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I have gained some insight into online ethnography through Hine’s article and I wanted to see what he means by connective ethnography particularly the notion of “getting there” rather than “being there”, how to allow the subjects to judge what is authentic, and how online ethnographies despatialize notions of communities., and focus on the cultural process rather than physical place’.
(Please see multimodal presentation above for the rest of the first section on the approach and strategy used for my ethnography. I have initially written only the text below but as I was building the presentation I wanted to expand and explain the steps towards doing an online ethnography of this nature. I was not intending to post the full text below but the platform used, presented some issues for me as I was trying to ensure that nothing was left out. There is little way of making sure of that, especially for a long presentation. Hence the inclusion of the text for ‘post-arrival stage’ and the analysis below)
Statements from core reading to challenge or to validate
I was interested to gain a better understanding of what makes an online community and test out the idea that:
“All communities are imagined and held together by shared cultural practice (rather than just face-to-face interaction)”, Anderson (1983)
I wanted to see if my subject in my ethnography fit into the idea of a bund which is an elective grouping, bonded by affective and emotional solidarity, sharing a strong sense of belonging, and if the communities I find try to reclaim a virtual Gemeinschaft? (a community with shared mores, belief and norms; it believes in the good beyond self.)
I want to answer the questions of a.) what does it mean to become a member of an online community and b.) is it really a good thing to become part of that online community? For example, I want to understand if there are any social codes developed. In particular, I want to understand if these social codes are established as group norms and where do I see these surfacing.
I also wanted to validate two other aspects. First, to see if Kozinets’s discussion of online communities is right: that the online environment is personally enriching social world. Secondly, I wanted to validate that Wellman (2001b) observed a type of networked individualism – online communities lack formal institutional structure means that communications will depend on the quality of social ties that the individual forms with the group.
Kavanaugh and Patterson (2001, p507) suggested that the longer people are on the Internet, the more likely they are to use the Internet to engage in social-capital-building activities and relationships, Mc Kenna and Siedman (2005, p 212) ‘if anything, Internet use appear to be bolstering real world community involvement. How deep, long-lasting, meaningful, and intense are those social relationships?
My immersive experience
At the outset, I was interested in a particular person’s blog named Auntie Em’s CCRM journey where the writer blogged in great detail about the journey she was taking to have her own babies through In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF). After two weeks, since I wrote to ask permission, she finally wrote back and gave the go ahead. Prior to this, thinking that the door was closed on the IVF blog, I navigated to the IVF Forum which I used to visit. Unfortunately, the IVF Forum came back to me with a definite no, as it was one which you have to sign in as a member to post. This meant the members expect a level of privacy.
During this interlude, where I thought I had no sources in the IVF world, I was forced to investigate a completely different subject, namely street art, which is less private, and permissions are generally not required. After following this street art tangent, I am now back on track with my original IVF community investigation as well. I will mention all three areas and sites, as a way of comparison, without infringing on privacy issues. My main focus, however, will be Auntie Em’s (IVF) blog.
What drew me to this subject? I was personally involved in a journey, similar to the one that Auntie Em took, in the same clinic and as it happened, at around the same time. Her twins were born two days before my daughter. I and many other women were following her blog as events progressed, either as a reference point or to cheer Auntie Em along as she took on this difficult journey. I never did sign in to post but I sent personal messages two or three times at the end of her journey to thank her for sharing so honestly and accurately about her experience which had helped me navigate my own way through IVF treatment.
I stumbled upon Auntie Em’s blog while looking out for information on ladies who were treated at the Colorado Centre for Reproductive Medicine (CCRM). As it was my second IVF experience, having failed in the first attempt, I wanted to be able to refer to a community where I could draw from their experience. For the first attempt, I was lurking in Fertility community.com and Fertile Thoughts.com. I browsed every site which talked about In Vitro Fertilization to first understand the treatment and secondly to help in the search of a clinic that has a high success rate. I learnt many cultural processes of the community this way.
Whilst going through an unknown journey in a highly specialised field, where the medical terms and treatment protocols are difficult to comprehend, I chose to rely on my own research so that I became an informed client and eventually a patient, under the umbrella of infertility. My experience of lurking in the forums was one which turned out to be highly addictive, and exhausting. It was a time when I wanted to know what other IVFers did as they went through each process. I wanted to guide my expectations as much as possible and through many perspectives.
