Ethnographic Research Online: Flickr and William Butler Yeats

The background to my research is rooted in my 13th class at the German school where I teach for part of my time. They are studying a predominantly oral course in English as a Foreign Language for the German Abitur, which is a university entrance exam. I, and in consequence, they, have a great deal of freedom in our choice of subject matter. It has to be related to a country where English is spoken as the native language and must include factual and literary elements. This particular class chose Ireland, The Fifties and Sixties in Britain and America, Australia and Women’s Rights as their four topics.

We always start by brainstorming our sub-themes (if necessary with some added by me if they seem unbalanced in the weighting of sub-topics). Then each of us prepares presentations on our chosen theme(s), using any medium, although power-point often predominates. The talks are accompanied by a skeleton handout and are recorded to be placed alongside the visuals into our private English wiki. We also watch and discuss suitable films suggested by any one of us.

Discussion follows in class and in the wiki on a discussion board and feedback is provided formally by me but also in peer form. Anyone may add to the wiki (or amend it) at any time. Generally most of the early contributions come from me but as they master the subject, from them. Parallel to this we do text analysis work about once per week with a follow-up homework. For Ireland we decided that we would each do two presentations: one political and one cultural. My cultural presentation was on the poetry of Yeats and we analyzed three poems together: ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, ‘Easter 1916′ and ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. This then is the stage on which my research idea was born.

Yeats Statue, Sligo

Yeats Statue, Sligo

YouTube Preview Image

The origin of my mini-research idea was to take the name ‘William Butler Yeats’, the great Irish dramatist and Poet, and paste it into flickr to see what materialized. What appeared was a link which used the anniversary of Yeat’s birth as a stimulus to get people to choose a photograph to illustrate a poetry extract taken from his poems. The verse selection thus became the stimulus for the visual selection. There were too many offerings for me to handle in the time so I chose some of them. Some disqualified themselves because the pictures were no longer available. Others because I exercised my ethnographic right to act as a filter. The resultant fifteen verses and photos I put into power-point following broadly the pattern:

  1. verse  input
  2. visual input
  3. commentary key points

The commentary questions I chose to answer were:

  1. Which cultural aspects of the chosen poetic extract does the picture highlight?
  2. Which cultural aspects of the extract appear to be NOT reflected in the picture?

I decided to concern myself more with content than poetic form in my work.

The ethnographic principles which I tried to follow were:

Hine in Virtual Ethnography Revisted (2004)

  • to investigate the ways in which the use of the Internet becomes socially meaningful
  • interactive media such as the internet can be understood as both culture and cultural artifact
  • virtual ethnography is a process pf intermittent engagement, rather than long term immersion
  • virtual ethnography is necessarily partial. Our accounts can be based on strategic relevance to particular research questions rather than faithful representations of objective realities
  • intensive engagement with mediated interaction adds an important reflexive dimension to ethnography
  • virtual ethnography is ultimately, an adaptive ethnography which sets out to suit itself to the conditions in which it finds itself.

Creswell (2007):

  • the clear identification of a culture-sharing group
  • the specification of cultural themes that will be examined in the light of this culture -sharing group
  • an explanation of how the culture-sharing group works
  • a self-disclosure and reflexivity by the researcher about her or his position in the research

Further, I posed myself the following questions at the outset:

Is this a good place to study this cultural theme?

I decided it was because of the visual and textual elements and because I started with Yeats and Ireland in mind. The weaknesses were that for almost the whole time the quotations and pictures had to speak for themselves with only a visit to the flickr sites of those whose works were being studied as a guide.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

Can the individuals we see interacting here be described as a culture-sharing group?

Clearly so; they identify themselves with Yeats by participating and with flickr by being members.

What might be the main themes emerging from the investigation of this group and how does one go about identifying them?

The majority of the group are pros in flickr which means they post substantially and regularly and clearly from the limited comments some of them know one another’s real identities behind the flickr screen name mask.

What level of involvement is to be justifiably expected of the researcher?

My involvement can only be post-event because many of the postings happened four years ago.

How will the participants’ perspectives be given an appropriate voice?

Their platform is flickr and they have selected in writing and visually. I reflect upon what I observe which is what they present.

What are the ethical issues at stake?

pondering on what is to be included

pondering on what is to be included

Before publishing such research on a wide scale, I would give my comments to the participants to respond to which would greatly enhance interactivity and introduce a further deep structure to it. I think that because the publication of flickr is public, they have placed themselves in the public domain. On a larger scale, copyright checks would need to be run on the Yeats’ quotes and on the pictures chosen.

How does the personal experience of the researcher come to bear on the analysis and the proposed interpretation?

Without a deep interest in and knowledge of the poetry and poet’s background I think I would have been unwise to attempt such a topic.

How transferable to different sites is an approach which might work here?

In terms of different poets, poems or songs; highly transferable. Verse and pictures alongside are highly popular in New Age materials and one of the best examples of its early use is Blake’s poetry and engravings – without ethnographic commentary of course. Any photo sharing site or a site such as Animoto or You Tube would lend itself to ethnographic analysis as does cinema but it is far more difficult if the pictures are not still images.

