Computer-Mediated Anthropology

An Online Resource Center

CMA Methodology: Autoethnography

by Noah Porter, 2004

Introduction to Autoethnography

Ellis and Bochner (2000) advocate authoethnography, a form of writing that "make[s] the researcher's own experience a topic of investigation in its own right" (p. 733) rather than seeming "as if they're written from nowhere by nobody" (p. 734). Autoethnography is "an autobiographical genre of writing that displays multiple layers of consciousness, connecting the personal to the cultural" (p. 739); autoethnographers "ask their readers to feel the truth of their stories and to become coparticipants, engaging the storyline morally, emotionally, aesthetically, and intellectually" (p. 745).

Some criticize this form of writing as sentimental, unscientific, and the product of the excesses of postmodernism. However, because of the epistemological difficulties involved with knowing how humans interact with their computers, I think this genre of writing may have something to contribute to discussions on cyberspace studies. Sherry Turkle's discussion of her first personal computer might be considered autoethnographic and a contribution to CMA discussions:

When I got my own personal computer in 1979, I saw the hobbyist and the user modes come together in myself. My first personal computer was an Apple II. It ran Scribble, an early wordprocessing program. When I used Scribble, I gave commands to the machine: Mark this text, copy that text, paste that text, delete taht text. I didn't know and I didn't care how Scribble communicated with the bare machine. I delegated that problem to the program. I was a user. Yet, there was something about working on that Apple II that reminded me of the thrill I had first felt the year before, when a home computer owner I interviewed, a hobbyist, let me work alongside him as he built his computer from a kit and talked about "the pleasure of understanding a complex system down to its simplest level."

My 1979 Apple II computer began its service as my wordprocessor by being stripped naked. Its plastic cover had been removed so that the Apple processor (and associated chips) could be replaced with another, which could run the operating system, called CP/m. Thus altered, the Apple II offered itself to me as a potentially transparent technology, that is, it offered the promise that ultimately it could be understood by being reduced to its constituent elements. So even though Scribble gave me the opportunity to relate to the machine as a user, as someone who was only interested in the machine's performance, the Apple II communicated a vision of how one could understand the world. [Turkle 1995: 33]

Ellis and Bochner seem to emphasize the value of telling emotion-laden stories that will elicit a similar emotional reaction out of the reader. Can Turkle's discussion of the thrill of her first computer qualify? As the saying goes, there is no accounting for taste, so this is an issue to be settled on an individual level by the reader. However, I do think her discussion of the personal connects with the cultural in that it suggests one possible path for human-computer interaction to take. Knowing this to be a possible path, a researcher may then be inspired to look into how common or unique her individual story is through other methods of inquiry.

In this light, I will now share an autoethnographic account of my interest in cyberspace studies within the discipline of anthropology. I hope my account will resonate with at least one of the two aforementioned uses of autoethnography if not both.

The Making of a Computer-Mediated Anthropologist

I have been interested in computers much earlier than I was interested in anthropology. At first, it was just an interest in video games. I can still remember playing Combat on the Atari 2600 with my brother, where we would assume the identity of pixelated war planes trying to shoot each other down with pixelated bullets. (Or perhaps they were missles. All I know is that they were squares that made your opponent explode.) Later on, my family purchased the 8-bit Nintendo, which enabled me to play games like Wizards and Warriors, Super Mario Brothers, Legend of Zelda, and countless others. My dad, who worked for Honeywell at the time, sometimes would bring home an 8088 IBM PC, which contained one game on its hard drive: The Ancient Art of War. The game required more strategy than any Nintendo game I possessed at the time,, which generally only required killing everything on the screen before it killed you. In the game, you had archers, barbarians, and knights, each of whom were superior to one and inferior to the other one, much like the game "rock-paper-scissors." Once I discovered that archers firing over crenellations could defeat both barbarians and knights without any risk of counterattack, I had discovered my winning strategy, and fell in love with the game. One side effect of this is that I had to learn some basic DOS commands to get the game to work.

