Friday, May 31, 2002

I have not just been writing this month. Now that it's time to pack up and go home, I find that I have been reading as well. I carried with me Huizinga, Caillois, Sutton-Smith and Jones (ed.), while Turner, Turkle and Life Online by Anette Markham was waiting for me here.

Most of this was familiar stuff, so I just used it to flesh out the five chapters I edited and wrote here, but the Markham book was special. It's a little old, we have seen several of these books by now, describing an academic's (in this case an ethnographer's) experiences as a new user online. In many ways it's naive and unsophisticated, almost clumsy, particularly in the way it switches between account modes: From observations and reporting to comments through switching back and forth with italics. But when I had accepted the quasi-academic format and the naivistic form of her questions and approach, it was a very revealing, honest and even familiar exploration of a first encounter between the online subject and the not-so-connected researcher. From page 71:

Online, you can't see their faces
Online, I can't see the other person's face, hear their tone of voice, or get any sense of who they are beyond the words I see scrolling up my own screen. This does not mean the interview is less interesting. Through their words and through my interaction with them, I could sense joy, anger, passion, bitterness, happiness. In fact, I was surprised and impressed by the intensit of the conversations.

However, I found it difficult to manage the basic elements of conversation, such as taking turns at the appropriate time, nodding, or mm-hmm-ing to imply, "Go on, I'm listening." I couldn't give a questioning glance or wrinkle my forehead or frown slightly to let the other person know I didn't understand what they were getting at.

This rather simple observation is something I have neglected to describe, but it is the reason why I travelled across the North-Atlantic as well as the American Continent in order to interview my players. Every response has to be verbal, and not just that - it has to be written. Still, my fascination with Markham's book was with the leaps she made from such essential, but basic observations, and to sophisticated conclusions to her interviews:

At some point Sheol uses real as a convenient term that demarcates those experiences that occur offline. Meanwhile, Sheol describes real as a matter of degree directly related to a level of information/knowledge, particularly when speaking of other things or people exclusively in online contexts. In other words, the more he knows about something or someone, the more real it or they become. Sheol seems to distinguish his online experience along a continuum from less real to more real. Stated differently, the reality of others - and more specifically, their subjectivity - is not a static condition as much as a matter of degree. (page 184)

This expresses one of my main objections against the vitual/real discussion. I cannot see reality as either/or. reality is relative, a continuum, where the subject deceides on the degree of reality. Anette Markham and her interviewees reminded me of this, and I devoured the book. It will be useful - I have to go back to the methods-chapter and put her into my discussion on reflexivity - but most of all it was a delightfully honest, personal and open scholarly work on internet research.

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