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Digital Environments and the Future of Ethnography An Introduction: Ethnographic Perspectives Across Global Online and Offline Spaces

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Digital Environments and the Future
of Ethnography
An Introduction
Urte Undine Frömming, Steffen Köhn, Samantha Fox, Mike Terry
With the notion of digital environments, we aim to propose a conceptual term
that describes the mutual permeation of the virtual with the physical world.
The digital environment encompasses phenomena such as wholly immersive
and user-constructed virtual worlds—for example, Second Life—and Massively
Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs)—such as Minecraft
as well as other three-dimensional online spaces. There are expansive digital
social environments to be considered such as social networking sites and
smartphone applications, together with the people and communities who
engage with them. It is constituted and shaped by a wide range of internet
technology—including devices like smart phones, tablets and “wearables”—and
online venues such as virtual communities, blogs, forums and e-commerce.
Digital environments hence are the conglomeration of technologies, events and
realities that interpenetrate each other, sometimes co-constitute each other,
and that have led to changed ways of being.
They have fostered new expressions of identity, new forms of collaborative
working, new commercial and political strategies, new modes of producing and
distributing art, and new configurations of sociality, exchange and intimacy.
Digital environments are so closely entangled with the physical world that any
opposition between the “virtual” and the “real” is fundamentally misleading in
almost the same manner as a distinction between the “digital” and the “non-
digital” (or “analog”) is untenable. As Boellstor (2016), Frömming (2013), Hine
(2010) and Ginsburg et al. (2002) point out, such a dichotomy completely fails to
acknowledge how the online is, indeed, real. If one falls in love in a virtual world
or on an online dating site, these emotions have implications in the physical
world (Gershon 2010; 2011). The same goes for what one learns in an online
educational env ironment. Yet just as problematically, the constr ucted opposition
between the digital and the real implies that everything physical necessarily
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is also real. Boellstor engages with timely literature on the ontological turn
within anthropology to complicate such widely held misrepresentations of
the reality of the digital. Our concept of digital environments avoids such a
problematic dualism and allows us to ask precisely when and how online and
oine worlds intersect, how users experience them and what consequences
this has for social formations within the physical world. The ERC funded
research project “Why We Post” at the University College London (UCL) and
led by Daniel Miller (2016), provides one answer to the existing research gap
that exists, considering the digitalization process as having a deeper and much
faster influence on societies than we initially considered.
The 16 contributions to this volume likewise explore how people in
Greenland, the Netherlands, Chile, China, Spain, Germany, South Africa,
Columbia, Malaysia, Ukraine and the USAactually engage with various digital
environments and how this changes their feelings and ideas about intimacy,
social interactions, geographic distance, political situations, art production, or
their very bodies. The individual articles are concerned with issues such as
people’s creative use of social media platforms like Instagram, WeC hat, Reddit,
Facebook or Twi t t er in trans-local or transnational settings. They examine the
emergence of new online communities around Greenlandic news blogs or
Malaysian LGBT Facebook groups, and descr ibe the rise of transn ational migrant
networks facilitated by digital media. They investigate health issues in digital
worlds and assistive digital technologies for blind people, the representation
of conflicts, and the proliferation of ideologies within online spaces. Our aim
with this book is to present fresh and timely research by young scholars from
the Research Area of Visual and Media Anthropology at the Freie Universität
Berlin’s Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology to a wider academic. By
eschewing the false d ichotomy between t he virtual and the real—as encouraged
by other practitioners in this research field—these young scholars are able to
forge new methodologies in the nascent field of digital anthropology, pursuing
novel practices of entangled fieldwork in both online and oine contexts. As
people enact their social lives through complex combinations of online and
oine practice, the contributors to this publication accordingly construct their
fieldsites out of intricate configurations of the (trans-)local, the digital and the
global. Hence, they lead us to believe in both the physical and the digital as
real and entangled entities. We strongly believe that such intertwined forms of
research— online and oine— have the potential to innovate both ethnographic
methodologies and anthropological theory.
