Only a few researchers such as Nick Yee have ventued into the complex realm of studying large communities online -- and they can get vast and complex. MMORPGs such as the World of Warcraft that Yee studied can have over 10 million users worldwide and require a lot of time and human resources to maintain. Even message boards listed on the Big Boards watch pose special problems when you step in to study them.
One of the biggest problems that I see as an "Internet native" is that the researcher often has very little clue what is going on and often never bothers to ask some basic questions that they should be asking.
As a long time denizen of the Internet (since 1980), I have been both interested by and frustrated by studies of internet communities. While I can't really fault the research or methodologies, what I see is similar to what the Native Americans must see when they read studies of their culture -- I see the hegeonomy trying to define me and missing so much and so many details.
I think the one that annoyed me most was the blanket labeling of our online presences as "cyborgs" -- a practice fostered by anthropologist Donna Haraway, PhD. My anthropology advisor, who forced me to read Haraway's material for my Masters', was treate to almost weekly rants about the topic. Like many natives who suddenly woke up and found out that these strange pale people had just named their tribe with some sort of offensive name, I found my own people labeled and boxed by someone who was unaware that we had names for ourselves and that they were very specific in meaning.
A "cyborg" was someone like Dr. Steve Mann, who used body modification techniques to implant technology into his body. Our online presences were called "avatars" (if they represented self) or "toons" (if they were roleplaying entities). Those who lived in the liminal space between the realities (and whose reality included the online world where we lived a good percentage of each day) had different labels depending on expertise: sysghods, gurus, geeks, nerds, users, surfers. Each group has a distinct set of behaviors and different levels of abilities.
But "cyborg?" No.
I can't think of a single anthropologist in the early 1990's who had much experience with the liminal life. Although this may have changed in the past few years, there is still quite a gap in understanding how online communtieis work.
One of the gaps is that behaviors are usually studied in specific, small, well-constrained groups such as email groups. They map out the exchanges between parties and assume this tells the whole story. They don't see the actions as a set of behaviors that take place in a well-constrained environment which is set by the owner and the moderators.
In larger groups, the environment can be highly flexible and policy is dictated by owners, moderators, and the law of whichever country and state the servers reside in. Exchanges can become unbelievably complex when you have users who live in two different countries brawling. Nuances of rights and laws can become magnified when cultural differences step into the fray.
Speaking as someone who has moderated boards, Muds, Mucks, Mushes, Moos, and BBSs, I can attest to the fact that the old military adage is true -- the battle plan never survives the first engagement with the enemy. No matter what rules you set up, someone will find a way to bend them in a way you never thought of and you and the team will be scrambling to determine how to react to the situation.
So... how does one go about studying such a space? In the next episode (really. I promise there will be one by next Wednesday) I'll put forth some of my notes about how to determine the environment and how to assess the mythos of the group. This hasn't been presented anywhere as a formal paper yet -- at this stage it's just the annoyed squeaking of a geek who really would like to see others do a better job of studying my cultural subgroup.
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