Social media plays a prominent role in most of our lives but because it is so pervasive, it is hard to see it through fresh eyes and to make what is so familiar, ‘strange’. This blog is my attempt to do this. I entitle it an ethnography. I have always associated ethnographies with research into tribal groups in some faraway part of the planet; the one I am most familiar with is the study of the Nuer people of Ethiopia / South Sudan by anthropologist Sir Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard in the 1930s. The challenge for him was likely instead to see anything familiar within the ‘strangeness’ of it all; ‘strange’ at least from his perspective.
What is an ethnography?
Whereas with interviews or surveys, the researcher is clearly outside of the group under study and is looking in, an ethnographer seeks to give an “insider view” by becoming a member of the group in order to understand how it interacts, behaves and perceives fellow group members. In my case, I chose a digital group, a Facebook group for a town in England. For ethical reasons of confidentiality, I do not identify it. For one thing, no-one in the group has given consent to being studied and referred to here.
Why did I choose this for an ethnography?
It is not something I have suddenly rushed into. It is an assignment as part of an edX MOOC (Introduction to Social Research Methods) which in turn is part of a Masters in Digital Education at Edinburgh University. My research area of interest is in how digital media can encourage collaborative learning. Some media such as Facebook discussions can cause the positions of people with differing perspectives to close in rather than open up whereas for tasks such as creating Wikipedia pages, it instead brings people with differing positions together to build a shared story. Is this something intrinsic to the tool or about how it is used? My interest in all of this is motivated by my role in interfaith training; knowing how and when to use which tool where is of obvious significance. My blog here will not answer this but is part of my learning on how to assess such media.
What are the characteristics of this Facebook group?
The group has 10,000+ members with the uniting element of interest in activities within the town. On its Discussion page, only members can post but anyone can view. From the Members page, personal information on individual members is available although they can decide themselves how much to provide. Posts are moderated, with rules shown at the top of the Discussion page. Other pages are for Events, Videos, Photos, Files and Recommendations; for this study, I stay on Discussion and Members pages only.
What sparks my curiosity about observing what is going on in this group?
A colleague on the MOOC course wrote an ethnography observing people in a café. I thought initially of this as a model for observing the Facebook group. However on reflection, there are significant differences:
- I could ‘listen in’ on every Facebook group conversation concurrently whereas this is impossible in a café setting; at best only one conversation is heard at a time. Moreover, everyone else on Facebook can also ‘listen in’ on every conversation.
- In some cases in the café, only body language can be observed, without hearing any conversation. However body language is not observed at all in the Facebook group. The closest is use of emojis.
- I could ‘hear’ Facebook conversations that had happened many hours before, and these also shaped current conversations. In a café, past conversations will not have any bearings on current ones.
- In the Facebook group, conversations generating greatest interest are displayed most prominently. In a café, this is like having one table on a platform and those customers in the café whose conversation is of most interest to those around temporarily seated there.
- For many in the Facebook group, I could easily find detailed personal information about them, such as when and where they were born, where they lived and worked, and their relationships. This sometimes helped clarify why they had submitted their post. In a café, I can only guess about these.
There are other big differences but these are what struck me most in this observation.
What activities and interactions were happening?
I opted to show Recent Activity First, so posts recently posted or commented on were shown on top. I also observed from 4 – 5pm on a weekend day, which is around peak time for Facebook activity. In a café observation, this would be equivalent to ‘rush hour’.
Several Facebook conversations were shown first during my time there. Initially a DJ on a local radio station requested tracks to play on that night’s show. Then an offer of an apartment to rent was posted. There followed comments that it was too expensive for the area, with several people quoting that they paid less for something better. The renter addressed these, but eventually said that they were not the landlord, which caused further comments. Someone said that the renter would have to find someone with MUG written on their forehead. At that stage, the renter commented that no-one was being required to rent it.
There was then a post from someone just moved into the area wanting recommendations for a cleaner, a nanny and advice on a school run. They got several recommendations and said they would look into them.
There was then a post from someone who had had their car door dented in a town car park. This branched into several conversations: how people don’t care, that parking spaces are not wide enough in this car park, that there should be side door dash-cams and that they should get CCTV footage from the car park owners. Someone then asked the driver why they were having a rant on Facebook as it was too late to do anything. The driver replied that they had posted just to encourage people to take care in opening doors in car parks.
Several other posts briefly came to the top but generated little discussion and so lost prominence quickly: things for sale, beautician services available, where to get a puppy and taxi firms that would take a puppy.
One other post asked why traffic was so bad in town that day. There were several comments on possible events on and also on poor road and traffic light planning by the local council.
If I had ‘fresh eyes’ to this culture, what might I wonder about?
I found this ‘fresh eyes’ observation enlightening. I would wonder about the amount of information available, particularly about participants, but also within conversations. I would wonder too if there is any obvious collaboration apart from the post for the person looking for advice on a nanny. The person renting the apartment instead got confrontation. In some cases it seemed instead like confusion, where it would be impractical and impossible timewise for one person to follow up on all the advice given. In these communities anyone can speak and so posters must decide themselves what to do; one would imagine in the past, speaking instead to someone recognised as wise within the community. There is also no sense of people coming together to achieve what would be too much for one person. However all posts and comments were made in good spirit, even those showing confrontation. I suppose this could all be considered therefore as a form of collaboration.