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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Epistemological Foundations
  5. Discovering Structures and Cultures in virtual Communities
  6. Stages of Ethnography
  7. Understanding Internet Relay Chat (IRC) Communities: A Venezuelan Case
  8. Why is Cybercultural Research Important?
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. References

This article suggests a qualitative methodological framework and a holistic-historicistic epistemological perspective that balances the sociopsychological and cultural dimensions of IRC Virtual Communities. CMC cultural research should not be focused on intercultural collision phenomena alone, but also on cultural construction from inside the Net. An ethnographic strategy discovering cybercultures together with Gadamer's hermeneutics for the interpretation of systems of meanings are the proposed tools for understanding “virtual” life and cultural production within the Net.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Epistemological Foundations
  5. Discovering Structures and Cultures in virtual Communities
  6. Stages of Ethnography
  7. Understanding Internet Relay Chat (IRC) Communities: A Venezuelan Case
  8. Why is Cybercultural Research Important?
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. References

Computer-mediated communication (CMC) is an interdisciplinary field of study which conceives new information technologies not only as data channels and banks, but also as spaces for meeting and interaction (Dutton, 1998). Therefore, we are met with the opening of virtual spaces in which people can construct new social and cultural realities without even being physically there (Abdelnour, 1998). This situation accentuates the symbolic and cultural dimension along which humans differ from the rest of the organisms in the world (Mead, 1927). It is important not to forget Rheingold's definition (2000) presented in his book The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. According to Rheingold “virtual communities are social aggregates that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace (p. xx).” It is obvious that this concept provides a cultural and sociopsychological vision. These webs of Rheinghold are very much like those webs of meaning of Geertz (1973) when he refers to culture. Marvin (1996) proposes virtual communities as cultural groups that construct their own culture through the use of a set of expressive and interpretative resources (in which language plays the main role).

In these virtual settlements (Jones, 1997), groups of users establish networks of relationships through the use and development of a specific language, which preserves the identity of the community's members. This notion of an identity shared by the virtual community is vital, for it helps to support the cohesion and the sense of the group's life. As a result, this leads to a cyberculture that is inherent to the group and is also constructed collectively in “webs of meaning” that the group has spun (Geertz, 1973). In these webs, humans live and construct their cultural, social and psychological realities.

Approaching these virtual symbolic spaces, where users build their own way of life by means of a language, requires a methodology and an epistemology that best fit the notion of a multiple-face, a non-physical person who is able to create as many personalities as “worlds” he or she accesses. Therefore, if for psychology's classic epistemology the unit of study is overt behavior, for the social psychology applied in this work the unit of study is the symbol, its meanings and experiences; of course, all this being extracted from the community's textual social discourse.

Epistemological Foundations

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Epistemological Foundations
  5. Discovering Structures and Cultures in virtual Communities
  6. Stages of Ethnography
  7. Understanding Internet Relay Chat (IRC) Communities: A Venezuelan Case
  8. Why is Cybercultural Research Important?
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. References

We are standing in front of a person who activates a collection of social resources of meanings made available by the situation, and who is in turn activated within the framework of those meanings (Jensen, 1991). This may be observed when a first-time user enters a virtual settlement. this person will have to absorb the community's language and culture (both already existing) in order to perform interactions adapted to the settlement's symbolic reality. From this conception of the human being, it is evident that both language and action are intertwined in a discursive sense, as expressed by Harré (1993). A person living in virtual settlements is then conceived as a responsible creating agent with a history of its own. As in the real life, signification in cybercommunities is a collective achievement, and each one of the members inside that collective recreates, reproduces and changes it (Fernández, 1994). This vision of the knowing process turns inquiry not into a simple discovery or a critical method of analysis, but into a complicituous partner within the meaningful systems in which we live, whether virtual or real. Cyber research, as any other sociocultural inquiry, is part of the reality-producing enterprise (Anderson, 1992; Caputo, 1992).

Discovering Structures and Cultures in virtual Communities

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Epistemological Foundations
  5. Discovering Structures and Cultures in virtual Communities
  6. Stages of Ethnography
  7. Understanding Internet Relay Chat (IRC) Communities: A Venezuelan Case
  8. Why is Cybercultural Research Important?
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. References

In order to access the social and cultural reality of virtual communities, Jones (1997) makes a distinction between the cyberspace inside which the community “lives” (called virtual settlement), and the community itself. And it is precisely through the analysis of these virtual settlements, their language and objective components, that we can classify and analyze the properties of a cybercommunity.

