Ethnology migrated from anthropology to sociology and more recently has moved into the fields of communication and education. Over time and across disciplines, methodologists have debated what constitutes ethnology and especially what constitutes "good" ethnology. Yet Malinowski's legacy persists. How he defined the "participant" aspect of participant observation is particularly important to this discussion. For Malinowski it meant living with the Trobriand Islanders for over a year. Or, perhaps more accurately, having lived with them for over a year, an accomplishment both novel and singular for an anthropologist at that historical moment and for Malinowski more than a little trying, he makes much of that aspect of his work in his methodological treatise. In fact, he invests the validity of his account in having been there, "right among the natives" (Malinowski 1984: 6). This face-to-face presence he labels the "most elementary" and "proper" condition for field work (6), the "close contact with native life" which enables the ethnologist confidently "to grasp the native's point of view ... to realise his vision of his world" (24-25). As Stocking (1983) argues, in Malinowski's hands and ever since, ethnological presence, the "being there" of participant observation, has become a virtual "ethnographer's magic" upon which the authority of ethnological accounts rests.
This standard of researcher submersion in some culture or community implicitly involves face-to-face interaction with subjects and first-hand observation of the minutiae of daily life, the ethnological objective being an eyewitness account - or in Clifford Geertz's revealing construction, an "I-witness" account (1988: 79) - of the culture or community as a whole. What, then, to do when the community of interest is an electronic one, i.e., a newsgroup on the Internet? Is face-to-face-ness central to ethnology? Is "electronic ethnology" an oxymoron?
One way to get at these questions is to trace the migration of ethnology from anthropology to other social sciences and examine how related issues have arisen and been addressed. A central concern of ethnology, particularly in anthropology, has been to describe how cultures other than Western ones align human behavior. Malinowski characterizes this as close observation and recording of "the imponderabilia of actual life" (1984: 18). Clifford Geertz (1973: 3) calls it "thick description." Geertz, however, takes a less unproblematic view of this as a research goal and practice. While Malinowski was concerned with locating ethnology squarely within the paradigm of scientific method, his own use and assessment of the methodology displays a confidence, even arrogance, that today's ethnologists might well label "ethnocentric." Geertz has been prominent among those to critique the Malinowskian legacy as a practice of defining other cultures in relatively unselfconscious comparison to the culture of the investigator. Such a practice has consequences for both the viability of the methodology and the understanding of other cultures. This is evident in how Geertz conceptualizes "culture":
Implicit in this statement are both points of agreement with Malinowski and serious breaches with him. There is agreement on ethnology as a scientific enterprise and on the basic technique, namely a detailed description of the native way of life. But Geertz problematizes the construction of ethnographic evidence, saying, "[In] the study of culture, analysis penetrates into the very body of the object - that is, we begin with our own interpretations of what our informants are up to, or think they are up to, and then systematize those" (15). Further, Geertz characterizes anthropological writings as interpretations, "third order ones to boot" (15), that cannot be accepted as objective in the traditional sense. Ethnographers fix culture by writing it down, and the act of "writing it down" is a transformation that necessarily involves the researcher's own cultural biases and underpinnings.
Moreover, ethical and political questions easily ignored when the object of study was distinctly alien, came to the fore when ethnology moved into other disciplines, and practitioners with a variety of interests turned to the study of their own society and its component groups. In the "foreign" field, politics could be easily relegated to the realm of "back home," left behind with other cultural baggage when the researcher "went native." Similarly, the researcher's responsibility to subjects seemed less far-reaching in the unspoken knowledge that those subjects would not read or care about the analysis or conclusions reached. The ethnologist's enterprise was more akin to a botanist's detailed observation of a small patch of jungle. Just as the botanist produced a taxonomy of the plant life in a particular area, the ethnologist produced a taxonomy of cultural traits of a given people.
In sociology, education and communications, delineating and defining "the other" became a major concern. The face validity offered by the indigenous "tribe" of some distant island, valley or mountain top no longer pertained. Now "the natives" tended to be an ethnic minority living in the inner city (Liebow 1967), or police department personnel in a medium-sized city (Van Maanen 1988), or jazz musicians (Becker 1986). But the borders of such communities were indistinct, as they blurred into multiple larger communities and cultures. Are first year medical interns a distinct enough group to constitute "the other"? What about drug addicts? Star Trek fans? Where does the "land" of Star Trek Fans begin and end? How do drug addicts define their stance towards the culture at large? When do medical interns cease to be interns and become ordinary people?
In addition, questions of politics and ethics become more difficult to leave behind when researcher and subjects share a common language and larger cultural norms. How do the researcher's political stances and social identities affect the reliability and validity of the research? Should a white ethnologist study African Americans? Could a man study women's cooperative art galleries? How does a researcher gain access to a community that is suspicious or even openly hostile to his/her class, gender or politics? What are the researcher's responsibilities to subjects when the research might affect how they conduct their daily lives? Should these "natives," who may well read the "results" and care a great deal about them, be given a say in the construction of data and how it is interpreted?
Over the past thirty years technological developments in computing and telecommunications have produced a global network of networks called the Internet. It draws millions of people who have access to computer terminals into at least the potential for communication. It has evolved from a network linking government installations, research facilities, and educational institutions into one that also accommodates electronic conversations, under the aegis of newsgroups or usegroups, carried on by ordinary folks from all walks of life on every conceivable subject, from Star Trek and fathers' rights to English Literature and financial tips. We contend that these newsgroups constitute "electronic communities," a new and sufficiently distinct social phenomenon to be viewed as an ethnological "other." Further, electronic communities are of ethnological interest as a new variation on human "community," and "electronic ethnology" as a new variation on an old methodology.