When my family got a Commodore 128, I had a new venue with which to play video games, and would occasionally use software packages besides games. I remember using a Print Shop program to create birthday cards for my parents, for example. Eventually, my dad was able to bring home the 8088 permanently--perhaps it was just too old for his company to put to use any longer. I, on the other hand, was still able to put it to good use, further exploring the basics of DOS.

I had gone over to my friend's homes often to play video games together, and also met some young hackers (in the computer underground sense-- see Sterling 1992: 50-53) in middle school. The cumulative effect of this was the strengthening of my interest in computers for their own sake, rather than just as a vehicle with which to play games. The private school I went to rented a church building during the week, which meant that the school, although secular, had some of the church's ideological constraints imposed upon it. One way this manifested was when the school put on school plays, words like "hell" and "damn" had to be replaced with "heck" and "darn." Another way was that Dungeons & Dragons video games, which the church considered to be evil, were not permitted on the computers. Being a huge fan of these games, I quickly learned about hiding directories and such so that we could keep the games on the computers without the school teachers finding them and deleting them.

Eventually, my family got a 2400 baud modem to use with the 8088 IBM PC around 1993. Even back then, this technology was somewhat dated. At first, Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) were just a way for me to get new software, especially new games to bring over to my friends' houses, whose superior computers could play games that I could not. However, somewhere along the way, the BBS became a way to socialize. My memory is a bit fuzzy on how this happened, but the most likely scenario for how this occurred is this: Unlike Internet sites nowadays, where the number of people accessing the site and how long they access the site are not issues (although there are a number of exceptions to this), to run a BBS meant that the BBS software had to be running for the BBS to be up, and your phone line would be tied up for as long as someone was logged onto your BBS. Many sysops (BBS system operators) resented "leeches," meaning people who used their BBS to download files and contributed nothing in return. A sysop concerned about leeches had a couple of strategies available to him or her. First, the sysop could put a time limit on how long someone can stay logged onto their board per day. Second, they can restrict the amount of downloading someone can do by requiring that someone either upload files or post messages before they can download files. (There were also hybrid strategies, such as BBSs where you are given a certain amount of time per day, but the amount of time could be increased by uploading files.) I believe these strategies, combined with my desire for new files, may have led to my participation in BBS discussion forums.

About a year later, my brother decided to start up his own BBS. I was aginst it at first, thinking that our slow computer and slow modem would make his attempt at starting a BBS an embarassing failure. He proceeded despite my pessimism, and surprisingly (to me at the time), the board quickly took off. I am still not entirely sure what to attribute the success to, given that faster boards with more features were readily available in our area code. The best explanation I have to offer is that my brother was quite liberal with giving people co-sysop status (meaning they had the power to perform adminstrative functions, such as deleting messages, that the regular users could not do), thus ensuring a small committed core of members who felt obligated to participate and promote our BBS. In any case, it seemed like a powerful case against technological determinism since it was the nature of the social interactions rather than technological superiority that lead to our virtual community being successful.

When I went to college and discovered anthropology, my interest in the discipline and my interest in online communication/communities seemed worlds apart. My introduction to anthropology started with primitive and exotic cultures; my conception of the appropriate subject for anthropologists back then was that the cultural group must at least live in another country, and the less affluent and less modernized, the better. Virtual communities were the antithesis of this, and so it seemed irreverent if not irrelevant to suggest they were equally deserving of study. But, once while looking through the anthropology section of the library, I ran across David Hakken's Cyborgs@Cyberspace?, which gave the idea of cyberanthropology a lot more plausibility for me. Once I reached my senior year, I finally felt confident enough to be irreverent (irrelevant?) enough to write a paper on "Internet Anthropology," and present it to the department, as per the course requirements. My professor had this to say to me on one of my rough drafts:

Besides my comments in the paper itself, there are two areas which need attention: (1) in the first ¶, you mention changes w/in anthropology/the world. You need to expand this section in order to strengthen the case for internet anthro. Right now, your only agument seems to be, "we need to keep up with technological innovations." A more powerful perspective must detail this in terms of one of the primary effects of globalization, technology linkscreating new forms of interaction, shifting borderlands that cross-cut boundaries, new expressions of belonging and the construction of identities. These things are happening in lots of different ways that have to do with the transnational processes of the migration of peoples, ideas + products. The internet is
one way this is happening. Just because the intern is "there" doesn't justify significant research. But because it is part of a larger process of transformation of identity, interactin, etc. it does become an example of how anthros might study the shifting sands of globalization. (2) You kind of assume that there will be resistance w/in anthro to this kind of research. I don't think so... if it is sound and contributes to our understanding of the changing world, I don't think so.

