Nov 182015

Today I am delighted to be at a guest seminar from Christine Hine, from the Department of Sociology, University of Surrey at the University of Edinburgh Department of Sociology. You can read more about the event here.  I’ll be liveblogging her seminar and, as usual any corrections etc. are welcomed. 

Kate Orton-Johnson is introducing us to the session and the format: a formal talk then an then informal Q&A

And now, for Christine Hine…

I am going to talk about Ethnography for the Internet (Hine’s latest book) and then I’ll talk in more detail about the idea of “minimal infrastructures” – the kinds of peer to peer infrastructures (I’ll be talking about Freecycle), and some work I’ve been doing with Alix Rufas Ripol from Maastricht University.

I am going to be talking about this three way conceptualisation of the internet – as embedded, embodied, everyday – to talk about why some strategies are useful in research on the internet. And I’ll go on to talk about some of the challenges about this.

In my background… I was writing a handbook chapter last week and looking back and found myself saying “yes, I’ve been doing ethnographies of the internet for 20 years”… And the internet has such a different meaning now. My work began as the internet was just beginning to be seen as an ethnographic space as a field site to work in. The internet has evolved as a phenomenon, and the way it has become embedded in our day to day life has changed – although I don’t neccassarily buy into this web 1.0/2.0 shift.

And I continue to find Science and Technology studies useful for understanding the internet and the ways in which the internet is an upshot of social processes and site for social innovation, the infrastructural inversions (see e.g. Jeff Balfhurst). And the invisible work which makes this thing function so smoothly. So these ideas have been important, as has the idea of the internet as both culture, and a cultural artefact. Our expetations of it are shaped by social interaction, it impacts on us but it is impacted upon by us. We are shaped in what we do with it by our peer networks, what we see others doing with it, how the mass media presents it.

So my key question has been “What do people think they are up to when they use the internet?”

So we are at the point now that online only ethnography is legitimate but only as one choice among many. And many of our theoretical questions are better addressed by multi-sited and multi-modal designs buy what Postil and Pink’s (2012) idea of the “messy web of interconnections”. We don’t know where the site is, we construct that.

Ethnographers of the internet are often drawn in two directions. They are drawn outward, into diverse frames of meaning making. But they are also drawn inward to auto-ethnographic approaches, aimed at capturing modes of experience and feeling and acknowledging that.

There are, what I call, the “three e’s” of the internet…

The Embedded Internet is rarely a transcendent “cyberspace”, we do not grandly “go online”. Instead it is meaningful within specific contexts. It is subject to multiple frames of meaning -making. So you might look at the way it is embedded in towns, in households, or in particular devices (e.g. Freecycle is different on my phone vs my laptop), backchannels (and conversations), institutions (e.g. biologists engaging with their disciplinary colleagues) – and how this embeddedness must make sense for the discipline, of being accountable and rewardable activity, workplaces, structures of reward, accountability and recognition. So if we are conducting an ethnographic study of the internet, or some aspect of the internet, we have to make choices of the frame of meaning making to pursue, both arbitrary and important.

The Embodied Internet is about the idea that “going online” is not necessarily a discrete form of experience. Being online occurs alogside and complements other embodied ways of being and acting in the world. That emphasises the significance of sensory sensitivity in ethnography as we navigate the mediated world. And thinking about contingencies and choices, and what it means to navigate this complex texture, where we cross between different ways of communicating. If we are not just engaged in one discussion or community, we are moving between different ways of being or knowing, we need to know and recognise that… That moment when you try to contact an informant or participant in an interview and you are thinking about how you might approach them, what you don’t know… Reflecting on that, what that means for you to be with these people, etc. and how that can mirror the experience of others. All of these spaces let us have the same experience, in some way, with th eparticipants in the setting. We may not be full participants, we are using the same medium and can use that as a resource.

