Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999


katie j. ward (1999) 'The Cyber-Ethnographic (Re)Construction of Two Feminist Online Communities'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 1, <>

To cite articles published in Sociological Research Online, please reference the above information and include paragraph numbers if necessary

Received: 05/02/99      Accepted: 29/03/99      Published: 31/3/99


The aim of the paper is to demonstrate that cyber-ethnography is the most appropriate tool in reaching an understanding of the online community. I argue that cyber-ethnography's reflexive qualities allow the characteristics of the online community to emerge. I demonstrate, through the cyber-ethnographic exploration of two feminist online communities, how the participants define their own perimeters. I suggest that the online community has two main characteristics. Through its convergence with the physical, the online community's existence is apparent, though not unconditionally virtual. Indeed, the online community does not compete with, or supersede physical space, rather a hybrid space emerges that is neither absolutely physical or virtual. Secondly, I depict the participants as having a transitory, unconditional relationship with the online community. That is; they will only participate for short periods when they require use of the resources that the online community has to offer.

Community; Cyber-ethnography; Cyberspace; Ethnography; Hybrid; Online Community; Reflexive Reflexive

The hybridisation of the Physical and Virtual

Within our computer laden society, recent and far reaching advances in computer mediated communication (CMC) have enabled the dispensation of traditional understandings of space and time. Flourishing communication, fuelled by CMC and the internet,[1] has lead to instant communication that ceases to be restricted by a priori structures. Furthermore, it is also possible to identify the encroachment of the virtual realm on to our physical space. Virtual culture covers a plethora of phenomena, including CMC, computer games and computer generated effects in films. For the purposes of this paper, the virtual connotes the online community in text based virtual space. I use the terms physical world, space or lives and wider social and political lives to indicate the activity that takes place in the traditional sociological field as identified by Berger (1963). This dichotomy is deliberately stark and overstated to emphasise the inadequacy of the terms in network society. Indeed, Watson (1997) suggests that for some internet users, the activity that takes place in text based virtual space is experienced as a reality. The virtual space simulates the physical world to the extent that the virtual is experienced as 'more real' than the physical world.

I am suggesting that the physical and virtual realms are becoming increasingly difficult to separate. Consequently, a new hybrid space emerges that is neither physical or virtual, but a combination of the two. This idea is cognisant in many aspects of our changing society. For example, communication via email is not regarded as an 'unreal' means of exchanging crucial information. Despite the virtual status of email, it is not ineffectual or any less profound or humane than other varieties of communication. Email infiltrates and impacts on the way in which we fashion and conduct our lives in the physical world. Similarly, the phenomenon of Lara Croft in the game 'Tomb Raider' illustrates how the boundaries between the physical and the virtual are becoming more fluid. Individuals are beginning to interact with this digitally constructed entity as if it had human characteristics (The Observer, 04/98). Lara Croft has no 'real' counterpart in the wider social world and yet she has reached iconic status, become a role model and a new 90's sex symbol; attributes usually associated with 'real,' living individuals.

Despite the apparent merging of the physical and virtual, popular internet and computer culture and some theorising surrounding cyberspace continues to perpetuate the myth that the physical and virtual are somehow different entities (Dery, 1996). They are portrayed as existing in separation from each other, and as possessing thoroughly distinct characteristics. For example, internet culture depicts search engines as the tools needed to conquer the virtual world. Search engines are data bases which, on the users command, trawl through a massive amount of web pages searching for desired information. However, not only do they help to navigate the journey of discovery through the rhizomatic networking of computers, they aid in the social construction of the virtual world. For example, when a user utilises the Lycos search engine, he or she is warned: 'Its scary out there!' This implies, that when embarking on a trip around cyberspace, one moves out somewhere, into another world that exists along side the concrete reality of the wider social world. A gateway to another environment is presented to the internet user. Whilst also being advised that the contents that exist in this other world require the taming of a search engine, the internet user must not venture into this 'scary' world and attempt to confront what lies ahead without the aid and shielding of the search engine. Similarly, the slogan used to promote Microsoft: 'Where do you want to go today?' suggests that the virtual realm is a new place to be discovered via new computer technology.

So it transpires that the physical and the virtual worlds are perceived as having different qualities. In a similar vein, much theorising surrounding cyberspace has also contributed to, and perpetuated this idea that the physical and virtual occupy opposite positions in a dichotomous relationship. For many proponents of cyber-culture, cyberspace represents a utopian environment. It is a world that has superior qualities, elevating its status above that of the physical world. These attributes include the notion that cyberspace, with its lack of visual and audible cues, has the potential to be a 'post gender, age, disability and ethnic' environment. Hence the following,

The net has taken to epitomize the shape of this new distributed non-linear world. With no limit to the number of names which can be used, one individual can become a population explosion on the Net: many sexes, many species... there's no limit to the games that can be played in cyberspace (Plant 1997: p. 46).

Communication in cyberspace is cast as having accentuated egalitarian properties. This contrasts with the physical world where individuals, through visual and audible cues, can formulate pre-conceived ideas of the other (Benedikt, 1994; Heim, 1994; Argile, 1996; Robins, 1996; Shields, 1996; Tomas, 1994).

