Issues in Virtual Ethnography by Bruce Mason (2001). In Ethnographic Studies in Real and Virtual Environments: Inhabited Information Spaces and Connected Communities. Ed. K. Buckner. Proceedings of Esprit i3 Workshop on Ethnographic Studies. Edinburgh: Queen Margaret College, January 1999. Pp. 61-69. The paper is a good discussion about the very concept of "virtual ethnography". I was intrigued, among other things by the following issue:
A virtual ethnography is one that fully immerses the ethnographer into the consensual reality experienced by groups of people who use computer-mediated communication as their primary, and often only, means of communication. As such, the online or virtual persona of the participants are the main focus of the ethnographer. Generally, researchers have wanted to focus on the person at the keyboard, a virtual ethnography reverses this and works instead with the persona that has been projected into cyberspace by the typist. This is not the only way to do fieldwork via the Internet but it is useful and it helps to realise that when we do participant-observation we usually do it in the same medium in which the culture we study is communicated.
Also he adresses some relevant questions:
A virtual ethnography is then, simply, an ethnography that treats cyberspace as the ethnographic reality. In many ways this is a controversial step. As a personal anecdote , it has been noteworthy that at every conference I have attended every time Internet-based fieldwork turned up in a paper that the same question is asked, “How do you know that your informants are telling the truth?” (...) A virtual ethnography takes exactly the opposite view: rather than verifying informants’ veracity in other media one fully immerses oneself within the virtual community being studied. As with any ethnography it is the detailed, systematic, and exhaustive participation within the group and building of relationships over time that allow the ethnographer to build with the help of the participants an account of the culture created within that group.(...) The virtual ethnographer then should conduct detailed, systematic and principled research within the community. Starting with simple questions such as how many people belong to this community? how long has it been here? how does it define itself? what is its focus? who belongs here? The virtual ethnographer should then immerse herself within this community with as much effort and energy as she would a “real world” ethnography.
Why do I blog this? I have to work on MMORPG communities, maybe using virtual ethnography. Though the article is 6 years old, it still raises some interesting issues, and some of the anecdotes are worthwile.