Last night, I visited Gossip Girl as a part of my tromping around, searching for suitable sites at which to conduct my fieldwork. This place had promise: a socially bounded community, a seeming group of ‘regulars,’ a popular space that is highly trafficked, a courtyard to observe informal interactions plus regular events each evening.
Then, I got further into Virtual Ethnography by Hine and am now scratching my head, back at the quandry I’d previously noted about social environments. Hine pushes this dilemma one step further in the way she questions the notion of an online space as a socially bounded entity appropriate – on its own – for ethnographic study.
The nutshell version of Hine’s argument is this: It’s far too easy to erase the complex interaction between the online world and what’s happening offline. The Internet (or for my purposes, SL) is both a culture happening online and a cultural artifact used in an offline context…like a home or office. These private spaces, where people often conduct online activities in solitude, are horribly difficult sites for ethnographic study.
Ethnographers often consider their site of study only as the online place, as this falls in line with the expectation of defining a socially bounded space in this methodology. Hine brings up excellent questions about the other site – the physical world – where the user connects with what’s happening online.
For my purposes, I will not be going into people’s homes and doing a full-on ethnography of their use of SL there. Hine agrees that this type of invasive approach is not practical, or necessary, for many projects. At the same time, virtual ethnographers should beware of falsely stripping the offline world from their online study. Perhaps involving questions in my interviews about the person’s physical setting when connected to SL could help me draw conclusions about how these pieces of the subject’s environment impact information seeking behaviors.