“…he will blend in. Disappear…”

That’s right, I titled my blog a quote from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. What? It fits I swear.

Ok, well perhaps for a perverted sense of “traditional” field work. When Indiana is referring to the supposed skills of Marcus Brody as an ethnographic researcher, he was alluding to the idea that Marcus would be invisible in the crowd as a professional who sought to study a culture without interfering in it. In this example, as with many other examples, the field is a physical space where people interact and talks, share meals, and generally physically help or conflict with each other. But How does this translate into the digital world.

There are several ways that, as researchers, we interact with digital communities to find out more about their norms and their needs. One of the most interesting ways is to become a part of the society, or at least a trusted outsider. This is the type of ethnography that Parmy Olsen conducted when she wrote We are Anonymous. She was able to get to know the group she was studying, but was never able to physically see any of the members due to the nature of the group. Another really interesting case study, although it might not be ethnographic (take a look and let me know what you think), involves studying responses to epidemics and epidemiology in general through programming mistakes made in World of Warcraft. The wiki article is actually quite interesting and involves studies in both epidemiology and terrorism.

So the study of digital environments and the way that real people use those environments can have some very interesting real world complications. Both case need to take into account that these environments involve real people communicating in a real time. This means that there are terms of service and privacy concerns that limit the access by external researchers to the data. The ways in which the ethnographer will gain access to this information will vary and there are extreme ethical issues tied to them because the subjects of the research may never actually meet the researcher, leading to misrepresentation and miss-communication between the parties involved.

Is it possible to ethically participate in an online community that you intend to use as the basis of your research?

I don’t know what the answer to this one is yet, but I am very interested in looking into it.


Ben S.

Olson, P. (2012). We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency. New York: Little, Brown and Co.




by | October 23, 2013 · 9:25 am

3 responses to ““…he will blend in. Disappear…”

  1. I dig the Indy reference and breakdown…However you now have made me want to have a marathon this weekend!

  2. Ben,
    Amazingly enough, I’ve read that World of Warcraft wiki before. Although not an avid player, I went through a phase a few years ago where I played it quite a bit and this was something I read about in a endeavour to understand the game better. In fact, a quick search in some of Proquest’s databases revealed that at least a few academics have attempted to mine World of Warcraft for material.
    Is it possible to participate in a community you intend to use for ethnographic research? Yes. Is it ethical? I guess that depends. I read an older book (1998) sometime in the mid 2000s called Star Trek and History: Race-ing Towards a White Future. The author, Daniel Bernardi, examines Star Trek through race and racism. Some of his research mines a Star Trek list serve he participated in from 1994-1995. Although he is open about the fact that he enjoys Star Trek, and he never uses the real names of the people involved, he doesn’t discuss whether he sought permission before engaging in this sort of cyber ethnography. Perhaps something that happens on a listserve is considered public? Or, ethical standards surrounding the internet may not have been highly developed in 1995. Either way, I wish this was explained a bit more, although it is only one chapter in the book.

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