Notably, such popular computer culture and cyber cultural theory artificially polarise the physical and virtual realms. They have the effect to romanticise the virtual, in so far as it becomes depicted as a dimension retaining almost divine characteristics. Moreover, I propound that the cyber-ethnographic study of the online community is most effective in exploding the idea that the physical and virtual exist in a dichotomous relationship. I explicate the online community, and suggest the hybridisation, as opposed to the virtualisation of space can be seen. Cyber-ethnography, as used here, is defined as follows,

Cyber-ethnography is a study of online interaction. It allows the subjects being studied to talk back even as the process is occurring. The talking back is part of the cyber-ethnographic process (Gajjala, 1997; see Cyber-ethnography website).

Cyber-ethnography is implemented in online in chat-rooms,[2] via bulletin board systems(BBS)[3] and emailing lists,[4] and these modifications are one factor that differentiate it from ethnography. I use semi-structured interviews in cyber-ethnography, by modifying the interview process to suit the facilities that are available on the website. However, Gajjala (1997) states that cyber-ethnography differs from regular ethnography in that it avoids holding any pre-conceived ideas concerning the existence of the online community. Rather than studying a group and assuming it to be a community, cyber-ethnography allows the participants to take the lead role in establishing the reality, status and principles of their group. Hence, the aggregation only becomes a community if they perceive it to be so, and experience the 'spirit of community'. This abandonment of pre-scripted ideas is incisive, as it avoids the enforcement of an inaccurate frame-work by an outsider, who may not fully understand all the social processes that constitute such a group.

I wish to avoid establishing a dichotomous relationship between ethnography and cyber-ethnography, and argue contra Gajjala, that cyber-ethnography, rather than making a radical break from ethnography, merely provides a research tool to explore, analyse and document social processes within text based virtual space. Even though I do suggest that cyber-ethnography has the potential to be more reflexive than ethnography, it continues to explore the same problems of representation that both feminist and non-feminist ethnographers have been confronting for the past two decades (Geertz, 1983; Oakley, 1990; Moore, 1995). Hammersley (1992) recognises that, while ethnographers attempt to represent a social situation, they often re-produce it, thus constructing a new version of reality. We are forced to question our taken for granted assumptions, which lead to a new construction of the social processes within a specific context. Hammersley (1992) demonstrates how ethnography occupies both ends of the representation/reproduction dichotomy. His own position falls on the side of representation, as he sees this as the main goal of ethnography, and to avoid falling into the trap of reproduction. Indeed, ethnographic accounts will always be selective reproductions, influenced by the researchers own bias, and also they are shaped by sociology and anthropology as political and academic canons. This does not mean that representation is impossible, and Hammersley advocates a 'subtle realism' for ethnographic practice. Subtle realism, then, concerns the idea that the researcher can take an objective position outside society and record knowable phenomena. It accepts that researchers must rely on some cultural assumptions, but rejects the idea of relativism and the idea that there can be no knowledge of reality. In doing so, subtle realism moves towards an ideal of selective representation.

The notion of partial representations is important in terms of the online community. Given the eclectic nature of online culture, a 'thick description' that is universally applicable to all websites is impossible. Instead, the cyber-ethnographer can only anticipate gaining flashes of insight or a 'phenomenological snap-shot' of the online community (see, Wakeford forthcoming). Thus, cyber-ethnography cannot provide a solution to the epistemological problems of ethnography, but it is the most appropriate research tool when observing the online community. It allows research to take place on a global scale, allowing the researcher to reach a wider sample. Furthermore, rather than interviewing the participants on a face-to-face basis, cyber-ethnography allows the researcher to observe the participants whilst interacting within the online community. This gives an idea of how CMC, with its ability to globalise and re-locate communication and community, changes behaviour and communication patterns.

Importantly, though, in terms of reaching an understanding of the online community, cyber-ethnography has two defining features. I discovered that it allowed me to instigate extended periods of observation and, also, gave me the opportunity to actualise a more reflexive research process. In terms of participant observation, the cyber-ethnographer can lurk[5] in online communities, which means that the researcher can observe the interaction without changing the group's pattern of interaction. Indeed, the cyber-ethnographer can become and voyeur, and avoid any responsibility for this behaviour. This type of observation provides insight into the nuances of cyber-culture, which may otherwise remain unnoticed. Of course, researchers instigate covert research in the physical world, and in both fields ethical implications arise. However, the situation has greater complexity in cyberspace as much of the communication is anonymous and many observers of cyber-culture celebrate the possibilities for identity play (Turkle, 1996, 1998; Plant, 1995, 1996, 1997). In this light, what responsibility does the cyber-ethnographer have; should s/he reveal his/her true intentions? The British Sociological Association (BSA), in their code of ethics, do not cover the virtual landscape and the problems encountered in terms of 'authentic' identities. I felt uncomfortable pioneering research that moved against the grain of ethical research practice. I suggest that the researcher informs the participants of his/her intentions, but this is problematic in cyberspace, when the researcher has no way of proving his/her purity of intention. I decided to inform participants, via the BBS and email lists, that I was a PhD student carrying out research CMC. I posted messages to the BBS and email lists to which I was subscribed, and then it became the participants responsibility to read the message.

