Steph's E-learning and Digital Cultures Blog

part of the MSc in E-learning at the University of Edinburgh

Micro-ethnography: TheGlobalWe

Arrival Story:
As a person who has little association with virtual communities, other than to keep in touch with geographically distance friends and relatives on a very ad hoc basis, the decision of which community to study was not an easy one. Many uncertainties emerged. Primarily, if using the only virtual community I am a member of; can I be impartial when observing a community of loved one’s that were part of my life long before we started conversing by social network sites? I was also troubled by the thought of researching people I know well and did not feel that I would be able to separate my preconceived ideas created in the real world from those observed in the virtual world.
However, I identified that a motivation for embarking on the ELDC course was to see if it is possible to use the virtual world as a medium for patients/carers to correspond with healthcare professionals in an effective (if not more so) way than they might do in a face to face encounter. In order for this to work I consider it necessary for people in a virtual world to not lose their ‘real life’ identity whilst online and not adopt the persona of a fictitious avatar, for example. So, in order to study this I identified it necessary to know them in both worlds. A work colleague of a few years appeared to fall in the middle ground between complete stranger and childhood friend/family member. Fortunately a colleague with an online community was readily identifiable.
BanPlasticBagsEdinburgh (BPBE) was a community that I was aware had an online presence, created by a colleague.

The Journey:
The destination envisaged was towards the BPBE static website and to discover what other routes passed through there. However, on further investigation it became apparent that BPBE was a small organisation housed with a much larger community. There are recurrent opportunities when starting on the static BPBE site to travel (via hyperlink) into TheGlobalWe community. Inevitably then, much time on this ethnography journey was spent within TheGlobalWe and this became the environment to base this ethnographic.

Considering whether the community I chose to study should be aware of my actions I decided that as no information was password protected it can be considered of a public domain.

As the researcher I lurked, observed and reviewed previous interaction between members. This ethnography was studied in its natural state and those being studied did not know they were a part of my micro-ethnography. On a project of such a small scale I did not consider it right to participate in subjects that were of obvious importance to the members without having much insight or genuine interest of my own.

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It is apparent that the founder of TheGlobalWe is a ‘networker’ as described by Kozinets (2010). The smart use of social networking enables campaigns such as BPBE to reach a wider community and potentially gain support from other communities where members may have values complementary to its own cause. The ‘World Opera for World Peace’ is powerful and has potential to attract an audience drawn to the music, possibly before appreciating the motivation of the community as outlined by the mission statement. Strikingly, on arrival into TheGlobalWe community, reference to the Dalai Lama is paramount. Whilst being in the forefront of content, this remained a particular area that I did not feel comfortable commenting on. Inevitably, an ethnographer will make observations but their categorising and processing of observations are not easily made without influence of their own experiences, beliefs and morals. Hine (2000) suggests that the ethnographers ‘process of self-discovery’ can be necessary in developing insight into this community. Perhaps in a larger project more attention would be paid to the moral underpinning of a community and what bearing the individual ethnographer (with their individual beliefs/values) has on the study, but for the purposes of this community I have neither the time, information or intention to express opinion on something as complex as moral belief and behaviour. However, I can verify that the face to face observations, I have made over the past few years, regarding the founder of BPBE are in keeping with the persona that is displayed within the virtual community.
It is worth mentioning here that when the observations were already completed I mentioned to my colleague, for courtesy, that I was using his virtual community for this ethnographic study. With no apparent concerns to my studying the community his response did state that he ‘should make sure the site is up-to-date’. Whilst made as a passing comment this does demonstrates how, in order to study a community in an undisturbed, natural state (Hine, 2000) the ethnographer may need to be ‘undercover’.

Observing this virtual community enabled me, as a novice ethnographer, to conclude that it is possible to develop a virtual community to enhance a face to face connection. In this micro-ethnography it also appeared that the person does not necessarily alter themselves as a result of having a virtual presence. Despite thorough consideration of ethical implications of observing people prior to embarking on the journey through cyberspace I failed to appreciate that what I observe for myself may be ethically sound but the sharing of these findings in a transparent manner for the reader is complex. This would require further consideration if an additional study were to be conducted. As for my personal motivation regarding virtual communities as support networks within healthcare, the ethical consideration would become much more complicated. Encouragingly, the findings of this simplistic study would indicate that the negotiation of such ethical challenges could be of long term benefit to patient education/support and treatment.