my daily routine of doing thick participation online

The cyberanthropologist's hut

While currently reading and rereading all kinds of articles on research methods online it came to my awareness that I till now did not document my daily routine of doing thick participation online and ‘inside’ the MP-community. Of course, just as in an offline-context, fieldwork of the sociocultural anthropological kind requires flexibility and going with the flow of events. Hence my daily routine can only constitute a rough skeleton, a guideline which generates some structure concerning my doing.

Not surprisingly my ‘day in the field’ starts with firing up my computers. Two machines to be exact, a laptop and a desktop, both connected to the Internet via a broadband connection. The laptop—the way more powerful machine—is my main tool. All kinds of online-interaction take place via the laptop, on its HDD the fieldnotes are typed and stored together with files I download. All kind of work with software (e.g. image manipulation, 3D visualisation, mapping) is done on it, too. The desktop machine is used for backing up data and, during the course of the day online, mainly as a tool of recherche—e.g. I run on- and offline dictionaries and reference works on it. If I run out of space on the laptop’s screen I shove a task over on the other machine. In short, all kinds of secondary tasks which require a computer are done on the desktop. Beyond the convenience of having two screens, two keyboards, and two fully operable machines for tasks which have to be done, the backup on the desktop lends immense comfort and relaxedness.

When the machines are running and the anti-virus software is updated [anthropologer, keep your hut clean!], I at first create a new folder inside my nested fieldnotes-folders on the laptop. Today’s folder for example is nested like that: fieldnotes200512_200509_December_2005. I keep folders like that since April 2002. Every bit of online communication and interaction which takes place during the whole day is saved to that folder.

Next I create a text file. Today’s file is called 09_December_2005_fieldnotes.txt. This plain text file is today’s repository for fielddiary-entries and fieldnotes. Thoughts, observations, associations, reflexions, comments—everything is typed into that file. Hyperreferences [vulgo: links], excerpts from texts online etc. are copied and pasted into that file. Excerpts, citations from offline texts [hardcopies] are typed into that file by hand. The first draft of what you are reading right now was typed into that file, too.

Now I am set to head out into cyberspace and meet “my tribe”. On the desktop machine I fire up the webbrowser, on the laptop: webbrowser, e-mail client, clients for chat, messenger services, voice over IP, and maybe video-chat. Furthermore the clients for real-time interaction are all set to log everything going through them. These clients make me ‘visible’ and ‘present’ for the others, too. Now they know that I am potentially available for interaction. Then I connect to my domain in order to be able to change the contents of my website and weblog.

E-mail is checked first. There may well be an e-mail from someone in the community: read → act accordingly → reply → store original mail and reply away into the according folder of the e-mail client. The mail-folders are not organised chronologically like the fieldnotes-folders, but according to topics, websites, teams, and individuals of the community. Then, very likely, in my e-mail inbox there may be automated messages originating from a Bulletin-Board system running one of the community’s forums. Principally I configure my forum-profiles so that the BB-system notifies me via e-mail if something happens at a forum-thread I am watching or am participating in. The automated notification-mail is stored away into the client’s according folder, the link it contains is immediately followed. Now I read what’s new in the thread, follow links (in-site, offsite, hidden, or public) etc., and post a reply or not. In either case I save the whole thread, complete with images and all, into today’s fieldnotes-folder. This is crucial, as in that fashion my every step in the community’s realm is documented, becomes retracable, and re-readable/watchable and to a certain degree re-experiencable later on. I learned that the hard way when MPHQ‘s vast forums were wiped clean for the first time back in January 2003 (catastrophy). And “Save a lot!” is a wisdom every decent gamemodder has internalised ;-)

The procedure may appear crude and unsophisticated. And to this strategy of handishly downloading forum-threads and the like piece-by-piece, one may well object that there are offline-browsers which allow to download whole websites, including subpages and linked-to websites according to a definable link-depth. True so—and indeed I already used such tools—but I have got two strong points against the standard-usage of offline-browsers in the context of my project. The first is a pragmatic one: Who the hell shall read the enormous amount of data gathered that way? And when? Of course some piece of software could crawl through it and generate statistical data, like how many times “the hell” was used. But honestly, I am not so much interested in knowledge like that [but of course, I collect statistical data, too].Especially as it does not reflect my view of the anthropological approach. Which leads us to the second point: The anthropologer shall strive to adopt the habitus of “his people” to a certain degree. To absorb practices enables to make alike experiences, and ultimately to approach the emic perspective. No one of “my people” reads whole forums. Aside from being impossible (because of the sheer sizes), it simply is not interesting. They have their own ways through the forums which of course is a manifestation or symptom of culture and to a certain degree of social structure.

The links in the automated notification-mails may lead to content of a public forum [that is: potentially viewable for everyone with Internet access], or to a hidden forum reserved for a defined group of people. The team-forum of Rogue-Ops, an MP2mod project of which I am a prowd team-member, is a current example. [Indeed the lion’s share of the interaction between the members of my community takes place via private, restricted, hidden channels. That’s true for synchronous and asynchronous interaction.] At that phase of my daily routine it doesn’t matter to me if the reached forum-thread is public or not. I read, react, and save. Once arrived at a forum I normally check my private messages (PMs) there [if any], and start to read around, react, and save. More often than not the BB-systems used by the community display [normally somewhere on the forum’s start-page] that you are currently browsing the forum. This sometimes leads to synchronous interaction via another service. Also if not, you still are visible and present, the others know that you are online and at the same forum, which induces a sense of being in the same place at the same time—even some kind of communitas.

Having worked myself through the notification-mails, respectively through what they referenced to, I am going through what is left of public [links are at the lower end of my blog’s sidebar] and private forums [no links available for ethical reasons ;-] of my community. Same procedure as above.

All the while the synchronous-services clients are up and running, which normally leads to diverse interaction, oftentimes in many windows at the same time, to the usage of other interactive applications like FTP, SSH, and BitTorrent clients. But all that and its consequences are unpredictable, as well as other activities like working on mod-projects, acquiring skills and knowledge via synchronous and/or asynchronous tutorship by community members, exchanging files of all kinds, and so on. Hence all that can not be counted to be part of the daily routine—the things which make my participation “thick” (Spittler 2001) are a topic in itself. But part of the daily routine is continuous reflection on and documentation of all these interactions and activities. Mostly by jotting down notes into the day’s fieldnotes.txt-file, but also by saving files and taking screenshots of applications and captures of the whole screen. Everything is safely stored away into the day’s folder.

During the course of the day, but usually towards its end, I try to generate weblog-entries out of my fieldnotes—unfortunately there is no time and energy left for that in most cases. Finally, at the definitive end of the ‘day in the field’—whenever that is—I go offline and move the log-files created by diverse clients from their cradles into the day’s folder. If I am not too tired I do a review of the day’s material, preprocess some of it, maybe put it online, and jot down notes. Then I switch off my machines.

I guess that’s it, concerning the daily routine of doing thick participation online among the gamemodders I acquired till now.