Not only do ethics provide difficulty, but the notion of sampling is also called in question. Usually when a researcher wishes to gain a sample, they gain it through randomly selecting people from a list such as, a G. P.'s register. This is not possible in cyberspace as there is no complete and exhaustive list of all the internet users. Further, gaining a sample is also problematic in the sense that there is no time to become friendly with the participants and gain their trust as a researcher would normally (Oakley, 1981). In any online aggregation it is possible to meet someone once and then never speak to them again as they disappear into the realms of cyberspace. Therefore, the researcher has to become an opportunist, and on a first meeting become involved in a conversation about the participant's feelings towards text based virtual space. This is not to say that ethnographers are not opportunists, there is an overlap, however, the process is far more obvious in cyber-ethnography.

In terms of the notion of reflexivity, the cyber-ethnographer is in a position to encourage a plurality of voices, thus allowing the perspective of those at 'the margins' to be heard. I am not suggesting that there is no room for reflexivity within ethnography, as by nature and definition, the research process is reflexive. Indeed, new ways to present and communicate data, such as the use of dance demonstrate the various ways of presenting and interpreting data. The point is, that with cyber-ethnography, expectations and traditional definitions of the situation are dropped, as the researcher often has very little control over the conversation. Participants remain unknown to the researcher, and this adds to the balancing of power between the researcher and researched. The participants have no reason to trust the researcher, and are therefore in a stronger position to ask questions and challenge the assumptions of the researcher. It is this potential that the participants have for challenging, that makes the research process reflexive.

Furthermore, the pattern of the research process changes, as no longer does the researcher carry out the interviews, and then move physically away from the research area to transcribe them. Instead, of the research processes being neatly divided into entering the group, carrying out the interviews and transcribing, the cyber-ethnographic process occurs as long as the researcher continues to visit the website. The cyber-ethnographer can visit the website throughout the writing up process, as s/he does not have to physically go out anywhere, and so findings are open to constant modification. Finally, websites are subject to frequent alteration and cyber-ethnography allows the researcher to document and write into the research such changes. It is this malleable nature of cyberspace that demands a research methodology that is flexible and allows a reflexivity in the description of the landscape. Rather, than this being a hindrance in the research process, this malleability and re-visiting websites adds to the beauty and reflexivity of the cyber-ethnographic process.

@Cybergrrl and Women Halting Online Abuse (WHOA)

Cyber-ethnography, with its increased reflexivity, allows a more accurate picture of the online community to emerge. Using cyber-ethnography, I have formulated an understanding of the online community. Cyber-ethnography unpacks the idea of the wholly virtual community that has been popular among scholars (Rheingold, 1994; Bromberg 1996). Cyber-ethnography challenges the dichotomous relationship between the physical and the virtual. Thus, I demonstrate that the online community has two main characteristics. It is a hybrid entity that is both physical and virtual. The online community cannot exist entirely and absolutely within virtual space. The online community can never fully escape the confines of the physical; the physical, despite its apparent morphing with the virtual, continues to place restrictions on people's lives (Stone, 1994).

I also illustrate that people use new technology to mimic communities. Whether the comparison is with traditional physical or imagined communities, participants of online communities create a spirit of community that can extend across the globe. The cyber-ethnography portrays how online communities are transient and fragmented. Participants experience a fleeting encounter with the online community and they feel no obligation to remain members over a long period of time. They have an unconditional relationship with the community, as it fulfils a particular set of requirements. Any online community may only have a core of ten regular visitors and a vast amount of transitory members who only frequent once. Such visitors move swiftly on, adding to the continuous stream of participants that sustain the online community. This inclusive, yet fragile state of the online aggregation does not remove its community status. On the contrary, it suggests that our understanding of community is changing. The online community is not specifically located and it does not meet all of our needs in terms of surviving, working and socialising. Therefore, people are members of many different communities that are all integral to their identities' and meet different needs in their lives.

In order to explicate the above points, I have carried out my cyber-ethnography in two online communities: @Cybergrrl and Women Halting Online Abuse (WHOA), where I have instigated individual and group interviews, using BBS, and email lists. Aliza Sherman owns @Cybergrrl, and dedicates herself to providing people with opportunities to meet others. The website incorporates many interactive facilities that allow the connection with others of like mind on a global scale. Potentially, people can use this website to meet others, who may provide new job opportunities, or instigate the transformation of social circumstances in some other form, such as promoting a book or other publication. This website was established in January 1995, as a non-interactive website and was largely a comprehensive database of resources for women. It currently includes access to a search engine called 'femina' that bestows links to numerous zines[6] and academic sites. There are also links to numerous resources, such as 'Girl Power', for teenage girls. This is a webpage that gives young people the space express themselves 'through writing,' and allows participants to read work of others who have documented their experience of adolescence. In May 1997, Sherman changed the format of her site and she created a new addition to @Cybergrrl: the 'Cybergrrl Village', or 'Town Hall,' where participants can participate via Quick mail systems (QMS)[7], BBS and real time chat.