There is a relationship between these substantive and methodological interests, in that ethnology has historically participated in defining "community" as geographically bounded. In anthropology, geographic domains were readily delineated, if not primary, determinants of cultural domains. In sociology, defining geographic boundaries became a bit more problematic, but the practice persisted. Inner city neighborhoods, or specific hospitals, or fan clubs that met in defined places in particular cities, became the "fields" or locales for "being there." Dependence on geographic boundaries is evident in the very titles of many ethnological studies: Argonauts of the Western Pacific (Malinowski 1984 ), Man, Land and Myth in North Australia: The Gunwinggu People (Berndt & Berndt 1970), and Multidisciplinary Research at Grasshopper Pueblo Arizona (Longacre, Holbrook & Graves 1982) are but a few examples from anthropology; Tally's Corner (Liebow 1967) is one from sociology. While geographical boundedness in sociological studies is less likely to show up in titles, it is still evident. Paul Willis located Learning to Labor (1977) in a working class school in a British industrial city. Janice Radway made her field a romance novel fan club she dubbed "the Smithton women" (1991: 46) and with whom she spent several weeks sharing tea and talk about Reading the Romance.
Yet a search of the methodological literature reveals a curious pattern. The definitions of "being there" are at once vague, in that none explicitly demands face-to-face-ness - and at the same time crystal clear in the shared assumption of face-to-face-ness.
Participant observation ... involves the researcher in prolonged immersion in the life of a group, community, or organization ... (Punch 1994: 84)
Fieldwork asks the researcher, as far as possible, to share firsthand the environment, problems, background, language, rituals, and social relations of a more-or-less bounded and specified group of people. (Van Maanen 1988: 3)
"Presence," "immersion," "firsthand"; all suggest temporal and spatial simultaneity for researcher and subjects. In their discussion of fieldwork stages, Carbaugh and Hastings (1992) are quite explicit: post-fieldwork analysis "sometimes leads back to the field - in both senses, geographic and intellectual" (158).
In recent years, many pages have been filled with analyses of the politics of ethnological representation. Yet even those who critique the basing of representational authority on having been there reveal the power of Malinowski's tent on the beach. For example, in her discussion of the controversy surrounding Florinda Donner's Shabono: A True Adventure in the Remote and Magical Heart of the South American Jungle (1982), Mary Louise Pratt clarifies the question: "Donner's book was either true or false, meaning, apparently, that she had either lived with the Yanomamo or had not, and nothing more was at issue ..." (1986: 29).
Pratt is dealing with an anthropological example, a society which exists only in a particular and isolated geographic location, thus the association between a "true" account and having lived among the Yanomamo seems natural and appropriate. Yet there are anthropological examples which invite examination of the definition of "being there." Renato Rosaldo (1986) quotes Evans-Pritchard's description of two quite different field experiences:
Evans-Pritchard used this description to bolster the credibility of his account of the Nuer in light of the fact that his fieldwork was frequently interrupted and added up to less than a year. Rosaldo quotes Evans-Pritchard to critique the construction of ethnological authority in his work. Both treat the Nuer-Azande difference as a methodological contingency. Neither considers the possibility that the Nuer and the Azande were communicating something about community and membership, that what constitutes "being there" or "presence" might vary across cultures and communities.
Our interest in usegroups on the Internet and whether such groups constitute communities forced an examination of the taken-for-granted in ethnology: Where is "the field"? Is face-to-face-ness essential? To what extent might our understanding of "community" be a product of the unexamined definitions of our methodology?
In recent years communication scholars have turned ethnological techniques to the study of groups not fully covered by the geographic definition of community. Cathy Kirkland (1984) used open-ended interviewing by telephone in her study of the dispersed community of Romance writers, and Henry Jenkins (1992) studied television fan cultures by way of telephone interviews, personal correspondence, and face-to-face interviews at fan conventions. A reconstituted definition of "community" is key to Kirkland's and Jenkins' enterprises, as well as Radway's (1991). In these studies, community nucleates around common interests rather than common geographical space. Recently, research into computer-mediated communication (CMC) and its social impact has taken a distinctly ethnological turn (Baym 1995; Giese 1998a; Jones 1995; Reid 1991) that acknowledges the phenomenal growth of the Internet, and perhaps more importantly for this discussion, the sense that the Internet is a cultural phenomenon that can be examined holistically using qualitative methodologies like ethnology.
Electronic communities escape geographic boundedness in two ways. First, as stated, the Internet is a global network of networks. For those who have access, interacting with someone halfway around the world is not necessarily any more difficult than interacting with someone across the hall. Second, the converged technologies of computing and telecommunications transcend geography by definition. That is, the Internet is global because it can go anywhere there are computers and telephones, and those technologies have been global for a long time.
This lack of geographical boundaries has several implications for how electronic communities are constituted. The first and most obvious is that members of these communities need not share geographic space in order to interact. Nor is it ever necessary for them to actually meet in a physical environment. In fact, the very notion of "electronic community" raises questions about community as well as ethnology. Is "face-to-face-ness" central to "community"? Can electronically-mediated interaction constitute "community," and thus be studied by "electronic ethnology"? If so, what constitutes "being there" in an electronic community?
These questions are complicated by certain somewhat contradictory features of Internet communication. While not geographically bounded, electronic communities nevertheless share the feel of bounded space with traditionally defined communities that have been studied ethnologically. This feel of bounded space is an artifact of how the Internet is organized and displayed on millions of computer terminals around the world. People join communities by subscribing to email lists or taking part in "real-time" conversation groups on a service known as IRC (Internet Relay Chat). Communications in this electronic environment abound with geographical metaphors. Terms like "cyberspace," "virtual reality" and "virtual community" are common. One checks one's "mailbox" or goes to a "Gopher site" or an "Archie" - an archive for documents similar to gopher. One "navigates" the Net. One "meets" a friend on IRC. Later we will present a narrative, begun by alt.cyberpunk participant "SweetPoly," which constructs that group as a landscape with figures, called "Rancho Deluxe." The Internet is a "virtual world" and members of its various communities almost universally conceptualize this world in terms of geographic metaphors.
Perhaps the persistence of these metaphors is a product of the fact that people are accustomed to conceiving of their memberships in a society and community as geographically based. Certainly for most of human history, interaction was defined by physical proximity. It was not possible until the late 19th century for humans to communicate in "real time" unless they shared geographical space.
