Saturday, May 14, 2011

Field 2.0: Ethnography in the era of social media, or fieldwork and facebook

This morning a friend back in the U.S. and I were chatting via Facebook. He lives in the south, and I had written to find out how he and his family were faring with the storms and floods.  This is how I often spend my Saturday mornings - listening to the local (New York City) news on the radio, checking my email and often checking in with friends via Facebook.  My conversation with this friend ranged over a number of topics. From the weather we turned to how we learn about the news (reading hard copy versus digital editions). He was checking something on his Kindle; I replied that I had a Nook but only used it to read books (I am a bit of a curmudgeon; I like single-purpose devices. I want my phone to make phone calls. When I want to shoot photos I will use a camera; when I want to shoot video I will use a video camera).  We had also chatted about downloading videos (I am in the midst of a very slow download of the first episodes of the new season of Tremé). He commented, "Huh. And here I've been thinking you were an underdeveloped region of an under-developed countyry. You're sitting around watching Treme and reading books on Nook."

Both things are true: I am in an underdeveloped region of an under-developed country. There are cows pastured on three sides of my house (the fourth side is the street). I cook on a wood-burning stove sometimes. And thanks to my trusty little USB modem, I can be online as much as I like, within reason.

Being online and chatting with friends or posting videos on Facebook, however, is not simply a privilege of the chattering classes of the First World. Nor is it simply a way of isolating myself and creating a protective little cocoon to shield myself or separate myself from daily life in Guatemala. For one thing, status updates and notes on Facebook were one way of communicating with my friends and family about what I was doing here in Guatemala (before starting this blog, and I continue to post things there since not everyone will bother to read the blog). I first realized the potential of Facebook for sharing ethnographic observations last year, when I read insightful and often poetic updates posted by one of my former professors from NYU, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, who has been in Poland for the past year or so, and I still relish reading her posts -- which range from rhapsodies about the pleasures of eating fresh berries to observations about contemporary Polish culture and politics.

But also, increasingly, people with whom I work on Guatemala are using Facebook and other forms of social media. For example, many of the staff members of Ixmukané are on Facebook, and several of them are my Facebook friends. Since most of them live at least several towns away (in Chichicastenango or Santa Cruz del Quiché), we often communicate during off-hours via Facebook. Sometimes we just have friendly chats; sometimes it's the fastest way for me to find out what is going on. Today, for instance, I needed to know whether we were going to be broadcasting tomorrow (Sunday). Yesterday someone at the station had told me that we were. This morning I saw that the person who was supposed to be responsible for the Sunday broadcast was on Facebook chat, so I messaged her to find out if she wanted me to meet her there. She replied that as far as she knew, there was no broadcast tomorrow and that we were starting up again on Monday. I could have called or texted her; she might or might not have replied; Guatemalans seem to have odd relationships with their cellphones. But she responded immediately on FB and so I was spared an unnecessary trip to Santa Cruz del Quiché tomorrow.

Thursday night, I received a chat message from another compañero from Ixmukané who was unsuccessfully attempting to set up a Youtube account for the organization -- Ixmukané, like many organizations in Guatemala, has a communications strategy that includes the radio station as well as a website and social media. He thought perhaps he had a weak signal and wanted to know if I could set up the Youtube account for him. Keeping our FB chat open so he could give me the information I needed , I opened Youtube and, switching between the two windows, was able to set up the Youtube account and let him know so he could then login. Mission accomplished. All in a day's fieldwork.

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