Networked Individual / Virtual Ethnography

Monday, February 9, 2009

Yochai Benkler's The Wealth of Networks, Christine Hine's Virtual Ethnography, and Thomas De Zengotita's Mediated are all providing interesting insights into the digital world. As I start studying the causes and consequences of anonymity in the contemporary world, they will each prove a useful guide, offering different and diverging perspectives on our present situation.

Benkler's treatment of the community aspects of cyberspace deeply resonates with my own experiences. By providing a discussion of the empirical research on the question - do computer mediated communication and the internet facilitate the breakdown of community while simultaneously increasing individual autonomy? - Benkler shows that we have actually just increased the amount of communication we do. Rather than decreasing community, we are maintaining community and communicating in loose form with more people. Despite popular sentiment, internet users do not report spending less time with family and friends, and instead report less time watching television. This resonates directly with my own subjective experience of my internet use. I feel I remain more connected with more people and use the mediums available to me to nurture and support those connections.

One very interesting aspect of Benkler's analysis comes in his conclusion where he offers a rather optimisitic outlook:

The conceptual answer has been that the image of "community" that seeks a facsimile of a distant pastoral village is simply the wrong image of how we interact as social beings. We are a networked society now-networked individuals connected with each other in a mesh of loosely knit, overlapping, flat connections. This does not leave us in a state of anomie. We are well-adjusted, networked individuals; well-adjusted socially in ways that those who seek community would value, but in new and different ways.
Seemingly in contrast to the sociological analysis of modern technological and bureaucratic structures made by Berger et al., Benkler says we are not in a state of anomie. Maybe Benkler is not saying that we are not in a state of anomie, but simply that internet communication is not causing anomie. In either event, it is difficult to see us as "well-adjusted, networked individuals." Of course, this just begs the question of who "we" are, if we are referring to all individuals or some individuals, those with vast experience or little experience. I can entertain an optimistic future where we collectively harness these technologies as they evolve into more and more usable software and devices, but it currently seems like we are haunted by the possibility of becoming "well-adjusted, networked individuals," falling far short of such a vision. While we are networked, I am not convinced we are well-adjusted. Perhaps for good reason, as we've had very little time to adjust to many of the social networking software that we're engulfed in.

In another sense, maybe the networked individual is well-adjusted, but in a way that secures survival, not necessarily healthiness. The mediated individual is in a much more precarious negotiation of healthiness, desparately seeking attention in a world of too many options. As De Zengotita outlines, before CMC the individual was much less focused on the self, much more rooted in a world that was not tailered to her every desire. Today, however, this individual is over saturated in a world of too many options, causing strife and a deep-seated yearning for attention. The negative forms of this strife result in narcissism and extreme self-centeredness, which can be connected easily to unhealthiness.

Nevertheless, to explore the realities of either optimistic or pessimistic views of the networked and mediated environment, we need some way of studying the environment, some new form of ethnography. As Hine elaborates, the internet presents challenges to our notion of culture and the ways of studying culture. Instead of bounded units, culture in the mediated world is much more interconnected both in physical and informational terms. Yet, we know that culture is developing and reformulating despite the absence of defined boundaries. For her, this means that we end up having to abandon hopes of a holistic ethnographic description and instead follow the links and connections.

Hine's suggestion that holistic ethnography is not possible in the virtual world came as a shock to me as it is such a pillar of anthropology. Yet, and even though it frustrates me, I think she is right. We end up with a stark dichotomy when thinking about ethnography, we can attempt to encapsulate all nodes of the hyper-interconnected cultural mediascape or we can abandon holism and adopt personalisitic relativism, telling our story of our experience doing "fieldwork." Hine seems to suggest we tread the line between these two extremes, recognizing the limitations of trying to explain it all and the importance of the online cultures and how they are affecting humanity.

As I think about approaches to digital ethnography, I feel that the object of study is just as much the mediums that mediate digital relationships, as it is the people using the mediums. Traditional ethnography, with its emphasis on learning the native language, parallels this closely as a holistic approach necessitates the study of the language along with the people who speak it. Not only do ethnographers have to understand the mediums, but they have to engage in them completely to be able to interpret the experience from within.

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