I’m reading a bit off-piste now as I get interested in trying to define a virtual ethnographic field site. I like this:
I conceived of my field site as a network composed of fixed and moving points including spaces, people, and objects. [...] Another advantage of defining the field site as a network is that it is produced as a continuous space that does not presume proximity or even spatiality in a physical sense. Continuity does not imply homogeneity or unity; it implies connection. The continuity of a network is evident in the way that one point can (through one or more steps) connect to any other point. (Burrell 2009: 189-190)
Burrell, J. (2009) The Field Site as a Network: A Strategy for Locating Ethnographic Research. Field Methods, 21(2): 181–199
It’s early in the first week of Block 2 in which we’re exploring notions of both ‘virtual community’ and ‘virtual ethnography’ as a preliminary to doing a micro-ethnographic study of an online community.
One question I have is why we are using the concept of ‘community’ instead of the concept of the ‘field site’ – the latter, from what I’ve read so far of virtual, digital, cyber- or multi-modal ethnography, looking like the more common term applied to the space – both physical and virtual – in which participants engage in different kinds of activities and transactions.
Let me give you an example. I’m writing an article on Twitter conference backchannels. I take a single academic conference as my case study. I don’t know if I can call the participants who are tweeting during the conference a ‘community’ as it raises some big and possibly distracting issues. They may have never interacted with one another before and they may never interact with one another again. Some may be seasoned Twitter backchannellers, others newbies unfamiliar with Twitter conventions (RTs, @ messages etc.). They have a shared interest – the conference themes – and probably come from the same professional sphere (education, training). However, are the 20 or so individuals tweeting using a shared character string in their posts for the duration of the conference a community? I’m not sure.
On the other hand, I think I can say that there is a ‘field site’ that I can demarcate: a physical one being the conference venue, its main presentation and breakout rooms, display, coffee drinking and socialising areas etc. as well as a virtual one created through the shared use of a conference-specific hashtag. I can mark out the shared space of interaction (with a virtual scene-of-the-crime yellow and black tape?). Having demarcated my field site I can explore the kinds of interactions taking place within it. Only once this is done am I able to decide whether it’s a community or not?