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Ethnography of Trolling: Workarounds, Discipline-Jumping & Ethical Pitfalls (1 of 3)


whitney phillips december 2012Editor’s Note: Reddit. Facebook. YouTube. Twitter. These days it’s difficult to go anywhere online without encountering an anonymous troll (or ten). Debates about trolling, which is best described as deliberately antagonistic or otherwise provocative online speech and behavior, have even seeped into congressional hearingsIn research conducted between 2008 and 2012, Whitney Phillips @wphillips49 –who received her PhD in English with a Digital Culture/Folklore emphasis from the University of Oregon– investigated the origins and subcultural contours of online trolling. Using a combination of cultural studies, new media studies and ethnography, Whitney postulated that there is more to trolls and trolling behaviors than detractors might initially think. 

The subject of Whitney’s research leads us to ask, how does one conduct ethnographic research on an anonymous, and at times malicious, online population? In the first post of her three-part guest series, Whitney shares with us how she tackled the ethical pitfalls of her groundbreaking research. She also discusses how these pitfalls allowed her to make larger claims about trolling, with particular focus on the striking overlap between trolling and mainstream behaviors.  We look forward to her next post on her participant observation expeditions with trolls.       

Check out past posts from guest bloggers

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My name is Whitney Phillips, and I study trolls. Well, not just trolls. I’ve also written about meme culture, so-bad-it’s-good fan engagement (my essay on the kuso aesthetic in Troll 2 is forthcoming in Transformative Works and Cultures), and online shaming. But for the better part of five-ish years, my life has revolved around trolls and the trolls who troll them. The title of my dissertation—THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS: The Origins, Evolution and Cultural Embeddedness of Online Trolling—pretty much says it all.

As I will discuss in this and several subsequent guest posts, my research experiences have been something of a mixed bag. Writing about trolls (to say nothing about working with trolls) has certainly been engaging, but has also proven to be the most consistently frustrating, challenging, and at times downright infuriating endeavor I have ever attempted. Which is one of the main reasons it has been so engaging, go figure.

Because in the end, it was the complications—the incomplete data sets, the trolls’ endless prevarications, the incessant march of subcultural change—that gave rise to my basic argument, the nutshell version of which can be found in my response to the Violentacrez controversy. As I argue, trolls are agents of cultural digestion; they scavenge and repurpose mainstream content, allowing one to extrapolate what’s going on in the dominant culture by examining what’s going on in the troll space. I could not have written my way into this argument if things had gone according to plan. I needed those roadblocks, even if at the time they made me want to rip out my hair.

Read More… Ethnography of Trolling: Workarounds, Discipline-Jumping & Ethical Pitfalls (1 of 3)

“Curious Rituals”: behind the scenes of a speculative ethnographic project


Cell phone inserted in a helmet

Cell phone usage by a courier in Seoul, Korea.

Curious rituals” is a research project I’ve conducted last summer as a visiting researcher at the Art Center School of Design (Media Design Practice program) in Pasadena, CA. The aim was to (a) investigate the gestures and postures people do when using digital devices,  and (b) speculate about their near future. The project book can be found for free as a PDF and printed as a book on Lulu.
General interest

There’s a quote by Science-Fiction author William Gibson that I like a lot; it reflects what I am interested in.

I’m trying to make the moment accessible. I’m not even trying to explain the moment, I’m just trying to make the moment accessible.” (from a documentary film called No Maps for These Territories“).

The reason I find it fascinating is simply that there’s a great value in producing description and making social situations and people’s behavior intelligible. Although the field studies conducted in ethnographic research can (and do) help craft theoretical constructs or models, the accurate and detailed description of what happens before our eyes is also important. This descriptive dimension is probably of interest to me because I work in the design department of an art school. A descriptive understanding of reality may be sufficient enough to inspire or frame the work of practitioners (while theories may be a bit more difficult to be digested). This is a general starting point in my work, which does not necessarily means that it’s a-theoretical (this choice itself emerges out of my interest in Grounded Theory anyways).

Why this topic?

