When I began this project on CIF's briefly infamous 4th birthday thread, I naively entered the fray with the following:
'... It strikes me that the simple act of entering into discussion with
another user on a thread is equally one of entering into a relationship with
that user: however brief and impersonal the virtual exchange may be, it is a
social interaction. Furthermore, I think anyone who knows CIF would agree that
the relationships formed there very often do take on personal qualities as well.
We form powerful bonds of solidarity or antagonism over discussions of issues
like sexuality, gender, race, or class. Even friendships and romantic
relationships - and long-distance enmities! - can develop between people who
have never met face to face.
But what I find most interesting is that, for all the similarities, the
relationships formed on CIF are qualitatively different to those stemming from
face-to-face interactions. In person, our physical proximity to each other
ramifies into the social relationships that we develop. We make conscious and
subconscious judgements about the people we interact with, based on our
immediate perceptions of their person and manner; we are so judged ourselves.
These nuances lend social encounters in the flesh an ambiguity: interpose a
computer screen, however, and the immediacy is removed. A conversation in person
is a negotiation of a different sort to the mediated exchange of posts on
I'd be extremely interested to hear from all CIFers old and new what they
make of this. Is the social dynamic on CIF different to that of 'real world'
interactions? What are the implications of this? For those of you who
have met friends or partners through CIF, or who have had the chance to be
at a physical get-together of CIFers, it would also be interesting to know what
it's like to meet and interact with your fellow commenters in person, having
gotten to know them online.'
I've copied this post almost in full because I think the main ideas are still pertinent; I'll return to them a bit later. A propos of the brief exchanges I had with some of you over on The Untrusted last month, though, I thought it might be useful to provide an introduction of sorts to what I am generally trying to do as a student anthropologist. I'll therefore begin by taking a look at what happened when I first left this comment on CIF. At the time, my foolish and arrogant assumption had been that, having successfully said my little piece near the beginning of the thread, at least some new arrivals would take the time to read it and reflect on the questions I had posed. How wrong I was. Had I spent more time on CIF over the preceding days, I would have known that the community was currently up at arms over Lord Summerisle's recent banishment. I watched as an outpouring of popular anger against CIF's moderation policies buried my oblivious attempt at conversation. Clinging to the shreds of my original plan, I continued to toss out comments and questions that grew progressively more inane; finally, when my last-ditch attempt to get someone, anyone to talk to me - 'I get the sense people are really angry about this' - garnered the same (still paltry) number of recommendations as the opening post I had spent hours crafting, I felt ready to give up. In the nick of time, however, some kind soul (thank you, Stealthbong) took pity on me and posted a link to The Untrusted, where I at last received such a kind reception from all of you on St Patrick's Day.
That brings us to the present. The CIF fiasco changed the direction of my project somewhat. As I sat hopefully at my computer watching that first thread unfold, the thoughts I jotted down began to refer less and less to my original research questions, and more and more to my own anxieties and self-consciousness about the project itself and my situation as its author. With disappointment, these reflections led me to realise that I had fallen into the one anthropological trap I had believed myself to be avoiding so skilfully: objectivity. Time and time again, my lecturers and tutors had warned me about the dangers of thinking like a scientist, that is, believing that you occupy an objective standpoint apart from (and, in the sad history of anthropology's colonial complicity, often above) those 'others' whom you wish to understand. The early anthropological belief that there was some true reality to the way people lived their lives, a reality that could be described precisely and accurately, came to be recognised as an illusion towards the end of the twentieth century: anthropologists began to regard themselves less as 'objective', authoritative scientists and more as individuals occupying unique positions subjectivity, as socially- and culturally-contingent as the lives of those they studied. Thus the anthropologist's description can never be accurate, as he or she always interprets others and their actions through his or her own subjective filter, reducing, generalising, and abstracting them into written material more fictional than 'real'. Nor, for that matter, can anthropological description ever be complete, as all people live in constant interaction with a constantly changing world.
For my part, I thought that because I understood the illusion of objectivity, its history and its flaws, I would be immune to it in my own fieldwork. Once again, I was wrong. In assuming that I could get a neat set of clear answers to my questions by posting them on CIF, I was thinking like a scientist. Furthermore, I neglected to take into account anthropology's perennial conflation of the object and instrument of study. Essentially, all participant-observation-based anthropology participates in social relationships formed between researcher and informants - the instrument - to observe social relationships - the object. An online study such as my own is no different: I am establishing a presence and making relationships in internet communities in order to understand these same internet communities. I am a full participant, as well as an observer. I must therefore forgo claims to authority and acknowledge that the experience of fieldwork online, just like the lived experience of any one of us who participates in online interactions, is irreducible and rife with ambiguity. While this rejection of objectivity inevitably undermines efforts at making any firm, 'authoritative' statements about our field of study, the hope is that it may instead allow us to draw a more nuanced picture of social life that is at once description and explanation, although only one of many possible such pictures. In any case, we aim to be constructive rather than reductive, building on our discoveries in an ongoing process rather than drawing limiting conclusions from them.
I find these 'meta-anthropological' questions extremely interesting, although dwelling on them excessively often brings down on the anthropologist charges of narcissism and finally irrelevance, when they are allowed to obscure the ostensible field of study altogether. This is certainly not my intention with this project, so I'd like to return now to the research questions mentioned in my original CIF post. Is the social dynamic of online interactions different to that of face-to-face encounters? What are the implications of this? My experience on CIF and now here on The Untrusted suggests to me that internet communities are indeed very different to 'real world' ones. I do believe, as described above, that the physical presence or absence of an interlocutor has a substantial effect on interaction. In face-to-face conversation, appearance, manner, and social cues all have a part to play in directing our interactions, whether we are consciously aware of it or not; on the internet, we can make ourselves anonymous, all but invisible apart from our words. In the 'real world', we interpret the other as a whole; in online interactions, we can only judge his or her words, decontextualised from the author and his or her personal situation.
In my initial CIF post, I suggested that this removal of context literally makes online interactions 'black and white', stripping away the ambiguity of face-to-face social encounters in which the entire person must be taken into account. It seems to me now, however, that while encounters in online communities such as CIF or The Untrusted do lack some of the immediacy and negotiated qualities that complicate physical conversation, they are not simply an unambiguous exchange of statements. Instead, they are ambiguous in a different way. Anyone with any experience of online communication knows how difficult interpreting the words on the screen can be; emoticons exist for a reason. In the absence of the subtle physical and behavioural cues that guide face-to-face interaction, words can be just as easily misinterpreted as people. In other aspects, too, internet and face-to-face interactions differ. One thing that caught me off guard when I began my fieldwork online was the difference in pace. On CIF, I worried constantly when I left my desk for lunch that I would miss a chance to talk to someone; when I returned to The Untrusted after a day of classes, there were several conversations I would have like to joined in that were long finished by the time I even saw them. No 'real world' conversation continues 24/7; how do you adapt your behaviour accordingly?
This is merely one example of many which set online interaction apart, and this is where I'd like to turn things over to you for discussion. Seeing as most of you have much more experience in the world of online communities than I do, I'd be really interested in hearing what other ways your internet experiences differ or are similar to your face-to-face interactions. In true anthropological fashion, however, I won't make the mistake of setting specific questions again, but shall simply turn things over to you.