Defining Virtual Ethnography

4 Comments

Virtual Ethnography is a highly interactive process that provides the ability to make observations of and participate in computer/device mediated cultures through a multitude of non face-to-face methods. It is used to better understand the behaviors and knowledge of participants in and contributors to those cultures. It is also concerned with the artifacts these cultures produce and the methods in which these cultures share, use, and iterate on them. The key to virtual ethnography is not to consider digital lives separate from real life as they both belong to the same life and can only be holistically understood when approached as one.

This is something short and sweet I came up with on the fly when asked for something completely different. I’m reposting it here so it doesn’t go to waste!

As I get time in the coming weeks I’ll work on expanding and rounding it out. If you have any contributions you’d like to make or opinions on it let me know what you think!

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mel Chua
    Jan 12, 2011 @ 01:07:40

    Thanks for writing this, Diana – lots of food for thought.

    “The key to virtual ethnography is not to consider digital lives separate from real life as they both belong to the same life and can only be holistically understood when approached as one. ”

    This line caught me – I think it’s true for many people I work with online (and that this is something that’s usually not recognized by people who don’t have such rich digital lives), but I don’t think it’s universally true… I know and know of a number of people (all women) who build rich online personas and identities online contributing to open source projects and such, but use a (consistent) pseudonym and deliberately keep it separate from their family life.

    How is virtual ethnography different from “normal ethnography, but online”? (Or is that what you’re trying to articulate here?) I feel like I don’t know enough about how people define “ethnography” to fully appreciate this definition, but your audience probably does.

  2. Diana
    Jan 12, 2011 @ 09:58:05

    Though it may seem as though those women are keeping their lives separate, their digital life is simply a facet of their real life and exists within it. Think of it like this, while I am at work I am an employee but that does not stop me from also being a wife, mother, and gamer. Though I do not bring my work into those other aspects of my life and vice versa, it is still very much a part of my life and does affect those other parts.

    Looking at it from the other side, they have chosen to live the digital aspect of their life in this way likely because of the affects of it within their real life. The point of virtual ethnography is to recognize the interconnectedness here and help explain why these women would choose to approach their digital aspect of their lives in such a way.

    Without considering their real life, or perhaps better worded their whole life, the fact that these women always use pseudonyms (and the fact that they are women!), may never come up in the research and thus it would fail to provide a holistic picture of those who participate in and contribute to this culture, how they do it, and why they do it. Thus, as an ethnographer and anthropologist, I would have missed something that in the end is actually pretty significant and telling about the culture itself.

  3. Amber Case
    Jan 26, 2011 @ 11:56:18

    I really like this definition. I am often asked this as well, and it’s often difficult to put into words.

    If you’ll be at SXSW again this year, I hope to see you soon!

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