The Everyday Internet is indexing a very specific methodological problem – the fact that what we want to look at and study is not neccassarily what our participants want to talk about. We want to look at varying visibility of the phenomenon “internet” and specific platforms…Ethnographers have always relied on observing and eavesdropping and that is much harder to do here. It is an issue of dealing with silence in everydat discourse. Examining the specificity of occassions when the internet is foregrounded as such. Sometimes. If you look at newspapers now, versus 15 years ago… There is some commonality about the coverage of the internet as a problematic, disruptive, corrupting space… But now it is not “the internet” but specific platforms. So it can be topical at the same time as being almost forgotten. So we have to treat the silence and the topicality of infrastructures as complementary methodological challenes.

So, the methodological challenges is that the world does not make sense one medium at a time, but many of our methods carve it up in this way. Ethnography is a really important tool to do that, it is a key resource here. Situations develop rapidly and unpredictably before we have stable methods to suit them. So an ethnography that can move through this terrain and reflect upon it is certainly an important part of the reportoire. And we are also in a world where there is a real complexity about understanding where “there” is. So we have to take responsibility for crafting objects to study to suit strategic objectives.

We have to turn to reflexivity, autoethnographu to explore the individualised experience – a way to deal with this silence that we encounter. We need to use connective and mobile methods to explore interdeterminate and emergent fields. Actually using visualisation and large scale data analysis can aid us to formulate questions. We also need responsive methods.

So, that was a swooping overview. I now want to talk about a particular example.

So, how many here use Freecycle? (quite a lot do or know about it). This is something that started in the US, but has spread globally. It started with the Yahoo Groups system. It was about keeping things out of landfill, by giving them away when we don’t need it. It is run by volunteers with 2 or 3 paid members of staff only, maintaining servers as it has it’s own platform now. It has a very lean infrastructure. For a local area it is just a mailing list enabling exchange of unwanted objects for free – indeed most people experience it as an email clustering maybe 20 messages offering items. It’s a boring site for an ethnographer, there’s no chat, it is not what appears to be a community. It is an ephemeral space, it’s not about social connections… It’s about an efficient and risk-free straight forward way to dispose of an object. Someone appears, you give them an object, and that’s it.

So, for me it’s a real challenge. It looks like a boring space but as an ethnographer how do we make sense of this minimal infrastructure? How do we as participants understand this and what is going on here?

So, lets go into the detail here. It’s a boring list so on any given day you might see 50 or so messages of this kind… A short note from a username (usually a nickname, often gender neutral), which is it. There is no user profile, no contact system, etc. And we see a note that says, e.g. “Offer: single folding z bed (Guildford)” as a subject line, and a body of “I have a single folding Z bed…” and a sentence explaining that it is good for visitors.

So, I see this advert. I want to respond and appeal to the offerer, making it clear that I am a suitable recipient… Being very polite, being flexible, explaining why I want the item, etc. And then I give my real name and email address. I’m trying to be the ideal appealling recipient. And it works! I get a nice reply back and gives her real first name.

Some clarity here… I said I was flexible… But actually I wasn’t. And I hate phone calls with people I don’t know – but the person giving the item away asks me to call. So, we negotiate how I’ll pick up the z bed. At this point I don’t know who she is… But she’s really nearby me, maybe I know this person, I still don’t know what the bed is like. I go round and she’s on the doorstep – I’m clearly not welcome in. Her husband gets it out of the garage, I take it with me… And only when I am at home do I see the object… And assess that it’s suitable.

So, some very interesting sets of dynamics around what is going on… Anticipating the other person, working out if you know them and whether that matters… Lots going on… And lots of what I’ve been doing has been that sort of auto ethnography of Freecycle.

Now I said the list was boring but it is an interesting space – the poster makes the object real according to their belief of what the object is. You see this complex anti-advertising practice where people talk about all the things that might be wrong with the item!

