Digital Ethnography Project Proposal

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Here is my 250 word (or so, actually 270) project proposal for Digital Ethnography. After struggling to wrap my head around the concept of anonymity, I gained a good deal of clarity in the last couple of days. After Dr. Wesch laid out a likely road map for the overall project (the combination of the 16 students semester long efforts) I began to get a sense of the wider picture and saw what and how I could fit in.

While the topic is online anonymity, there is no way of addressing it without also delving deep into theoretical and structural history, identity, law and politics, culture, etc. In this case, by framing my project as an explanatory approach to what many feel is a "crisis of significance" in the world, I will have a wonderful opportunity to explore some deep theoretical insights while grounding them in societal, cultural, and individual realities. Rereading select passages from The Homeless Mind, I was inspired by the elucidation of the connection between structural realities and individual subjective experience.

The technological advancement of the Industrial Revolution forever altered the way people relate to each other by bringing them closer together and giving them a more informed view of the world. Up until this point, extant technology limited the size of most social structures and the scientific understanding of the people within them. At risk of making an over-generalization, the world was much more tribal.

One of the unique features of a more tribal world is that people are more connected to each other; everyone knows and is known by all members of the tribe. The revolutionary advancement in technological production damaged the tribal structure and replaced it with anonymous social relations. Reflecting the componentiality of industrial labor, the individual's social relations and identity simultaneously bifurcated. As Berger et al. note, "the individual now becomes capable of experiencing himself in a double way: as a unique individual rich in concrete qualities and as an anonymous functionary."

The presently globalized world is far different from that of the Industrial Revolution, but it still suffers from a crisis of significance, with generationally increasing levels of both narcissism and apathy. The sense of uncertainty and personal unrest created by the anonymization of social relations and identity is only amplified by new media that exponentially increase our physical and informational connectedness. The hyper-individualization of the western world, and its perverse fixation on celebrity, is a likely response to this sense of anomie, always seeking to liberate individuals of their anonymity. I want to explore anomie from its inception and trace its impact on culture, society, and the individual in the current and future worlds.

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