Doing online fieldwork while everyone else is out in the world

    Facebook fieldwork Foto: Therese Rekling

    Fieldwork. The word inspires a sense of awe and anxiety in all anthropologists, especially in anthropology students. It is the fabled rite of passage that – if managed – gives you the right to call yourself ANTHROPOLOGIST. Furthermore, your choice of fieldwork will tell other anthropologists and the rest of the world a lot about who you are and who you want to become as an anthropologist. You can choose almost any subject in almost any part of the world. As long as there is something relevant to study about human life. Attempts have been made at my department to make The Fieldwork less scary for Master students, but the fact remains that fieldwork is the soul and nerve of the discipline. It is what makes anthropologists stand out from other disciplines. Did I mention that I am in the middle of it?

    It has been a month now. It is the beginning of October and Copenhagen is getting colder. It does not really matter though, because my fieldwork takes place on Facebook. Things like the weather are not important. Things like sockets and coffee are. I am observing a closed group on Facebook, trying to understand its rules and regulations, its composition and what it means to its members. Most days I am looking at the posts and comments as they arrive. I do participant observation. But it feels and looks different from most of the fieldwork experiences I have read about over the years. There is no language barrier, no walking awkwardly around among strangers, instead there is a slightly greasy screen between me and my informants.

    Many of my classmates have left their everyday life for a more classical kind of fieldwork, somewhere out in the physical world. They find themselves in new, foreign contexts far away from home. My field is not only situated in familiar surroundings, it is also only one click away from my private life and everyday routine. Within seconds I can leave the field and scroll down through my own Facebook newsfeed, where friends and family ‘like’ and share and comment as always.

    And not only that. My classmates’ far-away experiences become part of my day in the digital field, when suddenly a picture shows up of a fellow student hanging out with informants in Liberia, while another one is doing activities with students in Texas. I am happy for them. But it also makes me worried. They seem to be doing the real thing. Getting the real sense of fieldwork. The real experience. At least that is how I imagine it. Making myself paranoid about my own choice of field. What was I thinking? What sort of fieldwork is this anyway? What would the old anthropologists such as Malinowski, Evans-Pritchard and Mead have to say about it?

    Luckily, I am not the first to ask this question. Many anthropologists have studied social media and its influence on people’s lives. Digital anthropology is by now a firm branch of the discipline. And yet, the digital does not take up as much space within the discipline as it does in life. So, how did my fieldwork end up being a digital one? It certainly was not on my mind, when I started out as an anthropology student. I do not consider myself a social media genius or a cyberspace enthusiast.

    Still, the idea came almost immediately when a topic had to be chosen. I knew that I would like to work with gender, and that I would like to look at my own society. Where do I come across information, media content, discussions, events to do with gender? Often through Facebook. Like most people in my generation, social media is one of the most constant factors in my daily life. Checking Facebook has become as mandatory as brushing my teeth. Why not look at social interaction there, where much of my own social interaction with friends and the world takes place? For a growing number of the world’s inhabitants, it does not even make sense to talk of separate online and offline worlds anymore. Our lives are mixed up with the virtual world.

    What I have found so far, not very surprisingly, is that the digital worlds, even a seemingly superficial one like Facebook, is filled with familiar human and cultural characteristics. It is filled with feelings, social rules and behavioural patterns, with conflict and care and unity. Hopefully my fieldwork, my rite of passage, will be a testament to that, showing how a Facebook group can bite at power structures and push change online as well as offline by bringing people together, creating community in a very familiar sense.

    The setting and the way the anthropological methods are used might be slightly different from the classical studies, but the general idea of what anthropology is about, is not. Therefore, it seems to me that digital anthropology needs to become a bigger part of anthropology in general, making digital fieldwork feel much more normal and natural. Until then, those of us who study online interaction must remind each other that we may feel like we’re missing out on “proper” fieldwork – but we aren’t.