Online ‘Tells' with Cultural Bindings: Understanding Connectivity in the Absence of Cultural Participants

Online ‘Tells' with Cultural Bindings: Understanding Connectivity in the Absence of Cultural Participants

Demosthenes Akoumianakis (Technological Education Institute of Crete, Heraklion, Greece)
DOI: 10.4018/IJVCSN.2016100102
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The paper explores the explanatory value of digital traces, especially for gaining insight to ‘cultural' settings in the absence of cultural participants. We consider digital traces as the ‘matter' of online social phenomena which can be revealed through transformation, re-alignment or re-configuration of data. In this vein, the notion of ‘imbrication' is used to provide a conceptual lens for organizing inquiries in which digital traces should be re-arranged so as to act interdependently with other digital representations to provide posterior insights into designated virtual settlements. Empirical insight is sought by two case studies addressing different digital settings and different social accomplishments in the absence of ‘cultural' participants.
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1. Introduction

For many people, the term ‘cultural past’ coins a prehistoric social formation – a society or community – that existed for a certain period of time and vanished through the years. In the absence of cultural participants, gaining insights into and understanding of such cultural past relies almost entirely on material remains of culture. Contemporary archaeology serves this purpose by committing to an analysis of artifacts in situ and in relation to other artifacts to evoke particular understandings of the culture these artifacts existed within. According to Fahlander & Oestigaard (2004) this is conducted ‘… not so much to reconstruct what once was, but to make sense of the past from a viewpoint of today’ (p.44).

Nevertheless, a cultural past need not always reflect a society that vanished through time. It may also coin a social phenomenon which is interesting from an anthropological perspective (Hall, et al., 2001) or an organizational setting where culture is frequently revealed by artifacts such as myths, language systems, metaphors, ceremonies, rewards, etc., and the knowledge they embody or enact (Higgins, et al., 2006). In such cases, ethnography (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1995) provides a powerful method to study human behavior and social organization in living societies by necessitating that analysts become engaged in the setting, and come face-to-face with the natives such that a deep understanding of the practices of that setting is gained.

With the advent of web 2.0 and the wide uptake of social networking services, media sites, micro-blogging services, etc., both archaeological inquiry and ethnographic research have developed ‘digital’ constituents (Markham, 2004) aiming to analyze online social aggregations and cultural life in networked spaces, frequently coined as virtual settlements (Jones, 1997). In this vein several neologisms, such as cyber-archaeology (Jones, 1997), virtual ethnography (Hine, 2000) and netnography (Kozinets, 2002), have been used to anchor a collection of techniques for online field work intended to study communities and cultures created through computer-mediated social interaction.

These trends indicate that the relationship between culture and technology may be disentangled by focusing either on how broader social contexts shape technology or how technologies are implicated in such contexts (Wise, 1997; Sterne, 2006). A commitment to the former brings to the forefront the focus on material remains of societies which are revealed through technological artifacts and constructions. The latter emphasizes the study of cultural practices that evolve through prominent (and frequently overlapping) technological trajectories. For instance, Wellman (2001) provides a useful analysis of how ‘place-to-place’ networks are being replaced by ‘space-to-space’ networks through the appropriation of new technologies. What is important for our purposes is that with each transition in prevalent paradigm of use, novel artifacts emerge as a result of new technologies, and as these artifacts become common, they implicate improvements in cultural practices. This is clearly evidenced when reflecting upon the transition from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0. Specifically, whereas Web 1.0 relied on device-dependent mark-up languages such as HTML and web sites to anchor users as ‘audience’ or passive consumer of information-based products, Web 2.0 appropriates device-independence, sharing and ubiquity to foster user-created content and new primary beneficiaries (Gochenour, 2006; Kim et al., 2010). As a by-product of this transition, a ‘digital’ materiality emerges anchoring not only what people do online (i.e., their routine work and practices), but also what is retained of their activities in the form of digital trace data or online remains.

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