Archive for the ‘Virtual ethnography’ Category

I’m in the final stretch of data gathering, hoping to squeeze in a couple more interviews this weekend and perhaps one more observation.  This next Monday, April 7th is the day I’m cutting myself off. It’s time to stop the madness!! I’ve come to a conclusion that it’s not the amount of data that’s the most important…it’s the quality of the analysis.

The corpus of data assembled thus far is truly astounding. It’s so multi-faceted, with chat transcript or voice transcription, snapshots, video captures plus audio field notes indicating the on-screen action. There are so many factors to consider in even a short SL interaction.

As my analysis has progressed from inductive generation of categories through open coding, I’ve now moved on to coding only defined instances of information seeking behavior. This, in essence, is my unit of analysis. Observations include many, and the ‘critical incidence’ interview structure that has evolved yields at least one (usually more) stories of information seeking experiences.

I look forward to officially wrapping up my data gathering this weekend and moving on for the final stretch of analysis.


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I’ve developed two slightly different analysis forms from what I’d first posted to this blog. They’re spreadsheets to help with the process of recording data from my SL interviews & observations, and then to analyze that data.

One <very obvious!> issue I’d neglected when putting together my analysis form is that a Word document doesn’t offer what I needed to analyze reams of resulting coding. As the content of my analysis forms had been working just fine, I simply converted them into spreadsheets. I’d post my new analysis templates here, but alas, WordPress is not fond of the .xls format.

Simplicity works….just in spreadsheet format this time.

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If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that I’ve struggled with decisions about how to define the ‘site,’ ‘group’ or ‘area’ that will define my observations. I’ve conducted pilot observations throughout Second Life over the past two weeks: a TV show sim, a dance club, a recreation of parts of NYC, music clubs, academic classrooms, a fantastical land of artistic graphics and extraordinary out-of-this-world experiences…..and more. I’ve joined a plethora of SL groups from music junkies to language learners.

I’ve considered how to use a site or group as a starting point but utilize a theoretical framework of connectivity or a ‘multi-sited’ ethnographic approach. I’ve realized the importance of following connectivity, ideas and meaning in virtual space rather than getting caught up in a single-sited approach.

But through all of this, I somehow thought I still needed to find a bounded community within Second Life to define in my ultimate research agenda. I felt that SL as a whole was too ‘big’ of a site because I could not even begin to observe all pieces of it.

And where have I ultimately landed? I’ve realized — much thanks to a pivotol conversation I had with fellow MLIS student Anne Mostad-Jensen — that it’s best to get away from a site-based approach all together. I’d been searching for a ‘site’ to match up to ethnographic reserch standards calling for a defined “culture-sharing group.”  I thought that finding a place in SL, locating a group, or some such thing, is the course I’d have to take to justify ethnography.

Anne helped me understand the obvious: all of SL is a culture-sharing group with social norms, customs, etc. They may be practiced in different ways in the land of the steam punks versus the Gossip Girl sim. However, there are overarching social structures that justify SL – as a whole – as a site for my observations. Plus, choosing one SL subculture would erase the richness that can be found by looking at various pieces of this virtual world. 

Ultimately, this approach has not led me to a defined site that fits nicely into a traditional “statement of purpose,” but then I remember the words of Christine Hine in describing her virtual ethnogrphy as a “partial ethnography.” Plus, I learned from reading John Crewswell’s research methods text that I am most certainly a pragmatist who takes from multiple traditions that best answer my research questions. And ultimately, my research is about the information seeking behaviors of Second Life users, not just the users – for example – who like to go to music concerts in SL. Considering all of SL as my research site best answers my research questions by opening doors to consider the diversity of SL users of all kinds.

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As I’ve mentioned, verbal field notes have made my research process simpler, both in interviewing and observing. A protocol involving verbal field notes is not without its challenges, as this pilot stage of my project has taught me. What have I learned so far?

  • Transcribe immediately. After every observation/interview, I budget the appropriate amount of time for transcription of verbal field notes. Waiting until later loses some of the ‘freshness’ of the experience.
  • Say time stamps every 2-5 minutes. Repeating the time stamps found in the chat transcript makes it a heck of a lot easier when transcribing. This avoids having to fish through the transcript to find the part that the audio field notes are referring to. 

    Pause audio recording. During chat sessions, there are routinely ‘silent’ periods where the other person is typing and I have nothing to comment on (this is especially true during interviews). Pausing creates a much more efficient audio transcript for transcription.