It was only after I found Auntie Em’s blog that my search for information became less exhausting. This was a great source because her blog was just focused on her experience, it was chronologically ordered and it was detailed and comprehensive. She also linked to other bloggers whom she was following, and thus there was a community of women who were going through the same treatment in the same location, but with different medical backgrounds. Because of this network aspect, I did not have to look at other sites anymore. I could just focus on these ladies’ experience. I shared their joys, their world, and their disappointments, but I did not sign in to post.
Since I did not post, looking back, I wonder: was I a member of the community? I definitely identified with them. Why was I not contributing to the community? By reading their posts, I could see that the connections between these ladies who blogged were clearly very strong. At that time, I felt I was just a novice in my experience, and I was not comfortable outlining in detail my own journey the way they did. I felt these ladies knew each other very well, and I suspected that some may have taken their connections offline with real-life relationships. I felt I was part of the community merely by the fact that we shared the same doctors and went through similar stages in our experience. I did not have to make myself visible to have a connection with them. Certainly, the idea of a bund which is an elective grouping, bonded by affective and emotional solidarity, sharing a strong sense of belonging is evident in this particular blogging community. This feature of the Auntie Em blog is definitely what helped me feel connected to the community, as if I was a participating member, even though I was just a lurker.
On the other hand, whilst visiting the IVF Forums, I always felt more of an outsider: a lurker and a newbie. There were many reasons for the way I felt. First of all, there were a lot of codes used in the forums, which I did not understand. Secondly, it also felt at times, that some people in the forums knew each other already either through the discussion threads or because some of the discussion threads hinted at real-life connections. Because of these feelings it seemed that it would be just too time consuming to create new virtual relationships, by responding or posting anything in a forum which was extremely active and constantly being visited by many people.
Perhaps if I had taken the chance to invest in being an active contributor and graduated to maker, interactor or networker (Kozinets, 2010) to the forum, and participated in the forum threads, I would have felt that I was part of the IVF Forum community, too. Nonetheless, during the time I was visiting the site, it did feel like being in Wellman and Gulia’s online life as city life; or, more accurately, as living ‘in the heart of densely populated, heterogeneous, safe, big cities.’
Slevin’s suggestion that “the benefits of membership are often described in terms of the individual member’s quality of life, rather than in the quality of relationship between subjects. (Slevin, 2000)” is only true in some instances. Forums which you could use as a platform to promote one’s work, like those I have seen on Street Art sites, would fit into this category. In contrast, sites which find intensely personal and emotional support for its members, such as those in IVF forums, tended to focus more on the quality of relationship between participants and topics. I would like to think that these different type of connections correlate to a subjective personal quality value of the exchange and that this builds trust between the members.
As far as the Auntie Em blog, there is no explicit statement of what is expected for being part of the experience with Auntie Em, or community except to join her on this journey. However, what is clear to participants is that each of these blogs exist partly because the authors want to share their journey with others. How is a community defined in this context? Perhaps Anderson’s (1983) “all communities are imagined and held together by shared cultural practice “ (rather than just face-to-face interaction) explain the level of connectedness of all of these communities perfectly.
Although street art is a cultural phenomenon, its practitioners and followers are largely pursuing personal, revolutionary goals, which celebrate their differences and originality. They are connected mainly by their desire to become disconnected from other things. In fact, copying the approach of other artists leads to a lower reputation, and so this culture is in competition both with its members and with the society that it orbits. In contrast, the members of the IVF forums are not trying to be original. They are trying to find commonality, and acceptance, and a group of people who want the same things and want the same experiences. In this way, the cultural practice is correlated to the level of connectedness desired and experienced by the participants.
Kavanaugh and Patterson (2001, p507) suggested that the longer people are on the Internet, the more likely they are to use the Internet to engage in social-capital-building activities and relationships. This is probably very true for IVF bloggers. There is real communication and community building going on, and the question is: how deep, long-lasting, meaningful, and intense are those social relationships? This is difficult to measure, but in the Auntie Em’s blog, there is a great following as other bloggers often refer to her site, and from the exchanges, it seems that from time-to-time, the online community through the shared “consumption (Kozinets, p31)”, in this case, children born through IVF, there will always be a connection. In comparison, I am uncertain if the IVF forums would actually create the same level of meaningful and intense social relationships which were evident in the Auntie Em blog, but this is something for a bigger study, and also for the time being, no permission is given to study the other IVF Forum sites as they are of a personal nature.