So, the freecycle and freegle lists and apps are interesting. The Autoethnography online, on th edoorstep and in the email inbox lets you see those exchanges in practice, which take place off list. We have also been doing email interviews – to contextualise and understand our autoethnography work. Also face to face interviews and we do want to do some interviews that are essentially before and after interviews, understanding if things go as expected, what you do at each stage…

But we are also feeling our way through a bit of an ethical minefield here, which is that we can negotiate informed consent of interviewees, I have my own consent as autoethnographer, but these are such ephemeral exchanges that we don’t have a way of establishing informed consent with the other parties in our own doorstep encounters/exchanges. Can we ethically look at all the assumptions and encounters going on. And it’s taboo to contact again afterwards, follow up, or even do a retrospective informed consent.

We do have backchannels like Mumsnet and Twitter where people talk about their real experience of freecycle. Interestingly Mumsnet tends to be complaints, Twitter tends to reflect positive experience. There is also a Facebook page for freecycle but that is very moderated. And there is also the experience of moderating a freecycle list – and autoethnography of that (and I do that for my group).

There are lots of ethnographic themes to pursue… these include practices of evaluating other participants and dealing with uncertainties; experiences of connection and social differentiationl; online lists as a space rather than local spaces (e.g. charity shop donation). But I’m going to talk about those uncertainty aspects particularly…

In our coding we are talking about ideas of “Assuming, supposing, imagining” and the register of that is important – acknowledging a lack of full knowledge, but putting something into the gap anyway. So, things that emerge include…

Type of people in the town

We have an interviewee in the town (x), but who does not feel of the town. She characterises the town as not being very warm and welcoming, although she’s lived there 10 years. And she’s talking about “different people” and specifically about an item going to someone that she expects to live in an area of social deprivation – this is an area that anyone in that town would identify as an area of social deprivation. She talks about the norm, the use of knowledge of that particular area… And she frames the freecycle thing in terms of need and neediness. That is not part of the site/space and how it is advertised…

Others have different takes on this theme. And about characterising the town in similar but different ways – e.g. that it is “not very philanthropic and not very community minded” but that that is only a small pocket of the town. Another interviewee talks of need but also talks about “I’m probably completely wrong but…” some can make themselves sound needy…


Some interviewees explicitly talk about people watching, and a partial view of what’s taking place. And of being astonished at some of the things that get taken.

Reading motivations

And imagining others lives… And an interviewee talking about why people take items – whether for own use or to sell on perhaps… And talking through in depth their imaginings of the scenario, and whether or not it matters…

Reflecting society

An interviewer talks of how people write offer emails… And expectations there… spelling, proper sentences etc. What that says about society and about individuals, and projection of who else is there.

Resisting judgements

Some strongly reject those types of judgements. And commenting that you shouldn’t waste time worrying about other people. And rejecting the possibility of forming an opinion of someone from an email and a two minute encounter.

But that commentator is an outlier, most of our interviewees do imagine and engage to make sense of the other people and their encounters with them…

Methodological challenges

So these interviews are fascinating for understanding the autoethnographic experience. But we are still subject to intrasigent silences: anyone using ebay/car boot sales do not come forward for research; conventions on the ephemeral nature of the transaction relationship is tricky; many people who think they use freecycle actually use freegle etc. It is resistant to rendering as a singular knowable ethnographic object… But that mirrors the patchwork of knowledge and uncertainties that characterises freecycle itself.

So, I’m interested to hear thoughts, comments, etc. Or how Freecycle may be similar to other spaces.


Q1) Your work seems to mainly be about people who have given things away… What about those that collect? And those not doing so in need but because they want the item?

A1) Our first wave of interviewees were those giving items away… We have spoken to people who are more recipients… And they focus on the item, the what more than the people who might give something away.

Q2) I’m interested in the ethical concern… Also interested in the mobility of internet ethnography – what challenges and opportunities there…

A2) Lets park mobiles for further discussion shortly. Ethical issues wise there is this big challenge for a lot of online studies in that the machinery of informed consent are built on a different scale to the work we are trying to do – the participant information sheet and consent form are out of scale with a lot of what we want to study. I am having to feel my way through this… And I’ve recently been appointed to the chair of the University’s Ethics Committee… Which is a bit poacher turned game keeper. Now we could argue waiving informed consent for such minor ephemeral content with low risk BUT we are not at the point where we can make that decision ourselves as researchers – we need to use ethical review to approve that decision based on a carefully made case. But it doesn’t feel quite right for the Freecycle work… We’ve done some experiments on the real time ethnography – Alex and I working together to write an offer, looking at recipients… Those feel fine as intrusion is limited. But at the point on my doorstep, that encounter… Well do we say that when someone picks up an item is it ok if we record the transacation, or my friend watches… I wrote some field notes and even those felt over intrusive… Because I felt about what I thought the recipient was like, what I thought about her… Not OK without consent.

