In the provocation with which he opened this session of Correspondences, Daniel Miller points to the problem of fetishizing the Internet as an object and field of study. Might it not then be productive to take a closer and critical look at how our own fetishes or obsessions inform how we study the Internet? What can we learn from them? What are the motivations that drive us to conduct this research? How can we gain awareness of our own blind spots along the way?
My starting point will be my own fetishes. In my current research, I am interested in contemporary ideas and practices of digital justice. I examine these through ethnographic research in a nongovernmental organization and among activist groups in Europe who campaign against online racism, sexism, and hatred. The organization’s members—including activists, lawyers, and self-described technologists—engage with the dark sides of online interaction in different ways. They review and analyze hate structures, create information campaigns, lobby for (inter)national legislation to combat online hate, and create tools to make online spaces safer for users.
I was drawn to this topic by recent studies examining the dark sides of our online interaction. Most of these works study forms of violence, harassment, discrimination, oppression, and inequality (Phillips 2015; Thakor and boyd 2013; Matias 2015; Daniels 2009; Banet-Weiser and Miltner 2016). Scholarship like this deals with disturbing or threatening areas of online worlds that are not always addressed in anthropological studies of this domain.
Perhaps what these studies of dark sides point to, then, are our own blind spots, to the spaces left out by our usual preferred topics.
The sociologist Christine Hine (2005, 240) suggests that “we [Internet researchers] are all looking at similar objects, but in very different ways.” Following Hine, then, I would like to make the case for considering those ways of looking and seeing more carefully. We need to explore how and in what ways our perspectives and obsessions affect the theoretical and analytical approaches to the Internet. How, for instance, did thinking about the connections between offline and online or the changing nature of embodied experience become recurring themes in much anthropological scholarship on the Internet (e.g., Boellstorff 2011, 2012)?
In the German research context, anthropological studies of Internet-related topics have been marked for many years by a fixation on the pretty, neat, and mundane things happening online. One could call it a fetish of the positive. Drawing on the experiences and ideas of Internet researchers, as well as the approaches and tools they have developed, there is surely a great deal of opportunity to transform our fetishes (whether “positive” or “negative”) into productive interventions, even beyond the sphere of the Internet.
I agree with Miller when he argues that “online as just one place in which we now live and conduct relationships with others.” I would emphasize that the Internet is also a space of exploring and adapting our methods and roles as ethnographers (see Hine 2015; Biehl and Zucker 2015). And it is a space and culture in which we already have created a rich history of ethnographic practice. Yet there are (and will be) new experiences and learning processes for online ethnographers that we should reflect on and evaluate in terms of their methodological implications for ethnography writ large (Hine 2015). In this sense, we have a set of methodological concerns that we share with Internet researchers from other disciplines.
To sum up: maybe we are to be not only (as Miller suggests) provocateurs, but also translators—through ethnographic methods—of the things people do online in ways that practitioners of other disciplines cannot.
Banet-Weiser, Sarah, and Kate M. Miltner. 2016. “#MasculinitySoFragile: Culture, Structure, and Networked Misogyny.” Feminist Media Studies 16, no. 1: 171–74.
Biehl, João, and Naomi Zucker. 2015. “The Masked Anthropologist.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 5, no. 2: 367–74.
Boellstorff, Tom. 2011. “Placing the Virtual Body: Avatar, Chora, Cypherg.” In A Companion to the Anthropology of the Body and Embodiment, edited by Frances E. Mascia-Lees, 504–20. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.
_____. 2012. “Rethinking Digital Anthropology.” In Digital Anthropology, edited by Heather A. Horst and Daniel Miller, 39–59. Oxford: Berg.
boyd, danah. 2008. “How Can Qualitative Internet Researchers Define the Boundaries of Their Projects: A Response to Christine Hine.” In: Internet Inquiry: Conversations About Method, edited by Annette Markham and Nancy Baym, 26–32. Los Angeles: Sage.
Coleman, Gabriella. 2014. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. New York: Verso.
Daniels, Jessie. 2009. Cyber Racism: White Supremacy Online and the New Attack on Civil Rights. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield.
Hine, Christine. 2005. “Internet Research and the Sociology of Cyber-Social-Scientific Knowledge.” The Information Society 21, no. 4: 239–48.
_____. 2015. “Christine Hine on Virtual Ethnography’s E3 Internet .” Ethnography Matters, November 29.
Matias, J. Nathan. 2015. “Recognizing the Work of Reddit’s Moderators: Summer Research Project.” Microsoft Research New England, Social Media Collective research blog, June 16.
Phillips, Whitney. 2015. This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Thakor, Mitali, and danah boyd. 2013. “Networked Trafficking: Reflections on Technology and the Anti-Trafficking Movement.” Dialectical Anthropology 37, no. 2: 277–90.