Friday, February 8, 2008

Orality of the internet?

In Christine Hine's Virtual Ethnography, she mentioned that most interactions are structured based on the assumption of a single, linear chronology in which events happen either simultaneously or sequentially. This is only a reality insofar as people perceive things in this order. It's still an assumption that doesn't need to apply to all interactions. However, time on the internet is different, as she points out.* "Adam suggests that 'all time is social time' (1990: 42), to stress that linear, progressive time itself is a social construct, rather than a pre-existing asocial structure upon which other temporal orderings are overlaid. All ideas of temporality are, then, constructs and are the upshot of interpretive practices"(2003: 103).

Time on the internet doesn't flow quite that smoothly, though. Think about conversations on a message board, over email, on Blogger. They happen in spurts. By the time you read this and I actually engage you in a conversation I may not even be here anymore. You will respond in my absence and I may respond to you in turn when you're off away from the computer. Yet the conversation is perceived as fluid. We can talk in spurts in several board threads and each thread has its own continuity.

This is where things start to get complicated. Say I'm posting in three threads about three different things. Each thread effectively has its own continuity despite the fact that I may type posts to the three threads in close temporal proximity to one another. I can answer the thread about Force Lightning and the thread about airplane safety and the thread about flea collars all within the same five minutes. To read the threads later you would have to check the timestamps to remind yourself that these conversations were happening perfectly simultaneously. This creates a problem for ethnographers studying these boards. You want to see conversations and interactions in context, but it's possible to utterly remove a conversation from temporal context, to ignore any other conversations that were going on at the same time.

How the hell do you figure this out? If the only linear time on the internet is in the mind of the user (and is not in fact represented on the board) then how do you get access to that time?

The answer is obvious, but its meaning didn't hit me until last week. The answer is obviously to talk to the users.

Why is this unusual? It totally staggered me when I realized it, because it effectively turns a purely-text-based medium into an oral tradition. I was astounded, and then I realized this is precisely what I need to be considering. I'd been working within this framework and even participating in it without even realizing it. On The Gungan Council in particular, the rank system is ranking you at least partly by your value to the oral tradition.

Members start out as trainees or apprentices. This is your basic newbie rank. You are taken in by someone of a rank higher than you. They do at least one thread with you to ensure that you have a chance to RP, and a chance to "get your feet wet" in the community. They're also expected to answer whatever questions you may have and act as your guru (and yes, my use of this word is intentional). The most helpful trainers I've seen on that board are the ones who have been involved for a long time (sometimes years) and can offer insights about the community based on their past experience.

As I was promoted with my character, it became my responsibility to pass on this knowledge and insight to new members. The more new members you take on as a trainer, the sooner you will be promoted to your next rank because you have made yourself more vital to the oral tradition.

This is why, when I needed to know what had happened a year ago with a member who has just returned from a long absence or (occasionally) after being banned... I can't go back and check for threads. I have to ask someone who was there. They are the repository of knowledge about the community, and after I had been there a few months I became such a resource for newer people. I was seen as "someone who was there," and who could explain the history of the community. Even if I wasn't there myself, I knew people who were and had access to these informants.

This was an amazing revelation for me! The whole damned thing is text and theoretically everything could be preserved perfectly intact! Nonetheless, people turn to their community "elders" for context and history and advice. It's as if, despite the textual nature of online interactions, users still view them as ephemerally-verbal. Words on the wind can disappear, and most users I've known don't seem to think of online conversations as any different.

I posted an article in here earlier that people are treating IM conversations like verbal speech (as measured by the presence of the quotative "like," for example). It didn't occur to me that people would see the internet as anything but uniquely textual, so when they realized that I was saving copies of threads to ensure that they were not wiped out (in these cases truly leaving nothing behind but an oral history), the reaction was surprise and occasionally even awe.

Seriously. You'd think I had just introduced an Amazon tribe to the cassette recorder, like I had captured their experience in some dazzlingly-perfect new way. Had they gotten so used to thinking of virtual interactions as verbal that they'd forgotten they could save the text? I've taken on an odd status among those who know me online as "that one who saves copies of everything." When the drama dropped at TGC and politically-dangerous threads were being deleted left and right, I was the keeper of the history. I was the one who had the proof, the one who held the definitive account. Almost immediately my informants followed my lead and began saving copies of threads that were relevant to my study, increasing their efforts after I was banned and could only view the forum through some proxy-trickery.

That's what made me different, and what eventually exemplified the people who worked with me. We saved copies. We were treating the community as though it were built on text, and the fact that it gave me such an edge in a propaganda war should be a powerful indication of how few people in the community truly thought of the internet as a world of text.

This was my revelation. Now for my meeting with EE tomorrow, I'm going to do some readings on oral history. I couldn't really have anticipated that my project would take this turn, but it has. Hopefully I'll gain some new insights into the way users view their virtual environments, because apparently their perspective has been different than mine, and now I've got a clue to it.

*She also has some notes about the spaciality of the internet on 106, but that's another entry and I'm only including it here to remind myself to write it.

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