Even though the WHOA website is interactive, its main concern is with political campaign rather than making connections. WHOA is largely a reaction against utopian theorising, where the cyber-persona is presented as a post gender/race/human entity, which can defy the burden of being tied to any organisational category. WHOA have reacted against such a romantic view. They suggest that such a perspective does not consider the abuse and sexualisation of women, in cyberspace, by way of offensive emails and flames.[8] Thus WHOA's campaign challenges these ideals, and break the silence that surrounds much of the abuse that takes place on the internet. They suggest, through the information on their website and a newsletter, that abuse is wide spread, but often ignored. Their aim is, through campaigning against websites that tolerate harassment, to raise awareness and attempt to prevent online harassment.

The Online Community: Exploding the Myth of the Virtual Utopia

However, before it is possible to demonstrate how cyber-ethnography allows the construction of the two online communities, it is necessary to further elaborate the online community and the academic context within which the online community has emerged. The idea of community, in the broad sense, has always provided anthropologists and sociologists with much fuel for debate. I locate inception of this thought at Tonnies' (1957) typologies (for a further discussion, see Williams, 1988). The transition from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft was seen as contributing to the loss of community.[9] The inference being that the location of community is within pre-industrial, rural society. Consequently, community has become an ideal often depicted by urban planners as an entity threatened by rapid urban developments. Hence, the perception is of a utopia in need of preservation (Dennis, 1968; Glass, 1968). However, Young and Wilmott (1956) in their study of Bethnal Green identified a community within a conurbation. Similarly Gans (1962) identified a community among the Italian Americans. These findings complicate the debate surrounding community as they suggest that a community is not dependent on the place being an idyllic, rural location, but rather on the networks of people.

Recent and comprehensive changes in society reflect and compound the notion that the people are more important than a sense of place. Within this context Scherer (1972) suggests that increased mobility plays a role in shaping social structure and hence, this tranforms the nature and definition of community. Common interest forms the basis for new communities, rather than shared territory or geographical location. Similarly, Schuler (cited in Jones 1997) has noted, '[t]he old concept of community is obsolete in many ways and needs to be updated to meet today's challenges.' He regards 'traditional' or 'old' communities as 'exclusive...inflexible...and homogenous...and new community [as] fundamentally devoted to democratic problem solving' (p. 10, emphasis in the original). This changing understanding of community is evident in wider society, where numerous different communities emerge and unite people by common understanding rather than proximity. These can take the form of fan clubs, animal rights groups, the student union or the gay community. Herek and Greene (1995) espouses, that amongst gay men, a sense, or spirit of community is perceived through a sense of membership, belonging, shared experience and the community's ability to meet individual needs. Such communities are 'imagined communities' as the members may never meet face-to-face, but they consider themselves to be united by common interest (see Anderson, 1991, for a further discussion of imagined communities).

Furthermore, technology has changed perceptions of work, education, leisure, medicine the body and the self (Loader, 1998; Levy 1998). Over the last decade, society has become increasingly networked (Castells, 1996, 1997). It transpires that the development of new technology allows the idea of community to widen in scope making room for aggregations in text based virtual space to become communities. This idea adds fuel to the notion that the spirit of community, or communion, found among networks of people sharing common identity and experience, is far more important than having a sense of place.

However, despite this optimism, the factors of geographical proximity and sense of place, or the online community's lack of, have lead to controversy and scepticism within academic discussions. Scholars have questioned whether a de-localised website, that fosters text based discussion based around a particular interest can achieve the status of community. For example Wilbur (1997), notes that online aggregations do not merit the term community. He summarises the negative approach attached to the online community,

Virtual community is the illusion of community where there are no real people and no real communication. It is a term used by idealistic technophiles who fail to understand that authentic cannot be engendered through technological means. Virtual community flies in the face of 'human nature' that is, essentially, it seems, depraved (Wilbur 1997: p. 14).

Similarly, it is questionable whether the action of merely communicating with others, without the luxury of face-to-face contact, can be considered as positive in the formation of community. Foster (1997) discusses Tonnies' notion of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft and suggests that traditional community is based on a 'sufficient flow of we-relevant information' (Wilbur 1997: p. 25), and this helps to form the collective identity.

Following this, Foster is keen to highlight the relationship between the individual and society and the role that this plays in the formation and maintenance of a community. Specifically, he suggests that the self identity and the group identity are in a reflexive relationship with each other. The community is not fully actualised without a conception of the self, and likewise, the group as a whole has an influence on the formation of the self. Within this context, Foster is sceptical about the formation of community in cyberspace, as internet users who frequent and communicate on interactive websites are keen to, and are pre-occupied with communicating details about themselves. In doing so they are failing to contribute to the flow of 'we relevant' information or the collective effort of sustaining the community. He argues that this does not eliminate the possibility of the reification of self and collective identity. Rather it transforms the relationship between the two, thus redefining 'the public and the private self and other' (Wilbur 1997: p. 35). Thus, this widens the scope for human interaction and community.

Watson (1997) has moved away from the seemingly endless debate as to whether there can be community online. Instead he asks, why the debate has demanded so much attention and why the term community so important. Watson begins with a recognition that certain groups of people who interact via the internet do so because their interests are akin. Further he acknowledges that particular cultural aspects of CMC such as, expressions or 'emoticons,'[10] suggest that a community is developing as they indicate communal understanding. Watson contributes to the debate in developing Rheingold's notion of 'sufficient human feeling.' He compares Rheingold's idea with the concept of 'communion.' He argues that communion is where commitment and sincerity lie in any community. Communion provides a community with its community aspects or the human face of community; 'sufficient human feeling.'

