header image


Conducting an ethnography of a group requires the researcher to arrive in a place inhabited by its members and for a given period of time observe their daily routines (Hammersley and Atkinson, 1995 in Hine 2000). Such a definition makes one ponder instantly how one arrives in a Twitter chat which in the case of #ELTchat might signify not only a site, but also an activity and the community itself. To accommodate these changes, the ethnography has to shift its weight to the experience itself, rendering the necessity of physical displacement irrelevant.

So I ‘travelled’ to #eltchat on Twitter to experience one of the #ELTchat Wednesday sessions and soon discovered that there are more venues where #ELTchat-ers hang out. In fact, you need to wander across the heterogeneous webscape of blogs, wikis and facebook pages where you can covertly or overtly experience the community conversations initiated and maintained by its members through hyperlinks, borrowings, remixes as well as commenting, liking and sharing (Hine2000). This ‘field of relations’ or rather ‘a flow of connections’, a new and more multi-dimensional perspective suggested by Hastrup and Olwig (in Hine 2000), constitutes an informed choice in the miniresearch aiming to decide if #ELTchat qualifies as a community.

Interconnected and interacting

This focus on connectivity elevates the status of textual constructs, which is in vein with Hammersley’s and Atkinson’s (1995) idea that those artefacts are as authentic as real-time interactions between people. The interactivity embedded in Web 2.0 helps to regard such texts as interactive and dynamic – the Twitter chat, despite being in written form, is in fact a rapid exchange of ideas entailing a co-presence of participants while various blog postings, wiki edits and facebook announcements are equipped with the commenting facilities, like and share buttons, RSS, automatic ping-backs and hyper/interlinks, thus providing a rich data source to research the nature of the social relationships between the members.

Allowing my perception of the community to be mediated through the related artefacts on top of observing the participants hopefully helped me create some distance between myself and the community. With ethnography being often seen as devoid of validity and objectivity, I am running a double risk of being considered subjective as I am an ELT professional myself. Although I had never participated in an #ELTchat before, I am familiar with the broader ELT world, some of the people who populate it and, generally, with its esprit. For that reason, one could suggest that I might not be willing to paint a true portrait of the group. I hoped that dealing with ‘texts’ instead of only people might address this issue.Hemmersley and Atkinson (1995) suggest that when studying such texts ethnographically one should pay attention to particular circumstances of production and consumption.

An interesting example here is the ELT chat in its two forms – while it is happening and as a transcript. Although in terms of content, both ‘texts’ do not differ from each other, the way they are produced and consumed affects their interpretation. The chat itself feels more ephemeral, with individual tweets becoming entangled in the fast-flowing stream, eyes darting from one tweet to another and between the windows where you check out the websites linked to from the messages (see an example here although the screencast really fails to portray the flurry of the activity). Having to be alert for the whole hour and respond to the flood of stimuli feels intense and very physical. Reading the transcript is more of an individual experience, helping you savour the exchange and some of the links provided and thus forge a deeper relationship with the group. With the textualised account of the interaction, the reader is also given interpretative powers and thus the community is further democratised (Potter, 1996 in Hine 2000), which strengthens the points made by the moderators and members themselves.


back to virtual ethnography homepage

Leave a Reply