Media ethnography in virtual space: strategies, limits, and possibilities.

Author:Lindlif, Thomas R.
 
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The interpretive turn in audience studies has grown in two decades from an exploratory foray into many vibrant areas of theory and empirical research. While such issues as the locus of sense-making and how media practices lead to the reproduction of social structure are still debated, the arguments and methods for studying media interpretation are now well known (Anderson, 1996; Jensen & Jankowski, 1991; Potter, 1996; Schoening & Anderson, 1995).

Recently, forms of distributed "audience" activity have emerged with networked digital media to confront interpretive analysts with new versions of old issues about the study of mediated communication. The most widely used of these systems is the global "network of networks," the Internet, whose growth in the 1990s was fueled by several developments: the rapid upgrading of the infrastructure to allow high-capacity data traffic; introduction of the hypertext-based World Wide Web and search tools; the growth of access providers; fiercely competitive pricing of high-performance computers and modems; and the emergence of a consumer desire for access to an abundance of electronic texts. The Internet's decentralized structure provides its users with the ability to receive, create, and send information in many forms, including electronic mail, Usenet news groups, Listserv mailing lists, simulation spaces, and World Wide Web sites. Most of these are in the public domain and foster a concept of the Internet as home to many virtual communities of interest (Rheingold, 1993).

Private companies have also rushed to colonize the Web with multimedia versions of their products and services. For example, television stations and networks have launched Web sites in order to promote their programming and other services and to invite viewer response (Puritz, 1996; Tedesco, 1996). Some of these ventures, such as NBC and Microsoft's MSNBC, create original content for the medium. Familiar genres are also crossing over to the Web, as exhibited in the "cybersoaps" that have gone into production since 1995 (Levere, 1996). Usage of media Web sites is now measured by Nielsen Media Research's PC Meter service in terms of page requests, minutes per request, and total minutes of usage for each household. For some events, the number of page "hits" approximate what might be considered a mass audience in the traditional sense.(1) Industry observers now wait to see whether new products such as video-streaming, "push" technology, and Web/TV units will widen Internet access beyond its current 20-25% share of U.S. telephone homes (Hof, 1997; Tedesco, 1997).

Despite these efforts at making computer usage compatible with television viewing, computer-mediated communication (CMC) is very different from other forms of attendance. In contrast to the reception of a fixed content schedule, CMC is transient, widely distributed, multi-modal, and allows for a high degree of end-user manipulation of content.(2) Except for workplace monitoring of employees' Internet usage (Gabriel, 1996), there are few codes of conduct governing consumption. Locality of source is also largely irrelevant in the sprawling Internet--a condition that offers new possibilities for civic life, shared learning, and intercultural contact free of geographic limits, but that also opens spaces for explicit sexual content, hate speech, rumor propagation, alcohol advertisements aimed at children, and other problematic material.

The Internet encompasses an array of settings in which symbolic culture is performed and in which participants mean to express something coherent. The global, yet perceptibly intimate, nature of these settings and the social affiliations they spawn has attracted interest from interpretive analysts. Certainly the culture of networked computing is a prime example of the challenges that a mobile world economy poses to ethnographers, who are far more accustomed to single-site studies of a community or a stable subjectivity (Escobar, 1994; Marcus, 1995). This article assesses some of the conditions, strategies, and limits in conducting ethnography in the virtual spaces created by computer networks. Several key issues of CMC and methodology are discussed, including community, social presence, and the social strategies and technical utilities for studying Internet communication. Our intent is to suggest a set of possibilities for research in a new cultural arena, not to preclude any that we do not consider here.

At the Interface of CMC and Ethnography: Community

Interpretive social science starts with the hermeneutic axiom that human beings act on the basis of collective (cultural) understandings that are continually negotiated through linguistic and other symbolic practices (Rabinow & Sullivan, 1979). These cultural understandings are neither mentalistic entities nor a correspondence of physical reality. As Taylor (1977, p. 119) points out, "The meanings and norms implicit in ... practices are not just in the minds of the actors but are out there in the practices themselves, practices which cannot be conceived as a set of individual actions, but which are essentially modes of social relation, of mutual action." Cultural understandings are the semiotic products of people acting in a common spatio-temporal frame, with the meanings themselves (manifested as encoded texts of some sort) embedded as objects of attention in each successive frame. The social actors we refer to as "audiences" signify the meanings of media texts and technologies within the purposes and routines of their social milieu.

As with any other social practice, media use emerges out of a dialectic of personal agency and social constraint. We choose when and how to act, but only in relation to the historically "possible" or "acceptable" ranges of conduct that we believe constitute the world we live in. That is, we affirm community-formed notions of what can count as a choice every time we choose. Yet every choice is authored in a particular way, enacts some degree of free play due to the resources uniquely available at any time, and can be read differently by those who participate, all of which work to change incrementally the parameters of what is possible or acceptable. An analysis of a family's VCR use, for example (Lindlof & Meyer, 1997), may show that the practices for using the device are always in flux, and that each family member "knows" the VCR in a different way. The family member, however, can only know the VCR in the context of what has already been said and signified about the VCR in his or her social worlds.

Thus interpretive analysts study the dynamic processes of mediated communication as they occur in social relationships: dyads, groups, families, subcultures, organizations, and communities. The questions they ask are mostly about the pragmatics, ethics, and politics of using media:

What is going on here? ... How do they do it? How does it change over time?

How do they evaluate what they do? What does it mean to them? How do they

interpret what it means to others? ... What is the relation of us to them,

of self to other? (Lindlof, 1945, p. 6)

Ethnography has become a preferred strategy for engaging these questions. Since meanings are embodied in practice, and meanings are what the researcher wants to recover, the researcher must participate in some way in the practice under study. Elaborating further, Rosen (1991) writes that ethnography is:

Based upon achieving a conscious and systematic interpretation of the

culture system operating for those the ethnographer observes to those who

may eventually take in the ethnographer's end product, perhaps a film or

video, a journal article, a conference presentation, or most commonly, a

book. (p. 1)

Persistent and sensitive attention to the stories, conversations, rituals, and routines of living enables the ethnographer to grasp the realities held by "native" members. The knowledge claims produced from fieldwork are always partial, local, and contingent on the researcher's own ability to read discourse and discern its significance. Their value lies in the disciplined access an analyst has given us into the way some other human collective has lived, spoken, and acted (Anderson & Goodall, 1994; Geertz, 1973). From a critical perspective, the close study of media experience can also specify the local effects of unequal allocation of resources and rights and the processes of moral valuation.

The present state of interpretive media studies, however, rarely achieves the goal of a contextual understanding of social action. Operating under the rubric of "qualitative" research, media analysts often employ the methods of interviewing or document analysis as the major or total thrust of a project. As such they elicit a special kind of discourse (e.g., interview talk) which is then used as evidence of the (unobserved) action (e.g., television viewing) in order to develop interpretations of the action (e.g., family viewing rules). Besides the obvious risk of taking someone's talk as an adequate description of how they behave, this approach also risks treating the interviewee as a vehicle in which ideological positions are vocalized with little regard for context, social exigency, or personal history.

In virtual space, most behavior is inscribed as visible discourse only. Context and personal history either accrue over time as the researcher becomes more familiar with threads of orthographic text, or must be sought in non-CMC sectors of the participants' life world. Thus the worlds that CMC ethnographers investigate are simulacra of an indexical kind (there really are bodies out there behind keyboards), in which a high degree of self-referentiality in the text to ongoing and past events helps to build the sense of a continuous, living project.

Ethnography presumes a culture system from which people derive collective resources, interpretive strategies, and sense of identity. As mentioned earlier, CMC user...

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