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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Thursday, July 19, 2007


at CSCL today, Ricki Goldman was talking about, among other things, the e-generation. this was the idea that through technologies like blogs, flicrk, YouTube, etc., everyone was becoming an ethnographer. my first reaction was, well, how is this different from previous mass media technologies? certainly, when the printing press was invented, people were able to write their culture in a way not previously possible. I think the technologies she's discussing, though, are not just a change of scale but a qualitative change, as well. a talk (my notes) I saw by Marc Davis echoed similar sentiments along these lines.

however, I also started wondering, perhaps everyone, at least in some sense, is really becoming an ethnographer. to some extent, aren't they writing their own culture? is YouTube effectively something like an autoethnovideography? (there's your neologism of the day, kids) furthermore, with people creating all of these digital cultural artifacts, how do the role and activities of the ethnographer change? meta was recently talking about photos and ethnography, and I wonder if the photos, video, and media a culture produces about itself might affect the way an ethnographer works. I suspect people who are more versed and practiced in ethnography would have more things (and more intelligent things) than I to say about the issue, so I'll stop for now at posing the question and leave the answering to others.

update (2007-07-24): I actually got a chance to chat with Ricki a bit about her thoughts on this topic, i.e., how do things like YouTube, flickr, MySpace, etc. change the roles and activities of the ethnographer? I didn’t take notes or anything, but I’ll try to paraphrase from memory. part of the discussion we had was about how, while people may be massively inscribing their culture in these various digital media, what their doing is not ethnography. while the primary task is writing culture, the ethnography is not, as many have noted, a veridical textual representation of that culture, but rather the culture as seen through the lens of the ethnographer. ethnography is not only a form of reportage, is it fundamentally interpretive (perhaps this ties back to my earlier thoughts on naturalists’ interpretation). generally when people make the sort of digital cultural artifacts that appear on YouTube or flickr, they may be inscribing aspects of their culture, but they are not doing an interpretation of that culture. I think this resonates with Rubikzube's comment below that when he posts photos of his vacation to flickr, he's not really doing ethnography; he's not engaged in a culturally interpretive act. Ricki said that she was interested in encouraging people to be more interpretive (perhaps reflective) in such activities, partially as another way of learning about their own culture and themselves.

she also talked about an interesting experience she had while doing video analysis of some classroom activity. one of the students said to her, “Ricki, you can’t see the classroom.” “what do you mean?” she asked. the student replied, “the teachers are different when you’re here. give me the camera and I’ll show you what the classroom is really like.” this isn’t just a matter of the presence of a researcher affecting the behavior of the teachers (and probably the students, for that matter). it’s a matter of perspective. ethnography is about capturing the emic perspective. what this student was arguing is that, when you give the camera to the members of the culture, that’s when you really get to see the emic perspective. this is what YouTube and flickr do, they capture the emic perspective from the emic perspective. I doubt this means that anthropologists and ethnographers of digital culture will be replaced by autoethnovideographers from within that culture (partly due to the interpretive nature of ethnography mentioned above), but I think it means that these media will become invaluable for ethnographic studies of that culture.

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