Over the last five years, I’ve worked on different projects related to digital technologies: gesture-based interface in video-games, remote-control as gaming devices, touch interfaces, the user experience of virtual reality goggles, etc. The investigation addressed various angles but I noticed a common thread in the results: the body language people develop when using digital devices such as cell phones, laptops, robots, game controllers, sensors or any interface that involved ICTs. I started compiling examples, mostly via pictures one can find in my Flickr stream. The intuition was that it would be intriguing to explore that domain, and understand the underlying issues related to such habits. The opportunity to spend two months at the Media Design Practice department at Art Center College of Design in California then came as relevant context to investigate this topic more thoroughly.

With the team (Kathy Myiake, Nancy Kwon and Walton Chiu), we chose to use the term “rituals” without the religious or solemn connotation, referring instead to a series of actions regularly and invariably followed by someone.Read More… “Curious Rituals”: behind the scenes of a speculative ethnographic project

Instagram Ethnography in Uganda – Notes on Notes


anxiao.headshot.headshoulders.200pxEditor’s Note:  At Ethnography Matters, we love featuring the new generation of ethnographers who are experimenting with innovative techniques.

An Xiao Mina @anxiaostudio is a researcher, design strategist, and artist. She moved to Uganda for a few months to conduct ethnographic fieldwork. Instead of just using a traditional field toolkit (audio recorder, camera, notebook, laptop), An Xiao also incorporated social media apps into her documentation practice. In her first guest post on Ethnography Matters, An Xiao shares with us her methods for using Instagram and Tumblr to live fieldnote

An Xiao plays a central role in leading the ethnographic documentation of global memes. Her most recent talk dissects the political nature of memes in China. She writes about design and people on Core 77.  She has a  beautiful piece on the close collaboration of artists and villagers to save a Chinese village from demolition in Design Observer. And follow her on Instagram (@anxiaostudio) and tumblr for live fieldnotes! 

Check out past posts from guest bloggers

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xinhuanateete

In October and part of November, I had the privilege to live and work in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, and to spend additional time in nearby areas such as Masaka in Western Uganda and Oyam in Northern Uganda.  As I was traveling to explore technology use in urban and rural contexts around the country, I thought it would be a great opportunity to practice live fieldnotes on Tumblr and Instagram, a technique I picked up from Tricia Wang’s ethnographic practice.

kampalaoverhead (1)

I found that live fieldnotes came naturally to me.  I took photos with multiple cameras–a Canon SLR, a Panasonic Lumix point-and-shoot, and of course my iPhone.  Thanks to Apple’s camera connection kit, I used my iPad to consolidate images, highlight my favorites, and then queue them up on Instagram.  Since I did not have regular internet access either via wifi or 3G, I would wait until I reached home to post them all.  The great convenience of Instagram is that it would then port the images directly to Tumblr and Flickr, where they would be tagged and sorted.Read More… Instagram Ethnography in Uganda – Notes on Notes

On Digital Ethnography: mapping as a mode of data discovery (2 of 4)


WendyHsu_pineconeEditor’s Note: Can ethnographers use software programs? Last month’s guest contributor, Wendy Hsu @WendyFHsu, says YES! In Part 1 of On Digital Ethnography, What do computers have to do with ethnography?, Wendy introduced her process of using computer programming software to collect quantitative data in her ethnographic research. She received a lot of great comments and suggestions from readers. 

Part 2 of of Wendy’s Digital Ethnography series focuses on the processing and interpreting part. In fascinating detail, Wendy discusses mapping as a mode of discovery. We learn how using a customized spatial “algorithm that balances point density and readability” can reveal patterns that inform the physical spread of musicians’ fans and friends globally. Geo-location data clarified her qualitative data. We are already in great anticipation for Part 3! 

Check out past posts from guest bloggers

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The Hsu-nami's Myspace friend distribution in Asia

Figure 0: The Hsu-nami’s Myspace friend distribution in Asia

In my last post, I introduced the idea of using webscraping for the purpose of acquiring relevant ethnographic data. In this second post, I will concentrate on the next step of the ethnographic process: data processing and interpreting. Remember The Hsu-nami, the band that I talked in the last post? The image above is a screenshot of their Myspace friend distribution, a map that I created for analyzing the geography of their community. This post is about the value of creating such maps.Read More… On Digital Ethnography: mapping as a mode of data discovery (2 of 4)

Innovation in Asthma Research: Using Ethnography to Study a Global Health Problem (2 of 3)


Editor’s Note: Global health research is not easy to coordinate. Publicly shared global health research is even more complex. That is why last month, Ethnography Matters was so excited to feature Erik Bigras‘s and Kim Fortun‘s innovative research methods for The Asthma Files, a project at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute where ethnographers gather and publicly share data about asthma. We believe their work signals to an important turn in policy oriented and public ethnography. 

