Monthly Archives: November 2009

Where’s Week 8?!

Although I will be massaging the order of my posts just a little bit in the next few days this is a short flag up of the fact that my lifestream summaries are written at the weekend – it’s when I have time and fits the timings well – which meant that Week 8, a busy week, wasn’t written up when I was tucked up early on last Sunday night nursing my fever. It will be following this week along with posts about the readings for the last few weeks (some of which I am up to date on, some of which I am only now able to catch up on). Oh and some assignment thoughts as well of course.

It’s been a really sucky time to be ill in terms of coursework and my dayjob but I’m feeling mostly recovered and eager to get back to work properly so hopefully this week will be a much much more productive one concluding with an up to date blog, a much healthier lifestream and a clearer idea of what the next few weeks will hold for me. I’m looking forward to this week’s Skype session as well so may reflect on that here since the readings across the last 3 weeks will, I’m sure come up in enjoyable detail.

Watch this space…

Week 9 Summary – Feverish and Underproductive

This week was mostly a matter of being ill at home with fluey symptoms.

Having run a fever all weekend with coughs and sniffles I was off work for the whole week and on Monday 16th and Wednesday 18th I was too busy being tucked up in bed sleeping off symptoms, taking paracetamol and feeling like my head might explode to do anything online at all. My lifestream from all corners of the web was blank and friends were much more concerned about my silence than about my tiny Tuesday tweet to say I was unwell. They know to be Nicola is to be online, sharing, posting, updating. To be silent or near silent for any number of days is weird or concerning behaviour but particularly when everyone knew I was in town and not tied up with a family event or otherwise away from access to the internet. A few friends got quite spooked and started checking in on Facebook. One was getting concerned, absolutely days ahead of time, that I might not be well enough to roast the massive Thanksgiving Turkey next week. Such is the peculiar impact of my presence/absence online.

By Thursday I had perked up enough to enter the light daytime television period of any illness and that meant I could also handle a little light email and start bookmarking a few interesting things. I let people know via Twitter that I was on the mend and answered various kind Tweets from concerned followers – most weren’t those that see me around town a lot but those who do retweet me and take an interest in following up comments. I was supposed to attend an Edinburgh Coffee Morning (a weekly networking event for new tech/social media) this week and two of the people I should have met there also checked in to see if I would be along and how I was feeling. Flicking through my email I spotted a few things I should grab and note and, particularly as I was still feeling quite ropey, could come back to later when feeling brighter. These included:

  • An announcement from the Ordnance Survey about mapping data which will be made free online – as well as offering some interesting potential for emerging location based web services this is also of general professional interest as my own organisation provides Digimap (, a service which provides online maps and spatial data of Great Britain for UK HE and FE (including various ordnance survey data sets).
  • A link out to a webcast of the Silicon Valley Comes to the UK – NESTA event on Social Media with participants including Stephen Fry and Biz Stone.
  • An article on the unmasking of notorious escort and blogger “Belle de Jour” and what the publicity about her real identity reveals about the problems of anonymous blogging.
  • A link to remind me that Twitter have started supporting Tweets via MMS (only in the UK, only from Orange handsets so far) which I’m eager to try as I often take pictures of newspaper hoardings on my walk home from work when daft/alarming/emotive/non-news type headlines catch my eye. I also grab shots from my phone of little moments at home (often nice plates of food or daftness) and bizarre window displays in shops. None are thrilling, all are ephemeral and all are easier to MMS (multimedia message) than to email or upload on the spot (see examples below) so it should be fun gilding my Tweets in the next few weeks – it will add a whole new element to the lifestream as I could get super literal about digitally tracking my day if I wanted to.

hoarding2DSC00169obscure hoardingHoarding1

show offDistressed Bunny

By Friday I was, aside from 30 second nose blows, feeling much more like myself and a lot more able to absorb the world (if not really take that much part in it again yet). In the daytime I saw a few emails and news stories like a new Facebook Privacy Policy (always interesting given how often they relate in public backlash – although Facebook provide a free service their users know all too well the value of them walking which leads to interesting clashes), an article on Second Life and the rather radical (and good) news that YouTube are adding automatic captioning for all videos (eventually) which will mean increased accessibility but also increased search engine friendliness. One of the ongoing challenges to humans becoming posthuman or part cyborg or simply delegating more work to automated systems is the fact that human understanding is very complex compared to those of machines. Machines can interpret sound, images, video but most are best with numbers, text and similar programmatic inputs. There are specialist systems and algorithms for different sorts of data but few computers are expert with all types on input whereas most humans are capable of understanding (in some way) sound, image, text etc. more intelligently. The more machines are able to understand unmediated images, video, etc. the more they will be able to serve and interact with their human users. Until then image-based pdfs will ellude screen-reading software, metadata for sound recordings will rely on words or provided information not the meaning of what is spoken or conveyed.

