In this article I will discuss the use of ethnographic field research methods in cyberspace, focusing more specifically on my own ethnographic research of the online sexual practices of the inhabitants of AOL chat rooms.Below I will briefly describe this research to give readers an idea of the focus and findings of the study which I undertook.Following this, I will discuss several of the problems encountered by researchers of cyberspace.
I will also discuss one of the dangers faced by social scientists who do investigations entirely within the constraints of a text only medium, the ease with which misinterpretations can be made there.
The locational focus of my study was online chat rooms, virtual rooms where multiple users of an online service (in this case AOL) can "chat" by sending each other both public and private text messages.
In these chat rooms, people are able to meet and chat with others who share similar interests but who may be geographically located hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
Abstract: Text based computer mediated communication (CMC) has recently been the focus of many ethnographic studies by social scientists.
In my own research of cybersex, I followed the lead of these researchers and utilised ethnographic methods but encountered several significant difficulties.
These difficulties include the lack of parameters for users of text based virtual environments, the necessity of online interviews rather than face to face ones, and the frequent misinterpretations that occur due to the narrow bandwidth of text based CMC.
In recent years academic researchers have written extensively about computer mediated communication (CMC).
A significant amount of this research has looked at the ways in which people use text based CMC to chat with each other in real time on the Internet and on socially oriented online services such as America Online (AOL) and Compu Serve.
In these studies, researchers have found that text based virtual environments (chat rooms, IRC chat channels, and MUDs) are places where users can experiment with identity and gender (re)construction (Reid 1991, 1994; Turkle 1995), form new friendships (Baym, 1996), and join together with other users in the building of virtual communities (Rheingold 1991, 1995; Lichty 1994).
Most of the existing social scientific research of the online world has been ethnographic.
Given the prevalence of ethnographic methodology in the study of social phenomenon in text based virtual environments, it is surprising that it's use in cyberspace has yet to be analysed in any great detail.