The research strategy that conducts this kind of study is of an ethnographic nature. As Paccagnella (1997) notes: “a longitudinal strategy of research which systematically compares specific aspects of virtual communities over different periods of time” is necessary for the understanding of on-line culture. Ethnography in virtual communities research has been a strategy directly or indirectly used for studying several aspects of a virtual group's life: sociolinguistics (Paolillo, 1999), group communication studies (Reid, 1991), networked interactivity (Rafaeli & Sudweeks, 1997), aesthetics and expression (Danet, 1998; Marvin, 1996), identity as a psychosocial phenomenon (Bruckman, 1992), language and culture (Paccagnella, 1996), social aggregates (Smith, 1992), and archaeological-anthropological perspectives (Jones, 1997; Liu, 1999). Most of them use a positivistic explanatory method with its corresponding quantitative data analysis. From Paccagnella's point of view, the discussion of qualitative/quantitative as excluding categories should be transcended, since full understanding of virtual communities has to be gained from in-depth interpretations; this does not mean, however, that quantitative instruments and statistics have to be discarded a priori from the research strategy. Quantitative tools are necessary to the extent that cybergroup activity tends to be very chaotic and with large numbers of users.

This article's proposal revolves around an ontological conception of the virtual community (specifically those living in Internet Relay Chat environments) as a dynamic meaningful system in which language, actions, culture and norms fuse into a discursive process and product. Given the fact that our starting point is an ethnographic strategy, it is quite clear that the main goal of research is to get to know the culture constructed, which involves, supports and fosters collective life within the virtual settlement. The attitude of analysis is that of Gadamer (1975) and Heidegger (1962), based on the ideas of the hermeneutic school. The analyzed discourse being the merging of the hermeneutic text and context, it would be rather pointless to pretend that the qualitative data analysis stage be separated from the gathering process, since the hermeneutical attitude guides not only data interpretation but also data collection. The community's interaction is taken as a text to be analyzed and, above all, understood. There is an important consideration regarding the history of the virtual community and its users, which leads to a better understanding of how language, symbolic webs of meaning and values evolve to integrate the virtual community's culture. To speak about understanding in a hermeneutic sense means to discover the structure and dynamics of the intersubjective space of these cybergroups. Then, we may look at culture as a collective product, and intersubjectivity (Berger & Luckman, 1967) as the space where this culture is constantly being created and recreated. One of the main aspects pointed out by Gadamer (1975) and his posture on the knowing process is the crossing of “worlds of sense,” which certainly considers the historicity of the object of study along with the world of the researcher, who is a participant observer. That notion of existence over time offers a holistic vision of the virtual community's agents and their roles within the group.

The main objective of cybercultural research is then to obtain a thick ethnography (Geertz, 1973). This means that those objective and extremely descriptive ethnographic records - somehow “dry” from my point of view - will be replaced by reports in which hermeneutical explanation and understanding (Ricoeur, 1981) are the main sources evidencing a reality in constant transformation, and these will lead to a conscience of the sense, guiding and supporting those real sociocultural worlds in virtual spaces. This sense is understood as the north of the hermeneutic inquiry. In contrast to both formal structures and causal laws, the hermeneutics approach seeks to elucidate and make our practical understanding of human actions explicit by providing an interpretation of these actions (Packer, 1985). In the case of virtual communities, besides common conversation, most actions are performed through written discourse.

Since this article has an ethogenic influence (not to be confused with ethnogenic,) the analysis is aimed at discovering not only ethnographic, traditional information about the community's culture, but its members' accounts of “actions” and communications inside the social aggregate. This information is obtained through open in-depth interviews about topics related to the group's life and culture. Harré (1979) makes a clever and illuminating distinction in relation to account analysis:

We must distinguish the speech we use when we are talking descriptively about the prescriptions of our own culture, contributing to our own ethnography, so to speak, from the speech we use to justify some action of ours to others within the culture, the kind of speech that has come to be called accounting.

The language of virtual communities is the main substance of study in this methodological proposal. As noted earlier, action and words fuse in only one continuum, thus becoming a complex discourse, which is drawn from an intersubjective space defining an everyday way of life, just like what we experience in our physical world (Beger & Luckmann, 1967).

Stages of Ethnography

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Epistemological Foundations
  5. Discovering Structures and Cultures in virtual Communities
  6. Stages of Ethnography
  7. Understanding Internet Relay Chat (IRC) Communities: A Venezuelan Case
  8. Why is Cybercultural Research Important?
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. References

Stage 1

This stage corresponds mainly to access to and familiarization with the community's language. In the same way, contact with key users within the group is established to let them know about the purpose of the research. The practice that predominates in this first approach is passive observation; the goal here is to learn basic skills and gain social and cultural knowledge for coherent, fluid interactions in the future with the virtual community under study.

It is important to point out that the record of the interactions and communications is saved automatically on hard disk. This detailed record makes the task of analysis easier, since the researcher need not transcribe the data.

