Thursday, April 14

lurking, professionally? :-)

being naughty again: here's part of a paper by Anne Beaulieu:

Technology: Totalising the Field

In studying the Internet, technology is invested with the ability of achieving something like mechanical objectivity (Daston and Galison 1992), where technology makes it possible for the subject to be removed from the observing context, or at least from some aspects of ethnographic work. Indeed, the idea of the lurker[1] as beneficial or even ideal position for the ethnographer comes up frequently. The ideal of the unobtrusive observer has been heralded in relation to various internet contexts (MOOs, newsgroups). In stronger or weaker version, the position of the lurker has been celebrated for (finally) enabling the gathering of material at the ethnographic level (at the level of specific interactions) without the intrusiveness of the tape recorder or the disturbing physical presence of the observer:

“The Internet does greatly facilitate ‘casing the scene’ prior to creating a strategy for entering into active participation. It is much easier to lurk on the Internet in most cases than to unobtrusively hang out in an Amazon village (Thomsen, Straubhaar et al. 1998, online).”

The technologically mediated setting is one in which ethnographers can be, without revealing themselves as individuals.

Pacagnella argues that in doing research on the Internet, ethnographers can benefit from greater availability and accessibility of unobtrusive techniques:

“It is well known, how, in social sciences as well as in other fields, the phenomena being studied are modified by the very act of observing them.”(Paccagnella 1997, online)

Again, the technological mediation serves as protective barrier between the object and the researcher as subject. Lurking is also presented as protecting the ethnographer from being too awkward and bumbling, and as a (normative) first step in becoming a full-fledged participant (Baym 2000).

The internet as a setting offers ‘peculiar advantages’, namely

“In many cases observations can be carried out even without informing the people being studied. While this obviously urges us to take into consideration new ethical issues…at the same time it reduces the dangers of distorting data and behaviours by the presence of the researcher. “ (Paccagnella 1997, online)

Pacagnella writes from a sociological perspective, where social scientific tendencies to the positivistic may be stronger than in anthropological circles. Another, perhaps more ethnographically-inspired, line of argument for the value of the invisible non-participant observer focuses on the fact that ‘the lurker’ is a socially acceptable position in the setting:

…. an alternative ethical measure would be one in which we concentrate on methods that seem in tune with the world in which we exist rather than seeking to satisfy a set of abstract and possibly theoretically inapplicable ethical codes. Non participation observation is a common occurrence in chat rooms (hence the typical cry, "why isn't anyone talking?"). It fits the local environment better than interviewing or any other method. Perhaps if we adopt local measures of valid action it is the most justified method. (Leaning 1998, online)

Schaap, who studied a MUD intensively for two years, also notes that much of his material was collected by lurking (Schaap 2002). Like Leaning, he also argues that the behaviour is a common one in the MUD environment, and that it provides the ethnographer with the possibility of unobtrusively observing. While I have no reason to doubt that the behaviour is found in the field, the subject position of the ethnographer probably doesn’t quite map on to that of a player—what of the differences in the intentions, motivations, and consequences of lurking? This tension is well illustrated by the experience of researchers who have tried to come out as ethnographers, having lurked for most of their research. Some have found that the setting may not be so accepting of this position (see (Bromseth 2002); the instrumental stance and consequences of ethnographic lurking are problematic to participants, in a way that other forms of ‘lurking’ may not be.

Claims about the possibility of an ideal observer insist on the desirability of placing the ethnographer at one end of the participant observer continuum (Leaning 1998; Paollilo, 1999), to whom all is accessible, without needing to enact a subject position. The relation proposed by mechanical objectivity, may be fragile, however, when the object talks back to an identified subject.

Avoiding interaction may also have consequences for the material gathered by the ethnographer. Several ethnographers (Mason 1996; Leaning 1998; Heath, Koch et al. 1999; Hine 2000) note that the ethnographer may miss out on part of the phenomena, which may not be visible on the ‘observable’, ‘public’ list or on the webpage. Mason illustrates this point with the example that when posting messages to a list, one discovers that off-list responses are also sent out (Mason 1996). Hine insists on the value of participating for checking interpretations, and on the intrinsic usefulness of learning by trying to participate (Hine 2000). These arguments emphasise the value of interaction as part of the ethnographic approach.

[1] A lurker is someone who is part of an activity on the internet, but without making explicit/overt contributions to it. For example, reading a newsgroup, without posting messages to it is considered lurking.


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