Blake's Tyger manuscript and engraving

Blake's Tyger manuscript and engraving

This is the slide-show I produced:
William Butler Yeats And Flickr

Technically I faced difficulties posting my slide-show. It was rejected by Wordpress as being too large at 3.09MB. So I transferred it to Slideshare and this was successful except that I was only able to embed the link not the slide-show itself and the hyperlinks at the top of some slides were lost. When I find the time (and the tips from my colleagues) I will try to correct that.

I printed the pictures and laminated them. Then I numbered the quotations separately and will initiate a discussion in my 13th class and in our class wiki about the appropriateness of the pictures to the quotes. I think this will prove a fitting conclusion to our work on Yeats. At the very end they can discuss my slide-show and my comments.

15 comments to Ethnographic Research Online: Flickr and William Butler Yeats

  • sibyller

    Hi Arthur,
    I really like the way you link this to your teaching. Sounds like they are doing great things on a very high level in your English class. Unfortunately, I can’t view the slideshow as it is marked “private” at the moment.

  • arthurh

    Thanks Sibylle,
    I do have fun working with them. I have taken the ‘private’ off the slideshow. Too many toggles and buttons for a little Englishman! I’m about to do the rounds of the mini-projects so I’ll get back to you later.

  • eneasm

    Hi Arthur

    I love Yeats, I never knew there was a recording of him reading! A very creative approach to ethnography..I have enjoyed reading it.

  • silvanad

    I also like the connection to your English class. And thank you for posting that recording of Yeats ’singing’ his poem. It is beautiful. What I found interesting is that while there was quite a response from the Flikr photographers to post photos related to verse – there was hardly any interaction or commenting between them. Or did I miss something?

    Very nicely presented blog and slideshow.

  • arthurh

    Thank you. No, they appeared to let the poetry and pictures speak for them. That is one of the points that fascinated me so much. I suspect that there was private communication between some of the flickr pros on another level. Therefore, like between (photographer) friends, there was sometimes no need for words.

  • Sarah Payne

    “I exercised my ethnographic right to act as a filter” – I like this idea; of researcher as editor!
    I agree with Silvana in that I didnt see much interaction within the group beyond their own postings.

    Could it still be said that they were a community if they do not really interact? Are they ‘culture sharing’ if the sharing is only in one direction?

  • arthurh

    Thanks Sarah,
    I agree unless they are actually communicating with one another through their postings. Please see the second part of my week seven summary on my blog about communication levels in our different ethnographies.

  • jen

    a community that communicates without (their own) words – very intriguing premise, Arthur, and your analysis of their images seems to honour your view of the nature of their community. I also like how you’ve carried on themes from our work on visual artefacts into this task. Also, as you hint at and Sarah highlights, the ethnographies we create and the communities we choose may say as much about us as they do about any particular community, and I think that is really well illustrated in your work here.

  • Tony McNeill

    Hi Arthur, really fascinating ethnographic study of a community. Like Silvana, I was struck by the relative lack of communication between contributors. I suspect you may be right that private communication took place bewteen some of them – and Flickr’s own email system enables this. However, on a lot of media sharing sites there is a culture of peer acknowledgement – you know, “great vid dude”-type messages. I wonder why not here? I’d be interested to dig deeper and find out more about this as it seems unusual for Flickr. For example, here’s a pic I like in hommage to the French singer Serge Gainsbourg – . I love the fact that there are 3 appreciative comments in 3 languages with the Catalan-speaking photographer translating the French for an English-speaking viewer!

  • andym

    I am coming back to your presentation to relax and enjoy Yeats prose set against the images. Please confirm – were the images collated by the community?

  • arthurh

    Hi Andy,
    Each of them chose their extract from Yeats and then chose a picture to illustrate it in response to Michael Quest’s original idea to celebrate his birth date.. As you can see from the time of posting at the top, the sequence they are presented in is mine. The strange thing is that they obviously felt no need to communicate save in this way. I decided (without any evidence) that it was because they were fellow Yeats buffs and fellow photographers. Weirdly the shared poems and photos seemed to be the ‘community’, such as it was…

  • arthurh

    Thanks for that Tony. There was a comment which I included in the heading. It was of the ‘dude’ kind.

  • sibyller

    Just to say that I really enjoyed watching the slideshow. Lovely extracts and photos!

  • Arthur I really enjoyed the different interpretations and visual focus here. Like others have mentioned here it is interesting how little discussion takes place outside the images themselves – it feels a little like a creative writing or poetry slam night – each participant creating, laying out their work, stepping back to see what others have created…

    Anyway, a really interesting form of community ;)

  • sian

    Thanks for this Arthur – a great piece of work with so many levels. I had a bit of an epiphany myself while reading it, and thinking again about Hine’s construction of the internet as both culture and cultural artefact (a point you highlight here). Might the same idea apply to the notion of ‘community’ that everyone has been grappling with so much? ie are these online engagements not simply communities but also community artefacts – neither one nor the other, but a complex and shifting relation of both?

    Excellent work.

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