So You Want to “Do” Digital Ethnography

By Devin Proctor 

It’s a weird time, yes? Many of us (anthropologists) are teasing out the nuances between synchronous and asynchronous class meetings, dealing with the horror of our own faces looking back at us from a screen, lagging about a ¼ second behind, and attempting to emote at Brady Bunch friend-checkerboards over eMargaritas. And on top of these daily changes in job and life sits a less acute, but equally pressing issue of anthropology as a whole: how does a person study other people when we’re not supposed to be around other people.  Studying the social from a distance is exactly not anthropology, right? I’m tempted to proclaim, with Boellstorff, that “we have always been virtual” (2008) and, with Horst & Miller, that we are “not one iota more mediated”(2012) by our ubiquitous Internet use. And I believe these sentiments to be true, but in a practical sense they do little to help the anthropologist who now sits in front of a screen wondering where the culture is to be found. If there is a here here, where is it, how do I get there, and what are people doing there?

I’m glad you asked. This is what I do. I’m a digital anthropologist (or, rather, a cultural & linguistic anthropologists whose fieldwork is located in and concerned with matters of the digital). And the short answer to the question—how does one do digital ethnography?—is that you do the same thing you would do in traditional, place-based cultural anthropology, but attend in both pragmatic and theoretical ways to the differences you encounter. When I give that answer, people often follow up: but what about the concept of digital space, or the fact that we’re not really there? How do you overcome the issue of non-physical presence? And the answer to that one is that you don’t. You lean into it, expand it. “How do we interact without bodies?” becomes “How are we using our bodies when we interact face-to-face?” And “Can anyone fully describe the complexities of Being on an Internet platform?” becomes “Can anyone fully describe the complexities of Being in any context?” Both Heidegger and Boas think probably not.

But you came for answers, not philosophical meandering. So I will attempt to bullet point some practical steps and methodological strategies for those who wish to set off in search of culture in this here Internet. Here they are in aforementioned bullet form, to be followed with (hopefully) helpful explication, with nods to my own experience:

  • Be Fascinated by Something
  • (But Protect Yourself)
  • Pick One Thing About it
  • Make Contact
  • Examine Where/How it’s Happening
  • Pay Attention to Digital Methods
  • Publish Open Source

Be Fascinated by Something

Please don’t just jump in with the idea that you will inevitably find something cool and interesting in the Internet. It is vast, and you will get lost. Initially, you should allow yourself to wander, and keep a spirit of anthropological openness, that improv rule of “yes, and.” When someone talks about an article they read or you see a truly odd way of phrasing something, you will be struck, and that will be it.  Recognizing my own particular focus of fascination was sudden and easy. A friend of mine who said she knew I was “into weird shit on the Internet” sent me a Gawker article about a group of folks called the Otherkin, who identify as non-human (as analogous, though vastly different in experience, to trans* identities). As I read through this shock piece about people finding their inner Selves to be dragons and elves, it didn’t even seem as though I was making a choice. It just occurred to me that this is what the next few years of my research was going to be about.

(But Protect Yourself)

So, as one is wont to do when one is fascinated, I dove in deep. But I did so with a bit of planning. The first thing you want to do is compartmentalize your own Internet life. Your browser, email, and social media accounts (unless you are super into open-source anti-tracking software, VPNs, and “incognito” mode) are laden with tracking information and metadata. What I did to mitigate this was I got a new gmail. I know—Google—but the suite of tools & free storage it comes with is pretty great. Also, it’s the way most people email, and participant observation, right? Using my new fieldwork email, I downloaded a new browser (I recommend Chrome, so you can use all of those Google tools with full integration, or Brave, a Chrome clone with better security and privacy features). Then you sign up to all of the social media you will be using with this new profile as well. I started with just Facebook, but ended up creating new profiles on Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, Reddit, and many chat forums. New field-profile ready, I searched and lurked, watched hours of YouTube videos and scrolled through thousands upon thousands of lines of chat text. Finding these things is remarkably simple once you have the Thing that you are fascinated by. Google that Thing (and then search again with DuckDuckGo to see how corporate influence and trackers change the results even in your new profile). Archives and forums open up right in front of you—far too many to engage with at first, so…