Yet despite geographic metaphors, personal and social interaction on the Internet is mediated by computer and telecommunications technologies whose manifestations appear as text on computer screens. This seems to put the ethnologist in the position of doing semiotic or textual analysis rather than compiling notes on the comings and goings of the natives, and might make such an ethnological enterprise more akin to the study of language or literature than to participant observation in physically bounded communities.
However, other features of electronic communities suggest conceptualization of them as communities rather than texts. These features tend to appear as disjunctures underlying analytical tensions. One disjuncture and the tension involved for the ethnologist has been briefly discussed: despite not being bounded geographically, electronic communities nevertheless create a phantom sense of geography.
Other disjunctures and the tensions they produce are all intimately bound up in the technological nature of CMC. On the one hand, the community-like features of newsgroups require the electronic ethnologist to consider questions quite similar to those central to ethnologists of traditional communities: What are the bounds of the community? How do individuals construct their identities within that community? How are social interactions between individuals regulated by the community? What are the indicators of status and identity in a particular community? How are issues of power and hierarchy played out? How do communities differentiate themselves from other similar but separate communities? How do communities and their members constitute themselves relative to the larger society? How do communities police their borders, admitting some prospective members and excluding others? What social norms and conventions are adhered to and why? How are new members socialized into these norms? In traditional ethnological modes these questions are answered by detailed observation and "thick description" (Geertz) of "the imponderabilia of actual life" (Malinowski), everything from attire and hair treatments, joking and arguing, to sex-gender relations and the division of labor. All that comprises the web of social and cultural interaction depends in many ways on the physical proximity of community members.
Yet despite the fact that one "goes" to alt.cyberspace or rec.arts.startrek to "meet" people who share a common interest, there is no physical interaction. In electronic communities many of the physical cues to social and cultural identity are absent. Thus, on the other hand, the electronic ethnologist cannot make judgments about a member's identity and standing in the community by observation of dress or skin color or eye contact or touching patterns, nor by official icons of social organization like uniforms, badges, name tags, nor even by office size, location, appointments and so forth. Even the most basic determination of gender in the traditional sense is absent. Emotional contexts determined by tone of voice or facial expression disappear when communication takes the form of text on a screen.
|Describing the electronic field|
Due to the absence of structuring identities like race, gender, and position, it might on the face of it seem that entering a cyberspatial community would be easier than entering a more traditionally defined geographic community. In fact, however, an electronic ethnologist faces many of the same problems a geographic ethnologist does. While the electronic ethnologist does not have to worry about physical appearance and dress, it became clear to us that one's "look" and its grounding in local customs plays a role in whether, how and on what terms a person is accepted into a community. An ethnologist operating in a text-based community such as alt.cyberpunk must also be cognizant of subtle "dialects" that vary across newsgroups, and of more widely accepted textual linguistic conventions. In addition, community mores vary across newsgroups and are no more codified than those of any other community. Violation of these mores can result in a range of sanctions from "flaming" to ostracism, though in some groups like alt.cyberpunk, flaming and other "unsociable" behavior appear to be the usual path to eventual inclusion - a way of testing the newcomer's appropriateness to the group. In sum, the non-geographical constitution of communities affects how members interact with one another, in ways that pose access problems similar to those presented by traditionally constituted communities.
Other aspects of the electronic field pose unique challenges. For example, the relationship between time, physical proximity and human interaction has undergone a metamorphosis that affects the process of communication, which is conducted solely through the modern technology of writing. In the past communication by written word necessarily involved considerable delay. The convergence of computing and telecommunications has reduced this delay from months, weeks, days to hours and minutes. CMC remains asynchronous, but is closer to face-to-face interaction in respect of temporal framing than writing has traditionally been. The effect of this technologically-enabled reduction in response time is dramatic, and can also be seen in how the mode is construed by those engaged in it. People do not "write" to their friends on the Internet, they "talk," and communicative acts are conceived of in terms of a less formal "conversation" mode, despite the fact that they employ the traditionally more formal and structured written mode. Due to the more immediate and "conversational" nature of CMC, downloaded or "recorded" examples of text-only interaction are merely fossils of communal interaction, in which key emotional components have leached away over time. As such they need to be examined in a very different light than traditional textual materials.
It might be said that CMC, because it is text-based, is an "impoverished" communication environment when compared with face-to-face communication. Hiltz and Turoff (1979) describe some of the aspects of this "narrowing of communication channels":
In visual channels some of the most basic but absent cues are, of course, gender, class, age and ethnicity, but there are also cues which are very casually, subtly or even unconsciously employed in "normal" conversations: these include hand gestures, and nodding or shaking of the head; facial expressions indicating sincerity, amusement, trust or dislike; body language indicating shyness, distrust or nervousness; plus physical responses such as blushing, yawning, rapid breathing and blinking. All are present in face-to-face communication; all are absent from CMC.
These cues are deeply associated with the physical body, and dependence on them in communication has been culturally determined from time immemorial. Michael Heim (1991) writes about how this deeply ingrained sense of body is affected by the transference of communication into cyberspace.
This indicates the paradoxical nature of CMC. On the one hand it can be a very egalitarian environment. Those who have been marginalized in physical communities can approach electronic ones free of stigma. In cyberspace it is impossible to determine the ethnicity of a speaker by skin color; it is impossible to judge sexual orientation based on dress or body movement. On the other hand, it is also impossible to determine whether a participant is joking or angry by tone of voice. Ironically, too, the same features that tend to level the social playing field and make it less dependent on traditional markers of social status, also efface much of the diversity and color that bring zest and joy to social interaction.
How has writing been modified for cyberspace? In response to the immediacy of CMC, newsgroup writing is much less formal. Messages tend to be shorter - typically one or two paragraphs - than in more formal and asynchronous modes of writing. In keeping with its conversational flavor, writing in newsgroups is also much less grammatically correct. Spelling and punctuation are considered relatively unimportant. The following is an excerpt from one of the first electronic "letters" one author received:
on an approach which i GUESS i'd call one of "scientific SUBjectivity."
i'm not exactly trying to remain DEtached from virtuality or the Net...
i don't feel that the environment rewards such an approach.