I do not feel that the IVF communities around the bloggers are trying to reclaim a virtual Gemeinschaft, compared to some of those I saw on Street Arts. Sharing of personal journeys for the benefit of other people, and showcasing your art work for gaining reputation and admirers are two very different sets of motivations. Bloggers of IVF experience are not writing to demonstrate their skills, where street artist maybe promoting their work or an event which is related to their work. There are no rules imposed by bloggers apart from signing in to post, and by the structure provided by a blog.
Forums are slightly different than blogs as there is usually the facility to moderate and accept membership. In addition, in forums there is the idea of trying to manage the data of both members and of the content (discussion threads). For content readers, such as lurkers, interactors and networkers, the relationship between them and content directors (makers) appears to be different between Blogs and Forums. The principle differences are seen through the lenses of authority and authorship. For bloggers, when there is a community formed around blogs, there is a sense that the blogger possess some kind of authority in the field, and readers can develop a relationship with the blogger. In forums, outside of the moderator, there is perhaps less focus on authority, because it is assumed that anyone sharing an experience on the topic is sufficient. Forums are mostly populated by people looking for a collection of short answers to short posts and hoping to be able to sift through the results for a useful response by readers. In fact, discussion forums have less of a sense of authorship since they are designed for short messages and question posting, whereas the blog is centered on authorship of a longer narrative.
So what makes an online community? Online communities could be studied by analyzing the population of interaction types as suggested by Kozinets. For example, in both the forum and the blog, there is certainly evidence of all four types of Kozinets’s interaction, but there may be a different distribution of interaction types between forums and blogs, which could be seen as a sort of finger-print for the online community involved. Using this type of data analysis, it may be possible to draw correlations between collections of behavior, like promoting social change, bonding, cruising or geeking. As designers of online education communities, we know some behaviours create stronger and richer learning environments, and some detract from it. This kind of research could be very useful as a road-map towards designing and implementing more impactful and valuable learning experiences for our students.
Unfortunately, this level statistical research and analysis is beyond the scope of this current work, but even just a cursory look at these few sites yields tantalizing clues. For example, there is a burgeoning question: do any of the sites which I have visited for my ethnography demonstrate the communities as social agents for cultural transformations? Furthermore, and does the internet liberate and constrain? (Olaniran 2004, mentioned by Kozinet, 2010, p 39)
In some ways, I feel Auntie Em’s site, does act as social agent: to empower the women with knowledge, to feel a sense of togetherness as opposed to isolation and thus equipping its readers with some shared experience which better prepares them for treatment. The forum experience could meet these same goals, but does so in an exhausting way, as you have to trawl through pages of information to find what you need.
Continuing this cursory analysis using Kozinets’s interaction types, shows that on the forum, most posts are made by makers, and interactors whereas the blog appears to have more networkers compared to the forum. In both examples, Auntie Em’s site and the IVF Forum, there certainly are a lot of lurkers (277,537 for the blog)
These observations of interaction type concentrations correlate with my experience of being in the forum and blog. It appears that online communities with more networkers, rather than just makers and interactors, the value of the experience, especially for promoting social change, is much higher. This assumption is not directly explored by Kozinets’s chart on types of online participation which could lead learning community designers to give too much focus on makers and/or interactors.
Kozinets’s chart overlooks the possibility that without networkers, community ties may be strong, but they could also be a less valuable experience in terms of maximizing benefits to the participants. For example, with just devotees and insiders, the content might be too homogenous and resulting in a less valued community compared to other alternatives. It would be very useful to add a third dimension to Kozinets’s chart, which could be labeled “Value of Shared Connections”. This dimension could be a proxy for the relative potential value of the learning experience between learning environments.
This proposed dimension of development is based on the observation that since blogs tend to have more links or mention other people in the content (compared to forum posts which have much less external reference), this could be are indication of shared connections with the community. These are the minglers or networkers. Auntie Em’s blog has a list of bloggers, hence a small knit group but with more shared connections.