Pick One Thing About It

If you don’t start by focusing on one practice or one platform, you again risk getting lost in the information-heavy and fluid space of the Internet. Anchor yourself and slowly let out the rope to discover more. You may end up, like I did, doing a fully multi-sited study (the Internet is not a single field site, but an ever-propagating multiplicity of them) but it is important to start small enough to establish some guiding questions. For me, this came when I noticed that in Otherkin public Facebook groups, it seemed necessary that a new member would write an “introduction” post to the group, defining their identity. These posts were heavily policed by administrators and often became dramatic arguments about the very nature of identity and the body. By focusing on these introduction posts I could trace much more: power structures within the community; questions that drive them vs. questions one is not allowed to ask; the lines between serious and “fluffy” claims to identity; and the carefully crafted future vision of Otherkin identification as a concept. Like Geertz’s Balinese cockfights, the posts gave me an impression of the whole in the specific.

Make Contact

Easily said. Just make contact. It’s more complicated than that, because you have to contact the right people at the right time in the right way. In traditional face-to-face ethnography (hereafter, F2F), you have to arrange travel, which may involve possible interlocutors, depending on how accessible the area is. Further, when you get to your site you can go to a place, if it is public, and hang out a few times before ever approaching anyone. When you do, they will have “seen you around” and may have heard about your ethnographic presence through the grapevine. This is not the case on the Internet. You can arrive in any public platform and stay there for hours, learning, laughing, and feeling like you’ve really made some progress, and then after logging out you realize you never typed anything—just followed other conversations—so to everyone else in the platform, you were never there. Lurking is a great practice for preparatory research, but it is a poor ethnographic methodology. You must employ what danah boyd calls  “articulated participation … One cannot simply ‘be’ online; one must make one’s presence visible through explicit and structured actions” (2008, 145).

So you start slowly, liking posts, agreeing with people in non-committal ways, nothing too political and no questions. People look you up because that is what one does with new faces in social media (and your profile does explicitly state that you are an anthropologist!). When people ask who you are, you are up front, but do not ask if they want to be a part of the study until they bring it up. It is important, of course, in F2F ethnography to not frighten people off, but in digital ethnography, they can not only walk away, but “block” you. This means that you could be in a conversation with someone, and all the while this person who had blocked you is also there, providing commentary, but you simply can’t “see” them. This is obviously something to avoid, so you do not want to be seen as coming on too strong. In my case, when someone finally asked me about the project, I asked if it was “something [they] might be interested in?” but was informed that I had to have administrator permission for that sort of thing and I should really write an introduction post. I knew this, of course, I had read hundreds of these posts, but used the age-old anthropological trick of feigning ignorance: “Oh, sorry, I’m new here. Who would be the best person to talk to about doing something like that?” And from there I had a name, a reference, and a plan of entry.

[ As a quick aside, I feel like I have to mention the fact that I am only describing the online part of this particular step. The fact is, before approaching anyone on Facebook, I had met with a couple of Otherkin groups F2F as well—we had eaten meals, gone camping, shared stories—but I found them reticent to take part in interviews for fear of losing anonymity. This raises two points that are in need of discussion, but not in this particular post, which deals more with practical methodologies: 1) viewing people’s online behavior in its own terms (i.e. without any reference to their non-digital lives) ignores larger issues of accessibility, race, gender, class, infrastructural disparities, etc; and 2) despite anthropologists’ continuous promises of anonymity in F2F contexts, people seem much more likely to open up online for those very same reasons. ]

Examine Where/How it’s Happening

In digital ethnography, platform is key. And if you are engaging with multiple platforms, the differences between them become even more important, because they allow particular ways of interaction that can influence (or be subverted by) interpersonal behaviors. Facebook, for instance, was an effective space to police identity boundaries and delineate valid definitions of Otherkinity because the group administrators had the power to delete (i.e. silence) divergent opinion. A platform like Tumblr, however, is a salient space for the experimentation of identity constructs, because the blog-like platform allows the original author the power to control the narrative, receiving “reblogs” and “likes.” It also means that Twitter is not a particularly helpful platform for my purposes, as it is best at the dissemination of information or large scale political action, not the introspective identity construction of the Otherkin community.