The strange thing about Friday’s email was the number of happy silly links friends and colleagues were sharing – I don’t know when Fridays officially became the day for silliness but they now always seem like the time the daftest things come to light. This week I was sent Catsforgold, a very accurate parody of the recent rash of daytime TV ads urging you to post your gold jewellery to similarly named companies who will post you cash in return. However the best silly site I was sent this week is actually a perfectly normal Amazon product page that has been subverted by viral people power because, well, quite a lot of people thought that a Steering Wheel Laptop Table sounded a tad lethal. The time and (in most cases) subtlety of the posts here wonderfully subverts and questions the validity of the product. It’s something I’ve seen Jon Ronson encouraging Twitter followers to do to dubious ghost detection kit and, just this weekend, a friend forwarded me the ebay ad for Debbie Magee’s moulded rubber hand which was replete with questions that may have been serious, may have been meant in jest but definitely lowered the tone of the sale in a method roughly proportionate to the unusually brief sellers description and cynical responses from not Paul Daniels, the listed seller, but his apparently unamused PA. What is always so good and challenging about these subtle virtual pitch invasions is that, unlike most physical situations, there is an opacity in text and publicness of discourse that makes (sellers) treating remarks as anything other than sincere potentially quite risky. I don’t know if that ultimately may lead to a more conservative society or not but I suspect it is just the new face of satire. Why make crude political sketches when you can post your comments ironically right on your target’s website? Maybe being post human in this way is also post political? I don’t agree with Harraway’s idealism but it’s hard not to see something recognizable in her proposal of the future of politics when there is significant public disinterest in national and party politics at the same time as interest in niche and specilist campaigns increases.

On Friday evening my partner and I were feeling up to organizing our Thanksgiving celebrations for next Thursday and, being good posthuman chefs, delegated much of our memory of recipes to the internet, so it was a Google search for a vegan chocolate pie, a world of troubled searching and browsing to find a recipe to make a tasty Turnip side dish after a massive Turnip (that’s a Turnip not a Neep or Swede – Google isn’t great at the distinction but recipe wise it’s crucial) showed up in our Veg Box, and finally a quick search for Artichoke Dip found me the YouTube clip I’d cooked (deliciously) from before. I’d forgotten the name of the dish, the cook, the website, the ingrediants for the recipe and still I knew it would take 2 minutes to find it. I can’t imagine how one would do this in a recipe book where, images aside, your only help are headings, indexes etc. and finding most dishes can be a little hit and miss. And written recipes are certainly less memorable than Mr Alan Smith…

YouTube Preview Image

This weekend I haven’t been adding much to my lifestream but I have been browsing for presents for my nephews and niece as, being all the way over in Seattle, it is often easiest to send the bulk of their presents via US internet retailers as they arrive quickly but we can see what we are buying and we can pay without any currency or postal rate issues. The internet adds and takes away from international family communications – Skype and present buying online is great but it is not the same as seeing people in person or purchasing gifts you have picked out yourself – there is a rewarding festishistic quality to present shopping that it seems impossible to replicate online. However having a showroom-like store for touching, browsing, trying on etc. who would then send on items a-la online retailers may be worth revisiting as a concept (since this is how department stores operated for many years) given the way in which shops are now stocked and how frequently you are referred or suggested to look online for a wider range of items. There are many things I can pick online but until websites go haptic, 3D and odourised there are also many items it is much more fun to grab in a shop.

Talking of culture clashes there were two news items I was depressed to find this weekend. Tweeters are being paid to Tweet occasional automated ads (something I find irrationally exploitative though it may be a Million Dollar Homepage type flash in the pan) and the London Nude Tech Calendar is ready for launch. The latter I find incredibly depressing after a fortnight of reading about feminism and moving beyond human limitations and physiques. The volunteers for the calendar are very conventional attractive people but it has been promoted by the organizers as being a sort of Who’s Who of Social Media players in the capital, that implies that in order to be part of that industry there is some sort of beauty filter rather than competence measure. And, although the calendar features teams of staff and a relatively mixed gender balance, the entire promotional presence is based around the image of a young naked woman (tagged left and right NSFW – Not Safe For Work) rather than a more representative mix of images.

However I should add that I find the nude calendar movement that has come out of the Calendar Girls phenomenon more than a little degrading. The undercutting humour of middle aged ladies with wobbly bits and discretely placed baked goods is wholly absent in calendars that photograph models from a glamour or “artistic” gaze where nudity rather than comedy or playfulness is the goal. Having been given a series of wholly non ironic – though amusingly cheesy – nude calendars no more than 9 or 10 years ago (the engineering sector is, I am sure, still producing such things for sales reps to hand out) I find it can be hard to detect the irony in these things sometimes. I think I would compare London Nude Tech to most of comedian Jimmy Carr’s material – both may have a value to a post-modern ironic audience but there is simply no way to guarantee your audience or that success will not largely come from those that simply agree with what is being ironically nodded at.