Stage 2

Once the researcher has learned basic notions for interacting with the community, he or she is ready to begin with participant observation. Participant observation allows for entry into those limited zones of meaning (Berger & Luckman, 1967) otherwise impossible to reach.

Stage 3

The participant observation stage will identify some relevant and key informers within the virtual group. Through focused ethnographic interviews, these informers can provide in-depth knowledge and interesting accounts about their personal experiences and the community's cultural framing. These interviews have an ethogenic influence, because their goal not only revolves around ethnographic information, but is also directed at personal accounts highlighting interesting differences between local cultural prescriptions and what is really accomplished and perceived from that cyberculture. Account information facilitates access to those contents which are not yet totally shared, but that will soon be incorporated into the cultural framing of the virtual community. This kind of qualitative data gathering and analysis opens a window onto the sociopsychological dynamics of public and private life within the group.

Stage 4

In this last stage, a concluding analysis is made so as to arrange the resulting emerging categories found during the research process. Strauss and Corbin (1994) suggest a model for the construction of qualitative data through axial categories. This model is interesting for those who are not familiar with qualitative methods, even though it cannot be easily applied in all cases. In the field of virtual communities, the main axial category from which an ethnographic approach usually starts is the text-based discourse as social action.

The passing from one stage to another depends on the group's size and the number of topics to be researched within the community. It may range from one to twelve months. An important aspect to recall is that a cybergroup's symbolic reality tends to change easily over time.

Understanding Internet Relay Chat (IRC) Communities: A Venezuelan Case

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Epistemological Foundations
  5. Discovering Structures and Cultures in virtual Communities
  6. Stages of Ethnography
  7. Understanding Internet Relay Chat (IRC) Communities: A Venezuelan Case
  8. Why is Cybercultural Research Important?
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. References

IRC is a multi-user synchronous communication Internet platform. IRC text-based environments are ideal for the establishment of virtual groups because of the conditions for easy connection they offer and the devices facilitating access and maintenance of the channels in which communities live. The IRC design provides the necessary conditions pointed out by Jones (1997) for virtual settlements as indicators of a community's life: (1) a minimum level of interactivity; (2) a variety of communicators; (3) a common public space; and (4) a minimum level of sustained membership. Liu (1999, p.3) develops Jones' idea that not all CMC implies a community's existence:

Recognizing that a CMC environment has the potential to nurture the development of a virtual community is fundamentally different from taking any group CMC as evidence of community without justification. Any attempt at characterizing a virtual environment and analyzing its online activities without first comparing its properties against empirical signposts of community is methodologically flawed. Although this work does not deal directly with distinguishing virtual communities in IRC from those in other technical settings, it has strong implication for such studies.

I share Liu's idea but with some important differences. Liu's approach (1999) seeks empirical-operational fixed parameters to identify the legitimate existence of a virtual community. It would be like a preexisting device that, once applied to any CMC in IRC environments, will cast out the positive or negative proof of a virtual community's existence. This article's line of research is also looking for that collective and shared notion of membership and culture, but goes even further as it tries to understand the dynamic process of the symbolic production and reproduction that gives sense to the cybergroup's everyday life. In this case the hermeneutical construct of sense would be the main axis around which the virtual community develops its life (Ricoeur, 1981).

After sixteen months of ethnographic research, a resulting structure of categories that explains and helps understanding Venezuela's IRC community was obtained (see Figure 1). This model was presented with a high level of abstraction so that readers could take it as a possible research outline for other IRC virtual communities. Since this article does not pretend to develop an in-depth theoretical elaboration, I will only make a brief description of these final categories, which are obviously linked to my conceptual framework.

image

Figure 1. IRC Venezuela's cultural and social model.

Download figure to PowerPoint

We must establish a distinction between two basic spaces of reality: the physical world and the virtual world. From the physical world, we obtain the first basic elements of affinity for IRC Venezuela, which are a possession of Venezuela's cultural influences in the field of everyday life, just like urban language, lifestyle in general, music, sports, trivia, politics, etc. These are referential symbolic systems from outside the virtual settlement that help in constructing the cybergroup's own culture within the Net. The cyberculture has also an intersubjective space, in which symbolic systems inside the virtual settlement are produced, reproduced and changed. These shared meanings and values constitute the identity of the group's members. The topics of conversation and discussion tend to vary and drift along with the flow at two levels: (1) accounts about what is happening in the country (real world); and (2) accounts about internal events and general discussions of the cybergroup, namely someone's birthday, flirting, fights, virtual parties, debates on what is wrong or right in human relationships, life and death, sex, aliens, etc. These symbolic systems have an affective dimension that will determine the ups and downs of the community's interactive flow.

