How does an anthropologist conduct participant-observation fieldwork in cyberspace? Caliandro’s 2017 article presents four analytical concepts that may help shift the face-to-face methodology of qualitative fieldwork to one suited for the virtual. It may seem obvious, after all the readings we’ve done this semester, but the first thing to do is not treat social media, the internet, etc. as an object of study but as a source of new methods and techniques. This is difficult for a discipline which emphasizes being there as justification for the data gathered in fieldwork; but for those who are not digital natives, so the argument goes, if we are to understand contemporary social life, we must at least be digital travelers (if not digital immigrants).
An important aspect of the Digital Methods Program Caliandro cites is that the “contemporary Internet overcomes the classical dichotomy between ‘real’ and ‘virtual,’ allowing research to go far beyond the study of online culture” (Caliandro 2017, 7). Again, this may seem obvious (but many of my colleagues would call their students ‘digital natives’ (which I don’t think is necessarily true for you as a cohort). What this really means is that to understand contemporary society, we need to talk in the language of retweets, hashtags, and memes. (As an aside, if you want to know more about Actor Network Theory, ask me or follow the link).
To explore how ethnography changes when the online is included with the IRL, Caliandro suggests we consider the following concepts:
Community: Yes, this is an old concept, “a network of social relations marked by mutuality and emotional bonds” (Caliandro 2017, 11); but now it’s a lot less tangible (if it ever was) now with the internet and social media. Caliandro says that we need to then look at the emergence and contingency of communities, as becoming social. To do this, Caliandro turns to another old concept (expanded in great detail by Max Weber in the early 20th century), the crowd.
Public Crowd: More specifically, Caliandro wants us to think about the public crowd, an affective entity where experiences are shared online and offline. Actually, Congress is very concerned about this issue, which is why Facebook, Twitter, and Google were in the spotlight yesterday in DC.
Self-Presentation as a Tool: We’ve already talked about this issue, in terms of marginalized groups able to find space for expression. Furthermore, anthropologists already assume and constantly look for self-presentation – how we appear in public has intentionality, both shaped by cultural ideologies and individual agency. But now we have new concepts to deal with: devotee, insider, newbie, and mingler.
User as a Device: Here is where some of the tools that we’ve learned to use this semester comes into play. We say a lot about ourselves using the internet and social media. To explore what this means, even if we are largely relying on qualitative analysis, we need to learn how to quickly grab images, text, and other forms of data from the web. See for example Caliandro’s discussion of hispterism and the use of one million photos from Instagram.
In the end, Caliandro concludes that the best strategy is to follow and grab. First, follow the thing, the medium, and the natives (Caliandro 2017, 20). Second, using our tried-and-tested concepts, adapt them to the new fieldwork data as you grab them from participation in the internet and social media.