Cyber-ethnography: The Reflexive Approach to the Online Community

Despite all these attempts to clarify the definition of the online community, and to establish its constitution, there seems to be faith amongst scholars that there is an online community (Jones, 1995, 1997, 1998; Baym, 1995, 1998). However, a successful definition of online community is yet to emerge and, as already stated, this would be impossible to reach given the diverse nature of online culture. The remainder of the paper will articulate the two main features of the online community that I have identified. The problem surrounding much previous work is that they do not perceive the physical and virtual as merging and creating a space that is apparently both physical and virtual simultaneously. Watson (1997) makes a positive attempt to move away from dichotomous thought. Nevertheless, he fails to perceive a new space; instead he sees the virtual as being 'as real' as the physical. Thus, he is not abandoning the categories; he is merely re-defining them. The only conceivable way for an accurate presentation of the online community to successfully emerge, is through the application of cyber-ethnography. In terms of carrying out research in the virtual realm, there is no established precedent as to how collect data. Scholars have previously adopted the methods of Sociology and Anthropology and applied them to the virtual realm. That is; researchers have employed participant observation (Reid, 1995; Bromberg, 1996), and informal interviews (Turkle, 1996).

Ethnographic methods are fraught with problems when employed to research within the text based virtual space, because they have the effect to place a normative framework on to the concept of the online community. As already stated, many scholars have observed that ethnography has inherent problems, especially in the sense that interpretation often places normative frameworks onto phenomena (Lenclud, 1996). The example of community is particularly relevant here, as its interpretation takes place within normative frame works (Bell and Newby, 1971). The online community retains the notion that a community is a positive source of support and foundation for a communal identity. However, its global, de-localised, timeless and ahistorical nature, allows it to break away from many pre conceived ideas surrounding community. The online community requires a research method that attempts to work outside the preconceived ideas of the researcher. Even though ethnographers attempt this unobtainable goal, cyber-ethnography, with its reflexive properties, moves towards hearing the participants voices. It allows them to construct a depiction of the online community.

The cyber-ethnographic method endeavours to evade the implication of culture-centrism which arise through the enforcement of normative frameworks on to the aggregation under study. When discussing the status of the online community, I align the present research with the approach of interpretative sociology. Here, the participant's meanings are the driving force behind the research (Becker, 1963; Stanley, 1990; Stanley and Wise, 1993). However, even though cyber-ethnography remains located within the tradition of interpretative research methods, it does involve some modifications to the associated methods.

Within the traditional, face-to-face interview situation, as within Gavron's 'Captive Wife' study (1966), there are sets of expectations shared by interviewer and interviewee. The interviewer is expected to ask the questions or loosely define the topic of conversation and the interviewee responds. Therefore, the interviewer is largely in a powerful position as s/he is expected to, and does define the situation. Researchers have attempted to disrupt this balance (Oakley, 1998), yet cyber-ethnography moves forward in re-defining the researcher's role. Cyber-ethnography, like ethnography, operates on the premise of a diologic process between the researcher and the researched. The lack of visual and audible cues causes a high degree of uncertainty for participants in terms of 'knowing' the identity of the other, and thus the idea of the diologic process is heightened. These factors manifested themselves in the research process as participants asked me questions concerning my age, gender and ethnic background. As the participants were in a position to ask questions of me, the power relationship between the researcher and researched changed radically. The researcher does not have so much control over the interview process.

Therefore the very nature and form of the cyber-ethnographic research method allows a unique perspective to emerge from the study of online aggregations. The dialogue that emerges between myself as the cyber-ethnographer and the other internet users allows the realisation of a new type of data. Since the participants are in a position to ask a question and reflect back on to the interaction, an alternative perspective emerges on the data. The methodology is not so 'closed' and so there are no definitive answers produced to the questions posed. Furthermore, the cyber-ethnographer can always return to the field and feed ideas that have arisen from previous data back to the participants, thus allowing participants to clarify their ideas and redefine phenomena. In this sense, the research always remains 'unfinished' and reflexive. It is not the researcher who is in the position to have the final word; the interpretation remains open to constant re-negotiation by both the researcher and the researched.

During the research process, I found that this openness, or unfinished nature, of the research to captured the subjective understandings of the participants. I was able to return to the field with ideas that emerged from the original data. In a more traditional situation, given the limited time frame on the project, this type of research process would have been inconceivable. Rather than having to make assumptions about the data, for example what the 'virtual,' 'community,' or 'rape' meant to participants, I was able to go back and clarify the issues. This is not to say that the data is completely unmediated, but the participants are far more active in the research process. Consequently, the boundaries between the sociologist's and lay discourse become increasingly blurred.