In Erik’s and Kim’s first post, Innovation in Asthma Research: Using Ethnography to Study a Global Health Problem (1 of 3),  they focused on why The Asthma Files is necessary and introduced some of the technical logistics for creating a crowd-sourced qualitative data health gathering project. 

In this month’s Ethnozine, Erik and Kim’s second post details the exciting process of choosing the best data sharing platform for their project, Plone. We learn about how the Tehran Asthma Files was born out of a close collaboration with the  Samuel Jordan Center for Persian Studies and Culture at the University of California, Irvine. 

We look forward to their final post in this series that will discuss how other researchers from social scientists to epidemiologists and global health experts can participate in the research project and make use of the data. 

Check out past posts from guest bloggers

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spacestehran

Choosing the Right Platform

Collaborating with other disciplines (here, data science) allows us to better understand the ways in which scientific knowledge is able to cross particular boundaries.

Collaborating with other disciplines (here, data science) allows us to better understand the ways in which scientific knowledge is able to cross particular boundaries.

Our ethnographic experiments are made possible partly because of the choice of online platform that The Asthma Files uses. Choosing the right platform is anything but simple. Each platform has its own capabilities, and these don’t necessarily align with the goals of the project. For The Asthma Files, we’ve so far been through three different platforms. We eventually settled on Plone because it was the one most suited to our needs.

As we said in our previous post, one of the goals of The Asthma Files is to rethink the everyday work of ethnography. In order words, we’re trying to understand how digital environments can transform the everyday, mundane, things that ethnographers do. As such, one of our primary audiences is ourselves as ethnographers and researchers. For this purposes, we needed an online platform that would be more than a delivery mechanism. We needed something that would act as a fully developed workspace where we could share, store, and create material.Read More… Innovation in Asthma Research: Using Ethnography to Study a Global Health Problem (2 of 3)

Using online/offline methods: An ethnography of chip music and its scene


marilouEditor’s note: This week, Marilou Polymeropoulou, D.Phil student at the Oxford University Faculty of Music, talks about her work trying to understand creativity in chip music, a type of electronic music composed on retro videogame and computer consoles. For Marilou’s thesis entitled: “Limitation and Creativity in Chip Music: an Ethnographic Perspective”, she conducted online and offline ethnographic fieldwork among the transnational community of chip music for the last two years. The methodological focus of her work promotes an ethnomusicological perspective on creativity and assesses technology from a sociological viewpoint. Marilou developed a set of ethnomethodological tools to juxtapose and combine the online/offline binary which she talks about in her short post below. 

Check out past posts from guest bloggers

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Desert Planet (FI) perform at Eindbaas 9 in Utrecht, NL (13/4/12)

Desert Planet (FI) perform at Eindbaas 9 in Utrecht, NL (13/4/12)

Chip music is a type of electronic music composed on retro videogame consoles and computers such as Commodore 64, Atari ST, Amiga and the Nintendo Gameboy but also on any computer that can simulate the retro consoles’ sound chip. “Chiptunes”, “8-bit”, “micromusic” and “fakebit” are some terms associated with chip music. The chipscene is a transnational community which emerged online in late ’90s but its historical background is rooted deep into the ‘80s subcultural community, the Demoscene. Why use retro machines to create music? This is not the easiest question to answer. In some respects, it is all about expanding the limitations of these machines. “Why not?”, is a response I often receive by my informants. “It’s fun!” others acclaim.

Setting up the gear at the Analog Attack event, London, UK (7/4/12)

Ethnography assisted me in finding a meaningful truth of chip music and of what it has to offer to the academic discourse of music studies. The question is however, how does one conduct and juxtapose multi-sited and online ethnography with a transnational group of people? I used a selection of ethnographic methods, which can be summed up in the following bullet points:

  • Snowballing. My story with the chipscene begun when I met Tonylight a chiptune artist who was visiting Athens, Greece for an event. Tonylight introduced me to Javier, a director who was working on a documentary about the chipscene: “Europe in 8 bits” (see video). And from then on I met several people that were somehow connected.
  • Lurking. I lurked online in 8bitcollective.org (servers are down for about a year now) and micromusic.net for enough time in order to learn the dynamics of the community online.
  • Participant observation. I followed Javier’s team in Europe and I experienced chip music in a different cultural setting – in Italy, Spain, France, England, the Netherlands and Germany. In addition, I attended virtually events which were broadcast online (e.g. Eindbaas 8 in Utrecht and the last Blip Festival in Tokyo) where users had the opportunity to interact via a chat room.
  • Interviews. This was the starting point of my ethnography. However, chip music is part of club culture and it was not always possible to interview people for a variety of reasons. While I was in the field, I attempted to record an interview at every opportunity. With some informants I found correspondence via e-mail or Facebook to be more efficient.