Several features of this note are common to much writing on the Internet. Not capitalizing the personal pronoun is fairly typical and probably due to a sense of urgency not usually present in writing, which normally takes much longer to compose, and to deliver. In fact, capitalization generally is something .rez just does not bother with; it takes too much time and destroys the flow of his "speech." The same is true of spelling errors and other typographical blunders. Writing on the Net is for speed, not for show; if, in the opinion of the writer, meaning is more or less clear, there is no social need to copyedit. This is due, in part, to clumsy text editing interfaces which dominated the early development of CMC and made it difficult to correct errors. More importantly, though, most errors are passed over in the same manner as verbal errors in a face-to-face conversation. Notice also the extravagant use of all caps, parentheses, asterisks, ellipses and other infrequently used writing devices, and how these affect the tone of the message. This communication is more like a hallway conversation than a letter.
Another feature of CMC is the commonly-used sig. file or "signature." These
are employed to construct identity on the network. The three examples below
reveal that they can be analogous to clothes and body language in face-to-face
In addition to typographical tactics geared to produce distinct personal identity, an entire lexicon of acronyms has evolved to overcome the slowness of keyboarding in a conversational environment. Examples include: BTW (by the way), BRB (be right back), IMHO (in my humble opinion), RL (real life), and f2f (face-to-face). These are commonly understood Internet-wide abbreviations; many others are specific to a particular newsgroup or even a "thread" (particular conversation) within a newsgroup. Other now common practices which have evolved to cope with the lack of paralingual and gestural modes on the Net include TYPING IN ALL CAPS TO SHOUT and combining typographic symbols into "emoticons" (commonly known as "smileys") for displaying some of the emotional cues lost through the narrowing of communication channels.
These examples are just a few of the adaptations that have come into being to compensate for the "impoverished" CMC interface. Electronic communities evolved in a communication environment that denies members many of the signifying practices that have become transparent through their very ubiquity in face-to-face communication. They only become apparent in their absence. These same examples show that electronic communities do not and cannot formulate new communication strategies or new cultures from whole cloth. Instead they borrow, reinvent and reconfigure tools already at hand to fashion symbolic systems that simultaneously adapt to, create and sustain a new communication environment.
|Entering the electronic field|
Entering the field and insinuating oneself into a community of strangers in order to research the community requires an effective strategy, regardless of whether the community is a traditional geographically based one or an electronic one. The strategy for this study, an examination of the newsgroups rec.arts.startrek and alt.cyberpunk, was divided into four phases: observation, survey and solicitation of respondents, open-ended interviews, and active participation.
Our rationale for this sequencing was as follows: monitoring, as the first phase of the research, seemed intuitive, and no different from the kind of reconnoitering done in preparation for most ethnological studies. The survey phase was in essence an extension of the monitoring phase, an attempt to increase knowledge of the communities of study in preparation for seeking participatory access. Solicitation of community leaders can easily be equated with the more traditional ethnologist's activity of seeking informants within the community to be studied. Many ethnologists have learned that it is easier to move about a strange community in the company of a trusted member. Informants can vouch for the stranger and give advice on local customs; that is, they serve the dual purpose of providing contextualized knowledge and safe passage. Active participation within the groups was conceived of as the final phase, in part because it was feared that members of the newsgroups might react negatively to being assigned the role of "research subjects" and refuse to interact with the researcher. In our view, this phase also constituted the "being there" necessary to experiencing, first-hand, how community membership was defined, how interaction was governed in this anarchic medium, and how other communal norms and standards were established and enforced.
If, as in traditional ethnology, the researcher entered the community with insufficient data about the norms and mores, and without the cachet of an introduction from one or more of the community's long-standing members, communities could - and preliminary research indicated often would - simply ignore the researcher's posts. It was hoped that sequencing the research project in the manner described would avert these pitfalls and allow participant observation in a more "natural" way.
As in the case of many field studies, the research strategy underwent some modification as the study progressed and "conditions in the field" changed. The first phase proceeded much as expected since no interaction with community members was needed at that point. It involved regularly reading the posts to the community. In Net parlance, this is known as "lurking."
The life span of a newsgroup post is typically about two weeks, but is somewhat dependent upon the response it generates. Each post has a subject line, and "threads," or separate conversations within groups identified by their subject lines, spring up, flourish, and die over the course of a few weeks or months - depending on the passion they arouse within the community. Long threads, having many posts and a more extended lifetime, were inherently more interesting than single posts that generated little or no response. In addition, threads with subject lines indicating particular relevance to the research in one or more of three areas - issues of community, issues of identity, and issues of technology - drew our attention. Over a period of three months, all or part of fifteen major threads in rec.arts.startrek and all or part of twenty-six in alt.cyberpunk were downloaded.
The analysis of this data was used to devise the survey phase and entry strategies as well as determine how to construct the category of "community leaders" in this novel environment. Moreover, these downloaded threads began to reveal the distinct "personalities" of each group. These "personalities" can be characterized in terms of responses to outsider queries: the typical startrek response was more or less friendly, the typical cyberpunk response more or less hostile. Also, startrek tended to be much more "on-topic," i.e. the threads more focused on the stated purpose of the newsgroup, namely the discussion of Star Trek in all its incarnations. In contrast, alt.cyberpunk rarely discussed its supposed topic, the sub-genre of science fiction known as cyberpunk. In fact, in the threads monitored, very little mention was made of cyberpunk science fiction, or science fiction of any stripe for that matter.
About a week after the public survey was posted, community leaders (defined principally by how prolific they were in the respective newsgroups) were invited by multiple-address email to engage in private email conversations. Response to this effort was much better than the overall response to the initial survey. Unfortunately, disappointingly few of the cyberpunk responses were from the most prolific posters.
