The Philosophical Road Trip – my micro netnography
The mooc I participated in was about a branch of philosophy called Phenomenology. Phenomenology contends that reality resides within human consciousness and not independent of it. The philosophy focuses on the first person view and involves detailed examinations of the world as it is perceived by the human subject. Such a focus seemed to fit well with an ethnographic study which attempts to explore a culture in great part by participating within it, thereby gaining an understanding of the point of view of the subject(s) of the study.
In their paper, A phenomenology of learning large: the tutorial sphere of xMooc video lectures, (Adams et al, 2014), the authors state their intention to focus on ‘singular, lived particularities’ (p.202) and in a similar way, I chose some of the individual lived experiences of the mooc to evoke an idea of the lifeworld of the student. I wanted to convey some of the systems of meaning that operated in the mooc, reflect the voices I heard, the cultural norms that were evident and some idea of the practices undertaken. I was not wholly successful in this, not least because of my poor command of iMovie!
Phenomenologists urge the co-dependence of the subject and the object, claiming that neither one can exist without the other. This means that no objective account of a community is possible without it being coloured by the disposition and perspective of the observer. For the phenomenologist, exploration of the conscious mind prompts questions of how to ‘share subjectivity’ (‘inter-subjectivity’, a place where our holographic alter-selves can commune) and calls into question any guarantee of objective authenticity in the ethnographical object. The video clip is, then, my netnography.
In similar recognition, Hine (2000) questions any objective ethnographic account,
“A search for truly authentic knowledge about people or phenomena is doomed to be ultimately irresolvable” (p.49).
But she also suggests that for the ethnographer, a balance between participation in the cultural community being studied and a ‘zooming out’ to comment upon it seems required. This balance, for Hine, is best maintained by the inclusion of personal narrative into the ethnography, as she quotes Pratt,
“Personal narrative mediates this contradiction between the involvement called for in fieldwork and the self-effacement called for in formal ethnographic description … by inserting into the ethnographic text the authority of the personal experience out of which the ethnography is made.” (Hine, 2000, p.48)
I have attempted to demonstrate an analytical retreat from the participatory fray in the mini-clip. I didn’t enlist the help of informants with which to triangulate my account as I chose not to let my fellow students know I was observing in case it unduly influenced the experience of the community. I did seek the approval of the course leader, assuring him that any student data would be anonymised, and he responded positively, imposing no further conditions. Online, it has been easy for me to lurk in the shadows or remain an unobtrusive but participating presence, a situation easier to achieve in a mediated environment. I experienced a tension surrounding my non-disclosed presence, but in fact, not a great proportion of the communication took place between students which would have compounded the unease.
My impression of the community was that it comprised a friendly collection of individuals pursing a common goal in parallel with each other, heeding the ‘teacher’ rather than a connectivist, constructivist group learning from each other. In spite of encouragement from the course leader, students tended towards a single post in each discussion; a result, perhaps, of the mooc’s required participation in which the power structures at play may inhibit unforced involvement and in which the constraining and prescriptive edX platform may have played a role. As much or as little as we shape our software, it shapes us with its inbuilt unfreedoms and control. It was interesting to note that the course leader himself voiced some frustration with the platform.
Hine’s discussion of authenticity and identity online did not seem particularly relevant to the netnography because I wanted to evoke an experience of the mooc and not debate the authenticity of my fellow-students’ identities. For me, the project was to describe things as they were and not fabricate a measure of what they might otherwise be.
The subject of online identity was alluded to in one of the Discussion Forums, but my role as netnographer was to relate this interesting phenomenon rather than use it to question the foundations of the netnography. (Something I didn’t actually do in the clip as it turned out.) The debate about online authenticity was completely germane to the subject of the mooc as it extended discussion of Sartre’s exposition of ‘The Look’: how our consciousness of ourself as a ‘being-for-itself’ comes into existence when we are made suddenly aware that we have become the object of another’s consciousness – when we are observed. I would have liked to incorporate a notion of this in the video which invoked interesting thoughts of lurkers in online communities too.
Heidegger’s concept of time was a feature of one of the units and a notion of subjective timescales was attempted by the speeding up of the limes frames and the varied pace of the car clips. For copyright reasons I wasn’t able to use the Beatles’ Hey Jude track that was featured in the course. It was employed to illustrate how in each moment of listening we carry the remembrance of what we have just heard and the anticipation of the continuance of the song. This phenomenological perspective of time seems to fit neatly with Kozinets’ exposition of types of interaction in online communities where members become more committed when they “anticipate future interaction” and, perhaps, as they build up a store of remembered valued exchanges. For me, it was the course leader (whose voice was dominant) and whose friendly and expert exposition commanded an enduring sense of attention.
Hine describes how
‘the sustained presence of an ethnographer in the field setting, combined with intensive engagement with the everyday life of the inhabitants of the field site’ is what helps “reduce the puzzlement which other people’s ways of life can evoke.” (p.63).
In phenomenological style, she continues, quoting Gertz (1993),
At the same time, ethnography can be a device for inducing that same puzzlement by ‘displacing the dulling sense of familiarity with which the mysteriousness of our own ability to relate perceptively to one another is concealed from us’. (p.64)
This elliptically-expressed notion, that we are able to perceive of each other in new and enlightening ways if not dulled by familiarity is echoed in the mooc’s encouragement to seek out puzzlement and surprise; crucial tools employed by the phenomenologist to unlock new perspectives. To illustrate this idea, I wanted to find a clip of someone striking a piece of obsidian in just the sweet spot to open and reveal its hidden facets. Unsuccessfully searching on the internet, I happened upon a rich seam of online community featuring Minecraft in which obsidian has some currency. Regarded obliquely, I tapped the stone and revealed new perspectives of online communities I wasn’t expecting to find.
The Mooc’s experiential approach encouraged strategies for becoming an active observer. This active, first hand methodology was a really successful way of introducing philosophical ideas before reading about such concepts. They included the notion of the paucity of our imagination compared to the transcendancy of real objects – in other words how the latter reveal infinitely more to us as we continue to look at them than do objects in our imagination which resist closer scrutiny. Or, as an another example, how our perception of phenomenon goes beyond the sensory to include the extra- and super-sensory. The experiential activities blurred the on- and offline boundaries, happily complementing thoughts of the imaginary and the real, the actual and the superimposed, the embodied and the virtual experience.
As I tweeted whilst following the mooc, I found it difficult to untangle the subject of the course from my role as documenter, a problem I think this commentary reflects. I still have a long way to go on my trip!
Adams, C. et al. (2014). A phenomenology of learning large: the tutorial sphere of xMOOC video lectures. Distance Education, 35(2), pp.1–15.
Hine, C. (2000). The virtual objects of ethnography, chapter 3 of Virtual ethnography. London: Sage. pp41-66
Kozinets, R. V. (2010). Chapter 2 ‘Understanding Culture Online’, Netnography: doing ethnographic research online. London: Sage. pp. 21-40.