My previous blogposts defining social media, discussing design patterns of SNS and the role of social media with regard to online activism allowed readers to take a look at social media from my point of view. Today I would like to focus on the ethnography of the online world. In particular, I would like to analyze the online community from the ethnographic and anthropological points of view.
To begin with, I would like to emphasize the need in both approaches. Academic research on SNS has only recently begun to produce ethnographic texts and thus the overwhelming majority of existing studies focus on so-called computer-mediated anthropology or cyberanthropology . Thus, most of the reading I did prior to writing this article focused on both aspects – anthropological and ethnographic.
Digital ethnography can be understood as a method for representing real-life cultures through storytelling in digital media. Cyberanthropology can be understood as a concept aimed at the analysis of person’s reciprocal relations with the computer-generated world evolved as a result of technological progress. Hence, the interconnectedness of these fields of science and necessity of both for this research cannot be denied.
Choosing appropriate site
Now, when the necessary remarks were made, I would like to introduce the topic of my study. Thinking of my choice of the online community for the analysis I had several objectives. Firstly, it was supposed to be relevant – it had to be social network with established community and a number of features, like comments, discussions and a variety of topics. Moreover, the chosen site was supposed to be accessible without the need to register. Secondly, the discussions and topics on the site were supposed to be interesting for me personally and for my readers generally. And thirdly, since I wanted to conduct a micro-study, I wanted to be able to choose a particular topic on the site, so that I could focus on concrete group of people and discussion. It is important to mention, that being a realistic man I understood that the analysis presented in this blogpost is limited to a number of words and level of academic language, thus it implies that my analysis a priory will be rather superficial. However, the point of this article is to give the general picture of the chosen online community and to introduce ethnographic/anthropological methods with regard to the discussed issue.
After a thorough examination of Internet sites and directions of the research I decided to focus on the website called Experience Project (to simplify my life I will refer to the site as EP). As the team of the network describes themselves, EP is “the world’s largest living collection of shared experiences and the premier passions-based network … [it] is a comfortable and supportive place for individuals to share and connect with others around the things that matter to them most”. The site has over 24 experience categories, each of which has a number of discussion topics and subtopics. As a result, site technically unifies a multiple number of communities which coexist within the general framework of “sharing experiences”. I decided to focus on a particular community concerning the issues of cheating, betrayal and broken hearts. Apart from the fact that the chosen site and topic fully satisfied my criteria I just love drama which was in surplus on the chosen branch of EP.
I can’t get over my boyfriend cheating on me
The aforementioned title is a topic of the discussion I chose. EP states that it includes personal stores, advice, and support from 571 members. Interestingly, originally I wanted to focus on the discussions regarding cheating issue concerning some acts of vengeance or revenge. However, after I read a couple of discussions I realized, that it is highly undoubtedly I will manage to analyze this kind of forums for a number of reasons. Firstly, most of people there just tried to express their pain or anger, thus there ware never actual discussions and conversations. Hence, the level of interaction was extremely low. And secondly, most of actions people suggested as an act of revenge were either absolutely insane and even illegal, or just so dull and stupid, that I wouldn’t dare to present such data in my personal blog. Hence, I can’t get over my boyfriend cheating on me seemed to be a healthy and interesting alternative.
To begin with, due to the fact of relative anonymity on the Internet, most of writers were very descriptive and open-minded while expressing their experiences. In particular I was surprised to see the details of sexual life and sharing secrets of the “beloved” ones. Understandably women who were cheated would feel no remorse doing it and the “anonymity” of the Internet (well, we all know there is no such thing really) allowed them to expressed freely and with no concerns.
While adopting a method of ethnography it is practically impossible to be completely unbiased, partly due to the fact that the researcher always has his own opinions, experiences and beliefs. The so-called autoethnography, the approach when the researcher ” seeks to describe and systematically analyze personal experience in order to understand cultural experience” consciously or unconsciously was adopted by me before I started analyzing EP forum. Thus, even though the problems discussed on this forum had nothing in common with my interests or life experiences (at least directly), I made some preliminary assumptions based on my own experiences regarding relationship and the process of socialization.
The fact that all the stories and posts can be freely monitored by non-registered users and members of the community most likely aware of it made me assume a number of things. My preliminary assumption regarding this community was that members may perceive it as a forum of last resort – share whatever you want and in any details, cause the relations are over anyway. Moreover, I also assumed that the level of trust in the community can be relatively high, given the positive feedback provided by other members and similarities in experiences of users regarding “cheating” issue.
The comments provided by users very often (sometimes all the comments) represented commenters’ own experiences. Moreover, I noticed practically no strictly negative comments on the page, which characterizes community as extremely supportive. Generally, almost all the commenters had similar experiences to share, thus it was probably a reason motivating them to participate in the discussion.
Surprisingly I noticed almost no negative comments regarding men generally, what would be logical given the topic of discussions and stories posted by users. Moreover, most of users ended up declaring their love to their partners (who cheated on them). On the one hand, this is something rather expected, given the name of the topic and the flow of discussions on the site. On the other hand, one would expect rude words, swearing and expressions of anger rather than displays of affection. After reading about 60 posts and comments (one should take into account that most of blogs and some comments were bigger than this article) I came to a conclusion that practically all my preliminary assumptions regarding this small research were wrong. Apparently it happened due to the fact, that my assumptions were to a significant extent based on my stereotypes regarding forums and communication in the Internet. More than that, I expected some trolling, negative comments and expressions of anger from “cheating” forum, what in my opinion would be absolutely logical pattern of interaction. However, having expected all these negative things, I was indeed surprised (in a very positive way) to see a supportive and open-minded community instead.
The fact that people share private information in all the possible details and simultaneously show almost no negative attitude towards their partners make both of my assumptions seem to be wrong as I mentioned above. The research I conducted clearly shows that people use this forum to express their thoughts and get support, rather than revenge. People seek for help to solve the problem rather than completely destroy their relations and exercise vengeance. Moreover, although the members of forum are supportive and give positive feedback, I wouldn’t talk about trustworthy relations in this case. People expose private information in the internet seeking for support, thus they do it in the place where they most likely will get it. It has nothing to do with trust, it has to do with human need for confirmation.
 Gatson, Sarah N., and Amanda Zweerink. “Ethnography online:‘natives’ practising and inscribing community.” Qualitative Research 4.2 (2004): 179-200.
 Ling, Kimberly, et al. “Using social psychology to motivate contributions to online communities.” Journal of Computer‐Mediated Communication 10.4 (2005)