Cyber-Ethnography in Practice

The practice of cyber-ethnography is not documented in text books; it only gains discussion within the cyber-ethnography website. Despite this many scholars have used cyber-ethnography in their exploration of text based virtual space, but they have not formally named and described the process (Baym, 1995, 1998; McRae, 1996). Cyber-ethnography involves a degree of observation, where the researcher observes the interaction on a particular website, in order to gain a fuller understanding of internet culture. I employed this method during the explication of both the @Cybergrrl and the WHOA websites, as much of the information, in both instances, is 'read only.' For example, on @Cybergrrl there is an organisation called Webgrrls, and the information provided is presented in a read only format on the website. Webgrrls was established in April 1995 and is a support group who initially make contacts online within the Cybergrrl Web Station and subsequently meet offline. Thus, women who work with the internet, computers and technology have the opportunity to discuss careers, new media and technology. The aim is to,

Create networking opportunities, job and business leads, form alliances... and [to] encourage non-competitive exchanges of information and experience (New York Times, 25/02/96).

Initially, the Webgrrls were a group of New York women, but more recently different 'chapters' have opened world-wide. Consequently, women are not only advancing their presence on the internet, but also enhancing their life chances in the wider social world.

As with ethnography, semi-structured interviews are crucial to cyber-ethnography, To further explore the notion that the physical and virtual are inter-penetrative, I instigated discussions, using the interactive BBS on the @Cybergrrl site. I asked participants what their thoughts were on Webgrrls. The following suggests that the interdependent nature of the physical and the virtual can be recognised within his organisation,

Webgrrls is an important part of Cybergrrl because it brings Internet knowledge, opportunity and networking to women in their local communities, face-to-face.

I discovered Webgrrls when I was browsing the Cybergrrl site and I am now able to meet up with people who are interested in my work.

I think Webgrrls is a great idea as I can make contacts at the meetings. People aren't just words on a screen, they have real jobs and lives...Webgrrls brings alive the people I meet online (emails 05/97).

The extracts demonstrate the inter-related nature of the physical and the virtual. The women who visit the @Cybergrrl website are using text based virtual space to make connections with others. However, the activity is not confined to text based virtual space, because they subsequently use the resources found within cyberspace to enhance their life chances within the physical world. Thus, an individual has the potential to transform social circumstances in the physical world through taking advantage of the assets that cyberspace has to offer.

In order to gain a fuller understanding of the online community, I began discussing with the participants whether they perceived @Cybergrrl to be a community, and if they experienced a sense of community. Typically the responses conformed to the following,

The Village is really a place for us all to share thoughts and ideas, meet people and really connect.

I find the Cybergrrl site to be a very positive place for women to explore the internet and participate in the creation of a community.

I love the way we can all meet up here and there are so many people from such different's so cool!

Its so weird it's like we're all just sitting at our computers and we have created this world. It's almost spiritual.

I feel like it's a community, sort of. I know some people by name and suspect they know me, too, although I've never directly talked to them Like you ..., for example). I know that some people read what I write and that gives me immense satisfaction. There are people around to help if there are problems. There are also black sheep around, and that's what rounds the picture. I find it difficult to keep closer relationships going in cybergrrl, but I have that problem in RL too. What else does a community need?

It seems that people do experience a connection with others and crave this interaction that they can achieve through new technology. The second extract also demonstrates that rather than diversity being a hindrance to a coherent community, it adds to the texture of the community. Instead of seeking closed communities, it seems that the participants want communities that allow them to broaden their horizons, in terms of connecting with people from 'different backgrounds.' The third extract also indicates that de-location does not prevent the emergence of community. On the contrary, the ability to connect, despite the distance seems to add to the interest and depth of the community. The final quotation demonstrates that people are perceiving the aggregations, in this new space, as communities. However, they continue to acknowledge that the problems encountered in the physical world, remain influential, despite the encroachment of the physical.

I apply similar observations to the WHOA website. Some of the information is 'read only', yet it evokes the idea that a de-localised community, that stretches across both physical and virtual space, is an influential cultural phenomena. The website is dedicated to political campaigning, it aims to raise awareness about, and move towards preventing online harassment. The information provided typically illustrates that cyberspace is not always a 'safe' place for women. For example the mission statement says, The mission of WHOA is ' create harassment free environments.' WHOA produce a bi-monthly zine, 'A Cyber-Safe Room of our Own,' that is delivered automatically to the subscribers email addresses. This typically contains articles concerning online harassment and is a method of raising awareness. The information contains suggests that the website owners who produce the zine consider their site to be a community. For example, the following extracts are from the zine,

WHOA provides empowerment and unified support for persons who have been targeted for harassment and abuse.

We feel that we are providing a template for a future: a future which all people can work together...and not have to fear harassment and abuse and because we believe that the internet is both a reflection of... society at large, we believe that in building such a world online, we can help to build it offline as well.

The former extract seems reminiscent of the ideals of the gay community, where support is provided and identity worked upon, via the commonality found within the group. This latter quotation demonstrates that WHOA do not perceive their work as concerned wholly with harassment in the virtual realm. Through their campaign, they are attempting to raise consciousness about gendered relations in the physical world also.

The WHOA website does not have a QM facility, BBS or even a real time chat forum, to employ similar techniques. Therefore, I have modified the methods and used them in conjunction with the facilities available on the website. It is possible to carry out 'focus group,' style interviews using email lists. Even though this does not take place in real time, the researcher can post a question to the group and elicit many responses and, subsequently, encourage the participants to discuss the issue amongst themselves. In this sense this method closely resembles the focus group as the researcher is taking a 'back seat' thus allowing the participants to play a dominant role in the discussion. Indeed, the researcher only steps in to guide the conversation with a further question when the conversation loses its direction (see Berg, 1995, for a discussion of focus groups). I have applied this method to the WHOA website. In conjunction with the website, WHOA operates an emailing list. This typically is a forum where women can share their harassment stories and ask questions if they feel under threat, hence,

How does he know where I am, what email client I'm using, and how does he know I'm me when I'm using an assumed name?