What to pay attention to specifically are affordances and features, and the differences between the two. Very simply put, affordances are the ways particular technologies communicate to users how they should be used. Features are the specific tools the platform give a user to enact these affordances. Facebook affords interpersonal communication, group building, and social networking through the features of “posting,” “liking,” and “commenting” for normal users, but adds “blocking,” “deleting,” and “group creation” to administrators. Twitter affords dissemination of information and coalition-building through the features of “tweeting,” “retweeting,” and “hashtags.” In these examples, features use the affordances of the platform both to reinforce power hierarchies on one hand, and to curate and guide big-data into smaller publics on the other.

I’m mostly talking about social media platforms, of course, because I assume that these platforms are where much of the interest in digital anthropology is focused, but these affordance and feature relationships are equally as notable in other digital paradigms. Virtual worlds like Second Life or MMORPGs afford exploration and adventure through features such as movement and text-box chat, but differ in their emphasis on creation (through “prim” manipulation) and battle (through “attack command” menus) respectively. Even contexts that seem much less social, like a Wikipedia page, afford information collection, curation, and dissemination through the very social features of peer editing (seriously, click the “talk” and “view history” tabs at the top of any wikipedia article, and enjoy). Further, examining the affordances and features of every platform you’re looking at—what some afford and others do not—helps us deal with the fascinating but methodologically difficult truth that, while the people are socializing in a platform we are observing, they are also possibly (probably) interacting on at least one, but most likely many other platforms at the same time.

Pay Attention to Digital Methods 

When you do finally get someone to talk to you, there are several things to take into consideration in the digital that you would never think about in a more traditional F2F interlocutor-researcher relationship. And no, this does not have anything to do with people trolling or catfishing or pretending to be something other than themselves. This is, I believe, a rather pervasive myth/fear about studies of people on the Internet: that they are all lying to you. But this concern about honesty has been a problem for a hundred years, ever since Margaret Mead may or may not have indulged the embellished escapades of a group of teenage girls.  (If anything, the inherent misogyny and shaky ground of that particular accusation should give us pause.) The point here is that people are always different to different people—ask Erving Goffman—and they will present themselves in whichever way they think appropriate to the relationship. So, yes, on the Internet, you never know if someone is a dog (and in my case they definitely sometimes are), but that does not make it that different from F2F interactions.

Rather, the particulars about online interlocutor relations have to do with the nature of textual communication in three specific areas: searchability, inscripts, and “the firehose of data.” The first of these comes from another salient contribution by danah boyd—that we attend to the “persistence” and  “searchability” of online text (2014). What she means by this is that once something is said (typed) in the Internet, it is always there. This comes into play especially when dealing with issues of anonymity. If you are going to quote someone who you are promising anonymity to, how “searchable” is the quote? Is it in a private group? And public group? A chat forum that seems private, but still shows up on Google searches? I have had to decide many times whether a particular piece of text is worth the dance one has to do to obscure: sometimes simply asking an interlocutor in an email to rephrase something they said in a more searchable context; and other times changing a sentence from a public website one word at a time and Googling after every change until it no longer appears in the results.

