Distraction Free Reading

Digital Ethnography

At the end of 2012 Larissa Hjorth, Jo Tacchi and I published a special issue of Media International Australia on ‘rethinking’ ethnography and ethnographic practice (see TOC below). Through six single and co-authored contributions, the special issue considers the variety of ways in which the changes in our media environment broadens what we think of as ‘media’, the contexts through which media is produced, used and circulated and the emergent practices that digital media affords. We begin this inquiry by considering how the changing media environment has introduced new scholars and debates around the value and practice of ethnography. We then turn more specifically to the ways in which media ethnography is being practiced in light of the new contexts of research, be they the broadcasters trying to keep pace with the changes of the changing media environment or researchers working through what to do with the fieldsite and myriad of digital data now generated. Our final section and set of papers dive more deeply into the ways the capabilities and affordances of digital media such as camera phones is inspiring new thinking about our construction of place and context.

While all of the papers provide key insights, three articles in particular will likely be of interest to CASTAC readers in light of their challenges to the dominant metaphor of the ‘network’ prevalent in internet and digital media studies. The first is the paper by John Postill and Sarah Pink (2012) that focuses upon social media ethnography and what they term ‘internet-related ethnography’. Departing from paradigms of network and community based research online, Postill and Pink focus upon the research process and how media ethnographers use the affordances of social media to understand ‘connecting online and locality-based realities’. They introduce what they describe as five routines – catching up, sharing, exploring, interacting and archiving – that are aligned to the ways in which sociality and movement construct ethnographic places. Their focus is on the ‘intensities’ of social media activity and the repercussions of this across the ‘messy’ web, as well as in face-to-face contexts.

A second article, co-authored by Sarah Pink and Larissa Hjorth (2012), looks at Location-Based Service games (LBS) and the unofficial game play of intertwining images with places. Demonstrating how these sites become the key spaces through which practices of ‘emplaced visuality’ emerge, they highlight how LBS camera phone images place becomes a process of perpetual oscillation between ‘placing’ (actively situating or contextualising phenomena) and ‘presencing’ (‘being there’ through various presences). Their analysis also seeks to shift the conversation from ‘networked visuality’ to the practice of ‘emplacement’, a response to the changing cartography of co-presence whereby binaries between online and offline experiences no longer hold and reflect a broader, sensorial experience of place.

Finally, the third article by Wanning Sun (2012), also focuses upon digital literacy, working class political consiousness and cameraphone practices. Sun draws on sustained interaction with a dozen migrant activists in Beijing to consider ‘the potential of digital media to construct collective self-ethnography, as well as its capacity to effect political socialisation and social change’. As she chronicles, the migrant working class has been able to articulate their struggles through mobile phone images and user created content. As we began to see in September 2012 Foxconn, the world’s largest contract maker of electronic goods, closed its factory doors in light of investigations over poor working conditions. Indeed, Foxconn first came to global attention when workers began to document—through camera phone images and poetry—the inhumane conditions that had led to numerous suicides. Suns article conveys the complexity of mobile media as a source for exploitation and a site for empowerment and media literacy.

The special issue also corresponds with the establishment of the Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC) in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia (Website: http://www.digital-ethnography.net/). Co-directed by Heather Horst and Larissa Hjorth, the Digital Ethnography Research Centre seeks to foster cross-cultural, interdisciplinary and multi-sited research around this important field in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. Through research and critical engagement, it will collectively push the boundaries and possibilities of ethnographic practice in, through and around digital media. DERC is committed to further forging the School’s strength in digital ethnography by developing international and regional collaborations through a series of workshops, publications and projects.

In this inaugural year we will be home to a number of exciting projects (http://www.digital-ethnography.net/projects/) on topics ranging from posthumous duets with musicians on Japanese television (Shelley Brunt), slow cities and urban activism across Australia (Tania Lewis and Sarah Pink), changing media environments across the Pacific region (Heather Horst and Jo Tacchi), mobile gaming and well-being (Larissa Hjorth), activism and political participation in Barcelona and Jakarta (John Postill), lifestyle television across Asia (Tania Lewis) and others. With funding from the Australian Research Council, Youth and Well-being CRC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and a range of others, these projects have also attracted a dynamic group of postgraduate students and research assistants. We hope to grow our partnerships with other individuals and organizations through seminar series, workshops and hosting visiting scholars.

To learn more about the Digital Ethnography Research Centre, contact Heather Horst or Larissa Hjorth at digitalethnographyrc@gmail.com.

Contributions to the Media International Australia special issue include:

Rethinking ethnography: An introduction” Heather Horst, Larissa Hjorth and Jo Tacchi

“Media ethnography and the disappearance of communication theory” Virginia Nightingale

“Normativity and materiality: A view from digital anthropology” Heather Horst and Daniel Miller

“The ethnographer as community manager: Language translation and user negotiation” Jonathan Hutchinson

“Social media ethnography: The digital researcher in a messy web” John Postill and Sarah Pink

“Amateur photography as self-ethnography: China’s rural migrant workers and the question of digital-political literacy” Wanning Sun

“Emplaced cartographies: Reconceptualising camera phone practices in an age of locative media” Sarah Pink and Larissa Hjorth

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