By this stage of the project, cyberpunk had begun to emerge as the far more interesting group, in part because its hostility suggested a vigilant policing of group boundaries. The lower rate of response to our posts indicated failure to gain access, as if a traditional ethnologist had entered a geographic neighborhood to discover that no one would talk or even acknowledge his/her presence. On the other hand, responses from the startrek group were friendlier, many even eager in tone. But as those conversations went into depth on the issues at hand, responses seemed automatic, standardized, even shallow, and consequently much less germane to the research.
The third phase consisted of a month of extended email conversations with community leaders. One respondent, "Chalons," provided much-needed advice about the social dynamics of alt.cyberpunk and gaining access. She offered suggestions based on her knowledge of the group and its leaders but, in essence, her advice was to post to the group publicly. She also gave insights into how to approach community leaders who had not responded to the original plea for participation:
Sourcerer, in contrast to the others, is a cyberpunk. Approach him from that angle. It may be that you need to become a visible participant in the game to lure these people into conversing with you. I'd start posting under the name Zeitgiese. It helps to come up with a cool name, and on that I've given you a head start. Post things that show you've been following the game ...
(email correspondence, 7/10/95)
Startrek respondents were friendly and forthcoming but tended to be very narrowly focused on the various television series. They didn't seem willing to engage in the wide-ranging discussions we had envisioned - and which, indeed, we were already engaging in with some figures in alt.cyberpunk. Monitoring of both groups continued, but interest in "cracking the code" to gain access to cyberpunk increasingly displaced interest in startrek. Based on Chalons' advice, another attempt was made to draw additional community leaders into extended, private email conversation. This time, however, customized notes went to individual members of the cyberpunk group only. The following plea addresses a long-time, highly active member who had recently begun what turned out to be the extended, collaborative narrative known at alt.cyberpunk as the "Rancho Deluxe" threads:
- Been hangin' around for a while here and notice not only are you
(most of the time) but that you persist. You also seem intent on helping
define alt.cp. Watched you take part in defense of the ranch from
Omar (along with Sourcerer and others) and for all intents and purposes
then turn around and initiate him into the clan. ... Am interested
in what constitutes an (on-line)community and how identity/persona/atavar
are formed within it. ... Wanna talk?Yep, I'm one of them (see below)
(private email correspondence, 8/26/95)
This private note was composed to fit the narrative taking place publicly on alt.cyberpunk at the time. At Chalons' suggestion, it and other personalized notes to community leaders went out over a .sig fashioned with the group in mind:
One newcomer, Omar, was added to the list of community leaders whose posts had generated much response from regulars. Once again, however, this new batch of email was met, more or less, with resounding silence. Nevertheless, the newcomer replied and so did two community leaders we were very interested in. A fourth of particular interest for his apparent leadership status within the community also replied, though hardly as hoped:
(private email correspondence, 8/31/95)
So terse a reply nevertheless gave heart; it somehow seemed better to be rebuffed than ignored. Omar agreed to correspond privately and, like Chalons, suggested posting publicly. The response from SweetPoly was polite but also a refusal, with yet another suggestion to post publicly:
I'm v. glad to hear of your interest, Z, and yeah, I want to talk, but I simply cannot do it in private email correspondence, because my time is stretched enough as it is. I want to really encourage you to participate in the newsgroup, and to get you started (will wait for your permission, first, tho'), I'd like to use your description of yourself below. You've obviously got the 'point', and it would have been *great* if you'd posted it publicly. C'mon, don't be a 'fraidy cat! @:) ...just enough so that you are one of the gang on the porch. There's safety in numbers, and I need as many people taking part (even just a little) as possible.
(private email correspondence, 8/29/95)
Given this gentle encouragement to post publicly and similar urging from every other multiple poster in the group who had responded, active participation in alt.cyberpunk proceeded in the first week of September 1995.
As Kauffman (1992) has previously argued, negotiations between researchers and subjects and the strategies both develop to carry out the research, are part of the ethnological evidence. That is, they have meaning beyond the generation - or blocking - of observations, interviews, and so forth. Among other things, negotiations can tell the researcher that the research protocol is all wrong, that it does not recognize the group or person for what or who they "really" are. Negotiations, in short, may well be a request to rephrase the question.
In the project at hand, ease of access to startrek along with the routine nature of responses, came to signify a newsgroup that functioned quite literally like a topic-specific kiosk or bulletin board. Though making use of new technology and some of its conventions (including many of the textual innovations discussed earlier), the group did not seem to be engaged in any fundamentally new practices. In other words, rec.arts.startrek uses new communication technology in an "old" way. There, the message is still "Star Trek," and the electronic community merely an extension of the geographic array of fan clubs, conventions, memorabilia emporiums and the like. In contrast, difficulty of access to alt.cyberpunk along with the advice offered suggested a reflexive engagement in using this new communication technology to (re)define community in a new "place." What was to have been approximately equal attention toward both groups thus shifted in favor of alt.cyberpunk, though some group members clearly did not perceive our interest as a "favor." The final phase, public participant observation, began with a follow-up to SweetPoly's public post of zeitgeyser's private self-introduction. She posted it in one of the many collaborative threads that had spun off her original narrative construct, the cyberspatial "Rancho Deluxe" where "the regulars" hung out. Perhaps because of what we've been calling group "personality," perhaps due to the avatar as constructed, zeitgeyser was met with attitudes ranging from indifference to open hostility. Sourcerer's attack included reference to our earlier, private solicitation:
leans over the widows walk...hmmmmmm...it gave him a fright for a
moment, Great White God come in big flying canoe and scare helpless
native peoples, an' all...
