Almost everyone I frequent in conversation here in the online realm got the chance to see the very creative video highlighting the Web 2.0 Experience. The clip explores Web 2.0, and the nature of many of the elements included within. Rarely do I bog the Zenspace down with Youtube videos, but I think this one is worth the hassle for those who still haven't had the enjoyment:

The video was the work of Michal Welsh, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University, and it is said to be an example of the work contained in the field of Digital Ethnography. Academic study on things I enjoy like this tend to get more than a raised eyebrow from me, so I took the liberty of trying to figure out what exactly the hell was peaking my interest.

Cropping the digital bit for a moment, the study of Ethnography, is in short, the study of people and writing. Auf Wiki:

The genre of writing that presents varying degrees of qualitative and quantitative descriptions of human social phenomena, based on fieldwork. Ethnography presents the results of a holistic research method founded on the idea that a system's properties cannot necessarily be accurately understood independently of each other. The genre has both formal and historical connections to travel writing and colonial office reports. Several academic traditions, in particular the constructivist and relativist paradigms, claim ethnographic research as a valid research method.

That sounds ... fantastic. Particularly for someone like myself who is so easily interested and open to exploring culture outside my own. I'm like a moth in the streetlight when it comes to being drawn to other cultures. Dances with Wolves, right? Those scenes always get me. The ridiculously stereotypical, "Why do you hate your own people?" I always feel like they want to follow it up with, "They're white ... you know that's better right?"

Wiki goes on to explain how cultural anthropology, sociology, and other fields all rely on ethnographic research. One of the best mentions is how ethnography can include research based on participant observation. From The Digital Ethnography Workgroup:

...because the best way to find out how people make meaning is to go among them and carefully examine what they actually do.

The digital in Digital Ethnography is for the most part self-explanatory. Digital Ethnography applies the same study to situations online, and particularly, the study is growing rapidly because of the advent of Web 2.0. That's not to suggest that the field is just being birthed as we speak however, Digital Ethnography has existed in one form or another since the 1990s, just under a different name: Virtual Ethnography. Auf Wiki again:

Virtual ethnography is a new development in the field of Ethnography. It extends the traditional notions of field and ethnographic study from the observation of co-located, face-to-face interactions, to physically distributed, technologically mediated interactions in virtual networks and virtual communities. In doing so it challenges the traditional notion of a field site as a localized space and moves it into the virtual world of physically distributed interactions.

Virtual ethnography attempts to maintain the values of traditional ethnography through providing a "thick" description through the "immersion" of the researcher in the lives of their subjects. This focus on the subject makes virtual ethnography quite distinct from Web usage mining or social network analysis, although it may use similar techniques to identify or map networks.

The key question for virtual ethnography researcher is "how can ethnography be pursued in technologically mediated settings"? Researchers have attempted to create virtual counterparts for many of the basic ethnographic concepts but whether they can appropriately be applied to technologically mediated interaction is still open. For example, if a researcher simply reads some emails or participates in chatrooms, does this represent an ethnography: can the researcher still be said to have immersed themselves in the life of the community?

Mr. Heston, why exactly are you such a staunch supporter of participant observation?

Genuinely awesome all around. I don't know if this is going to steal the spot of my favorite school of academic research (Film and Media Studies are hard to topple), but I can already see how potentially creative Virtual Ethnography could become. Amazon has a couple texts on the subject that I'd like to nab, but resorting to print to cover a topic as dynamic as the Internet seems a little archaic. Some of the most popular texts in Virtual Ethnography were written as far back as 2000, which is almost before the explosion of a full-fledged Web 2.0. This field is one that is sure to provide some difficulty for anyone trying to keep up. I did glance through a nice paper on the topic here: Issues in Virtual Ethnography. From the paper:

A virtual ethnography is one that fully immerses the ethnographer into the consensual reality experienced by groups of people who use computer-mediated communication as their primary, and often only, means of communication. As such, the online or virtual persona of the participants are the main focus of the ethnographer. Generally, researchers have wanted to focus on the person at the keyboard, a virtual ethnography reverses this and works instead with the persona that has been projected into cyberspace by the typist.

Once again: ... cool. The questions that this raises are fantastic! Things like:

Am I (Cody), and I (Zen) actually the same person, or are we two separate entities? It sounds ridiculous, but think of this: Would you always answer a question the same in a physical conversation as you would in an online conversation?

Back to gaming conversation and regular geekery sometime soon, just had to share where my learning quest led me.


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