Searchability definitely affects the ability to use someone’s words ethically, but then choosing to use a different platform of media type to achieve the same ends also changes the content of the message itself. If I ask someone to write a narrative for me in email, for instance, what I gain in anonymity I might lose in what Jones & Schieffelin call “inscripts” (2015). Unlike “transcripts” of a conversation, which involve the ethnographer’s own translation of events through punctuation and sentence and paragraph breaks, the “inscripts” of online textual communication feature the grammatic and aesthetic choices of the interlocutors themselves: punctuation, creative spelling, and emojis become the physical gestures that F2F anthropologists often decode along with the spoken word. And what’s more, they persist, typed and permanent in the space of the Internet, your own screenshots (screen shot everything, all the time), and the text logs of your conversation. But this persistence and the ease that it implies can lead to the third area of difference—what my wife (a librarian and information specialist) calls the “fire hose of data,” and I like to think of as the soft tyranny of Ctrl+F. When all of your data is so easily saved and archived as text files, screenshots, and time-stamped chat logs, you have to be very careful not to become overwhelmed by the amount of data, or, as my wife puts it “lose control of the hose.” As an anthropologist who is supposed to pay close attention to the intimate, imponderabilia of daily digital life this becomes especially problematic because it becomes so easy to search for specific keywords within this torrent of data (hence Ctrl+F’s soft tyranny). I have come across moments of beauty, unused by a misspelled word that Ctrl+F didn’t find, so I didn’t use it when I could/should have. So be careful with that hose.

Publish Open Source

This is less of a methodological strategy than a political stance. Information wants to be free. I get it, that a lot of the places we want to get published, for tenure, or the job market, or prestige or whatever, hide behind pay walls, and that if you are affiliated with an institution it is easy to forget that other people don’t have access to these spaces. But do it anyway. If you are going to get your information from the Internet, return it to the fires from whence it came.

So that’s it. You can now go and “do” digital ethnography. To recap, here are those bulletpoints again:

  • Be Fascinated by Something—don’t just decide to “do” digital ethnography, remain open to all of the “weird shit on the Internet” because there will always be more.
  • (But Protect Yourself)
  • Pick One Thing About it—focus focus focus, and then pan out once you have your footing.
  • Make Contact—carefully, respectfully, and feigning ignorance even though you’ve done a done of preparatory research.
  • Examine Where/How it’s Happening—affordances and features have relationships too!
  • Pay Attention to Digital Methods—searchability; inscripts; the “fire hose of data;” and Ctrl+F avoidance.
  • Publish Open Source—because you know it’s the right thing to do.

Devin Proctor is a cultural anthropologist. He works in the Internet. His work focuses on media, technology, and culture, specifically researching the technological mediation of body identity, but he is also (academically) into science & technology studies, virtual space, animism, gaming, semiotics, pop culture, religion, cyborgs, and all manner of geekery. For his book manuscript, he did ethnographic fieldwork looking at the mitigation of “misfit” bodies within the Otherkin community, and his current research explores the co-construction of bodily “whiteness” in digital spaces by both white supremacist Internet users and algorithmic non-human agents. Devin is currently doing the adjunct hustle at both Georgetown and George Washington Universities, but he will join the anthropology faculty at Elon University as an Assistant Professor in Fall of 2020. In corporeal form, he resides in the DC metro area with a wife & two kids. In virtual form, he is in front of you right now. You can find his work at devinproctor.com, including his most recent article “Policing the Fluff.” 

 

Works Cited

Boellstorff, Tom. 2008. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

boyd, danah. 2008. “None of This Is Real: Identity and Participation in Friendster.” In Structures of Participation in Digital Culture, edited by Joe Karaganis. New York: Social Science Research Council.

———. 2014. It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. New Haven, CT, USA: Yale University Press.

Horst, Heather A., and Daniel Miller, eds. 2012. Digital Anthropology. London ; New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Jones, Graham M., and Bambi B. Schieffelin. 2015. “The Ethnography of Inscriptive Speech.” In EFieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology in the Digital World, edited by Roger Sanjek and Susan W. Tratner, 210–28. University of Pennsylvania Press.

 

 

About Emma Louise Backe

PhD student in Medical Anthropology at the George Washington University and independent consultant, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

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