Book review: The Internet: an Ethnographic Approach by Daniel Miller and Don Slater

,
Berg Publishers 2000.
Evan McKenzie
University of Manitoba

The idea of reading a decade old book about with the medium of the internet. Whereas
the internet seems counter-intuitive and other work at the time focused on the
perhaps humorously nostalgic at best. In the internet as a monolithic entity with defined
context of research methods however, the characteristics, Miller and Slater reject this
quality of valid approaches can remain preconceived falsehood outright and start
undiminished overtime. The purpose of this from a different place all together, the
book review then is to take a critical look at people. This is based on an idea that is
An Ethnography of the Internet, specifically supported throughout the research and that is
regarding its value today for researchers of the existing assumption of an inherent
all things internet. As we shall see, though separation between the online and the offline
the reflective lens of time has been harsh on is not tenable. The book points out a variety
some aspects of the book, other of examples why this is indeed the case and
fundamentals remain applicable and I will in fact appropriate. One cited early on is of a
argue necessary for a complete family with three children, of whom one
understanding the “virtual” today. believes that friendships on the internet are
without meaning, while the other two
As the title of the book suggests, it is consider them just as valid if not more so
an ethnography. The authors explicitly point than “traditional” friendships. The key
this out and are very clear on what this principle they successfully support is that,
means to their approach to not only the there is no consensus on what “virtual” truly
research itself but also to the resultant is. {Even referencing Anderson (1986) who
findings. Ethnography for them means a cleverly posited that modern nations
long term, immersive and multifaceted themselves are virtual and dependent on
approach. So despite the admittedly short newspapers to unify and inherently divided
five week research period (in Trinidad) for group.} Going back to the idea of
this particular project, it is supported by a Ethnographic research, the team spent time
robust base of a decade of experience in not only online in chat rooms or playing
Trinidad as well as experience studying games of Quake but also hung around
online chatting communities like IRC. As internet cafes, school computer rooms,
the previous sentence should highlight, the offices, ISPs and Government offices. This
book itself is actually an ethnography based should be understood to be fundamental for
in Trinidad of the internet. This the authors research of anything online, and that is it
claim provides a valid departure point from inevitably has a place and it is physically
which others can create further ethnography grounded somewhere. We cannot separate
for comparison. The location of the study is the online from the offline as they are both
important to their conclusions. inextricably woven together.
The starting point of the project was This idea may actually be more
not things online themselves. But rather contentious than ever. When the book was
understanding how a community of people written, the main form for example of online
form “alignments” and “elective affinities”
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gaming was MUDs or Quake. Now with priest in the church was tantamount to
World of Warcraft (WoW) or Second Life, it blasphemy. Such examples and the rest of
might be quite tempting to consider that the the content of the book provide support for
undisputed virtual world now exists. one of the key findings of the book, and that
Arguably an academic can argue Ironforge is that people choose how to apply the
or any WoW city is virtual, because it internet to not only their current situation,
doesn't exist however the fact of the matter but what they would like their future to be.
is actually completely unimportant. From This negotiation of purpose and meaning
the perspective of media researcher the key (which the authors describe using four
concern should be what do those people who different perspectives for understanding) is
interact with believe, or how does it impact the main take away from this book and
them. Miller and Slater point to the (now remains a valid framework for analysis of
defunct) internet habit of having a webpage the virtual even today.
and surfing the web signing guest books and
compare it succinctly to the In all fairness, to balance what may
anthropologically classic practice of the seem like endless praise, I feel obligated to
Kula ring. Such practices to the outsider quickly point out some aspects of the book
may appear purposeless and a waste of which have faded to obsolescence over time.
resources but it is an internal system of The first one is the illustrations. What the
“fame” or “prestige” of extreme value to back cover of the book describes as “An
those who participate. Their understanding innovative tie-in with the book's own
of webpage trends from a decade ago still website provides copious illustrations” can
works in modern games like WoW, where really be read to mean “404 Site not Found”
being a level 70 Elf Priest may be make you or rather “I'm sorry, there are no illustrations,
the most famous player in the land. But that website has been offline since 2007.”
understanding this, without understanding The internet savvy researcher however can
the person who dedicates 10 hours a day for access resources like the Internet Archive, to
7 months to achieving this goal is overcome this problem but the result is far
meaningless. from flawless. Also the three-stage model
of ecommerce proposed in this book remains
Overall the authors do a compelling relevant, however the focus on the webpage
job in highlighting the use of the medium of as the key vehicle for business on the
the internet as a negotiation between internet, doesn't quite hold anymore and
individual users and their goals. For me, the may slightly annoy the current reader.
best examples were delivered in the final
chapter (titled Religion) in which different In the end, though we have moved
religious leaders and lay people are from MUDs to WoW, from IRC to Twitter,
interviewed regarding the role of the internet some frameworks of understanding the
for their beliefs. One of such examples was internet have not changed. An understanding
that two Christian priests came to some of the online/offline as connected and
radically different conclusions regarding the undividable remains as valid as ever. The
shared practice of confession. For one the oft stated (and just as often ignored)
anonymity of the internet provided a perfect anthropological understanding, that even
parallel for the privacy of the confessional basic assumptions may not hold across
and thus was a medium worth pursuing for cultures is more important now than ever as
this purpose. For the other the hint of online users are just as likely to be in
confessing without being present with a Trinidad as Iceland. The internet like any

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other media is a negotiation between
individuals which incorporates their unique
history and circumstance with their
particular ideals and goals. This point and
many others that are relevant today can all
be found in the still readable and still worth
the time volume entitled The Internet and
Ethnographic Approach.

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