segunda-feira, 11 de fevereiro de 2008

Virtual Ethnography

IRISS '98: Conference Papers
Author: Christine Hine

This paper explores methodological issues raised by an ethnographic approach to the Internet. The paper is motivated by an ongoing concern with the Internet as a technology and as a communication medium. The aim is to develop ways to study not just to how people use the Internet, but also the practices which make those uses of the Internet meaningful in local contexts. The first section of the paper maps out an emerging approach which is illustrated in the second section by data drawn from the Louise Woodward case. The final section reflects on the implications for methodological adequacy of an ethnographic approach increasingly divorced from reliance on a single bounded field site.

The interest in the Internet as a technology is inspired by work in technology studies and in media studies. Both disciplines have drawn heavily on ethnographic methods in recent years and both have been interested in the relationships between the production and the use of the objects which concern them. The sociology of technology has been particularly provocative in exploring the ways in which the designers of technologies understand their users and the ways in which users creatively appropriate and interpret the technologies which are made available to them. Among the questions preoccupying workers in this field has been the extent to which values, assumptions and even technical characteristics built into the technologies by designers have influence on the users of technologies. A view of technology emerges which sees it as embedded within the social relations which make it meaningful. Ethnography has been a key factor in motivating detailed attention to contexts of design and use and questioning the view that technologies have inherent characteristics.

Ethnography has been used to similar effect in media studies within contexts of both production and reception. Here the concern is with media texts: what values and assumptions do production teams bring to the process; and do the resulting media texts carry meanings which are apparent to audiences? Taken together, technology studies and media studies have illustrated the ways in which objects which we take for granted such as the computer, the microwave, the news programme and the soap opera acquire meaning within their contexts of production and use and are embedded within social relations. The Internet could fruitfully be viewed in the same way. It is not something which we are born knowing how to use, nor are its uses fixed. It is necessary to learn more than technical skills to use the Internet: we also have to learn what we might sensibly use it for. We need to learn how to interpret the things which we read on the screen and how to write things which others will appreciate. An ethnography of the Internet as a technology or as a cultural artefact would concern itself with the contexts in which it was used and the way in which it fitted into and transformed existing understandings. This might, however, risk missing the sense in which the Internet is itself a social context, in virtue of its role as a communications medium.

The Internet as a communications medium has been increasingly explored by ethnographers. Reid (1995), Baym (1995) and Correll (1995) are key figures in a growing body of works which pay ethnographic attention to on-line social phenomena. They argue that on-line communications can be analysed in their own terms for the forms of meaning, the shared values and the specific contextual ways of being which emerge in on-line environments. On-line ethnographers join their chosen field sites for sustained periods, interacting with their informants and building up a richly detailed picture of the ways in which the medium is used to create and sustain relationships. Some authors argue that on-line contexts provide for the formation of communities detached from the need for physical location or co-presence (Jones, 1995). The ethnographies of on-line communication are thoroughly provocative in the emphasis they place on the complex and creative uses to which computer-mediated communications are put. They make it apparent that the Internet can be viewed as social context(s) in its own right. However, we are left unclear as to the ways in which on-line interactions impact on and are interpreted within on-line life. We might ask questions such as: how do people use things they have read or said on-line in their off-line lives; how do they come to use the technology in particular ways; how do family relations, work contexts or media representations of the Internet affect their uses of the technology? To answer these, study of on-line contexts alone is probably insufficient.

Combining the two concerns with Internet as technology and as communications medium, a starting point for the analysis is to assume that nothing about the Internet and its use is inherently meaningful or functional. That we might routinely have come to associate the production of a World Wide Web page with the act of communication is an achievement rather than a given. The use of the Internet is sustained as a meaningful thing to do within the myriad contexts of the Internet itself and the places in which it is used. To illustrate the approach I will use data from a recent prominent event which brought both aspects of the Internet to the fore: the Louise Woodward case.

The Louise Woodward Case
This is not intended to be a definitive account of the Louise Woodward case. Rather, the aim is to use the events surrounding the case as a site for exploring what an ethnographic approach could make of this event. First, however, it would be useful to map the basic facts of the case. This description of the progress of the case provides the wider context within which the various media and Internet representations came about (and which they helped to create).
Matthew Eappen, the 8 month-old child of Deborah and Sunil Eappen died on 9th February, 1997. Matthew had suffered a brain haemorrhage and 'Shaken Baby Syndrome' was diagnosed. The Eappens had been employing 18 year-old Louise Woodward as an au pair and she had been responsible for minding their two children for long periods. The Eappens were American and were living in the Boston area. Louise was British and came from a village called Elton in Cheshire. Louise was arrested and charged with the murder of Matthew Eappen.

