Choose Your Own Ethnography

For this year’s Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S) conference, I put together a paper reflecting on my methodological choices in pursuing an understanding of how youth engage with networked publics. In it, I try to lay out my decisions, my successes, and my failures. This paper is written in loving memory of my advisor Peter Lyman.

“Choose Your Own Ethnography: In Search of (Un)Mediated Life”


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2 thoughts on “Choose Your Own Ethnography

  1. bob carlton

    3 things
    my god you can write wonderfully
    the mash of personal & observational is glorious
    those turtles move slow, but sometimes it looks fast in contrast to the institutions that surround culture

  2. Brian O' Hanlon

    Wikis, Suckers and Coke cans. (Finalised Version)

    The following is a summation of many of my thoughts, following my reading of Nicholas G. Carr a while back on his blog ‘Rough Type’. Nicholas discussed a lot about reputation systems and online collaborative web 2.0 technologies.

    There used to be this local woman in my home community growing up, who was refered to by various handles, the ‘sucker’ being one of them. I am talking about a real physical community here – a rural one. Because whenever she wanted anything in terms of information or guidance – she would make an act of going around to all the local experts and extracting what she could from all of them, and then making up a kind of hybrid version of all those opinions to create one of her own and label it her own.

    I wouldn’t mind if the ‘hybrid version’ resulted in some better, more valuable aggregation of the facts and information. But as in the poor design of the coke can descibed in the book, ‘Cradle to Cradle’, which is composed of two different aluminium alloys. The resultant substance, when you melt the two together, is an usuable combination, and worth far less than the original two substances on their own. The authors of the book, Cradle to Cradle promote a better process of design, where by things are purposefully designed to be recycled afterwards.

    I would bring in a reference here, that of Isaiah Berlin and a collection of his essays, ‘The Crooked Timber of Humanity’, where Isaiah discusses the history of ideas. Ideas popular with different communities at different times may never be compatible. Berlin is an author I have recommended in the past to Howard Rheingold, because Berlin manages to weave together both concepts on ideas and communities. Berlin’s philosophy flies in the face of the one where there is one perfect truth, one eventual winner in the great debates.

    Like with the modern coke can, ideas are best kept clean and separate from one another, to be of lasting value. What we see with the ‘sucker’ behaviour of online collaborative projects, is the production of a useless by-product. Ideas were never designed to go through such a ‘re-cycling centre’.

    The interesting fact that I have noticed, is that this ‘sucker’ form of intellectural behaviour, is now the dominant form practiced in online collaborative projects. What allows this this huge surge in the ‘sucker’ behaviour I have noticed, is the ability to move about, be mobile between whole different communities. While still remaining completely anonymous. In the cold war this sharing of information, or throwing it over the wall was perhaps crucial to the existence of the ‘mutual destruction’ stability theorem.

    Listening to recent online talks delivered by Danah Boyd, and Howard Rheingold, many ideas were drawn to my attention, and it has resulted in my post here. The cold war analysis is one that Howard does bring into many of his talks. And uses it I think, to great effect. Owing allegence to nobody, suckers are gloriously anonimous, they are not subjected to much of a consequent ‘backlash’ as happen in the real life community. In a way, they are like the ultimate freelancers, of the KGB and CIA era of the cold war.

    Now, lets continue with my acocunt of what happened in my childhood real life community. Having been on the brunt of this activity a number of times, experts in my community decided they were ‘tired’ of it. So whenever she called around again, under the proposition of having a ‘friendly conversation’, but really on a covert ‘drilling for oil’ exercise, all of the experts would suddenly become quite stupid. This is basically what is happening with many of the collaboators in online knowledge commons groups. The real experts are leaving the party in droves.

    The best online ‘collaborators’ are they now are being called, are nothing more than warehouse staff, for the project of housing vast areas of knowledge and facts. What Howard Rheingold and others have refered to as the fencing of the information commons – is aided in this online space, by what I refer to as the typical online knowledge worker – the appropriately labelled ‘sucker’.

    I haven’t fully explored this identity of the online ‘sucker’ myself. But I am sure what their end game is, the fencing in of any online knowledge commons – rather than the opposite. They are quite devious. They try to make out their projects are to build the commons. Where in fact they are working towards the opposite end result. The more traditional, physical world ‘librarian’ is more genuine. They generally do take their occupation seriously. Serious enough, to make it their career. The traditional librarian undertakes their job, to enable the sharing of knowledge. Even if that knowledge is somewhat tied up in proprietary bindings of copyright by official publications.

