Friday, 23 October 2009

Field Sites, UFOs and Virtual Pith Helmets

This entry is cross-posted from the University of Edinburgh's 'Digital Cultures' course, a part of the MsC in e-learning.

I've been having a ball this last few days, as our focus moves into Block 2: Communities and our working towards a 'virtual ethnography'. I haven't quite decided what community to look at just yet (I'm leaning towards a study of the community of people around the 9/11 Conspiracy Theories) but getting up to speed on the various ideas surrounding notions of 'virtual ethnography' or 'netnography' as some prefer, has allowed me to indulge in a long-held notion I've had about myself 'being an ethnographer'.

I studied Anthropology for a year at university - finally opting to focus on English and Classics for degree level - but I've always harboured fantasies about myself returning to the subject in some unspecified, undefined capacity in the future. I'm not claiming I'm there yet, but the reading lists for this block and some rummaging on the web have brought back some familar ideas and names: Bronisław Malinowski, Margaret Mead, E. E. Evans-Pritchard et al.

But then, I thought to myself, have I actually been doing this along? Have I actually been conducting virtual ethnography the whole time? Since 2001, I've been contributing to an Irish site,, where 'fortean phenomena' are catalogued, ranted about and studied with a jaundiced, satirical eye. We've been doing so since 1997 and have embedded ourselves into a rather strange interweb culture of conspiracy theorists, UFOlogists, Cryptozooologists and general random lunacy.

I hasten to add by the way that there our stated position is that we don't believe in UFOs and aliens. And we're not so sure that they believe in us either.

Or to put it another way, I'm not as interested in finding UFOs so much as I am in finding stories about UFOs.

An example is this 'Map of the Weird' which we put together a while back, location marking many of the stories which we've blogged about over the years.

This is a video version of the tour.

So, it's with some giddy excitement that I now find myself in the hilarious position of being able to academically justify my years and years of trawling the bowels of the internet for the detritus and wreckage of conspiracy theory, alien abductions and frog falls. Who knew?

All joking aside, there's some serious questions to be answered before I can really go any further:

  • What (if anything) is my 'field site'?

  • Am I a 'lurker' ethnographer or one that directly partcipates in the community?

  • How do I reference, present and quote sources?

  • What 'netiquette' considerations do we have be aware of?

I may not need a pith helmet so much as a tin-foil hat, but here we go...

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