In the past 20 years, the Internet has become increasingly populated by a variety of new sorts of communities and forms of communication. This phenomenon has resulted in the formation of groups of dispersed peoples coming together on the basis of common interests, agendas, and the exchange of information. Through participant-observation, case study, textual/linguistic analysis, and interview methods, I will be examining the experiences of those involved in these communities, including my own involvement. In particular, I am interested in how these communities define themselves, if they are indeed communities (or something else altogether), and how individuals represent their identities and exhibit social and cultural capital within the virtual arena coined “cyberspace”. Furthermore, I am drawn to investigate the implications of online communities for contextualized identities, as well as the influence of cultural and linguistic differences in online interactions.
Virtual communities are represented in myriad ways, and I plan to make the following my main sites of research: online social networking sites, in particular MySpace, the Facebook, and Tribe.net, and online blogging communities such as LiveJournal and Blogspot. I am seeking to explore these communities as cultural products, enriched through new and underresearched communication practices and identity representations. However, the advent of social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook, as well as new social media (such as photo- and video-sharing tools) has resulted in a mainstreaming of virtual community membership that is increasingly tied to daily life. This is further complicated by the ever-increasing visibility of corporations and consumerism in popular sites, particularly MySpace. The sociocultural impact of these technologies on everyday life will be examined, as well as the blurred line between functional and social uses of Internet communities. Furthermore, how does access to these social technologies, and the status symbols conveyed by their possession, contribute to social and cultural capital? While popular conceptions and trends concerning online communities will be explored, I am particularly interested in the ways in which marginal groups are formed and sustained online, and how status is construed.
The development of online social networking has allowed for the creation of virtual communities that transcend spatial and physical limitations, often in creative and uninhibited ways. How do virtual environments allow for these types of spontaneous community creation? Victor Turner discussed how the flexibility and mobility of modern industrial culture increases the chances for spontaneous community formation that can occur “both in and out of time”. In this state of liminality, then, people are freed from their ordinary social roles, allowing for new and emergent states of knowing and being known. How others negotiate this freedom from physical markers of identity is a key area of my research. Turner’s notions of liminality in the context of Internet communities are to be complicated by the tendency to archive social information, as exhibited through the popularization of visual media and blogging in the online communities I will be investigating.
Some studies have shown that Internet use is positively correlated with feelings of social alienation (Kim & Kim; Wellman et al.). Howard Rheingold, who coined the term “virtual community” in 1993, sought to debunk the critique that virtual communities are alienating and superficial through a discussion of the merits of both strong and weak social ties in the formation of identity and knowledge. While strong familial and friendship relationships are important for emotional support and self-identity, a network of more superficial relationships serves to increase one’s social capital and capacity to get things done. A study by Wellman and Haythornthwaite found that those who were active offline were also more active online, further contesting the hypothesis that Internet use has a causal relationship to introversion and social alienation. I seek to complicate this issue through exploring the ways in which virtual communities are changing the nature of communication in everyday life, granting new forms of agency to the individual user at the expense of publicizing social information.
Mobile communication as a modern phenomenon extends beyond the Internet. In a collection of essays titled Perpetual Contact: Mobile Communication, Private Talk, Public Performance, Kenneth Gergen discussed the “challenge of absent presence” in the context of new mobile communication technologies. He emphasized the power of monologic technologies that provide information but cannot be directly spoken with. I seek to understand this problem through investigation into the role of the Internet in providing new ways for users to engage in dialogue about information. How has technology affected the ways in which people understand time and their ability to control (or be rendered powerless in the face of) the consumption of information? Much of my past research has reflected a desire of individuals for creating and controlling “safe spaces” and personal niches within the virtual arena, thus weeding out irrelevant information. It is evident that deeper investigation into the psychological, social and cultural effects of modern social technologies is warranted, given the problematic discourse that arises from these phenomena.
Multiple forms of ethnography will be explored in this research. Throughout the course of the next year, I will be immersing myself in the online communities previously mentioned, while also recording and engaging with the everyday discourse concerning virtual communication. In exploring the immensely popular social networking site MySpace, a case study analysis of an informant deeply absorbed in the community will illuminate the complex emotional nature of mediated communication as one individual’s foundation of social interaction. This informant has engaged with MySpace as a primary mode of social interaction for the past five years, and can thus provide insight into the evolution of virtual communication.
With regard to the Facebook, I will be exploring its social impact on the Wesleyan community through in-depth, face-to-face interviews and participant-observation, allowing me to also analyze the role this site plays in community gossip and group affiliation. As one interviewee described, “you don’t exist if you’re not on the Facebook”. I seek to understand the Facebook through the ways in which people attach particular values to various qualities pertinent to individual and group identities, ways of communicating, and the myriad ways in which Facebook users project their own identities through the use of irony, playfulness, and the flaunting of cultural capital.
Tribe.net is a fascinating setting for exploring the globalizing nature of online social networks. Thus far, I have befriended a dozen individuals from across the globe: Romania, Morocco, Brazil, and Spain (to name a few). How do individuals from so many different cultures find common ground through computer-mediated communication? Research by R.D. Laing points out the fact that the United States constitutes over 50% of the Internet user population. How is virtual communication conceptualized in other cultures? Another point of interest is the concept of neo-tribalism prevalent amongst Tribe members. As a response to the perceived “society of strangers” propagated by modern industrial societies, some believe that it is necessary to establish a global network of connected tribes that interact cooperatively, and see Tribe.net as one means of establishing a “neo-tribal” society. Participant observation, e-mail correspondence, and online interviews will be my primary methods of inquiry, as well as promoting dialogue on group message boards.
Online diary communities will be textually analyzed, and it is here that I seek to further engage with issues of language and self-presentation. Motivations for publicizing the private will be examined using both in-person and online interview methods. Also of interest is the nature of anonymity within the context of online diary communities, such as the Wesleyan Anonymous Confession Board, and how anonymous social gossip is interpreted and analyzed in everyday discourse. The allure of gossip obtained anonymously through the often concealed practice of Internet surveillance will be explored through in-person interviews with various members of the Wesleyan community.
On a final note, the practice of online ethnography raises ethical issues that must be confronted in the process of my research. A common concern is the fact that some Internet users perceive some publically accessible spaces as private. Also of issue is the rapidly evolving nature of the Internet, which renders much of observed data transient. In confronting these issues, every effort will be made to protect the anonymity of participants through paraphrasing and pseudonyms. In some cases, such as data garnered through online diary sites, consent from the participant will be requested. With consideration to the transient nature of virtual discourse, this ethnographic study will be situated in time and with respect to changing conditions within the sites and as portrayed through popular media. I am seeking to tell the stories of and explore the issues and concerns raised by my research participants. Above all, the autonomy of the individuals portrayed in this ethnography will be acknowledged with empathy and care.