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BehindanOpenSourceProject

CombiningOnandOfflineEthnographicMethods apaperabstract Ethnographersusuallystudysocialenvironmentsbybeingthere.Traditionally,beingtherewas understoodasbeingtherephysically,ideallyforanextendedperiodoftimeandinsomeisolationfrom onesnativeenvironmentmuchlikeBronislawMalinowski,whospentfouryearsontheTrobriand Islands(Malinowski1967).Thisapproachtobeingtherehasbecomecomplicatedrecently.The increasingimportanceofconnectionsbetweenfarawayspaces,resultingfromphysicalmovementof peopleandincreasedcommunicationwhatGiddens(1990)callstimespacedistanciationhaslead togrowinginterestinmultisitedethnography,thepracticeoffollowingpeople,things,orprojectsas theymoveacrossmultiplephysicallocations.Theappearanceofonlineplacessuchasmailinglists, chatgroups,wikis,orsocialnetworkingsitescreatedaltogethernewkindsoftherethattheresearcher couldvisit,spacelessplaces(Harrison&Dourish1996)thatmayseemaltogetherdisconnectedfrom physicalspace.Thispresentsuswithmanyquestionsaboutwhatmethodsareappropriateforthestudy ofsuchvirtualplaces,someofwhichhavebeenincreasinglydiscussed(e.g.,Hine2006). Oneofthosequestionsiswhetheronlineplacesshouldbeconsideredethnographicsitesthatthe researchercanenter,thethereofanethnographicproject,ormerelyartefactsthatareultimately producedbyrealpeopleinrealphysicalplacesmakingthoserealplacestheappropriatesitesof ethnographicinvestigation.Theanswerultimatelydependsonthespecificplaceandaspecific perspectivethattheethnographerchooses.Onlinespacesareexperiencedasnatural,preexisting placesbymanyoftheirparticipantsanditmaythereforebeappropriatefortheethnographertofocus onbeingthereintheonlineplace,totheextentthatthegoaloftheresearchistounderstandthe experienceoftheparticipantswhoseethoseplacesthisway.1Atthesametime,wemustrememberthat suchplaceareproduced,perhapsevenstrategically.Lookingattheirproductionmayteachusalot aboutthenatureoftheirplaceness.Thisproductionofonlineenvironmentsasplacesofaparticular kind,isoftenaperformanceinGoffmanssense(1959),andunderstandingthisperformancerequires thatwelookforthebackstageinwhichitisprepared.(Thisisofcoursethecasewithallplaces,not justthevirtualones.)Wemayfindsuchbackstageinadifferentonlineplaceorinaphysicalone.In fact,wemayfindasequence(orratheranetwork)ofstages. Followingtheparticipantsastheymovebetweenonlineandofflineplacesallowsustoseehowsuch
1 Thiswouldofcourseimplyanassumption,thateither(1)theparticipantsofflineliveshavelittlerelevancetotheir experienceonlineor(2)theonlineparticipantsaresufficientlysimilartotheethnographerorthepeoplesheorhehad studiedearlier,thattheethnographercanimaginetheirofflinelivesandseeanyrelevantconnectionsor(3)anyrelevant aspectsoftheparticipantsofflineliveswillbereflectedintheonlinebehavior.Sincethoseassumptionsarerarely justified,virtualethnographersusuallyhavegoodreasonstoatleastcomplementtheirinvestigationwithfacetoface encounterswiththeparticipants.