However, life would provide a counterexample to his second point. When I presented my paper to the department, I reembmer a long pause afterwards and somewhat blank looks at first. Finally, one of the faculty raised her hand and asked me: "Well, so what?"

Once I got to USF, I began my study of Falun Gong, which eventually cultiminated in my master's thesis. I was amazed at how the technology was utilized to withstand the harsh persecution of the Chinese goverment. I was fortunate to have Dr. S. Elizabeth Bird assigned to me as my advisor when I first arrived, as she is (as far as I'm aware of) the only anthropologist in the department to have conducted virtual ethnography. Among many of my colleagues in the department besides her, however, I have encountered people with negative attitudes towards cyberanthropology and the Internet in general. Accusations have included it leading to poor table manners, being a haven for narcissistic people to write blogs, and a place where all social interactions must be regarded with suspicion because deception is the norm.

After getting my thesis and continuing on for the PhD, I decided it might be a good idea to attend Jim Milne's dissertation defense. Since his dissertation was on blogs (web logs), I thought that the criticisms his committee brought up might be relevant for me in the near future. The points brought up by his committee included: challenging his notion of a "personal community," wanting to know more of the demographic and psychological factors that would explain who is blogger, asking him if he's comfortable with his methodology even though he was not able to meet his informants face-to-face, noting the "cynical tone" with which he discussed the possibility of social change resulting from the technology, wanting to know the larger context of how blogs fit into the "media universe," wanting to hear more of the voices of his informants, wanting him to explore the possibility of a "dumbing down" in terms of the technical knowledge required to use a blog, wanting to know if engagement with the virtual realm is compensation for something that is not virtual (e.g. expressing the stresses of work on a blog as a resistance strategy), and if the Internet is diverting motivations from potential social movements. While listening to them, I came up with a list of five questions that I wanted to ask him. The committee, not wanting to spend too much time there, I presume, told me I had to pick one. Foreshadowing my creation of this web site, I asked him if he used any qualitative analysis software like N*UDIST, Qualrus, or Concordance to analyze blogs, and why or why not.

The net result (pun intended) of all these experiences is the web site you are looking at.


It should be clear by now that by itself, autoethnographic accounts are no substitute for ethnography because ethnography is ultimately about other people. While autoethnographic accounts do touch on the lives of others since everyone exists in a social context, it does so in a more haphazard, less systematic way than ethnography does. However, autoethnographic accounts may suggest possibilites to investigate ethnographically. For instance, in my autoethnographic account, I showed how an interest in video games led to the use of and interest in computers in other contexts, how the way in which computers are used is affected by social context (e.g. in a church), the inadequacy of technological determinism in explaining the success of my BBS, the mixed attitudes of anthropologists towards the Internet.

I would like to suggest a way in which autoethnography might be utilized in a CMA context. A professor could assign autoethnographies to students that focus on their use of computers. Once a significant number of these accounts have been collected, he or she should could analyze them as one might analyze any ethnographic data. The difference this method makes is that the informants will have more of an opportunity to draw out their own theories of causality, and each one will be able to draw upon their memories unmediated by the time and interests of the interviewer. I suspect that more unanticipated patterns may emerge from this method of research.


References Cited

Ellis, Carolyn and Arthur P. Bochner
_____2000 “Autoethnography, Personal Narrative, Reflexivity: Researcher As Subject,” in N. Denzin and Y. Lincoln (eds.) THE HANDBOOK OF QUALITATIVE RESEARCH (2ND EDITION). Thousand Oaks, Ca.: Sage, pp. 733-768.

Sterling, Bruce
_____1992 The Hacker Crackdown. New York: Bantam.

Turkle, Sherry
_____1995 Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Touchstone.