The value of shared connections correlating with the value of learning experience in education is not a new idea. It is one of the main criteria some people have in choosing their education environment, particularly when one looks at why some people seek out an elite learning experience. The elite learning experience may not have better measurable learning outcomes, but the lifetime benefits of its alumni can be measured as significantly more successful, and the likely cause of this difference is the network of people connections acquired through that learning environment.
Given all of these observations, it seems that there are good reasons for further study of this theory for improving learning potential encouraging shared connections among participants in online communities. Follow-up studies take time, but they are also recognized as providing strong evidence in support of the affect of different approaches and opportunities in education. There are also opportunities for conducting a study of a proper statistical sample of forums and comparing them with blogs to establish the degree to which each has a different distribution of lurkers, makers, interactors and networkers.
Studies should consider the various community enablers (mechanisms) such as blogs vs forums and try to understand whether blogs or forums tend to create more lurkers, more makers, interactors, networkers. Controls could be introduced to compare sites with and without active moderators, and whether effects are strong in small communities compared to larger communities. For example, it should be possible to measure the number of interactors compared to makers in forums as a percentage of the population over time, and then try to tease out some addition driving factors which make a forum a poor learning experience or a good learning experience.
Wellman (2001b) observed a type of networked individualism. Because online communities lack formal institutional structure, this suggests that communications will depend on the quality of social ties that the individual forms with the group. It seems a good assumption that strong social ties will increase the perceived value of the learning experience. For example, if students do not develop social ties with each other, it seems unlikely that they will respond positively to a survey on the perceived educational value of that learning environment. Without the benefit of social ties, students could easily conclude that self study is as good if not a better option.
Ultimately, research of this kind help compare new and existing tools with success at achieving a particular education goal. With this sort of data available, designers of learning environments could make changes to existing tools, verify the value of new ones and steer designers away from less effective ones.
Probably the strongest evidence of the value of including social media as part of online learning environments comes from an examination of the reasons behind the success of Facebook as a social media service. Facebook was so successful in growing its service and perceived value because from the very beginning, its focus was to attract people based on their connections in real life, and provide members a way to grow their pool of shared connections through friends and friends of friends. This approach meant that as the community grew bigger it also grew more valuable in terms of potential and capability because it was always finding new ways to get people to connect to each other. It was always about growing and encouraging shared connections. Its ability to simplify connection maintenance and expansion was so well designed, it has created connections across gender, age, nationality and beliefs to a far greater extent than other enterprises with similar goals.
When online community designers want to take some of the lessons of successful social networking and use those as a model for how to create learning communities with more potential and perceived value, this should focus first on increasing the number of shared connections and shared connection opportunities for participants. As long as learning communities are built around a collection of blogs and forums, the shared connection opportunities are likely to remain limited and small. The tools used by online communities for learning should be expanded to encourage the use of photos, video, audio and other creative media. For example, learning games should be as easy to customize and drop into a word-press template as a forum or blog is today. Most importantly, students should be recognized and rewarded for sharing their connections with their classmates, and not just providing their own participation. This shift towards the conscious value of connections and not an invisible contributor behind all people will increase learning potential dramatically through the contributions of groups of people outside the virtual classroom. The most successful learning communities of the future will find more ways to encourage people to create and share connections with new content and new way of arranging content on a regular basis.
Hine, C (2000) The virtual objects of ethnography, chapter 3 of Virtual ethnography. London: Sage. pp41-66
Bell, David (2001) Community and cyberculture, chapter 5 of An introduction to cybercultures. Abingdon: Routledge. pp92-112 [e-book] [PDF]
Kozinets, R. V. (2010) Chapter 2 Understanding Culture Online, Netnography: doing ethnographic research online. London: Sage. pp. 21-40
Rheingold, H (2000) Introduction to The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. London: MIT Press.
Gatson, S and Zweerink, A (2004) Ethnography online: natives practising and inscribing community. Qualitative Research, 4(2), 179-200.
Wellman, B. (2001b) “Physical Place and Cyber-Place: The Rise of Networked Individualism.” International Journal for Urban and Regional Research, 25: 227-52.