They can also gain advice if they feel that they under threat. For example, the following advice was given to the victims,

There is a very good chance he will get brave enough to track you down in real life and stalk you. You do not want to escalate it to that point. You need to get a good lawyer who will work on contingency and put a stop to this person now before it becomes more serious...

Let us know what happens. And take precautions in the mean time: Don't answer the door without knowing who it is first...Be aware at all times when you are outside you home...

The following extract from the WHOA emailing list demonstrate how participants are beginning to regard online harassment with the same gravity as harassment in the physical world. Not only do they consider it to be as serious, but they also consider it to effect their offline lives, thus demonstrating the interconnected nature of the physical and virtual. Furthermore,

As far as rape ... someone who is manipulative can play with your emotions and get you to an emotional point where you'll be more likely to go along with cybersex. I've seen guys who were very skilled at this ...pressuring girls into cybersex, by using guilt, pity, making them feel special, making them feel mature, even scaring them by threatening suicide. They're very good at what they do, they really are, and they know how to pick their targets. If it's rape or not, I can't say, but to me it's not much better than rape.

This demonstrates that harassment in text based virtual space is experienced as a reality. In short, members of this online community perceived themselves to be open to harm. Consequently, the gendered self remains a significant player in social interaction on the electronic frontier. Of course, such extracts open up a debate on whether a person can experience rape in cyberspace. Indeed, if s/he can, then this has enormous implications for the status of the virtual body, and the limits of the body more generally (for a further discussion of the virtual body, see ward, forthcoming).

It is clear from these extracts, that participants understand that problems originating online can extend offline into the physical. This suggests that the participants perceive their community to be a hybrid entity that consolidates the physical and the virtual. Further, it seems that people connect with others on the basis that they are sharing problems and giving support and advice and this gives the group a sense of unity. As to whether the participants experience it as a community, as they do in the Cybergrrl site, is more difficult to establish. The participants primary concerns are with discussing harassment as opposed to community. Therefore, I had to use bad 'netiquette'[11] and go 'off-topic' and ask questions concerning community. The status of WHOA is clarified by the organiser of the WHOA website, Lynda Hinkle,

Its a community in that we have certain community building programmes - the discussion list, the newsletter, the safe site award etc.

The following extracts demonstrate how the community has become a place that people visit when they need help with something, or wish to benefit from the resources that a particular organisation has to offer. Participants can utilise the resources without obligation rather than perceiving it as a group that they are joining, that they have to live, work and socialise within,

While looking for any resources to deal with this (nuisance calls as a result of personal information being posted to a message board)...I stumbled across WHOA...I thought the group had merit.

Thanks so much to all of you who have replied to my request for help. I'm considering what each of you have suggested, and will probably make a decision on what actions I should take...

Even though the participants will never meet on a face-to-face level, they experience unity from their common goal, and only use the community when it can meet their needs. Indeed, it continues to hold on to the idea of community, even though the ideal has changed.

Conclusion: The Virtually New Community

As I was revealing information about myself, this naturally aroused curiosity in people, given the lack of cues they could never be certain whether my intentions were pure. Many of the participants during the conversations asked me questions. However, this adds to the beauty of the cyber-ethnographic method as it enables greater reflexivity from the participants. The changing dynamics, leave the participants in a more favourable position to define the situation. The dominance of the participants subjective understanding is crucial in reaching an understanding of the online community.

Moreover, the cyber-ethnographic research method that is a central player in the understanding and representation of the online community. The diologic, reflexive properties of cyber-ethnography allow an accurate depiction of the online community to emerge. The cyber-ethnographic method, even though all data is mediated, allows the online aggregation to move towards 'speaking for itself.' If the participants perceive their online aggregation to be a community, then they have the power, through the reflexivity of the method to define it as such. The cyber-ethnographic method is the key in allowing the online community to emerge as it does not rely on older frameworks to inform new structures. Indeed, the cyber-ethnography enables both scholars and participants of virtual communities to move away from traditional frameworks that have restricted definitions and understandings of community.

The online community has two major components; the first important feature pertains to the notion that the virtual community is not an entirely virtual entity. Within our composite society, where the physical and the virtual are becoming inextricably bound, it is hardly surprising that in the context of the virtual community, the physical and the virtual envelop each other. Given that the physical and the virtual are increasingly difficult to recognise as separate entities the limits by which we understand community have mutated. Due to increased mobility, and the development of new computer technology, people no longer remain united through the close vicinity of the neighbourhood.

It is no longer possible to speak of an authentic community, given the importance of imagined communities, similarly it is not appropriate to discuss a truly virtual community. The notion of a purely virtual community, is extremely optimistic given that the majority of people do not have the opportunity to live their lives as 'pure data.' Instead they continue to fight their social and political battles in the wider, concrete social world. Therefore, I don not identify the idea of a truly virtual community, indeed I align it with other oxymorons, such as Eagleton's (1998) 'Political Aesthetics' or 'Military Intelligence.'

