What’s Cyber about CyberEthnography? Notes on Methods for Research on (cyber)Sociality

What’s Cyber about CyberEthnography? Notes on Methods for Research on (cyber)Sociality


In considering the term “cyber”, one wonders what the prefix could
add to the encompassing, entirely worldy word “ethnography”.
Ethnography, after all, means to write culture. So, one wonders first
what are the rhetorical reasons for the appearance of such a term,
prefixed as it is with a word that means (apparently) governo or
helmsman. Is there a world beyond ethnography that needs a helmsman?
That said, William Gibson is credited with the appearance of the term
“cyberspace” in his novel of Neuromancer published in 1984, and here
the term seems to mean something different. Cyberspace, for Gibson, is:

“The total interconnectedness of human beings through computers and telecommunication without regard to physical geography.”

But of course, reacting to the world post mid AI boom, Gibson’s
helmsman is the control of the system into which we are also born. The
lack of regard for physical geography brings a disconnected
interconnectedness of being “jacked in” to a reality that is painted in
bits and bytes.

The term “cyberethnography” therefore, by derivation and colloquial
extraction but without the dystopian fear of control that runs through
Gibson’s text, is the ethnography, the writing of the culture(s) of the
computer mediated, tele-sociality of the physically disconnected. For
ethnographers, for whom seeing, observing, recording and analyzing
patterns of activity across and through time, such disconnectedness is
more than Gergen’s postmodern fragmentation of the saturated,
information loaded self, it is positively maddening in its
methodological complexity. It turns out humans live lives beyond our
gaze. Palpably so. What does this mean for what we understand of
sociality, and what does it mean for reflection of what can and cannot,
has and has not been inferred.

In this paper we present an ecology of communication technologies,
but focus on those through the lens of an ecology of flows, spaces, and
connection practices. We consider what is changing in the world from
conventional ethnography to current ethnographic ‘need’. We consider
what the field is and where it may be found. We consider what are data,
and who owns the data for consent to be given for its collection,
analysis and reportage: what does it mean for an avatar, one persona of
many to grant me permission to record? Just as technology-supported
communication generates new work practices, we are experiencing the old
phenomena of multiple selves in interaction in new worlds. This paper
reflects on the issues involved. We ground our comments in three
examples: 1. video conferences in distributed teams, 2. gaming, 3.
working in a text based world. Each example will consider 1. the
importance for work practice analysis, 2. the need for agility in
method, and 3. the importance of deep analysis for patterns over time
and technologies.

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