As Pink et al. (2015) note, the digital unfolds as an indispensable part of the
world that we, as well as our research participants, co-inhabit. A methodological
perspective on the digital is thus becoming an essential aspect of all kinds of
ethnographic fieldwork endeavors, even those centered on presumably non-
mediated areas of investigation such as migration, politics, medicine, economy
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Digital Environments and the Future of Ethnography 15
or religion. Human lifeworlds, practices and cultures, be it in European, North
American, or so called “indigenous communities” are increasingly subtly
shaped by digital technology (Budka 2015), while such recent technology
also oers ethnographers new ways of engaging with their field (Coleman
2010). One might think here of digitally mediated “efieldnotes” (Sanjek 2016),
interviews via Skype or Messenger software, the potential to record visual media
with a smartphone, or simply the possibility to stay connec ted with interlocutors
beyond the period of fieldwork via email or social networking sites. The younger
generations of anthropologists, raised during the proliferation of the internet,
are already using digital technologies as part of their research as accepted and
valuable resources. Yet with the increasing amount of new digital gadgets, apps
and software, they are tasked with constantly adapting and re-inventing their
ethnographic approach and methodology.
Importantly, Pink et. al. argue that digital ethnography does not necessarily
have to engage with digital technology in both its methodology and its research
focus; they see “non-digital-centric-ness” as one of the key principles of digital
ethnography. Our own notion of digital environments equally emphasizes the
ways in which technologies have become inseparable from other materialities
and human activities. Hence, instead of putting digital media at the center
of analysis, our approach seeks to pay careful attention to the manifold and
complex forms in which digital environments have become a ubiquitous
aspect of contemporary life and cultures. Elderly Chinese, for example, who
never learned how to use computers, have rapidly become avid users of the
smartphone app WeChat, allowing them to improve their relationship with
their adult children (Yun 2015). Likewise, amateur athletes increasingly use
wearable technology for tracking their movements and physical fitness (Howse
2015), while Filipina migrant mothers working in Great Britain have grown
accustomed to taking part in the lives of their children back home via Viber,
Skype, or Facebook (Madianou and Miller 2012). The seamless integration
of digital social media into our everyday practice has rendered them almost
invisible (Fuchs 2013; David 2010). Our conceptual term stresses just that:
digital environments have become so embedded in various social practices that
we move through them like fish in water. Yet while digital technologies now
form a part of most human relationships, these relationships are never purely
digital. They do not produce novel forms of human interaction but may rather
bring about dierent qualities in human lives, relationships and activities. We
therefore need ethnography to look beyond thedigital to understand how these
technologies areplayed out precisely in their entanglement with other norms,
relations and things.
As Collins and Durrington (2015) and Cohen (2012) note, such an
ethnography of the present and future is, almost by definition, networked.
Networked anthropology acknowledges the fact that digital technology,
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particularly social media, permeates the social fields that contemporary
anthropologists examine. Moreover, it explores how these media might foster
collaboration with i nformant communities on the produc tion of meaning. While
classical anthropological modes of publishing, slowed down by peer review
and a lengthy process of publication, tend to produce static representations
of an ethnographic engagement, networked anthropology oers fresh new
possibilities for feedback, immediacy and measurable interventions with our
collaborative partners. The data produced within such net worked research often
simultaneously serves as material that may be appropriated, utilized and shared
by the individuals and communities participating in the research. For example,
Lola Abrera’s Virtual Balkbayan Box (2015) is a collaborative ethnographic
project to which female OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) contributed mobile
phone video diaries, pictures, or artworks to share their stories on their own
terms. Quite often, anthropologists today even find themselves assisting in the
eorts of such communities to network with dierent publics.
In our relationships with the digital, we thus have to engage in new forms
of collaboration and convey our ideas and findings to new sets of addressees.
This demands a greater reflexivity from individual researchers who have to
negotiate their individual projects in the face of re-conceptualized notions of the
“anthropologist,” the “fieldsite,” the “research participant” and the “audience.”
In Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method (2012), Boellstor et
al. explore how the often uneven and messy forms of “participation” in virtual
worlds—as players, users, or producers—and various types of ethnographic
immersion across online and oine spaces might be framed and analyzed.
The contributions to our volume give accounts of this blurring of roles that
ethnographers experience when they conduct research into and within digital
environments. As digital environments emphasize user-generated content,
contribution and self-presentation this almost inevitably brings an auto-
ethnographic dimension into the research design (Dalsgaard 2008). Social
media demands a certain kind of reciprocity of their users: if one wishes to
connect with and receive information from other users, one is also required
to reveal something about themselves. Digital ethnographies therefore often
become journeys into the self. Through them we can better understand the
new forms of identity and community as well as the social digital activism
(Gerbaudo 2012, Postill 2010) emerging within and via digital technologies.