The case came to court amid intense media interest. Courtroom proceedings were televised and coverage on television and in newspapers was prominent throughout the trial. What had seemed a water-tight case for the prosecution was brought into question by the defence and by the production of new medical interpretations of Matthew's injuries. After deliberation, the jury returned a murder verdict and Louise received a life sentence. There then followed an unusual twist: the judge prepared to consider whether to accept the jury's original verdict or to overturn the verdict and impose his own ruling. This option was available to him in the United States, while it would not have been under English law. The judge announced that it was his intention to release his ruling on the Internet, rather than using the traditional method of handing out paper copies from the courthouse.

After several false alarms, the judge released his ruling on 10th November 1997. Problems with the Internet release of the ruling meant that most people learnt of the ruling first through television: in the UK Channel 5 carried a live feed from the courtroom as the judge passed sentence. The judge, Hiller Zobel, overturned the original murder verdict and substituted one of involuntary manslaughter. He passed a sentence of 279 days in state prison: the length of time which Louise had already served. At the end of the hearing Louise was free to leave jail, although required to remain in Massachusetts pending appeal.

Internet as culture
During the trial and the publicity build-up which surrounded it, the number of World Wide Web sites related to the case grew. When the judge announced his intention to release his ruling on to a web site, interest in the web as a source (and sink) for Louise-related information and opinion increased. Various different kinds of site could be distinguished, in addition to the sites of the news organizations which reproduced their offerings in other media. Support sites were particularly prominent. Apparently produced by individuals, these sites expressed concern for Louise, pointed out flaws in the prosecution case, and solicited the support of their unknown audiences in lobbying for Louise both on-line and off-line. As time went on, more and more of these support sites included cross-links to other support sites, particularly the Official Louise Woodward Campaign for Justice site. Visitors would be advised that they must visit the official site as well. A web of support seemed to emerge as the case went on.

In addition to the support sites, others emerged which presented themselves as more impartial and informative. These offered access to evidence and testimonies, enhanced by sound and video clips of courtroom proceedings. Other sites presented themselves as testing the mood of public opinion and offered visitors the opportunity to participate in an on-line poll on Louise's guilt or innocence. Some sites offered discussion forums or guest books for visitors to have their own say. Finally, it was apparent that some opportunists had realised that Louise Woodward was news and that having her name high up on your web page, whatever its main content or purpose, was a good way to ensure that your site came high up on search engine lists.

In analysing the on-line phenomena associated with the Louise Woodward case I only have space and time here to focus on one aspect: location and connection. This theme arises in two ways. The first is the emergence of the Official Louise Woodward Campaign for Justice site as a centre for a web of support, and the more amateur, less well-connected sites as increasingly marginal. The second way in which location arises is in the connection between on-line sites and off-line locations. Many sites referred their visitors to the official site for the authentic support experience. Anyone could have called their site the official one (in fact some other people did), but the emerging consensus was that the site produced (apparently) by the campaign team in Louise's home village had a justified claim to be called official. Their location at the centre of the web of support was reinforced by their claims to be in a central physical location. The connection between the off-line location of the village and the on-line location of the web site was strongly rendered. The counter on the official campaign site told of the many visitors who found their way to the centre.

The Louise Woodward case on the World Wide Web illustrates the emerging spatiality of the World Wide Web. It also demonstrates that the boundary between off-line and on-line is constructed through the actions of the participants. It is possible to see the Internet as a culture is its own right, but that culture is tied in by complex connections to off-line life. When closely tied to off-line life, the Internet is used as a transparent communications medium.

Internet as cultural artefact
The status of the Internet as a communications medium received much media attention at a particular point in the Woodward case, when Judge Hiller Zobel announced his intention to release his final ruling to a World Wide Web site. The following day (5th November 1997) the story was on the front pages of the UK national newspapers. The newspapers and the national television news found themselves in the position of explaining to their readers what the Internet was for and what it was sensible to do with it.

The newspaper coverage presented various interpretations of the Internet. The Sun was unequivocal with its headline: 'Internut!'. Some newspapers chose to tell their readers how they could get on-line themselves. Others chose to question the claim that releasing the verdict on the Internet was the fairest way to distribute the ruling, by stressing the numbers without access to the Internet. The judge's decision was interpreted and explained: some found it eminently sensible, while others put it down to the judge's 'computer crazy' son or found it bizarre given that the judge did not own a television. The Mirror mimicked the form of a World Wide Web browser with its front page.

Location again forms a theme, particularly in the television coverage. Throughout the case, television reporters were posted to the steps of the courtroom, to the streets of Boston to test the mood of the American public, and to a pub in the village in Cheshire which formed the headquarters of the official campaign. Television reports flitted from one site to another, incorporating interviews in the various locations and footage from the courtroom proceedings. When covering events on the Internet, the location footage showed people sitting in front of computers, before zooming in on a World Wide Web page. The ITV programme showed a Boston cybercafe. The BBC news showed their own newsroom. Both attempted to find a suitable location to take viewers to the Internet. If television news is about taking viewers to the significant locations for authoritative statements on what was going on there, the Internet was a location which now had to be incorporated into the coverage. It became a significant location for events in the Louise Woodward case.

