Notes on Cyberethnography for EPIC 2005

Cyberethography and cybersociality in virtual lifescapes: methods, obstructions and abstractions


If cyberspace is “the total interconnectedness of human beings
through computers and telecommunication without regard to physical
geography” (Gibson, 1984), then cybersociality lies in the details of
engaging, maintaining and indeed managing this disembodied, mediated
interconnectedness, operating simultaneously within multiple “social
worlds” (Strauss, 1978). Reacting to the embrace of graphical
simulation, the emergence of “virtual reality” and the promise of
artificially intelligent agents, Gibson’s dystopian cyber(meaning
helmsman in Greek)space is a simulated structured world where one can
“jack in”, away from this corporeal world.

“Cyberethnography”, by derivation and colloquial extraction, is the
ethnography, the writing of the culture(s) of the computer mediated,
telesociality of the physically disconnected.

We have been using ethnographic methods (cyber and otherwise) to
paint in the details of these acts of interconnection in “global
corporations”, “virtual teams” and “cybercommerce” settings. Unlike
many cyberethnographies (but entirely in keeping with ethnography
unbounded by mediated or physically collocated locales of activity), we
triangulate online and offline observation.

In this paper we present highlights from three studies, which we
believe lie along a continuum of Gibson’s ‘cyberness’, with more or
less latitude for personal agency and modification of the technology
itself to manage the telemediated interaction. The first is a study of
distributed teams collaborating primarily through video and digital
shared workspaces. The second is a study of collaborative work in a
text-based virtual environment where interactions take place mostly in
the virtual environment, but also on occasion, face to face. Finally,
we present interactions in massively multiplayer environments, where
collaboration and commerce are growing, and where control over one’s
presence is entirely in the hands of the individual to the point of
multiple personae with multiple appearances. In all three cases, we
present an ecology of communication technologies, but focus on those
through the lens of an ecology of flows, spaces, and connection
practices – within the context of the broader social settings within
which the interactions we have observed take place.

These studies are used to render visible the often tacit boundaries
of ethnographic data collection methods and reportage. While we draw on
methods in all cases that have been loosely called cyberethnography,
interested as we are in mediated sociality, we illustrate how an
understanding of that which lies beyond the keyboard and screen frames
what is understood. This triangulation drives new forms of data

In this paper we consider 1. what can be recorded (logistically, it
is getting increasingly important that we are very technically oriented
to gather our data; many field sites in business contexts create
restrictions that curtail broad data collection; many ethical issues
arise); 2. what can be analysed (time is the biggest constraint in many
business ethnography settings, and this is amplified in studying these
distributed settings), and finally 3. what can be reported (in many
settings what is seen cannot be reported or will not be heard).

Gibson, W. (1984) Neuromancer. Ace Book.

Strauss, A. (1978). A social worlds perspective. In N. Denzin (ed.),
Studies in Symbolic Interaction, vol. 1, Greenwich, CT: JAI Press,

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