Through these new forms of ethnographic expression, digital ethnographies
can be our digital mirrors.
Jóhanna Björk Sveinbjörnsdóttir (Iceland), in her contribution with a case study
about East Greenland, examines online media commenting systems as spaces
for public debates. Sveinbjörnsdóttir conducted ethnographic fieldwork in
East Greenland over several months, with a focus on the online version of the
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Digital Environments and the Future of Ethnography 17
most important newspaper in Greenland, Sermitsiaq.AG. Her seven interview
partners from Greenland all agreed on one point: that the image of East
Greenland was trapped in repeated portrayals of its inhabitants as murderers,
alcoholics with social problems, or barbaric hunters. The author analyzes the
comments, posted in response to news in the online version of Sermitisiag.AG,
about a polar bear that was shot in front of the house by the father of a family
and goes on to discuss the online making of an “imagined community.”
Brigitte Borm (The Netherlands) analyzes the experiences of people, especially
hosts, using the online platform Airbnb, which allows hosts to rent out their
homes to other members, in exchange for a set fee. Borm raises the question: As
the homes of hosts are temporarily or partly commodified, does the perception,
experience or meaning of the homes of so-called hosts change? Following Tom
Boellstor (2012) in the notion that virtual and oine spaces are becoming
profoundly interconnected, this contribution explores the relation between
virtual participation on the hosting platform of Airbnb and the changing oine
experience of the intimate environment of hosts’ homes.
Juan Francisco Riumalló (Chile) examines the role that the internet has played
for gay men in Chile across generations. Tracing the development of digital
media—from anonymous chat rooms accessed via dial-up internet in the 1990s
to smartphone-based dating apps that are popular today—Riumalló asks what
social eects dierent media have had for gay men. While Chile remains a
conservative, predominantly Catholic country, the internet can often be a safe,
anonymous space for young men seeking support before coming out to their
families. At the same time, pornography and sexualized dating sites present
a limiting image of what it means to be a gay man. Riumalló addresses these
concerns, as well as others, as he examines how the many facets of online
interaction have shaped, and continue to shape, the identity of gay men in Chile.
In her contribution: “Red Packets in Real and Virtual Worlds. How Multi-
Function WeChat Influences Chinese Virtual Relationships” Xiaojing Ji
(China) presents the results of her research about the Red Packet app function
as part of the mobile social application WeChat, which is extremely popular in
China, similar to WhatsApp in Europe. With recourse to Marcel Mauss’ theory
of The Gift and the forms and functions of exchange, the author manages to
reveal the enormous influence of the WeCh at Red Packets on the lives of people
in China and their social relationships.
Jie Liang Lin’s (China) paper explores some of the nastier sides of the internet:
the articulation of “antifeminist” views and identity formations in online
communities. Particularly, she investigates the MGTOW (“Men Going Their
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Own Way”) movement—an online group that is active on dedicated websites,
YouTube channels, Facebook groups and subreddits. It consists of mostly
straight, white, middle-class males who attempt to analyze what they perceive
as a feminist conspiracy against proper manhood and male destinies. The
author traces this internet phenomenon back to male liberation movements,
masculinist groups and sex-role theories of the 1970s in order to discuss how
such views now slowly seep into the mainstream.
Jonas Blume’s (Germany) chapter explores the internet as a participatory
space for artists with new roles and new artistic online practices. The author
explores the history of art and computer technology and the history of virtual
exhibitions. The chapter culminates in the attempt of the author to understand
the “integrative post-medium practices of post-internet Art.” Blume also
formulates a critique on contemporary museums that are, according to
the author, “still rooted in their 19th century heritage, and are presently not
equipped to appropriately present new media work.”
Olivier Llouquet (France) explores, with his contribution: “Blind and Online,”
the everyday life of blind and visually impaired people and their networks in
online communities. Over a period of two months, Llouquet gathered technical
information on assistive technologies and joined several Facebook groups run
by, and for, visually impaired people. He found out that their problem is not
necessarily what is accessible to visually impaired people, but rather ignorance
of the existing support structures.