The above post is interesting for several reasons in addition to its hostility. First, Sourcerer does not "break frame"; he continues the narrative in keeping with past posts to this thread. Second, he indicates that he keeps a personal email log and possibly some sort of group archive by his reference to the earlier solicitation of frequent posters, which is accurate both in terms of time frame and people solicited. Third, he makes fun of academia and its research. This is obviously not the first time alt.cyberpunk has been "invaded." A tactical retreat seemed in order:
Zeitgeyser stares owlisly through his thick glasses at the group on the porch. "Punks" is what they call themselves. (must be the local word for human beings) The natives don't seem particularly hostile - except for the bandy-legged oldster in an extremely odd costume (might not mean anything - the native ... er local attire seems to be rather eclectic) staring down at him from the widows walk. He's emitting a hostile noise not unlike the sound of air escaping a recently stillettoed tire and stroking a small furry animal (probably calming it before a ritualistic sacrifice). This is obviously the shaman of the tribe. The rest of the "punks" on the porch make no hostile moves but make no gestures of welcome either. It occurs to Zeitgeyser that perhaps he has come at a bad time. "Perhaps it might be better if I come back later." he sez. After a short silence that seems interminable he sighs and steps back into the dustclud he emerged from - retreating to his pocket universe to consider this first ambivilent encounter with the natives.
Zeitgeyser's first post also garnered a hostile response from another "regular," a response which nearly destroyed him, both narratively speaking and perhaps definitively for all practical research purposes, before he could leave:
A giant fist seizes his shoulder and jerks him roughly back onto the dusty road to Poly's ranch. "Ha!" roars Sym, up ending and shaking the terrified lurker "No pool cue! No torch! No offerings!" Caustic drool oozes down onto Zeitgeyser's forehead. "Crunchings and Munchings!"A dusty book on sociology falls to the ground...Poof! Sym torches it with a growl... "You watch but no learn - build no place for self, no wards...you mine!". . . . Attracted by Sym's booming laughter and the prospect of blood a few cps gather about to watch the spectacle, jeers and cheers mingling in the midnight air, rising above the whine of the auto-flame throwers retargeting themselves.... Great jaws of death close slowly about the squirming supplicant as he frantically tries to come up with something...anything...
|On "being there"|
Now it might be possible to provide some provisional answers to the questions raised early in this essay. Firstly, we would not fetishize "being there" as a yellow brick road to ethnological authority. Nevertheless, the act of gaining entré to a community is not merely pragmatic, nor merely a technique for accessing data. Rather, getting permission from a community to "be there" means learning about what constitutes "being there" for "the natives," at least to a sufficient degree to be able to manage this on a trial basis. That is, ethnological presence must be continuously negotiated and can be lost by breaches of local behavioral norms. Moreover, it is not necessarily the same version of "being there" as that enjoyed by community members. The ethnologist's presence is more likely that of long-term visitor rather than member. Nevertheless, negotiations over ethnological access are part of the ethnological evidence, one of the ways communities communicate who they are to interested outsiders.
For alt.cyberpunk, "being there" consisted of participating in a public, community-defining discourse, and getting there was a trial by fire - literally. Remember the flame throwers! Interestingly, zeitgeyser's presence continued to evolve. He was invited into a "real-time" electronic conversation with Sourcerer, SweetPoly and other Rancho Deluxe regulars. This is the closest thing to face-to-face that an electronic community has to offer, but in an apparent reversal of typical geographic community practice, a privilege earned by engaging in public conversation first.
The rise and persistence of the Rancho Deluxe threads was serendipitous for this study. We were lucky enough to be present more or less from the beginning and had the privilege of being able to observe how they evolved and what effect that seemed to have on participants and their sense of community. One of the most interesting aspects of these threads is the role they played in constructing a space with a well-defined "inside" and "outside," and how that helped clarify participants' stances towards the community as well as towards non-participants who also "inhabited" the geography of alt.cyberpunk but not the "architecture" of the Ranch.
For alt.cyberpunk members who did hang out at Rancho Deluxe, the construction and maintenance of the Ranch seemed to be quite comforting, suggesting that even metaphorical geography is highly facilitative to the process of community formation. Ann Swidler (1986) offers an explanation, arguing that in periods of change and unfamiliar situations humans tend to do what they already know how to do, to the extent possible:
In other words, people tend to import familiar and comfortable practices into the new cultural environments in which they find themselves. In this instance we propose that alt.cyberpunk participants' exposure to media - which are, after all, in the business of narrative constructions of geography, community and personal and community relations - served as good preparation for the narrative construction of community in cyberspace. The Rancho Deluxe threads bore some resemblance to a screenplay, and participating in them some resemblance to theater.
Given the dominant role played by the cooperative narrative in the construction of the virtual geography of alt.cyberpunk and the architecture of the Ranch, it might be worthwhile investigating the role played by narrative in the constitution of geographically defined communities, and how narratives of place are constructed. It might be helpful to ask whether actual geography or the more metaphysical narrative geography is primary to community formation and maintenance. In other words, is it more important to be within the borders of Texas or to partake of and participate in the narrative of Texas in order to be "Texan"? Our research indicates that the narrative is much more important than the actual geography - so important that, in this case, the community needs no actual geography, only the narrative construction of geography, to satisfy the need for a communal sense of place.
|Questions of power|
The importance of narrative in community suggests it is essential to understand how individuals acquire narrative power. Narrative power might well be similar in importance to other measures of stature within a given community, such as ownership of property, political power, wealth or even longevity. One of the things that makes the Rancho Deluxe threads important and unique is that members of the community lacked many of the "tools of enforcement" to which leaders have access in physical communities. Typically, these tools are connected intimately to the markers of community power mentioned above: ownership or physical control of actual geography within the community, political power based on codified legal systems, or physical power over other members of the community. In a virtual community there is no formal legal system that confers political power on specific individuals under specific circumstances, there is certainly no way for community members to threaten other members with sheer physical dominance, and since territory in cyberspace is virtual there is no way for community members to own or control that territory in the traditional sense.
