, which is often what we are experiencing when we invest time and emotional involvement in an online community. As a researcher it’s far too easy to draw the observational boundaries around the technology place, even while the communities that guide us or confer legitimacy span multiple technologies. For example, I read this blog post because it was referenced Volume 17(36) – September 3, 2012 of the Qualitative Report, which I subscribed to because of a reference on the Anthro-Design Yahoo group. I find that so many “online communities” (as “social places” are actual mixes of multiple technology “places”, even though it’s very convenient to simplify our observation by ignoring some of the places.

    And all those places that are available represent interaction differently and age differently. If we talk on the phone, it’s usually not recorded. Emails normally disappear. And yet they are vectors for community interaction.

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