Ellen Lapper’s (Great Britain) chapter explores how social media has changed
the way we grieve. In a time in which the deaths of celebrities become much
shared “trending topics” on Twit t e r or Facebook, we all have to face the question
of what happens to our own digital afterlives, as well as those of our loved ones.
Starting from a very personal note, Lapper describes how following her father’s
death, she clung to the digital traces that remained of him on various digital
platforms. Her research investigates how we negotiate a physical absence in
light of a persistent digital presence, integrating theories of mourning and loss.
Dario Bosio (Italy) appraises the relationship between the ephemeral aspects
of the social media platform Periscope and motivations for self-broadcasting.
Periscope diers from other social media platforms that allow users to
watch and oer views breaching the private sphere, due to its real-time
broadcasting.According to Bosio, the added risk inherent in live broadcasting
and the mostly anonymous audiences that ‘tune in’ to a specific scoper’s
video feed reveal a more accelerated and dynamic set of motivations. These
include loneliness, anxiety surrounding online stimulation, boredom, New
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Digital Environments and the Future of Ethnography 19
Individualism, and even a possible desire for ‘teleportation.’ Bosio draws
attention to the failure of the intended use of Per iscope, as asserted by its
developers, by oering examples that call attention to serious ethical and legal
concerns. These include students using the app to publicly ridicule others, and
abusive and suggestive behavior towards underage, specifically female users,
revealing the need to examine the social eects of social media operating with
anonymous and real-time connectivity.
Gretchen Faust (USA) is concerned with the representation of the female body
in digital social environments. She analyses the new forms of censorship
occurring on online platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Tw i t t er with
regards to body hair, (menstrual) blood and nipples. Faust explores how the
ambiguous “community guidelines” of social media platforms eectively
perpetuate double standards with regard to the representation of male and
female bodies. She then discusses feminist artists’ approaches to problematize
these gendered forms of censorship and tackles their severe implications for
women’s status on the internet.
Teresa Tiburcio Jiménez (Spain), in her article “Berlin. Wie bitte?” makes an
exploration of the construction of online platforms for the mutual support of
young Spanish immigrants in Berlin. T he author shows the ways in whic h these
diasporic groups use the internet as an alternative space for communication,
experimentation and the creation of new ideas for social innovation. During her
fieldwork amongst the Spanish diaspora in Berlin, Tiburcio Jiménez asked the
questions: how do young Spanish immigrants embody social innovation, what
are their reasons for migration and in what ways do they use dierent digital
environments during their migration process? The author examined several
online platforms and social networking sites constructed and run by Spanish
immigrants—such as 15M Berlin (a nonpartisan, horizontal, self-managed and
feminist political group for Spanish immigrants in Berlin), Oficina Precaria
or GAS (Groupo de Acción Sindical)—and participated in oine meetings of
the groups. Her research demonstrates the ways in which the online sphere
is meaningful for political organization and identity creation in the diaspora.
Sue Beukes (South Africa) investigates the heightened discourse around race
and inequality in South Africa. In this context, the entrance of an unmediated
platform such as Tw i t t er creates a new dynamic in this conversation
through the entrance of a large and vocal young black South African online
community, unafraid of challenging liberal views and the traditional Rainbow
Nation narrative. Some have described this as a “psychic purge” or “shift in
consciousness” which has been taking place over the last two years or so. In late
2015, the #FeesMustFall movement was born. This became one of the largest
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civic engagements since democracy as well as one of the biggest events on
Twit t er that year. The public aim of this movement was to address the rising
cost of university fees, which would ultimately exclude many students from
families already struggling to pay tuition and living costs. In October 2015,
mass protests took place in institutions across the country eventually forcing
the government to freeze fee increases in 2016. As a spin-o of this action,
movements and related campaigns emerged such as #OutSourcingMustFall and
#ColourBlind. It became clear that #FeesMustFall was about much more than
rising fees; it aimed to address issues of colonization, inequality, and racism.
Beukes seeks to explore the role of Twitte r in this evolving discourse around
race. It uses #FeesMustFall as a pivot for discussion because the movement both
represents and touches on so many of the pertinent issues facing young South
Africans, including issues central to the broader society in a post-apartheid
environment.