Q3) I am intrigued that the Freecycle founders thought that this system could be free from social encounters etc. But your research shows that that world isn’t free from that…

A3) It is sociologically nieve to think you can operate a system of gift giving without any complexity or social aspects there. But some people are able to do that. It is a minimal infrastructure but it is also an experience that is very solitary. What is public is so minimal… And all you see if the messages you get when you offer an item. A lot offer more than they ask, or ask more than they offer – they don’t see both sides… So there is a lot of flexibility about interpretation because there isn’t a standard approach that they see in public. So many fill that gap, and often using existing ideas of philanthropy.

Q4) Could you compare this with other locally situated markets – like local shops – there must be some studies of that sort of usage of high street shops etc. Maybe as a comparator. Other studies of markets online shows this kind of exchange going on… On the point of the ethics – how many times have you said you are doing a study?

A4) Up until now any active engagement for the study is full informed consent. My auto ethnographic field notes don’t generally focus on the other person involved. Closest I’ve come is the person with the Z Bed… But I’d be interested in hearing views on this… At one point I had an archive of messages… I did ask permission of moderators of local group whether I could contact for a retrospective follow up… They said “no” to that.

Q5) I was quite interested by lack of in built social interactivity… When you talked about transient I was wondering if this is a nomadic community finding sociability in other spaces… Also wondered whether positive or negative experiences might inform communities of practice and social relations…

A5) Some interesting things to follow up there… But you do sometimes see that imagined community, e.g. “only nice people do freecycle” – there is a slight sense of community, of the “types of people who do this”. It is a community that is imagined as such by some participants, I wouldn’t say it is not a community as I’m not in a position to know that. On the good vs bad transactions… for many “bad” experiences is that noone showed up, or didn’t reply to emails – being left hanging or not knowing… Did they not want it? Did I get an automated email? Did they fall under a bus? That seems to provoke most emotion from people… or “If only they just said they changed their mind!”

Q6) What are the ethical problems with the backchannels and data from Twitter, Mumsnet etc?

A6) For research on Mumsnet I took the tactic of speaking to the gatekeeper themseleves – contacting Mumsnet for approval. And using messages in a group, but in the written output ensuring that no individual would be identifiable and wouldn’t recognise themselves, even by Googling themselves. So judicious quoting, summary etc. to break the searachability. But no individual informed consent. That felt appropriate as it wasn’t a sensitive topic, it wasn’t risky, you wouldn’t be destructive to their use and enjoyment of the setting. But that is a situated judgement. And it remains situated. I am working with the group working on the British Sociological Association and their next ethics guidance – and they will focus on a situation of ethics and an ethic of care for the people whose words we are looking at. How that plays out in different settings is the difficult bit… That’s the trickiness of the ethics committee chair… But that’s why that process is so important.

Q7) How do you feel about sort of fictionalised accounts – thinking of erion? Elliott’s accounts of fictionalised versions of encounters? Ethically that’s less traceable…

A7) That can be very useful. Danny Miller does that with “Tales from Facebook” and I think that can work well. That is where I may head to with some of the Freecycle notes, it’s a possible route… May not be particular actual stories or events. Danny Miller was also very careful to defriend strategically as he had to add friends to do the study – and being aware of the ethnographic footprint.

Q8) I wanted to ask about mobility… and about the multimodality of interactions – emojis for instance.