Week 7 Summary – Lost in #Torchwood

This will be a super brief summary of the week as I have spent the week quite massively absorbed in my mini ethnography. However I have also been looking at a few different things that are of interest:

  • Video Search – I’ve been looking at different video search engines for work but something I find really interesting is how much I immediately warm/shy away from sites based on how they present results. The profusion of inappropriate video on the net can make those that autoplay results (like Bing and Blinkx) really quite alarming. It is also interesting what version of the world you get when the audio of a video clip is also indexed. Although it helps find useful content there is such a gap in what is possible in visual interpretation that what you might really want to search by – ambiance, creative quality is just not an option in any automated system (yet?). The level of repetition across video sites is also interesting as a reflection on the culture of copying and or modifying even copyrighted content. Which leads neatly on to a Boing Boing story I caught via Twitter…
  • Heavy illegal downloaders buy more music – This is not a huge surprise in some ways but goes against the music industry publicity machines branding of piracy as socially unacceptable and driven by organised crime rather than a culture of bootleggers who love music of all varieties. It’s potentially a really challenging piece of research for those trying to maintain some of the pre-net and control-based financial model for copyrighted works.
  • Geo data, location based services, mobile apps - I’ve been poking around this area recently as the more I delve into mobile devices and mashups, the more fascinated I become by the usefulness of geo-enabling all sorts of data and the ethical/privacy issues that challenge the benefits of this.
  • Web 2.0 for eScience – I was lucky enough to attend a two day workshop at the National eScience Centre this week and two of the most fascinating presentations were by Austin Tate (talking about smart virtual rooms) and Sara de Freitas (talking about serious games and showing a demonstrator of serious games to teach young people and trainee medics about diseases and emergencies respectively). I was also interested that the group of 30 or so attendees were, as part of their networking, promising to see each other on Facebook. This stood out as recently all the social media and tech events I’ve been to involve exchanging Twitter details. I wondered if this was culturally driven (this was a very academic researcher group rather than the more start up focused groups I normally meet) or just coincidence…
  • Alyssa Milano is #5 most influential twitterer - At first I thought this was a joke. Alyssa was a child star of Who’s the Boss (now mostly forgotten save for the lead actress who can currently be seen playing Claire Meade in Ugly Betty) and then became a somewhat cult internet phenomenon thanks to some scantily clad photo shoots (she still has a cult fanbase if comments on her TwitPics are anything to go by). She’s moved on now to a role of sort of playing herself from what I can see but part of that persona involves being an absolutely addicted Twitter fan – her stream is full of replies to followers and fans and the link that flagged up this news item was from one of Twitter’s founders with a note saying how well deserved the ranking was. Quite interesting.
  • Perhaps the news story with the least fanfare but most interesting digital culture vibe this week was the announcement that the Guardian is changing it’s commenting system on the website. I think that if I had been doing my ethnography a few weeks later this would be a fascinating field site. The regular commentators seemed increadibly strongly invested in the commenting system. Objections seem to be strong even though the changes are relatively minor and intended primarily (according to the journalist who alerted me to the story via Twitter) aimed at ensuring all content on the site is picked up by search engines (which has it’s own interesting implications for the impact of the community on the stories they contribute opinions on). Watch this space re: the backlash I think…

Since most of the week was spent immersed in #Torchwood (and an attendant hike in music/podcast listens as I worked into the night) I think that is about all of relevance this week. Over the coming days I will be looking at and commenting on others’ ethnographies (those I’ve seen so far have been really interesting and the range of subjects is great). I also may look at my inital evaluation criteria for my ethnography and may see how the finished work compares to the criteria I was aiming at.

My ethnography is live!

And can be found here: (I can’t see a way to add this to the ethnographies page myself so am hoping a trackback here will do the trick).

I will post a little more about it in my weekly summary later today/tomorrow.

Please leave comments either on the site or on this blog post – whatever you are most comfortable with.

Week 6 Summary – Brevity is the Soul of Wit

As I have been concentrating on untangling my thoughts on ethnography and how I will turn a list of tweets and twitterers, and various observations of their interactions into an ethnography my lifestreaming has been more random and peripheral this week so I shall keep this summary brief.