placesareproduced,observingbothhowfacetofaceinteractionsareusedintheproductionofonline placesasplacesofaparticularkind(forinstance,anopencommunitymailinglist)andhowonline interactionsstructuresocialrelationshipsinfacetofacecontexts.Inmyexperiencestudyinganopen sourceproject,whichIwillpresentinmoresomedetailinthepaper,Ifindsuchanetworkofplaces, eachservingasabackstagefortheproductionofadifferentone.Someofthoseplacesarevirtual, othersarephysical,andneitherkindcanbefullyunderstoodwithouttheother.Togivesomeexamples, theprojectinvolvesasmallnetworkofBraziliansoftwaredevelopers,allgraduatesofthesame universityandallbutoneresidinginthesamecity(RiodeJaneiro),communicatingfacetoface,over emailandoverIM,usuallyintheirnativePortuguese.Theprojectisfundedbyagovernmentagency andmustpresenttothelatterafrontofasuccessfulBrazilianopensourcesoftwareproject.Italso hasamailinglist,inEnglish,fortheprojectsinternationalcommunity.Whilethiscommunity mayappeartoexistasanaturalsocialplacetosomeofitsmembers,itisactivelyproducedasanopen sourcecommunity.Thisperformanceispreparedoffthelist,throughfacetofaceinteractions,private emailandIMbetweenthecoredevelopers.Themailinglistitselfservesasabackstageforthe productionofcodeandthewebsite,whichthenbecometokens(againinGoffmanssense)usedin performancesinfrontofawiderangeofaudiences.Thesituationiscomplicatedevenfurtherwiththe arrivalofanAmericaninterviewer(theauthorofthispaper,whoisnotactuallyAmerican),who becomesanaudienceforthepresentationofBraziliansoftware,beingseenasadelegateofthe foreigndevelopmentcommunity.TheAmericaninterviewer,atthesametimebecomesatokenused inlocalperformances(thefactthatsomeonefromamajorAmericanuniversityiswritingadissertation abouttheprojectincreasesitsvalueintheeyesofsome),andisalsorecruitedasanresourceinthe backstageplanningfortheproductionofopensourcecommunityonthemailinglistfirstjustasa sourceofknowledgeofwhattheforeigncommunityexpectsofanopensourceproject,then increasinglyasacoconspirator.(Needlesstosay,theAmericanintervieweruseshisinteractionswith thelocalandonlinemembersasabackstageforhisperformanceinfrontoftheacademicaudienceback home.) Suchworkpresentsanumberofchallenges,whichIwilldiscussindetailinthepaper.Movement betweenplacesiscomplicatedfirstofallbytheresistancetoethnographersentryintothebackstage oncetheyhavewitnessedaperformance.Enteringthroughthebackstage(inmycaseapproachingthe projectmembersinpersoninRiodeJaneiro,ratherthanoverthemailinglist)solvesthisproblem partly.(Thisapproach,however,makesithardertoseetheplacethroughtheeyesoftheaudience,after havingbeenexposedtoandbecomeaparticipantinthebackstagepreparations.)Italsodoesnotfully solvetheproblemofaccess.Traditionalethnographersoftengainaccessbystartingwithliterallya footinthedoor:negotiatingtherighttobephysicallypresentintheplace,thenusingthatpresenceto observetheactivitiesoftheparticipants,eventuallygainingenoughoflocalknowledgetogainmore trustandmoreaccess.Inobservingopensourcesoftwarework,however,merephysicalpresencedoes notgoveryfar.Withoutliterallylookingatthedevelopersmonitorsovertheirshoulders,bothatwork andathome,keepingtrackoftheirsolitarywork,privateemailsandIMconversations,cellphonecalls andfacetofacechats,onecanhardlyseealltheworkthatgoesintothecreationofthesoftware

project.Whilenomethodcanreconstructtheprojectinitsentirety,participantobservationprovides theethnographerwithapartialsolution:asituatedandintegratedpicturethatweavestogethersome privateemailsandIMconversations,somelatenightconversationsoverpizza,aswellasquiteafew hoursaloneinfrontofthemonitormakingsenseofdebugtraces.Bybecomingaparticipantinthe productionofsocialcontextstogetherwithotherparticipants,theethnographercanseethelinks betweenthedifferentplacesinamannermostsimilartothewaytheparticipantsseeit,evenifhaving littleguaranteeofbeingabletointerpretsuchobservationsthesameway. Theroleofparticipantobserverpresentsanumberoffurtherchallenges.Becomingaregular participantinasoftwaredevelopmentprojectrequiresacertainamountofskill,andeithertoolittleor toomuchskillcanbecomeachallenge.Italsopresentsthemethodologicalchallengesofgetting involvedwithoutgoingnativeaseriousriskforanyresearcherwhohasthetechnicalskillsforthis job.(Though,acertaindegreeofresocializationisofcourseacrucialaspectoftheethnographic experience,hencemanyethnographersbelieveindoingethnographyfarenoughfromhometoachieve isolationfromthehomeenvironmentseeVanMaanen1988.)Participantobservationofvirtual placesalsocomplicatesethnographerscommitmenttotheplace.Itissuchcommitmentthatmakes oneaparticipant,2yettheethnographerisexpectedtoleavethefieldwhenthefieldworkiscompleted. Intraditionalethnographytheobviousneedtophysicallyreturnhomemayprovideethnographerswith anaturalendtotheinvolvementandhopefullykeepthemfrommakingunrealisticcommitments beforethat.Onlineplacescreateanopportunityandinviewofsomemembersanobligationforthe ethnographertomaintaincommitmenttotheprojectthroughcontinuedremoteparticipation.The paperwilldiscussthebenefitsandchallengesofsuchcontinuedparticipation.

References Malinowski,Bronislaw(1967).ADiaryintheStrictSenseoftheTerm.NewYork:Harcourt,Braceand World,Inc. Giddens,Anthony(1990).TheConsequencesofModernity.Stanford,CA:StanfordUniversityPress. Harrison,Steve&PaulDourish(1996)Replaceingspace:Therolesofplaceandspacein collaborativesystems,ProceedingsofCSCW'96. Hine,Christine,editor(2006).VirtualMethods:IssuesinSocialResearchontheInternet.Oxford: BERG. Goffman,Erving(1959).ThePresentationofSelfinEverydayLife.NewYork:Doubleday. VanMaanen,John(1988).TalesoftheField:OnWritingEthnography.Chicago:UniversityofChicago Press.

2 Iwasoftenaskedbyothermembersifmyparticipationintheprojectwasseriousorjustaresearchproject.