Four of my virtual world research idols, Tom Boellstorff, Bonnie Nardi, Celia Pearce and T.L. Taylor, published in 2012 a fantastic method and how-to book of ethnographic research in virtual worlds, and I managed the get my hands on a copy only recently. The essential message of the book Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method (2012, Princeton University Press) is crystallising the meaning of ethnography as a research method, and, for example, how much of it is constituted by participant observation. In my personal research I have struggled with defining my work as ethnographic for exactly that reason that there has been little (or none!) participant observation in how my informants have grieved and remembered their intimates in online environments. The research subject itself has made difficult (but interesting) limitations methodologically, since about half of the research material could be described as “community bereaving together” and other half as “an individual bereaving alone”. I cannot join a a group of bereaved if I have not known the deceased or the people in the group, neither I can attend in situ how a single person uses different online environments to bereave and remember, whether the environment is a Facebook page, a blog, a memorial website or a virtual world. Also, since my approach has been holistic and I have been interested how mourning and death ritual are practiced in the Web as a whole, it would have been impossible to participate and observe in all of the environments in question.
I have discussed this matter previously as well (and continue the discussion in my upcoming PhD thesis), and decided that mostly my approach has been autoethnographical, observative and reflective, but not participatory, since participating would require other people present as well, whether virtually or actually. Boellstorff et al. are adamant in their book about the necessity of participant observation in order to call a research method as ethnography, but I disagree with them in some parts. In their personal researches (and the book in question) the research terrain has been in virtual worlds, which exclude social networking sites and other websites. I believe ethnography is more than just participant observation, but a method that combines contextual understanding and vigorous implementation of multiple approaches in order to understand a specific phenomenon as rich as possible. Mere interviews do not suffice, mere outside observation without “native” perspective do not suffice, neither mere participant observation, but I would call for the complex interplay between emic and etic perspectives, the inside and the outside views with all means necessary.
Boellstorff et al. (2012, 7) list four types of virtual world characteristics: 1. they are places and have a sense of worldness, 2. they are multi-user by nature, 3. they are persistent, i.e. they continue to exist whether the user logs off, 4. virtual worlds allow users to embody themselves, usually avatars (even if “textual avatars”, as in text-only virtual worlds such as MUDs). According to Boellstorff et al. social networking sites and other similar websites are not virtual worlds, because they lack of worldness and embodiment. However, this could be easily debated whether Facebook profiles and, what I would call a Facebook presence, are in fact embodiments, partly fictional characters/avatars presented in a social networking world, where the embodiment of the user is mostly textual, but also connected to the visual material shared and engaged with on the site, i.e. holiday photographs, (bathroom) selfies, baby pictures, puppy videos and LOL cats. They all create a sense of a social presence, which can for example lead to blocking or hiding a Facebook friend from your feed, or engaging with them actively online.
Nevertheless, the book Ethnography and Virtual Worlds is a fantastic volume from talented and inspirational researchers, and I look forward reading more about their work. These types of publications provide important insight in current anthropological research, which is moulding itself both epistemologically as well as methodologically.