A fair amount of my lifestream this week is around the idea of building blogging communities and making community rules for blogging spaces – this is something that links both to my work and this courses community I think. Codes of conduct fit with some of themes in Bell (2001) around definitions of community based on symbolism, tradition and behaviours. And codes of conduct, terms of service, etc. are commonplace on the internet as just all sites that require registration, payment or any formal relationship require you agree to terms that may or may not be properly read by most users/participants. I’m not looking to build anything as formal as that but, as with creating many things for the internet, it is often best to start by looking at what else is already being used to get a sense of what does and does not work – hence a lot of links from delicious on this topic this week. I was also referred to an article that looks at some of the contentious consequences of online communities explored in Bell: New Statesman – Trial by fury.

In real life I attended a really interesting in person event this week:

delicious (feed #3) Shared Workshop in Internet Marketing for Scottish Internet Start-ups – The Edinburgh Internet Marketing Meetup Group (Edinburgh, Scotland) – — 5:51pm via Delicious

This event was a talk presented by Sean Ellis (of 12in6 Projects), who has worked on marketing start ups for over a decade, and so a whole cluster of links this week were sparked from this session on start ups, finding ways to iterate your site design to get the most out of visitors and, crucially, ways to make use of Sean’s key question to assess users interest/commitment to start up sites: “Would you be disappointed if <this site/service> was no longer available?”. It’s a simple question but gives a lot of scope for users to talk about what does and does not make the site/service work so well – Sean emphasized one of the key things was creating a sense of community around your start up as a competitor may be able to replicate your service/site/idea but they cannot replicate the people and interested community that you have set up. An interesting note to bear in mind given the growth of social sites in recent years.

Sometimes it can be tricky working out what should be public and what should be private. Twitter lists came out this week – a few of my links refer to this but I’ve already blogged them so I won’t dwell on it here.  I’ve tweeted a few times this week about feeling fluey and then felt quite odd about it. I’ve really been feeling unwell – in a very vague sense – for the last few weeks but my online life and studying is so public and visible that I can feel quite self-concious when I do feel ill. I haven’t been off work this week but there have been all sorts of stories in the press (mostly a couple of years ago) over people on sick leave appearing online in ways that suggest they are fine (most notoriously when appearing drunken in pictures taken during a sick day) and whilst I would never be off work unless ill I think it’s interesting that we haven’t yet worked out the acceptable code of conduct over what is/is not OK to do online when sick. Presumably emailing in to say you are ill is ok, keeping an eye on email is ok, but replying or social networking maybe not? I would answer the phone (if I heard it) when off ill but I would think twice about an email. There is definitely an interesting observer/paranoia effect on the social web…

Finally on the topic of public/private I spotted a bizarre and interesting blog posting on the Official Facebook Blog:

delicious (feed #3) Shared Facebook | Memories of Friends Departed Endure on Facebook. — 5:58pm via Delicious

This story refers to a problem with the new Facebook referrer system – as part of various site changes recently Facebook has starting suggestion not only “People you might know” but also pulling people from your friend lists and suggesting “Write on his wall” or “Poke her” or, most offensively to some “X doesn’t have many friends – suggest some!”. The problem is that trawling through friends people may have stopped actively chatting too unleashes some problems… people have been asked to get back in touch with the partner they’ve just divorced and a whole series of people have been irate to find their deceased friends are being flagged up as being inactive or friendless. So the Official folks at Facebook have found a workaround of sorts – you can now flag your deceased friend(s) status and Facebook will leave the page up but turn it into a “memorial” page, which seems a little odd but at least gives them a criteria to filter suggestions on – deceased folks will not be appearing with a “Poke him!” label again if all goes to plan…

On a similar foot-in-mouth note I was pointed at this wonderfully odd marketing story this week:

delicious (feed #3) Shared When Microsoft pulls out of Family Guy, who loses? | Blog | Econsultancy. — 6:11pm via Delicious

It seems that Microsoft were happy to endorse an episode of Family Guy until they, erm, watched it. On discovering that themes in the episode included such crowd-pleasers as incest Microsoft swiftly removed funding. There has been a little speculation that this might have been a bit of a pragmatic ploy in itself – the brand get all the credibility of sponsoring something edgy without either paying the cash OR being seen to endorse it and they certainly got as much publicity from the decision to withdraw as the original sponsorship likely would. However the main reason I was interested was the fact that this story seemed to symbolize one of the persistent problems mainstream brands encounter when they try to hop onboard a pre-existing niche community or subculture without any knowledge of how that group operates. The Windows 7 ads a few weeks back were another example but the problem isn’t confined to Microsoft. Marketing departments used to purchasing a form of credibility seem to find communities and behaviours online rather baffling to deal with – the banner ad continues to persist for instance despite being a very inefficient advertising mechanism compared to it’s successor, the likes of AdWords which are lower tech but more effective as they respond to desires of browsing individuals rather than the aesthetic needs and imaginations of large corporates.