Nevertheless, SweetPoly and Sourcerer in particular wielded disproportionately greater power than other members. More curious than the fact that power was distributed unequally was the fact that it was and could be distributed at all without the traditional tools of enforcement mentioned above. What factors are important in determining who holds power? What does this unequal distribution of power within a community that does not have access to the traditional tools of enforcement imply regarding the distribution of power in other venues? It could be argued that it calls into question the Marxist theorizing of a "classless" society. Marx postulated that social relations can be traced to material resources and that social power is derived ultimately from control of those resources. However, the notion that the equal distribution of material resources will produce an egalitarian social environment doesn't seem to be borne out in this case since material resources - beyond access to the technological infrastructure of the Internet - are irrelevant to the constitution of online communities. The community at alt.cyberpunk still exhibited a more or less hierarchical structure despite the fact that it arose in an environment devoid of both material resources and the usual tools of enforcement. The virtual nature of the electronic environment may well lend new credence to the concept of "cultural capital" advanced by Pierre Bourdieu (1984). In part at least, both Poly and Sourcerer made good use of amassed "cultural capital" to exert a strong influence on the tone and nature of the discourse.
Of course we recognize that a newsgroup does have a close connection to the material world and is not divorced from the social structures that foster it, but those material connections and resources did not seem to be fundamentally at stake in either the cooperative narrative or participation in alt.cyberpunk. The narrative of the Rancho Deluxe threads had no control over the material resources which allowed the newsgroup to exist and therefore no real hold on the participants. Outsiders and hostile interlopers had as much access as any of the Rancho regulars. What they did not have was symbolic access. A similar question arises as to why Sourcerer and Poly persisted in the "defense" of a Ranch which did not materially exist.
Power in alt.cyberpunk derived from at least three sources, which were as ephemeral as the environment within which they were exercised. The first was longevity, which seemed to be Sourcerer's chief source of power. This longevity was not evidenced by his wizened visage but rather by his computer skills and the fact that he seemed to have downloaded and saved much of the text of alt.cyberpunk. Sourcerer could speak of the past with authority, and literally present chunks of it from his archives to prove or bolster points he made. For Sourcerer, longevity was measured in years, as opposed to the usual months most denizens of the Ranch or alt.cyberpunk could boast.
A second source of power was the ability to produce and manipulate text of a particular kind - to participate in the construction of the narrative of the Ranch. This was one of Poly's strengths, which is unsurprising considering it was she who initiated the Rancho Deluxe threads with a tea party for Omar on her porch. Omar's ability with text was of a different stripe, namely the theoretical and analytical constructs of scholarly discourse, which the cyberpunks rejected. In fact, rather than being denied symbolic access, what happened was a competition between narratives, in which SweetPoly's "took" and Omar's was trampled. This might be seen as a competition between different kinds of cultural capital.
A third source of power in this virtual environment was another, very specific form of cultural capital, specifically a strong knowledge of science fiction in general and cyberpunk science fiction in particular. This is one of the reasons that a character called eyebrown had a great deal of credibility within the community. It was common knowledge among the regulars that eyebrown was a well-known and respected critic, confidant, and contemporary of cyberpunk authors such as Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, as well as being the publisher of a slick literary magazine specializing in science fiction criticism and gossip. It should be noted here that there were others with equal knowledge of science fiction - Sourcerer, .mpa and zeitgeyser included - and that there were participants whose prose skills equalled Poly's. The figures discussed merely provide examples of the wielding of different kinds of power.
In the Rancho Deluxe community, where the development of a social hierarchy clearly could not be explained by material inequity or access to traditional "weapons," symbolic rather than material resources mediated power relations. The tools of enforcement used were socially constructed to fit the virtual environment of alt.cyberpunk. There was no way for the punks to exclude specific individuals from the discourse at alt.cyberpunk, yet Poly persisted in the "fiction" of throwing Omar out and he acquiesced in his excommunication by silencing himself. Given this behavior, it is important to ask: how dependent is the cohesion of traditional geographic communities on the tools of enforcement that many perceive to be so much a part of the apparatus of social control? A fruitful avenue of investigation would be to examine the role of narratives of community in the selection and legitimation of particular tools of social enforcement within particular communities. While the sense that a narrative of community plays an important role in social interaction and social control is not new, our research seems to confirm that such narratives might play as important or more important a role than the specific instruments a community devises to enforce social norms. If power comes from the barrel of a gun, the legitimation of the gun as a tool of social enforcement would seem to come from the communal narrative. This has important implications for conceptualizing how mass media might contribute to the narrative construction of social options available in daily life and how we think about media content - such as violent television programmes, for instance.
A final area where the cooperative narrative of Rancho Deluxe may be instructive is in reconceptualizing the interdependence of community and identity. Much has been made, especially by postmodernists such as Jacques Lacan, of the decentering of the "self." We have become skeptical of the modernist stance that argues for a unitary concept of self, in that this concept doesn't appear to have much grounding in personal experience. It seems intuitive to us that as individuals, we tend to move rather freely and fluidly through a repertoire of identities as we present ourselves in various social contexts. This view has been cogently presented by Goffman (1961, 1969). By the same token, we would take issue with the postmodernist stance that these different selves are somehow discontinuous or lacking in continuity when viewed from an individual's interior perspective. In his 1993 Metaphors of Identity, Thomas Fitzgerald presents an extended argument which supports our view. We do, as the postmodernists argue, present various selves to the world based on the social contexts we encounter. However, we also are able to create and maintain a sense of personal continuity that at least allows the illusion of unitary self, albeit perhaps not the tidily consistent, coherent self which the modernists seemed to believe was essential to mental health.
It is this area where technologies of communication play an extremely important role - not in the decentering of self - but in making possible additional opportunities for variable presentations of self. In some cases this is simply through the provision of additional venues, but in many cases new presentations of a variable self are enabled by increasing the social malleability of space and time. At one time, social relations were restricted to the people with whom one could interact on a face-to-face basis within a limited geographical arena. One might shift that arena and thereby increase the opportunities for a variable presentation of self by physically going to a different place, but this was limited by the slowness and inefficiency of transport. Modern forms of transport brought far more occasions for physically travelling to new communities; while communications technologies have increased the range of opportunities to project one's identity or at least a simulacrum of one's identity across a distance. However, in addition to allowing the projection of such simulacra, communications technologies have also placed severe restraints - or bandwidth restrictions - on their nature. In the case of the telephone, for example, only the voice is "carried." Newsgroups on the Internet are yet another locus for self-presentation with both new opportunities for, and medium-determined constraints on, the presentation of self.