A8) In a way I’m the wrong person to ask about emojis and mobile devices… I’m quite a late adopter. We don’t come to the online world equally… We are drawn to objects we know or familiar with. So in media studies we similarly see many studies of things they are already a fan of. If there is to be an ethnography of Snapchat, it’s unlikely to be by me. I tend to do ethnographies of the internet as a middle aged woman from Surrey! So it’s for others to think about that I think, and how they can be

Q9) The early AIR guidance was about informed consent etc. But in a space like blogging, where posts are public and accessible but the author might be horrified to be study and it can feel ethically wrong.

A9) I think blogs do feel personal etc. and ethically it does feel difficult. And whether the writer might consent to that… It’s quite a quick route from practical questions to much bigger issues…

Q9) And often it’s the comments and the back channels etc… But how can you start when you can’t trace that start.

Comment) Haven’t we reached the place where people know that anything that they put on the internet is public and will be public…

Me) Not on the basis of our Managing Our Digital Footprint work here at Edinburgh, people don’t understand their settings, what they have agreed to, and won’t neccassarily be comfortable with how that might be used. You have the issue of boyd’s “public versus published”

Q10) I’m looking at Trip Advisor and that is published, that is public…

A10) It’s to do with the context of usage, and what you might expect… So if a Trip Advisor comment gets included in a journal article about e.g. “inadvertantly racist comments” or something. And whether that individual would be happy with that

Q11) People have been studying smilies for years. On the ethical front this is something only academics and researchers bring to it. Commercial businesses can do all kinds of things with that data, no matter what the ownership is… You can find that your usage is not ethical, even if something is public… But the risk is that when we think like that it’s impossible to do any research… But that’s really a big challenge… How do we deal with this world. In the past you could write down something in the pub, publish on it… and who would find it? But now we have that loop closed. I was speaking to someone at the University concerned that we can’t use data from social media at all because of that issue of consent…

Comment) If covert analysis online, then interview offline is easier to clear… But if people know they are observed that changes things…

Comment) Crazy irony of the internet as a complex ethical space… Maybe conventional research is now under scrutiny… Research methods training all about rapport etc.

Q12 – Me) I actually wanted to ask about the issue of big data and the diffferent ways that ethics boards seem to deal with data of this ilk – and the distinction between what we are doing and what e.g. Facebook Research or OK Cupid do, usually with computer scientists. So really I wanted to ask about whether ethics boards all know what questions to ask?

A12) Not always… And the big data studies can quite quickly hone in on the individual… Across all of these… We are just working out one step at a time what questions to ask. Which is why I jumped at this job, I’m always keen to ensure I’m actively engaging in it. We only really learn when people make mistakes, unfortunately.

Q13) In Freecycle I wanted to ask about your collecting of data as an insider really, and how that happened…

A13) It would have been hard to get started in Freecycle without being an insider. And that probably characterises almost everything I’ve done. So my work on biologists came from the fact that my undergraduate degree had me trained in that discipline, and so I had a route in. That’s probably true of pretty much everything I’ve done. So, to some extent I’m always a bit of an ethnographer… There is a certain sort of approach. So, do I start off as an insider then decide to do an ethnographic study? Well I think there’s always that possibility… But I think there is always a responsibility that we need to be an insider or have practice based settings… That’s why I study Mumsnet and hair lice, but not body modification and tattoo practices… Now that doesn’t mean you can’t ever do a study as a total outsider but… Being something of an insider makes me feel less than a voyeur, and to understand the validity of some of the assumptions. But that’s easier than building understanding and empathy from scratch.

Q14) Can you talk a bit more about the ethnography of the invisible?

A14) I guess in a way that’s what we are doing… We are writing about the stuff that everybody knows and nobody says… Trying to take silence and turn it into something recognisable for the people involved, but not neccassarily exactly what they said. Sometimes people recognise that you’ve captured what they’ve done but they don’t see the value – you have to be clear about that added value. But sometimes we must take silence and make it overt and explicit… There are lots of ways to do that. And I like the work of Stefan Herschal “The silence of the social” – there is always an active process of drawing that out and making it into something you can verbalise.

 November 18, 2015  Posted by at 11:25 am LiveBlogs No Responses »