Torchwood Activity on the Sly

Of course much of this week I’ve been moving along with my Torchwood digital ethnography but much of my watching and participation around the Torchwood Tweeters has been very subtle lifestream-wise. There will be some more links appearing in the next few days as I collate materials onto my site for the work. One thing that did appear in my stream this week though was a request to see if anyone would recommend a good Torchwood tweeter or two to follow. #followfriday is a Twitter tradition for referring Tweeters to the community. So I asked for recommendations (hoping to flag up some of the links between Torchwood tweeters):

twitter (feed #2) Ahead of #followfriday I’m wondering which are the best #Torchwood tweeters to follow? [suchprettyeyes] — 3:01pm via Twitter

Unfortunately I’ve so far had no recommendations but the hashtags have been busy this weekend so it seems like the right time to take what I’ve collected and observed so far and get it all down. One of my most recent activities this week in fact was commenting on Damian’s post about evaluating an ethnography – I found the criteria he shared (from Richardson 2000) super useful so will be thinking about those as I put together my own ethnography.

Mutilated Cookies and Other Social Adventures…

Finally a little light relief. I made gruesome Halloween cookies and since one picture clearly shows a horrified bloodied community I thought it would be a nice thing to include here:

Its murder on the (cookie) dance floor...

Panic on the sheets of Edinburgh...

I also wanted to add that in real life this weekend I attended a film night of scary Halloween movies which was entirely about having a communal experience: viewed on your own such films are either scary or bad but rarely hilarious. But Trick ‘r’ Treat, Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town and The Lost Boys all gain immensely from community backchat. Indeed Chopper Chicks would never have been discovered without a local niche film community around the Cult Fiction DVD shop where new titles can be discovered and shared by interested community members – interestingly this is a shop that has set up only recently despite the availability of the same titles online partly because the experience of browsing can be wonderful when physical but also because of that importance of community.

Poison, Drowning, Claw, Or Knife. So Many Ways To Take A Life.  - Trick r Treat (2008) Theyre Looking for a Few Good Men.  - Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town (1989) Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die. Its fun to be a vampire. - The Lost Boys (1987)

Poison, Drowning, Claw, Or Knife. So Many Ways To Take A Life.

Trick ‘r’ Treat (2008)

They’re Looking for a Few Good Men.

Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town (1989)

Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die. It’s fun to be a vampire.

The Lost Boys (1987)

Like many obscure cult films – especially those featuring leather chaps, Billy Bob Thornton, midget revenge and zombies – Chopper Chicks, whilst very silly and fun, is arguably an experience infinitely improved by a full and irreverent community commentary! Meanwhile the whole group bonded, during the screening of The Lost Boys, through discussions of previous experiences of viewing the same film – we brought our individual experiences into the community space and shared both those past experiences and a communal new experience of viewing some very silly movies. Basically in much the same way as most online film communities thrive on the sharing of, often cinematic, viewing stories and the exchange of knowledge and obscure film tip-offs.

Bell & Communities (or how I stopped worrying and pretty much worked out what a community might be…)

What is a Community?

Bell talks about the issues surrounding the intersections of “real-life” (RL) and online life, and the problem of defining a community in the broader context. Bell also refers to Tönnies’  notion of “Gemeinschaft” (Tönnies 1955 in (2)) – a definition of community which seems, to me, to be out of date even in real life where multiple changes to society including separation of living, working and social spaces, migration, etc. – mean that communities are no longer where “everyone knows everyone, everyone helps everyone, and the bonds between people are tight and multiple (someone’s neighbour is also their workmate and the person they go drinking with and their relative, etc.)” (2) . Pitched against this is Tönnies’ contrasting notion of an urban “Gesellschaft”, where relationships are shallow and instrumental. Bell indicates the nostalgia inherent in drawing such a comparison and, indeed, the role that such nostalgia around idealized views of what constitutes a community plays.

Bell connects these views of what may constitute a community to Benedict Anderson’s notion of “imagined communities” (1983, quoted in (2)) that are maintained by constructed symbols and traditions. I think this is a very useful definition which helps when considering Bell’s questioning of whether groups with shared interests or in specific online spaces constitute real communities. Bell also refers to Rheingold’s views on the value of online communities for the individual, that there is human hunger for community and this is also translated to the online space. However his view that online communities fill the space left by the demise of real life communities is less convincing to me. Finding like-minded people online may be easy – as Rheingold suggests – but by being able to pick selectively on the basis of a single shared interest you still only share one perspective with these “like-minded” types and it can take a long time to find out that you may be part of a community where others may, say, share your love of certain film or fandom for a football team or cooking interest but may also be someone who may have, say, wildly differing political or religious or simply hold radically oppositional views on other topics. The good and bad thing is that connecting to new people via the internet often gives you exactly what you expect at first but that doesn’t mean you ONLY get what you expect. As in real life a shared interest can open the door to sharing other interests or views or subjecting you to new understandings of the world, or it might mean that some friendships are untenable when shared interests are not enough to overcome a serious difference of opinion that you do not discover at first. I would argue that in real life you are far more likely to seek out communities who look, sound and live near you – so share class, income, possibly political and religious views – than online where a single interest is often enough to start a relationship that takes you past what might be a initial barrier on the basis of presentation, accent, or other contexts in real life. But I think the simplicity of people is the same online as offline – no-one is the same and if you only want to hear viewpoints that match your own that is often easy to do in either space.

