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Verklempt: Historically Informed Digital Ethnography

VerklemptI’m not one to speak about theory and method in the abstract. But when I am asked about my method, I typically respond that I use historically informed ethnography. However, whenever I say this I think of Mike Meyers’ SNL character Linda Richman. On Richman’s public access show, she and her friends talked about “about coffee, New York, dawters, dawgs, you know – no big whoop – just coffee talk.” During their discussions Richman would often become “verklempt,” such as in recalling meeting Barbara Streisand; overcome with emotion, she’d turn to her guests with a prompt: “The Prince of Tides is neither about a Prince nor tides – discuss.”

Hence, while I might say “historically informed ethnography,” I think to myself that “my work is neither historical nor ethnographic – discuss.”

Historically informed

As a computer science undergraduate I loved (and minored in) history. I still do love history and find that while I am typically focusing on contemporary communities and how they work together, historical context is important to my developing understanding of the practices of today.

When I went off to graduate school for a PhD, I was very much inspired by a little known work about Quakers: Michael Sheeran’s1 Beyond Majority Rule: Voteless Decisions in the Religious Society Of Friends. This was an ethnography of their consensus decision-making, but began with an introduction to their history, one that greatly informs the present-day. For instance, Quakers’ decision-making is a reflection of the origins of Protestantism. In short, under Protestantism it was thought that divine will could be discerned via the individual rather than through the church. However, the idea of individual discernment allowed for some unusual (and ill-favored) beliefs, such as those of the Ranters and the messianic Quaker James Naylor. This, in turn, brought increased persecution by the state. Hence, early Quakers faced the problem of how to represent themselves as moderate and nonthreatening. Their solution, in part, was to adopt a position of pacifism and community consensus. This historical context imparted a much richer understanding than if I had only read of their current day decision making. Accordingly, I tried to do the same thing with respect to Wikipedia collaboration by placing it in the historical context of what I called the pursuit of the universal encyclopedia.

Hence, even when I am focused upon the seemingly faddish phenomena of the digital realm, I challenge myself to ask if this is truly something never seen before? It rarely is, which then permits me to ask the more interesting and productive question of how is it different from (or a continuation of) what has gone before?

Is this history or ethnography? And at what point, in trawling through online archives, does ethnography become history?

A digital interlude

Much of my quandary about history and ethnography relates to my domain of study. I love being able to immerse myself in the conversations and cultural artifacts of a community. Much of this is likely a reflection of my personality. I can be shy and I enjoy hunting through archives for something that is novel and leads to an insight. I am often happy to work alone as I read through blogs, wiki pages and email archives. Yet, is this history or ethnography? And at what point, in trawling through online archives, does ethnography become history? (When the sources are dead?)

I’m fortunate that I tend to study open communities and geeks. This means that many of my sources are prolific self-documenters, publishing their thoughts and contributions in public. Consequently, I have many primary sources, and I want to share them with my readers. In fact, after a decade of work, I have over four thousand sources and as I’ve done this work, I’ve continued to develop a system by which I can easily document, find, and manage this information. I recently did a screencast of the two tools I’ve developed for this.

Of course, this is not to say that conversations and interviews with community members are not useful. I’ve attended many a conference, Meetup, and un-conference. Many times people have shared with me context and background that has been invaluable to my understanding and portrayals. Sometimes, I delight in a key insight or wonderful quotation I can use from an interview. However, I do take lesser pleasure in an insight communicated to me privately than one I can find publicly. I don’t attempt to rationalize or advocate for this position, it is simply my preference. (I suspect many of the lofty words spent on academic distinctions is to justify similar differences in personal sensibilities and social habitus).Read More… Verklempt: Historically Informed Digital Ethnography