Visual and Virtual Ethnography – the Camera Online and Offline (Paper from 2013)

By Mads Middelboe Rehder, Master of Arts (Education)

The paper is focusing on the methodical perspectives of doing virtual fieldwork where young people are studied through a visual medium, and how this virtual study relates to a physical fieldwork among the same persons with a camera as the primary methodical technology.

The videobloggers (vloggers) who are the subjects in the study that the paper is based on interact socially in their everyday lives through face-to-face interactions in New York City and mediated interactions through videoblogs (vlogs) on YouTube. In the paper I will discuss which methods can be used in a field which is visually orientated and exists in both online and offline settings.

The multi method approach that consists of participant observations in both online and offline settings is inspired by both traditional anthropological methods as presented by Bronislaw Malinowski, James P. Spradley and George E. Marcus, but also by virtual ethnography as presented by Christine Hine, Don Slater, Brian Wilson and others.

The visual form that the empirical field is centered around motivated the use of a camera as a way to connect with the vloggers both online and offline. It is primarily Perle Møhl’s, David MacDougal’s and Jean Rouch’s discussions of participatory cinema and cinéma vérié which have stimulated this methodological approach. The camera is discussed as a means of interaction, but also as ethnographic methodical technology. In categorizing the camera by the ways it is used, I will discuss five different perspectives on the camera as a mediating instrument.

1) The vloggers use their cameras to film the vloggers: The vloggeres use their cameras to express themselves. They record visual material and edit it into a vlog that they upload to YouTube. They are interacting with each other through their vlogs online.

2) The anthropologist uses his camera to film the anthropologist: As a field worker I was filming myself to make a vlog from the recorded material. Through the vlog I got access to the online community on YouTube.

3) The camera man uses his camera to film the vloggers: The camera was used by me acting as the camera man for the vloggers who were instructing me what to film and how to film it. The material was used by them to make a vlog.

4) The anthropologist uses his camera to film the vloggers: As an ethnographic tool the camera was used to record and document the vloggers’ everyday lives. The material was edited by me to make ethnographic film sequences that documented key elements from the study.

5) The anthropologist uses his camera to film the vloggers who use their cameras to film the vloggers: The camera was used by the vloggers to record their vlogs during which I was filming them with my camera. The vloggers’ explicit camera awareness was not directed towards my camera, but instead towards their own cameras.

The five different perspectives on camera use in ethnographic studies are compared and discussed in regard to the different possibilities and limitations.

The analytical categories and main arguments are briefly introduced to illustrate how the methods selected and used have an impact on the empirical material, and therefore also on the analytical perspectives.

The division of the field study into two settings, and the consequences of the way it was perceived as a division by me as an anthropologist in the initial approach, have led to reflections on the dichotomy online/offline, but also reality/virtuality and public/private. The vlogs mediate the vloggers’ private information into a public site as YouTube. During the field work online I had a chance to watch the public videos on YouTube without a real understanding of the context, and afterwards I saw how private they were as they were a part of the vloggers everyday life interactions with each other in NYC. Also, the vloggers in their vlogs were reflecting on what the difference in self-presentation is between the vlogs as virtuality and the real life as reality, but in their everyday life it all seems to blend together as the camera is constantly filming.

A new perspective, syncline, is created to embrace the complexity of the empirical visual field. The conceptual design of syncline is based on the synchronous coexistence of the imploded dichotomies mentioned above. Syncline is a perspective on how vloggers appear in their vlogs and in their daily lives as parallels, in a way where they are recognizable by their humor, charm and flirtatious behavior across mediated and non-mediated interactions, because the visual media as intermediary mediates precisely the nuances allowing the familiarity. The vloggers use a kind of social interaction in their everyday social lives that weave together face-to-face interactions and visual mediated interactions into a complex structure. This means that the mediated interactions online affect their face-to-face interactions offline and vice versa in a way that in this study is described as the syncline everyday life.

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