Read More… Using online/offline methods: An ethnography of chip music and its scene

On Digital Ethnography, What do computers have to do with ethnography? (1 of 4)


Editor’s Note: While digital ethnography is an established field within ethnography, we don’t often hear of ethnographers building digital tools to conduct their fieldwork. Wendy Hsu wants to change that. In the first of her three-part guest post series, she shows how ethnographers can use software, and even build their own software, to explore online communities. By drawing on examples from her own research on independent rock musicians, she shares with us how she moved from being an ethnographer of purely physical domains to an ethnographer who built software programs to gather more relevant qualitative data. 

Wendy is currently a Mellon Digital Scholarship Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center of Digital Learning + Research at Occidental College. She recently completed a Ph.D. in the Critical and Comparative Studies program in the McIntire Department of Music at the University of Virginia. Her dissertation, an ethnography of Asian American independent rock musicians, deploys the methods of ethnomusicology and digital humanities to explore the complex interrelationships between popular music and geography in transnational contexts. She implemented methods of digital ethnography to map musicians’ social networks. She tweets at @wendyfhsu and blogs at beingwendyhsu.info. She also plays with the vintage Asian garage pop revivalist band Dzian!.

Check out past posts from guest bloggers. Here are some ideas for how you can contribute.

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When Tricia asked me to contribute a series on Ethnography Matters, I thought that I would take this opportunity to bring together the notes on digital ethnography that I have collected over the last couple of years. I would like to push the boundaries of computational usage in ethnographic processes a bit here. I really want to expand the definition of digital ethnography beyond the use of computers, tablets, and smart phones as devices to interact with online communities, or to capture, transfer, and store field media.

In this three-part series, I am going to discuss how working with computational tools could widen the scope of ethnographic work and deepen our practice. I will stay mostly within the domain of data gathering in this first post. In the second post, I will talk about the process of field data interpreting and visualizing; and the last post, I will focus on how the digital may transform ethnographic narrative and argumentation.

In this post, I’d like to foreground computational methodology in thinking about how we as ethnographers may deploy digital tools as we explore communities within and around digital infrastructures. I am particularly interested in how we use these tools to study communities that are digitally organized. How do we use and think about data ethnographically? How does one use computational tools to navigate in digital communities? What are the advantages of leveraging (small) data approaches in doing ethnographic work? While this post is focused on the study of digitally embedded communities, in my later posts, I will speak more broadly about how the digital may extend how we look at communities where face-to-face interactions are central.

Read More… On Digital Ethnography, What do computers have to do with ethnography? (1 of 4)

Anonymous and I [guest contributor]


Editor’s Note: Anonymous may still be a mysterious network, but there is one researcher who has helped the world better understand their activities, Gabriella Coleman. In this month’s guest post, Gabriella discusses how her research on Anonymous changed the way she conducted fieldwork: she moved from being a traditional anthropologist to a more public anthropologist.

Her post brings up issues that are central to the founding of Ethnography Matters – how to be an ethnographer today. Increasingly, ethnographers are engaging with the media either as commentators, pundits, or experts. By opening up our work to the public, we make it more accessible and immediate, but how does public engagement change the work we do? Especially when the engagement becomes a mode of access for data.

Gabriella’s intro to her post on Limn highlights the tensions she has experienced as her fieldwork with Anonymous has evolved over time. Is her work more about Anonymous or journalism? Or perhaps it is about something else? Share your thoughts in the comments.

With such a controversial topic, many institutions may shy away from hosting Gabriella. But not McGill University, where she holds the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy in the Art History and Communication Studies Department. Trained as an anthropologist, her work examines the ethics of online collaboration/institutions as well as the role of the law and digital media in sustaining various forms of political activism. She’s writing a new book on Anonymous and digital activism. Follow her on twitter @biellacoleman.