The physical continues to restrict people's lives, whilst the virtual plays an increasingly larger role in the construction and understanding of our physical lives. The virtual challenges the boundaries that have been used to map our social space. Therefore it becomes more crucial to illustrate the notion that the virtual community can not exist in isolation from the physical. The virtual community requires the physical to provide it with meaning and this factor becomes crucial in the criteria utilised to define the virtual community. Therefore, I have argued that any online community is in a relationship with the wider physical world. Both online communities cited have different objectives and maintain a different relationship with the wider social world. @Cybergrrl functions to impact on people's physical lives allowing them to change their social conditions, whereas WHOA operationalise a transformation of awareness. The benefits WHOA brings to individuals physical lives are less palpable. The aims of the WHOA community are to prevent online harassment, and it could be suggested that their activity is confined in cyberspace. However, the situation cannot be so neatly clarified, as WHOA, in its campaign, offers a wider, more inclusive approach to gendered relations. It has the potential to educate and raise the consciousness' of a vast number of people on a global scale.

The second component of the online community embodies the notion that, the online community, whilst being a fragile social group, is experienced by its ephemeral audience as a community. Indeed, the members do not make a long term commitment to the online community, rather they will be more instrumental in their approach. They will utilise the resources it offers when required. This approach to community is also reflected in the physical world where people are simultaneously members of many different communities. It transpires that a single community is no longer central in the shaping of identity. Instead, people belong unconditionally to many different groups, each serving a purpose and fulfilling a specific need in that individual's life.

The same is true of the online community, people drift in and out of numerous different communities, staying only as long as it is providing a solution, or fulfilling a need in their life. On a first glance this may seem as if it works against the grain of the public minded spirit of community. Examination of the two online communities suggests that this is not the case. It seems accepted by the people who frequent the two online communities, that they are experiencing. It seems that people enjoy the diversity they experience within their online communities and they overtly admit that they are being thoroughly instrumental in their choice of community.


1I use the terms the internet, cyberspace and text based virtual space interchangeably to refer to the virtual space created by the global networking of computers.

2This allows participants to chat and communicate with other internet users in real time, that is they can type their messages onto the screen and the others who are logged on to the same internet page at that moment, can both read the conversation and contribute to it if they wish.

3A BB is a representation of an actual notice board. It is a virtual space that is often found within virtual communities. Each BB has a heading that denotes what the discussion will concern on this particular board. Participants can access the BB and just read the contributions of others or they can post their thoughts to the BB and participate in the debate.

4An email discussion group is carried out using people's email boxes. There are numerous groups centering around endless topics, and so the participant finds a topic that interests them, and subscribes to the email group. Subscription involves sending an email to an automatic server such as Listerv or Majordormo, asking to be added to the list. Once a member the participants mail box is flooded with messages from the other members. All the members post their message to the central server and it automatically distributes the messages to all the subscribed members. Participants can either respond to the discussion or lurk on the list. All the lists are owned by an individual, and this person has the right to expel participants from the list, if they post continuously offensive messages, or can prevent any unsavory messages from being distributed to the other list members

5Given the lack of cues in cyberspace, a participant can join an email list or BB forum and read the messages without making him/her self known to the other participants. The participant can begin to experience CMC without participating fully. The practice of lurking, alone, is not sufficient for cyber-ethnography, thus I have combined it with individual and group interviews.

6This term refers to the magazine type publications that are often produced by owners of websites.

7This facility allows any registered user to send any other user, who is online at that particular time, a message. This message appears on the recipients screen and is hidden from all the other users. The recipient has the option to reply to the message or to simply delete.

8Flaming refers to the offensive exchanges that often occur via email or in a real time chat room. This type of abuse can be quite violent and more heated than in real life because of the anonymity of computer mediated communication. Further, if the abuse takes place via email, there is a time lapse and people have greater opportunity to think out what they are going to say, so rather than having to respond with a spontaneous retort, a contrived one can be utilised. It is argued that men flame more than women, whereas women focus on communicating and finding community (Senjen and Guthrey, 1993). Typically, women are asked to chat and are given technical advice by men; whereas men regard themselves as having the right to make all these kind of sexist moves. Likewise, when women try and join in a serious conversation that is mixed, they are often ignored and belittled by men; relations of dominance and subservience are reproduced (Spender, 1996).

9Gemeinschaft and Gesselschaft are typologies of societal structures created by Tonnies to describe the changes experienced in the transition from pre-industrial to industrial society. Gemeinschaft embodies the sentiments of communion, kinship and solidarity amongst people who shared a location. Gesellschaft was considered to have replaced Gemeinschaft with the rise of the industrial world and this involved the rise of rationality and calculability leading to impersonal relationships; hence Tonnies was concerned with the changes from pre-industrial to industrial society and the subsequent loss of community.

10This term refers to the manner in which internet users express emotion. For example :) and : ( are used to indicate happiness and sadness respectively and other combinations such as ; ) are used to denote sarcasm or irony.

11This refers to the set of norms, values and standards of behaviour that have emerged in cyberspace.


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The Cybergrrl Web Station <>.

Cyber-Ethnography Website <http://www.>.

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Women Halting Online Abuse <>.

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