I spoke at the wonderful “Digital Ethnography Weekend“ conference last month in Italy. There, I furthered my argument about what I call “digital dualism,” the fallacy that views the on and offline as separate spheres as opposed to my support of an “augmented reality” paradigm that views these spheres as always enmeshed and dialectically co-determining.
Because this was a “digital ethnography” conference, I applied the augmented reality framework to this methodology and argued that, instead, we should be doing “augmented ethnography”, an ethnography that takes as its unit of analysis a reality comprised of atoms as well as bits, always dialectically co-determining. Colleague Alessandro Caliandro and I debated these ideas in the question-and-answer portion of my talk (with much-appreciated thoughts from Adam Arvidsson, as well). Caliandro has posted his summary of my talk as well as his criticism here. I welcome this criticism and want to respond to it below.
First, Caliandro’s development of my argument is charitable. I also very much appreciate the thoughtfulness of the critique. However, I do need to make a correction to the way he summarized augmented reality, and this correction will be important for my response to the criticism. I do not think that the differences between the physical and digital are “irrelevant”; indeed, they are quite important and I’ve written about them before (e.g., here and here). Atoms and bits have very different properties (for instance, atoms tend to be scarce and bits more abundant). It is my contention that these very different spheres come together to form our augmented reality. In fact, as I argue here, it is only under the assumption of augmented reality that we can fully explicate the relevant differences between the physical and digital. With this correction in mind, let’s move forward.
Even if I completely agree with Nathan Jurgenson on a theoretical level, at the same time I disagree with him on a methodological level.
In short, my response will be that methods should follow theory, so an agreement with the latter should imply an agreement on the former.
I have had the impression that Jurgenson conflates ‘Digital Ethnography’ with ‘Virtual Ethnography
Instead, in my opinion, Digital Ethnography should be considered as specific branch of Ethnography, which takes advantages of digital tools (for example available on the Internet) in order to better understand the society as a whole, to reach out the world as a whole
All ethnography should take advantage of both digital and non-digital tools when appropriate. If one is looking at both the on and offline and how they intersect and are calling that “digital ethnography,” then my disagreement would only be semantic (why label that “digital”?). But I would be quite pleased that it takes on as its fundamental unit of analysis our augmented reality (comprised of atoms and bits). However, Caliandro goes on to support a digital-only ethnography (whatever label we decide to give this perspective). He states that,
we must be aware of the fact that the digital world is a very specific object: it is a domain which possess its specific rules, dynamics and constrains. That is why, I think, the idea of an ‘augmented reality’, in which digital and non-digital collapse, it’s methodologically and heuristically unhelpful.
This is the typical criticism of augmented reality and stems from the one correction I made of Caliandro’s development of my theory. Again: the digital and physical indeed have different properties, but the reality that we are studying (our unit of analysis) is one comprised of many domains with different “rules, dynamics and constraints.” We cannot begin to conceptualize the specific rules of the digital without doing so always aware of how they are fundamentally shaped by the physical (and vice versa). I expand a bit more on this point here.
To be very clear: to study only the digital, be it through observation, interviews and so on, without taking into account how all of this relates to the physical domain in a very rigorous way does not reveal the specific properties of the digital. Instead, it provides an unclear and less useful picture. One cannot simply “subtract out” the physical when doing an ethnography in the way statisticians “control for” other independent variables in their models. And, of course, I would make the same point to anyone supporting a “physical ethnography” that purposely ignores the digital domain in order to provide truths about the physical world.
Let’s pretend for a moment that a so-called physical ethnographer decided to study “how race is performed by youths in the physical world.” If that ethnographer ignored, say, Facebook, then that ethnographer would be missing plenty of data on how race is performed offline because Facebook does not just influence people when they are logged in but also when logged off and not in front of any glowing screens.
Again, we arrive at the general point that methods should follow theory. If one agrees with augmented reality conceptually, empirical methodology should follow suit.
In short, any ethnography that ignores the physical can never reveal the true working of the digital (and vice versa). Let’s look at one more criticism from Caliandro:
the manners in which social actors represent their identity online often have very little to do with the manners in which they do the same thing offline. Let us for example think about users chatting on an online forum: they basically construct their identities within a flux of narration, mainly writing about themselves and using just a rhetorical array to represent their Selves; that is, in a manner that does not occur in the everyday offline life.
Caliandro’s example does not demonstrate that the on and offline are completely separate, but just that they are different. And these differences can only be explicated by looking at how these individuals construct/perform identity both on and offline. Online chat forums do have an influence on identity, and that is something that flows both on and offline (remember, Caliandro agrees with this point). To only study the forum without making reference to the physical world would leave out how the physical world helps construct how textuality is experienced online in these chat forums. This point becomes even more important when studying online activities more typical than chat rooms like, for instance, Facebook, where the offline has an even more profound influence on the experience of digitality.
To conclude on a tangent: perhaps if digital dualist conceptual and methodological assumptions are done away with we will see a few less studies on chat rooms, virtual worlds and a few more on more popular activities such as sites like Facebook. At recent conferences I have been amazed by how many studies are still conducted on Second Life and chat rooms. To be clear: these are still important areas of study. The importance of a topic is not merely defined by the popularity of the activity being studied. However, my suspicion (and it is just that, not founded empirically in any way) is that digital dualist methodologies have made it much easier to study domains where the physical and digital are more separate (like chat rooms and Second Life; but, again, I think even these are part of our augmented reality). These methodologies perhaps made more sense before the rise of social media, however, these methodologies are increasingly inadequate when dealing with sites like Facebook where augmented reality is much more obvious. The result has been a disproportionately high number of studies on Second Life and disproportionately low number studying sites like Facebook. Augmented methodologies are better suited to capture what most people actually do online.