For a brief period of time the Internet became the place to be to receive the latest and most authoritative news: a privileged location. This status did not last. By the following week the newspapers and television were reasserting their reliability and immediacy over the Internet, which failed the test.

Tracing complex connections
In the Louise Woodward case, the Internet as culture and as cultural artefact were intertwined. The first task of the ethnographer is to work out what is going on: in the courtroom, in the press, on television, and by sustained presence in on-line environments as new World Wide Web pages are produced and as people contribute their views to on-line discussions. Tracing the complex connections between the different sites as they are formed and re-formed requires mobility and a sensitivity to the ways in which places and events are rendered. If events are no longer bounded in particular places, then ethnography can usefully attempt to follow. At the same time it is important to be a part of the settings in which people are discussing the case, making sense of the coverage available to them, and locating themselves in particular places in relation to it.

The essential features of ethnography as a methodology are difficult to define. Most people would agree that the sustained presence of an ethnographer in the field setting, combined with their intensive engagement with the everyday life of the inhabitants of the field site makes for the special kind of knowledge we call ethnographic. The ethnographer is able to use this sustained interaction to 'reduce the puzzlement' (Geertz, 1993: 16) which other people's ways of life can evoke. At the same time, ethnography can be a device for inducing that same puzzlement by 'displacing the dulling sense of familiarity with which the mysteriousness of our own ability to relate perceptively to one another is concealed from us' (Geertz, 1993: 14). I am using ethnography in this latter sense, as a device to render the use of the Internet as problematic: rather than being inherently sensible, the Internet acquires its sensibility in use. The status of the Internet as a way of communicating, as an object within people's lives and as a site for community-like formations is achieved and sustained in the ways in which it is used, interpreted and reinterpreted.

The Louise Woodward case is used here to illustrate the two sense of the Internet as culture and as cultural artefact which form a part of virtual ethnography. As ethnography it has obvious weaknesses. I have not talked about intensive engagements with on-line or off-line informants, and the major sites have been media-defined ones where the ethnographer acts as lurker or viewer of the events as they are provided. I have not described time spent and interactions engaged in with the producers of Louise Woodward web sites, in the campaign headquarters, in the homes of the armchair commentators and web surfers. In short, I have paid little attention to the face-to-face settings in which the Internet was articulated with the Louise Woodward case. I have tried to indicate the importance of studying such settings and the complex connections which we could endeavour to trace between the on-line and the off-line and between the mediated and the apparently transparent locations of communication. This paper is a starting point which aims to map an approach rather than to announce an already achieved project. One aim of the paper is to show how ethnography is increasingly, once detached from reliance on a single bounded field site as an object, an indefinite project. The ethnography becomes focused around the tracing of complex connections and the mobility of the ethnographer is a tool which provides opportunities to reflect on the construction of place. Rather than developing a sustained presence, the emphasis is on sustaining the anxiety about having arrived in a suitable place. An ethnography does not necessarily confine itself to a particular bounded site. Marcus (1995) identifies a trend for ethnographies to encompass multiple sites in a bid to follow complex objects through a series of cultural contexts. Rather than locating the 'world system' as the context in which ethnographies are set, Marcus suggests that multi-sited ethnographies enable the ethnographer to overcome reliance on context and to escape the idea of a global which forms a context for the local. He highlights ethnographies which are motivated by following people, things, metaphors, stories and conflicts as examples of approaches which breach the dependance of ethnography on a particular bounded place. Marcus highlights Martin's (1994) work on the immune system in American culture as a prime example of a multi-sited ethnography which tracks a metaphor through multiple sites. Multi-sitedness has found appeal within both media studies (Radway,1988; Abu-Lughod 1997) and science studies (Heath, 1997). The idea of the multi-sited ethnography is certainly a provocative one for a study of a ubiquitous technology like the Internet.

I have certainly chosen to encompass multiple sites in considering the Internet as a culture and cultural artefact. Yet I have chosen to describe this as a virtual ethnography rather than a multi-sited one. I have done this for two reasons. The first is that the use of the term virtual is metaphoric and stands in for the uncertainty in relation to time, location and presence which is evoked by the reliance on computer-mediated communication for large sections of the ethnography. This is a-sited rather than multi-sited ethnography. The second sense of virtual is one which is provided by my (pre-cyberspace) dictionary. Virtual, in its pre-information technology sense, conjurs up a vision of something which is almost, which will do for practical purposes even if it is not strictly the real thing. I use this sense of virtual to play on the anxieties which this kind of ethnography can produce. Ethnography is used strategically to produce some insights into the ways in which the Internet is culturally produced and produced as culture. For this practical purpose the ethnography will do, although it is always in principle incomplete.

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The Author
Christine HineCentre for Research into Innovation, Culture and Technology (CRICT)Brunel University

Christine Hine is a Lecturer in Communication and Information Studies in the Department of Human Sciences at Brunel University, and Acting Director of CRICT,

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