And following on from this I really like Rheingold’s definition of cyberspace community:

In cyberspace, we chat and argue, engage in intellectual intercourse, perform acts of commerce, exchange knowledge, share emotional support, make plans, brainstorm, gossip, feud, fall in love, find friends and lose them, play games and metagames, flirt, create a little high art and a lot of idle talk. We do everything people do when they get together, but we do it with words on computer screens, leaving our bodies behind. Millions of us have already built communities where our identities commingle and interact electronically, independent of local time or location.

(Rheingold 1999: 414, quoted in (2))

Community vs Subculture

The type of arguments Bell explores around what defines a community, and how a sub culture may differ from there, are crucial to my own choice of community or the digital ethnography. Torchwood Tweeters are perhaps both a subculture and a community – as I explore further I feel that some members participate in each context, some overlap both definitions – but it is a tricky boundary to consider. Sardar (CR: 743 quoted in (2)) seems to take too hard a line on communities by suggesting that it is simplistic to suggest that a shared interest makes a community using the example of the world’s accountants. Actually I think the worldwide population of accountants is, in some respects, a valid community as they shared experiences of specific types of work, they have interests in similar areas of legislation and working practice, they are likely to share business-specific suppliers and contacts – software vendors, payroll companies etc., they will share terminologies, jargon and communications. Crucially that means they will be able to understand and bond with each other in a way that outsiders may not. That does not ensure that every accountant could, would or should richly interact with every other accountant on the planet but the sense of a community of interest is at the very heart of making communications and sharing tools like international journals, shared products and product user groups, conferences, standards etc. work. However this is an opt in/out sort of community (as opposed to, say, a village where location of premises may be the entry rather than participation in that community) and thus fits into Baym’s characterization of communities being real only when participants “imagine themselves as a community” (1998, quoted in (2)).

Bell talks not only of these ideas of conceptual or imagined communities but also of the role of “social codes” in making communities. I think to this I would add that shared opinions is important and that these can often be conflated with social codes in online spaces. I think it is interesting that the Torchwood Tweeters recent activity has been around sharing dominant views that the death of the Ianto Jones character was wrong – either because it is unfair on the actor, because it upsets the balance of the show, because he is a popular character who they will miss… the reason is not important but the sharing of the view that this plot development was not correct is a key part of the shared #Torchwood experience. Also crucial to the current discussions in this space are some assumptions around who will be interested in communicating over the series: fellow tweeters on the #Torchwood hashtag will have watched (and hold opinions) on the existing series’ and will not object to multiple stories of viewings at different timelines – for instance looking just now I can see people talking about series 1, series 3 and a  possible series 4 all in parallel. The viewing and enjoying of the series is shared but, whilst no live broadcasts are scheduled, there is an accepted  practice of reruns and resharings.

Voices of dissent or acts or invasion in online communities are complex. Bell (2) says that:

“Elizabeth Reid’s (1999) work on adventure MUDs refers to the prominence of public displays of punishment there as a return to ‘Medieval’ forms of social control, reversing Foucault’s (1986) famous discussion of the historical move from punishment to discipline – an analysis at odds with the supposed ‘freedom’ on offer in cyberspace.”

And certainly I see some relationship with this symbolic and accelerated level of anger and, say, the number of complaints registered about Jan Moir’s Stephen Gately article last month. Indeed the MUD experience discussed by Julian Dibbell (1999, quoted in (2), and which I commented on elsewhere) puts in mind my own experience of being part of a “kd lang Mailing List” which experienced several crucial community-gelling experiences when it was decided to take collective flaming action upon people posting offensive homophobic and/or sexist comments to the list. In retrospect the group action was disproportionate to the offence but the impact of receiving offensive comments and feeling subject to voyeuristic impostors exposed the fragility of the community (effectively just a set of email addresses) and thus provoked a strong protective reaction.