One of the reasons we are reluctant to accept the terminology of "decenteredness" has to do with our sense of self and how we present ourselves in differing communities in which we participate daily. Like most people in our modern society, we move in several social circles and play differing roles within them. A non-inclusive workplace-based list might encompass: student, teacher, employee, counselor. In addition, we have social roles outside the workplace, including (for one of us) father, spouse, neighbor, consumer, citizen. As might be expected, many of these roles have degrees of overlap and there are varying amounts of similarity in our presentation of self as we move through these communities. We are never exactly the same "person," yet there is a continuity across presentations. We do not usually experience ourselves as "decentered," nor do we sense that the people we interact with in these various communities experience us as unstable or fragmented. We do not feel that our personal experiences are any different in this respect from many, even most, other people's. Giese's experiences with his self-presentation at Rancho Deluxe, though to some extent enabled by the new medium, do not strike us as being qualitatively different from those familiar in other aspects - whether or not specifically enabled by technology - of everyday life.
The removal of the geographical element from the study of community that is presented here serves, finally, to point up how virtual most traditional communities really are, rather than to point out the "deficiencies" of virtual communities as compared to more traditional ones. The development of the cooperative narrative that was the community of Rancho Deluxe serves to emphasize how important this communal narrative was to the process of community. This is not to say that geography or physical and material resources are not important to communities, but rather that these are neither necessary nor sufficient elements for the formation of community. What the narrative of Rancho Deluxe shows is that, above all, symbolic resources are needed; if the community feels the need for geography it will simply "tell" a mutually and communally defined geography into existence. After all, are not all political borders similar sorts of virtual geography, mutually and communally defined? In the final analysis, "being there" has much more to do with the symbolic negotiations that mutually define identity and community than "mere" physical presence.
As for the viability of this methodology as applied to the study of electronic communities, our stand is that collecting texts in the form of interviews and the like is essential but not adequate for the label "ethnology." That is, we would distinguish ethnology from qualitative interviewing and other applications of ethnological techniques in partial ways. The latter are certainly appropriate in many situations. Moreover, we are not suggesting that a "being there" moment magically confers validity and reliability on the account. Nor will we take a stand on what constitutes "being there"; certainly we challenge the implicit face-to-face aspect of the definition which has pertained since Malinowski. Rather, it depends on what constitutes "being there" in the community of interest. And as far as we can tell, ethnology is the best way to find out, for it involves testing knowledge as it is gained. In our view, this study was indeed an example of ethnological field work using the tools of participant-observation rather than the collection of "mere" texts.
 Parts of this article draw on research initially presented in Giese (1998b).
 The third feature of Malinowski's methodology, a "concrete, statistical documentation [of] the organization of the tribe," appears from his account to be a product of the cornerstone strategies: participant observation and collecting texts (1984: 24).
 See Stocking (1983), who locates Malinowski and his research strategy relative to the tourists, missionaries and mostly armchair anthropologists who preceded him.
 His distaste for "the natives" is revealed in his posthumously published diaries (Malinowski 1989).
 This is Stocking's term. Throughout this essay we have used ethnology to refer to the methodology, in keeping with contemporary usage in anthropology.
 As Lindlof (1955) indicates, what separates ethnology from other qualitative methodologies is its interest in holistic accounts.
 See Kauffman (1992) for a fuller discussion of the "local politics" of social identity (race, class, gender) in ethnology.
 At the time of the study there were over five thousand forums, defined by topic, where individuals could post articles and comments. For the most part these groups are unmoderated; that is to say, no person or agency monitors contributions to a newsgroup to determine the worthiness or appropriateness of individual posts. Contributors simply write comments, address them to desired newsgroups, and use automated software to send them. Newsgroups are thus akin to the kiosks many universities have in public places, where all manner of information is posted, except that each topic represents a separate kiosk. As might be expected, these "electronic kiosks" soon become cluttered. Automated software "maintains" these kiosks by periodically removing outdated posts. There are no centrally maintained archives of posts.
 Even more curiously, an astonishing number of writers on ethnology refer to participant observation without attempting to define it at all. We found dozens of references throughout Denzin and Lincoln's Handbook (1994) but not one straightforward definition. Even Atkinson and Hammersley, whose task in that volume is to define participant observation, first note that "the definition of participant observation has been less controversial [than that of ethnography], but its meaning is no easier to pin down" (1994: 248), then proceed directly to a discussion of various forms of observation and roles of observers, without ever setting out the meaning of the fundamental concept.
 This concept of community as common interest is not new. Descriptors of such communities have ranged over the years from "invisible colleges" to Stanley Fish's more recent "interpretive communities" (1989), but the concept has generally been applied in studies of literature, language, or academia as an institution, using methodologies like semiotics and textual analysis.
 For example, many alt.cyberpunk regulars used gender-neutral or gender-ambiguous aliases, handles or avatars, though their posts connoted a sense of gender. Such posters are referred to herein with gender pronouns based on our attributions of gender to their posts. It is important to remember, however, that the gender of electronic community members may or may not agree with the gender of their "real life" authors.
 In fact, class is not entirely absent, for having the use of a computer and having access to the Internet are class markers, albeit ones that quickly become transparent due to their ubiquity in the electronic communications environment.
 With considerable regret we have edited quotes from the Internet, but for space considerations only.
 "zeitgeyser" is, of course, Mark Giese's alt.cyberpunk persona. Permission to post his self-introduction was given to SweetPoly by private email, upon which she incorporated it into the Rancho Deluxe narrative.
 It should be noted that the Rancho Deluxe threads were an aberration rather than the rule. Other threads in the newsgroup took the form of conversations or debates rather than elaborate collaborative narratives.
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