    In my real life example, I would term the behaviour of the repudiated experts, a real world example of cooperation. Cooperation, by a number of people to slow down the erosion of a reputation system by the ‘sucker’ type. I guess, experts who have devoted their life and energies to building a system of reputation, understand how important the existence of ‘reputations’ is in the building of community life. They would not ‘collectively’ tolerate the ‘sucker’ syndrome. I have witnessed this happen, years before the advent of wikis, and web 2.0 technologies.

    The problem I see with online collaborative and group oriented behaviour, is that it attracts these ‘suckers’. I have met a lot of people online, all of whom could be described as involving themselves in the ‘gathering’ of interesting facts, trivia and nuggets. But very few of the characters I meet in these online forums could be described as ‘processing’ or digesting the scraps knowledge and information they collect.

    The same argument has been levelled at the ‘iPod generation’. Whereas the older generations of CD and vinyl collectors didn’t have a hundred albums in their back pocket. The fews they did own, they certainly managed to listen to. Likewise, the modern librarians of ideas manages to amass a collection of gigabytes worth of learning, but never ‘listens’ to it. Listen to it, in the sense of how you get into music after playing it to your ears after the first twenty times. The time, when you really begin to listen.

    Which calls into question, the whole idea of ‘other music you might like’. If you don’t even spend the actual time in the first place, to listen to the music you already have, how could the artificial intelligence, infer anything about the music you ‘might’ like. The same goes for the exchange of ideas. Oh here is some western philosophy, but here is some other ‘easter philosophy’ you might like. See my point?

    It has been said, that to teach is to learn yourself. I have tried to be a teacher at various times, in an online medium, and the things I have learned from pupils haven’t been all positive. The ‘suckers’ I think, remind me of those those little creatures that lived on Luke Skywalkers planet. Just stick a price tag on the item and re-sell it to the next potential ‘buyer’. In the words of a salesmen I once knew, all we are doing is shifting boxes. Now the ‘buyer’ in this instance rarely does transact for money or scarcity tokens – but it is a kind of ‘reputation’ game that is being played. Or a re-definition of the physical world reputation game. It is one where anyone can play without having to process many of the ideas they gather. This is where Danah Boyd’s research and public conversations really do interest me.

    Like the game of ‘who knows the latest, coolest, rock band’. Or in celebrity game, who knows the lastest coolest bit of gossip. In sports, the tabloid newspapers have been overrun by online sites devoted to cool bits of football gossip. There again, we find these manufactured experts – people who have no real sense or feeling for the game. But who try to simulate knowledge and understanding nonetheless. In the fast moving online world, who can tell the difference between quality expertise and rubbish? Information is ‘so four seconds ago’. Real experts who often work at the tabloid pace, might as well be a thousand years behind.

    Here my ideas converge with those of Howard Rheingold and Danah Boyd. Where Danah has explored this phenomenon in relation to teenagers. Howard Rheingold has spoken about the education systems refusal to teach young people how to be critical of what they read. It is like the faster moving layers of Stewart Brand’s pace diagrams. ‘Reputation’, which previously existed only on the slower moving layers – has somehow been transported to the faster leagues. I heard an interview today about a concept called ‘truth-i-ness’, which also rang very many bells with me.

    This is a big stumbling block that I see in relation to online digital collaborative formats. The types of people who are most likely to get involved in the activity, aren’t the types you are in fact, looking for. It just so happens, that people at the moment willing to devote large portions of their productive time to online collaborative projects aren’t interested in the notion of doing it, in order to develop reputations. It just isn’t on their horizon. About all they can see is unlimited processing power, unlimited bandwidth and unlimited storage. It all factors into an equation, combined with anonymity and other properties of the mediated world, which gives rise to thousands and thousands of suckers.

    I am amazed that no one seriously working in online business, at the moment, has managed to notice this. It is nothing to do with ‘providing’ online reputation systems. Everyone has been focussed on the wrong area. Like, hey look at our cool new reputation system. It has not occured to anybody, that this reputation system is built around the sucker individual. It is just providing rules and legislation for something which flies in the face of an online commons, a repository of knowledge and a system of real expertise.

    It doesn’t matter how sophisticated the reputation system wikis or social networking sites try to develop. The real issue is how we can move away from the current ‘sucker’ type of online communities. Towards ones based on more true cooperation between real repudiated experts and lower knowledge echelons of sloggers, workers and virtual servants. Servants in the positive sense of the word. Providing services in return for understanding and increased awareness. To make the right move, and do the right thing, will require taking some bitter pills and the flattening of some very large egos.

    Brian O’Hanlon

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