First, some background on the ethnography team’s (@Leonie, @CCS, @amelia) process: we read (and reread and reread) the threads posted on the Edgeryders website. Then we develop codes for the threads that cover the content of the conversations taking place. Sometimes these codes are “in-vivo” reflections of the conversations (direct quotes from community members), sometimes they draw from established terms in the (academic) debates about Artificial Intelligence (AI), Blockchain, Cloud Technologies and other Internet ABC’s (for a detailed description of our coding see our open codebook or feel free to shoot us a message on the platform). To ensure the transparency and methodological rigour of our work, we keep detailed memos in which we explain the decisions we made, identify concerns, and define paths forward. We also have monthly calls in which we discuss difficulties, code-collapsing, and relevant developments in the world of tech and culture (of which we also keep a log in the codebook).
Over the past few weeks the NGI Forward ethnography team has been focussing much of their attention on threads pertaining to issues on the internet, tech and the environment. Our work on these threads has brought up two key insights that will be useful to keep in mind as we develop our methods.
First, the community interacting on these threads appear to largely represent experts in tech; meaning they either seem to be conducting research, developing software, platforms, applications, leading groups of innovators and designers, or engage in activism and journalism around tech issues. This is something to keep in mind both for community managers and ethnographers, as it means we are observing and coding insights based on expert knowledge, and we should tailor our pointed questions towards gaining a deeper understanding of emergent trends, policy, design and innovation. It means we can ask more detailed questions pushing for nuanced analyses of technology issues.
Interestingly (and perhaps conversely), explorations of the relationship between the climate and the internet/tech appears to be in its infancy, and though we are working with a community of experts, there often seems to be a struggle to solidly define key terms and concepts. Despite expertise, or perhaps because of it, specificity in defining technologies and technological areas requiring increased research focus persists across stories, meaning that members find defining targeted and specific problems around these areas difficult as well. Additionally, community members find an underlying tension between acknowledging the ecological costs of the tech industry and findings ways to develop technological tools to protect the climate. These two points characterise a vagueness, reluctance and caution on the part of the ER community when it comes to making bold or definitive claims about tech and the climate, which may explain why codes thus far are more topical (sketching the broad areas that community members have been interested in discussing) than analytical or solutions-focussed. We don’t necessarily see this as an issue, but instead something to track and pay attention to moving forward, as it may indicate a larger phenomenon in this area.
Several current threads revolve around the notion of Deep Green Tech. While there is a lot of interesting discussion around this concept, it has yet to be clearly defined by the community. From what we can gather so far, Deep Green Tech is similar to Deep Tech, describing mainly startup companies based on substantial scientific research and innovations in tech engineering. Deep Green Tech, broadly, seems to describe technology that is ecologically sustainable, innovative and based on scientific advancements. The concept of Deep Green Tech appears to be a central area of focus for the NGI Forward community, but there seems to be ongoing confusion around the term’s definition, its ramifications and implications. One way to cut through the opacity of these discussions would be to directly ask community members to define the term while also offering concrete examples of its application, e.g. in design, research, tech innovation etc.
A notable tension that arises in community discussion on tech and the environment is that between navigating the ways in which tech/internet can help combat climate change and protect the environment and the energy and ecological costs that technological advancement has on the environment. It might be interesting to address this tension with some pointed questions.
Finally, an initial visualisation of the codes pulled from the NGI Forward threads revealed a range of central, yet general themes. This may be again based on the cautious atmosphere of community interactions at this stage, but it also seems to be linked to the absence of concrete examples and personal narratives. In short, we are missing the meat of these issues because community members are not engaging with them on a personal level and instead are drawing on general and ‘objective’ material. Going forward, we can use the fact that we are working with tech experts to our advantage by asking them more biographically oriented questions, which may help us tease out personal narratives and interpersonal connections. Asking our informants to tell us what motivated them to work in tech, how they use the internet on a daily basis, etc. can help us capture a more dynamic picture of the internet of humans. We can also push them to dig deeper in their analyses and offer opinions on specific questions and future potentials through more pointed and guided enquiry.
Looking back on Open Care, it’s rare that people have detached and impersonal stories about healthcare experiences. We need to find ways to explore similarly impactful or meaningful avenues around the Internet— to get people to share stories about experiences or opinions formed from experiences, not just abstract ideas.
One of the central things we’re taught when doing the interviewing /question asking part of ethnography is to get people to be specific by asking specific questions (this is what community managers on ER are always trying to do) — to move people away from the general and tell us what they did yesterday, to tell a story about a specific time something affected them, and so on. In Open Care, instead of asking ‘what do you think of healthcare’ it was ‘tell us about a time you interacted with the healthcare system— what did it look like? How did you feel? What issues came up for you?’
If we can find such parallels on the Internet (rather than ‘what does the future look like to you’?), instead ‘tell us about the last time something online upset you, and why?’ (or other questions along those lines, around sustainability for example) we might get more engaged and specific responses.
In short, the idea is to move away from asking how community members think and feel in general and toward asking about specific experiences, recollections that prompted emotional reaction, opinion forming, or action from them.