Gabriella’s first book is coming out next month, Coding Freedom: The Aesthetics and the Ethics of Hacking. You can pre-order it on Amazon!  In the meantime, Gabriella’ sresearch publications and non-academic writing will keep up busy until the book arrives. 

Check out past posts from guest bloggers. Ethnography Matters is always lining up guest contributors.  Send us an email!

–Tricia 

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When I first dove into the ethnographic study of Anonymous—the global protest movement known best for its digital protests tactics—I  never thought my project would also become one on journalists and hence the media.  But after about the 40th interview, it became pretty evident that this was a central part of my larger project and my ethnographic experience.

To have to be public about your work, while you are doing that work is no easy task; in fact it went against everything I was used to as anthropologist, which was to delve and burrow as deep as I could into a topic/world, and come out the tunnel on the other side, about a year later, ready to start conveying some insight and arguments.Read More… Anonymous and I [guest contributor]

Read-Along Ethnography: Struggling to Keep Up From Afar


Living with and witnessing first hand the culture / society you are interested in, the ethnographic imperative to immerse yourself in the field is a real logistical challenge. As the 18-months-in-the-field standard became a disciplinary right-of-passage, research predating the immersion imperative was downgraded (and denigrated) as “armchair anthropology.”

As ‘virtual ethnography’ has emerged, the possibilities of a genuine experience from the armchair have been, on some level, recovered. However, in ethnographies of online environments like Second Life (Boellstorff) and networked games like World of Warcraft and EverQuest (Nardi, Taylor), all participants presumably are operating from their armchairs (or office chairs, couches, etc).  Over at Savage Minds, P. Kerim Friedman suggested that the spill over of our field sites through the Internet creates a kind of “database of lived experience” that offers perhaps some greater legitimacy to forms of remote ethnography.

I recently embarked on a project with Janaki Srinivasan, a recent graduate of the ISchool PhD program. She is the lucky one who gets to actually do the fieldwork (on mobile phones and the fishing industry in Kerala, India). For me, it was an experiment to see how I might overcome my more limited opportunities to jet off for months or years.

What I’m attempting though is not remote ethnography, something I’ve heard of before and that usually seems to entail data garnered through sites like Flickr, Facebook (i.e. to learn about pop culture in India). This is rather read-along ethnography. Janaki writes notes, snaps photos, and then they appear through the magic of Dropbox. I try gamely to keep up, reading the documents as they come in, in chronological order. So far I would describe this attempt as a failure (on my part). We’re up to week 9. The struggle has forced me to think about all of the ways knowledge of a place and the people living there just doesn’t carry over in the field notes.

Read More… Read-Along Ethnography: Struggling to Keep Up From Afar

The tools we use: Gahhhh, where is the killer qualitative analysis app?


For the August issue of Ethnography Matters, Jenna, Heather, and Rachelle have written great posts about their fieldnote tools in the Tools we Use series. Now I have all these new apps I want to try for data analysis!

So this is when I admit here that I have no perfect process. I really don’t. Sometimes this upsets me and sometimes I just say whatever.  I’ve only figured out parts of the process. For example, last month, I wrote in depth about my use of Instagram to live fieldnote. But that’s just one part of the long path of fieldwork analysis. Now that I’ve finished data gathering,  I am no longer in the excitement of fieldwork. I don’t have a team of people to work with as I usually do on projects. For my China research,  it’s just me. And all I can think is, how am I going to analyze all this data without going crazy?

I’ve tried all the coding software possible for qualitative research, but there is no app that fulfills my needs. I have developed an aversion to anything that claims to be a “qualitative analysis tool.” These tools are lacking in user friendliness, collaborative features, platform diversity, and service support. If it doesn’t run on a mac and if the software’s website is unusable – that’s already a clue.

As far as fieldwork tools go, hardly anything drives an ethnographer more crazy than trying to find the most appropriate fieldwork tools. Of all the ethnography courses I’ve taken and all the books, dissertation, and papers I’ve read, none of them go into depth on the tools that ethnographers use to support their process. I suspect that one of the reasons why ethnographers don’t write about the tools they use is because they may use an ad hoc process that is messier and less structured than they’d like to admit. Read More… The tools we use: Gahhhh, where is the killer qualitative analysis app?