  • Remember to talk. As obvious as it may seem, this has been my main problem. The pilot observations/interviews I’ve conducted have helped get me into the ‘practice’ of keeping up a somewhat constant verbal accounting of what is happening. At first, ‘talking’ seemed to pull me away from the immersive experience of feeling totally ‘in-world’ within SL. With practice, however, I’m able to verbally record my thoughts while still remaining present in my in-world experience.
  • Include both action & reflection notes. It’s easiest to just describe the action. But an ethnographic approach calls for fieldnotes of both activity and the researcher’s reflective process and thoughts. Visualizing a table split between “Activity” and “Reflection” helped so much that I created one. While I don’t use it for recording, I do place it next to the computer as a reminder — this seems to work well for me.
  • Have a pen at the ready. Even though I’ve set up my data collection tools (saved chat transcripts, video capture & verbal field notes) to be all-digital-all-the-time, I’ve also found that I want to jot things down. When this first happened, it was during a critical moment when I did not want to leave the computer, but I had no pen/paper available.

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Audacity logo 


Audacity is my new favorite tool as a researcher. Thanks to another great suggestion by Jim Oliver, MLIS IT guru at St. Kate’s, I’m recording my fieldnotes verbally. I met with Jim last week over some technical frustrations around trying to make screen capture work with my SL sessions. We talked about a crazy plan I’d come up with involving dueling lap tops: 1 running only SL with my avatar Testy Outlander for ease of navigation AND #2 running SL with another avatar just for screen-capture recording purposes. Additionally, I somehow thought I’d be able to take field notes (pen & paper, no computer).  When it was all said and done, I would have needed something like 14 hands to actually make this plan workable.

Jim casually asked, why not take your field notes by voice? Bingo! Brilliant, simple, and a possibility I’d totally overlooked. The best part is that Audacity can run at the same time as SL with no disruption to SL performance that I’ve been able to detect — at least not on the faster, sleeker work lap top I’m now using for my SL sessions. (It’s just a Dell D600, not that sleek at all….but worlds better than my much older, much slower personal lap top).

So, I’m now using just one lap top, running Audacity in the background constantly as I do interviews or observations, and using Jing for occasional screen capture (read all about how I’m using Jing in my previous blog post).

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My blog posts have been all-Hine-all-the-time this week, but I can’t help it. She inspires me!

Back to the spaces and places debate. Hine points out, rightly by how I see things, that  “We can usefully think of the ethnography of mediated interaction as mobile rather than multi-sited” (p 64) and:

By focusing on sites, locales and places, we may be missing out on other ways of understanding culture, based on connection, difference, heterogeneity and incoherence. We miss out on the opportunity to conisider the role of space in structuring social relations (Thrift, 1996a). Castells (1996a; 1996b; 1997) introduces the idea that a new form of space of flows, which in contrast to the space of place, information, money, circulate between nodes which form a network of associations increasingly independent of specific local contexts. ” (p 61)

This really got my brain ticking. Lorcan Dempsey and the need to get in the user’s flow immediately jumped to mind. I want to know what the flow of information seeking is like in Second Life, not just particular, isolative behaviors. A socially bounded, place-space framework may very well cut off the ability to see any parts of the flow of the users, much less experience a taste of it myself. The cyberpunk novel Snowcrash then jumped to my mind, with the notion of a non-place that is, at the same time, is all around us. Stephenson’s concept of metaverse is what suppossedly inspired SL in the first place. And getting away from the specifics of information seeking or librarianship, these ideas are bound to broader concepts of globalization.

I do believe that I am embarking on what Hine calls a “connective ethnography” (p 62).

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Yet another gem from Christine Hine’s Virtual Ethnography

Virtual ethnography allows a researcher to review community communications, such as discussion boards or chat transcripts, after the fact. This departs from a traditional ethnographic approach because it denies the researcher the experience of living in the community, experiencing it and gaining a much richer perspective.

Experiencing a virtual community in the moment helps provide the following essential context for the researcher:

  • how the information is socially meaningful
  • knowledge of the audience/users
  • engagement with the users
  • the experience of being a user herself

In other words, just reading the archives or reviewing a communications transcript does not a true ethnography make. This gives me hope around some of the difficulties I’m currently facing with screen-capture technology. Given the already s – l – o – w speed of my older computer, it’s pretty difficult to get screen capture software to run alongside the SL client without really bad lag time or crashing. Plus, there is the issue of storage.

So, I’ve been freaking out about (more…)

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