Bell’s discussion of transgressions in Habitat also recalls more recent press coverage of Second Life gangs and crimes and World of Warcraft gold farming. What distinguishes the virtual crimes in Habitat from those in SL or WoW is that the latter spaces are commercialized and therefore real money is bound to the virtual world transforming crime from a virtual issue to one potentially requiring RL resolution through the legal system. This perhaps helps explains the various shifts online from imaginative play spaces to more RL type social spaces – when virtual interactions are commoditised it becomes more important to be able to confidently trust the identity of those you may be exchaning real money or goods with (indeed eBay is one of the most intriguingly complex spaces for social interaction, trust and etiquette). Which is not to say that anonimity is not possible or desirable in current cyber communities but more to indicate that I feel that the acceptability of anonymity is currently in a state of flux. The internet has also become a business space and networking in this context is usually most effective when under a professional name or consistent pseudonym (in a way Second Life is smart to allow only certain names – they encourage users to adopt wholly new unique pseudonyms for the space thus protecting their RL identities). That might mean that one may eventually want 2 or 3 names for different online communities or that people eventually treat online spaces like RL – you are usually yourself but you might play a part for a night or act differently in a more permissive space.

Arguments against Online Communities

Bell draws on Robins’ (in (Bell and Kennedy 2000), quoted in (2)) concept that thinking about cyber communities must be contextualised by the real world . This is one of the reasons that as part of my own digital ethnography of the Torchwood tweeting community I will be trying to give a visual idea of the geographic context of tweeters  – I think there may be relationships between locations and the type of participation they play in the community, not least because this particular community is gathered around a cultural experience that comes with specific set broadcast/release dates and interactions in the community are mediated by participants real life access to materials, experiences and awareness of Torchwood activity/news some of which is released globally, some of which is released in different localities at different times (leading to tensions over, e.g. plot spoilers).

More alarmingly Bell also talks about Kroker’s idea of Bunkering which, to me, seems to be overly simplistic in it’s criticism of the possibility of online communities. I do accept that you can exist on the internet without ever dealing with other people – you can shop, game, and enjoy interacting with information-rich spaces and you can even publish your own unidirectional website espousing your own ideas (whether to a mass audience or just yourself) if you so wish. But to engage with others online is not to crave distance from people since people do not suddenly behave like machines just because they are using a keyboard or digitally encoded audio or video to mediate their thoughts and feelings. Those with physical intimacy fears or phobias may certainly gain freedoms by being able to speak to someone at a distance but I think there are many more people who benefit from being to make contact with a sort of community peer who can provide support of some kind despite living in quite separate geographical or class or cultural areas from physically local RL peers.

To suggest online communities replace RL interaction is to suppose that there is always going to be a suitable peer group available in RL. I think the popularity of the internet and community driven sites among those living in quite remote rural locations, and the importance of the internet to, for instance, the lesbian, gay and (the much more niche and still fairly misunderstood) trans communities indicates that not only is the internet a less risky way of approaching and discovering possible RL peers but also a way of letting super-niche groups (for instance teen trans people) locate information and contact peers on a global scale. The odds of being the only one or anything in a village is high, less in a town, less in a city, and so when magnified to a global (english speaking?) community you are, no matter how niche your interest, feelings, sexuality or health condition, likely to find peers and support. I think the increased visibility of niche groups in society at large is, in part, due to the raising of confidence that ensues when one is able to see one is not alone but is in fact represented online by other people like you and that there is an acceptance beyond what can be closed minded, small or simply homogeous communities. Indeed small mindedness or a sense of being under perpetual surveillance is the flipside – as Bell notes – of the nostalgia inherant in  Tönnies’ “Gemeinschaft”.

Indeed it is a fairly odd example but cinematically I think the film “Pleasantville” offers a fantastically interesting sense of dischordant nostalgia: for all the safety and cosiness of a world where everyone knows each other there is a dark side to a community that does not recognise change or difference and conceptualises itself under traditionalist terms that opress, whether explicitly or tacitly, minority visibility, viewpoints or merely freedom of expression. Whilst Pleasantville is intentionally very stylized and grounded in fantasy and does not portray behaviour or personal types that would remain controversial today (there are not gay characters, the film does not touch on issues such as abortion, and race is tackled mainly through metaphor) it does show the sense of fright and persecution that follows a minority of characters becoming self-aware about their place in the world and the difference between their own feelings and those of their peers. They break the social norms and expectations and they break the imagined idea of what their community looks like leading to a sense of fragility, backlash and a troubling need to re-negotiate and conceptualize what the imagined state of community might be in the Pleasantville community.