So, taking a closer look at the group's chatting, it will be difficult to find a specific pattern of content in this sociocultural knowledge; what is clearly permanent is the presence of the social phenomenon described by Simmel (1910) as sociability. This affective pleasure of chatting is the main factor that will give the motivational forces of cohesion and attraction to the virtual group's life.

As it has been stated, the main substance of analysis for IRC Venezuela is language, which is expressed through a text-based discourse. This aspect of IRC is of vital interest since, on the basis of text characters, not only linguistic change is achieved (chatting) but also a non-linguistic expression is accomplished through drawing figures like the traditional smilies (inline image and inline image), flowers, banners, rockets, etc. Besides the non-linguistic expression in IRC groups, like the text-made gestures mentioned, there is another dimension deployed from the text-based discourse that I call action-in-text. Here, most of the textual interactions occurring transcend completely its non-linguistic semiotic character to an action level with a high load of social meaning. For instance, if I decide to “kiss” another user within the virtual community, I shall write: <Jabdel>: *Jabdel kisses LadyB and gives her a––,'–<@ (flower). This communication is symbolically understood as an action, not as a linguistic expression. Following this line, we could say that the IRC language features an important pragmatic dimension (Van Dijk, 1998). That is to say, every form of interaction would be considered as a social act (Harré, 1979), with its corresponding place and value within the virtual community's normative dimension. That is the reason why this epistemological perspective focuses on meaning regardless of the symbolic support (textual chatting, non-linguistic expression through text, action-in-text). An analysis of the IRC community's language and accounts produce as a result an X-ray picture of the normative structure which gives sense, cohesion and a real, permanent pattern of identity to the users of IRC Venezuela. These structures are neither classical, logical nor context-free, but have an important recognition of the group and its people as entities with a history, with values and feelings. The cybergroup's normative system works just like any other real life group. It has several language codes and rules of behavior that set the defining conditions for acts seen as transgressions (flooding, lurking, spamming, etc.), and sanctions (kicking, banning, downgrading, etc.), that should follow them, as well as acts deserving recognition with the corresponding reward (public recognition, upgrade to channel operator, etc.).

Therefore, it could be said that there are two main axial categories determining discursive production in IRC Venezuela: (1) the community's culture understood as shared microsocial knowledge produced inside an intersubjective dynamic space with some external Venezuelan references that is full of sociability, giving strength to the interaction flow; (2) a normative dimension which is the most stable structure that really shapes the identity of the IRC Venezuela's group through the establishment of language cultural codes, rules of behavior and moral careers (Harrè, 1993).

Why is Cybercultural Research Important?

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Epistemological Foundations
  5. Discovering Structures and Cultures in virtual Communities
  6. Stages of Ethnography
  7. Understanding Internet Relay Chat (IRC) Communities: A Venezuelan Case
  8. Why is Cybercultural Research Important?
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. References

This article attempts to contributes to the research in CMC around the world, and to highlight new research lines being developed in Latin America. This methodological and epistemological perspective was aimed at achieving a better understanding of the on-line living, studying an active human being who creates a reality of his/her own, but at the same time created by the collective (Fernández, 1994). Paccagnella (1997) proved this perspective to be a useful tool for accessing the reality of virtual communities. I am well aware of an ideological, critical dimension (Habermas, 1993) to be studied in these communities. Nevertheless, the main objective of this article is to offer a way for entering these symbolic worlds. A qualitative strategy of analysis, as was shown here, is an optimal way to grasp the richness of psychosocial and cultural life of on-line stable groups. It is important to note that the human relations created inside the Net are real, in spite of the virtual spaces where they unfold.

It is quite probable that we need to find in CMC the new answers to the social nature of the human being of the third millennium. These micro realities are just a little reflex of what is to come. Having full knowledge of the phenomena involved in the process of “virtual” life opens new horizons in the study of the new human cultures. At the same time, it will set the pace in the new road towards a critical human being, in complete connection and dialogue with humankind (Habermas, 1993). Technology generates new spaces and possibilities; what we do with them is up to the constructive and active character of humans: those who discovered that the Earth was round, who introduced light in a bulb, who affirmed the relativity of universe, who stepped on the moon.

Acknowledgments

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Epistemological Foundations
  5. Discovering Structures and Cultures in virtual Communities
  6. Stages of Ethnography
  7. Understanding Internet Relay Chat (IRC) Communities: A Venezuelan Case
  8. Why is Cybercultural Research Important?
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. References

National Council of Scientific and Technological Research, CONICIT.

Graduate Studies Division, Simon Bolivar University.

Social Communication School, Catholic University Andres Bello.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Epistemological Foundations
  5. Discovering Structures and Cultures in virtual Communities
  6. Stages of Ethnography
  7. Understanding Internet Relay Chat (IRC) Communities: A Venezuelan Case
  8. Why is Cybercultural Research Important?
  9. Acknowledgments
  10. References
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