Sara Wiederkehr González (Switzerland/Colombia) produces an analysis of the
online and oine lifeworlds of Colombian migrants in the German capital
of Berlin. The Colombian expats that Wiederkehr González interviews are
all virtually engaged—via social media, webcam or blogs—with the present
social reality in their conflict-laden home country. Engaging with Deleuze’s
distinction between the actual and the virtual, the author explores how these
migrants inhabit what Daniel Miller (2011) has called “a third place.”
Veera Helena Pitkänen (Finland) explores the social media landscape advocating
for the LGBT community in Malaysia. Homosexuality there is punishable by
law, and social media users must balance their desires for connection and
social justice with exposure to legal consequences.Focusing on the Facebook
group “Seksualiti Merdeka” (which translates from the Malay as “Sexual
Independence”) Pitkänen examines the role the group plays in the lives of her
informants, how Facebook can be utilized both socially and politically, and what
role privacy and anonymity play in a country where identity politics carry great
risk. 
Karly Domb Sadof (USA), a visual anthropologist working as photo editor for
the Associated Press, demonstrates the enormous importance and meaning
of the role of the smartphone application Instagram, during the Ukrainian
protests (#Euromaidan) that began in November 2013, after the Ukrainian
government declared that it would not sign the association contract with the
European Union. Domb Sadof shows the ways in which way “Selfies” played a
central role in first-person or citizen journalism during the Ukrainian protests,
aecting a strong and visible impact within Ukraine and abroad.
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Digital Environments and the Future of Ethnography 21
Joanna Sleigh (Australia) approaches modern religiosity through the virtual
doors of The Church of Google, a website created in 2011 by enthusiasts of the
search engine and technology company. Confirming t hat even online religiosity
is still mediated by activity in real life, Sleigh outlines the marked dierences
between—yet gives equal credence to—the enthusiasts of Googlism, revealing
two major factions: ‘believers’ and those that take a more satirical approach.
Whether Googlism engages its followers through its impressive and infallible
data organization and retrieval capabilities, or as a proxy for a critique of
organized religion itself, modern technology and digital communication is
thoroughly inscribed throughout the experience.
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Thesis
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Este proyecto de investigación buscó explicar cómo es la cultura digital en que están inmersos los estudiantes de la Universidad Pedagógica Nacional Francisco Morazán (UPNFM)en Honduras y el uso que hacen de las TIC para aprender en su vida cotidiana y escolar. Se optó por un enfoque teórico y metodológico de los Estudios de Nuevos Medios y de los Estudios de Internet, ambas corrientes herederas de los Estudios de Medios (Media Studies). La investigación siguió las líneas metodológicas de la etnografía virtual. Se describen las diferentes técnicas e instrumentos para la recolección de los datos en las dos fases de la investigación: a) la aplicación de un cuestionario y b) la realización de entrevistas a profundidad, así como de e-observación (la cual incluye capturas de pantalla y un diario digital o blog para detonar reflexiones por parte de los estudiantes). Los resultados se dividen en cuatro temáticas: prácticas y habilidades digitales, las brechas digitales y finalmente la experiencia con el diario digital.
Article
A diverse body of work known as the “ontological turn” has made important contributions to anthropological theory. In this article, I build on this work to address one of the most important theoretical and political issues haunting contemporary theories of technology: the opposition of the “digital” to the “real.” This fundamentally misrepresents the relationship between the online and offline, in both directions. First, it flies in the face of the myriad ways that the online is real. Second (and just as problematically), it implies that everything physical is real. Work in the ontological turn can help correct this misrepresentation regarding the reality of the digital. However, this potential contribution is limited by conceptions of difference the ontological turn shares with the interpretive frameworks it turns against. Drawing on ontological-turn scholarship, my own research, and a range of thinkers, including Tarde, I work to show how an ontological approach that problematizes both similitude and difference provides valuable resources for understanding digital culture as well as for culture theory more generally. © 2016 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved.
Book
Daniel Miller spent 18 months undertaking an ethnographic study with the residents of an English village, tracking their use of the different social media platforms. Following his study, he argues that a focus on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram does little to explain what we post on social media. Instead, the key to understanding how people in an English village use social media is to appreciate just how ‘English’ their usage has become. He introduces the ‘Goldilocks Strategy’: how villagers use social media to calibrate precise levels of interaction ensuring that each relationship is neither too cold nor too hot, but ‘just right’.
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