Such a portrayal of 1950s America, drawn very much from televisual ideas of normality (which are often bizarre when shown in abstraction), contrast starkly with a film like “Back to the Future” which, despite attempting to draw on some of the same themes, has it’s roots more clearly in nostalgia and the virtues of Gemeinschaft. Difference is not really engaged with and the lack of divorce, disruption of family life, and romanticised views of pre-feminist womanhood are all seen as virtues rather than potentially stifling limitations. Where change is presented it is in the sense of discovery and niave exploration. The exploration of the fear and isolation possible in a close knit community is overlooked in favour of portraying a warm sense of nostalgic community where every key person in a life are, rather improbably even in a small community, educated at the same high school at the same time.

I think Pleasantville offers a compelling rebuttal to Kroker since one does not automatically retreat to a “perfect” unreal world online; instead one often retreats to a world which is recognisable and tangible to the self. That world may be have overlap with RL, or simply be an extension to it (e.g. online communities like Gaydar, which significantly focus on seeking RL sexual experiences) but the online world is often of greatest value when the connections made online differ substantially from one’s nearest RL experience of community where flexibility or access, choice or negotiations of entry to specialist groups may all be harder to realise. So for a gay teenager a supportive online community may be an escape from their peer group at school – with whom they may have little in common – but it is not a matter of fleeing people or reality, more a matter of making contact with others who will understand their place in the world and who they can disclose their real identity to in relatively low risk.

Having been at the closing night of a long running LGBT social group this week I can confirm that there are still people in their late teens or early 20s who badly need to connect to a community before they feel able to come out to friends and family – so they need to have some addition or alternative to RL in order to reflect on their sense of self long enough to feel able to go back and confidently re-engage with their RL community and, perhaps, find new RL communities of support. The internet can either be a direct bridging mechanism to find the locations and meeting times of a RL community or it can merely be a way to confirm that, to someone in the world, your status is normative enough to feel confident about. There are of course other groups to which this applies, I am just fixed (as Bell seems to be) on the LGBT community as I have had most personal experience of these communities. I also have RL friends in the local LGBT community where I live now but as a 17 year old living in a rural village there was no RL way to test my sense of self at low risk whilst the online LGBT community allowed me to meet long term friends and confidantes at a time when that was extremely valuable.

I feel strongly that arguments suggesting that participation in online communities simply embodies a means of hiding from differing views also undermines the complexity of human opinion – sharing one type of view does not mean that individuals will share all views (as I’ve already mentioned above). I do like Hetherington’s ideas of neo-tribes and the concept of Bund but I am not sure it is necessary to be as careful of the use of the word community as some of those quoted by Bell suggest. I think there is more weight to Wellman and Gulia’s (1999, quoted in (2)) suggestion that one sees “online life as city life; or, more accurately, as living ‘in the heart of densely populated, heterogeneous, physically safe, big cities’” – there may be areas of like minded people but you are moving in many communities and individuals are, well, individuals as well as participants in their communities. I also fully agree that one cannot entirely talk about total heterogeneity since not all people will be present online – there are indeed inherent exclusions of access and understanding (Slevin 2000 quoted in (2)) and unintended inclusions/exclusions of audiences (Stone in (2)), but it is hard not to see this as an extension to the existing divisions in RL. There may not be explicit rules of conduct for many RL spaces but there are infinite implicit rules and expectations that those in socially excluded groups, those that do not meet aesthetic standards, or those without financial freedom are unlikely to meet. It would be nice if the online world was more accepting than this but it is perhaps not realistic to expect online communities to behave exactly unlike RL communities when the people who populate online spaces are also, inevitably, the same people who participate in the physical world.


N.B. These reference are for this block of work – the vast majority of references are to article (2) by David Bell.

  1. Hine, C (2000) The virtual objects of ethnography, chapter 3 of Virtual ethnography. London: Sage. pp41-66
  2. Bell, David (2001) Community and cyberculture, chapter 5 of An introduction to cybercultures. Abingdon: Routledge. pp92-112 [e-book] [PDF]
  3. Rheingold, H (2000) Introduction to The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. London: MIT Press. [web site]
  4. Gatson, S and Zweerink, A (2004) Ethnography online: ‘natives’ practising and inscribing community. Qualitative Research, 4(2), 179-200.
  5. Clari, M (unpublished, 2009) A Flickr ethnography.
  6. Michael Wesch’s Digital Ethnography blog [web site]
  7. Gillen, G (2009) Literacy practices in Schome Park: a virtual literacy ethnography, Journal of Research in Reading, 32(1), 57-74.
  8. Chan, A (2008) The Dynamics of Motherhood Performance: Hong Kong’s Middle Class Working Mothers On- and Off-Line. Sociological Research Online. 13(4). [web site]
  9. Bardzell, S and Odom, W (2008) The Experience of Embodied Space in Virtual Worlds: An Ethnography of a Second Life Community. Space and Culture 11(3), 239-259.