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This is my EDC ethnography

Transcript of JL ethnography

  • Scottish Beekeeping Association Interactive

    3 November 2010 s0900191

    My digital scrapbook ethnography of

  • One can no more approach people without love than one can approach bees without care.

    Leo Tolstoy

  • As part of the E-Learning and Digital Cultures course on the MSc in E-Learning at the University of Edinburgh I am required to carry out a short ethnographic study of an online community of my choice. I have selected the Scottish Beekeeping Association Interactive (SBAi) forum as the subject for my study.


    As this is a mini-project I narrowed my ethnographic gaze to consider three themes: what membership means within the context of this community; the presence and impact of status and hierarchy within the community, and; whether a short lexical analysis might offer an insight into the community.

    This report begins by providing

    some basic background

    information about the SBAi

    forum, before reflecting on the

    community in the context of the

    three themes outlined above. I

    conclude by briefly discussing

    what I have learned about the


  • http://www.sbai.org.uk/sbai_forum/

    The SBAi forum was created in February 2010 since which time 185 members have bumped into each other in cyberculture (Rheingold, 1993), creating a small, active community. The growth of the forum supports Bells view that, the possibility of community arises from shared interests (2001: 100). An administrator oversees the forum.

    The Scottish Beekeepers Association describes itself as the member organisation representing Scottish beekeepers nationally and internationally. Members of the SBA are able to keep abreast of news and engage in discussion through a blog and forum. The latter resource hosts regular discussion and is the subject of my ethnographic study.

    The Scottish Beekeepers Association Interactive

  • Although the SBAi forum is open to public view, one can join the Community by completing an online registration form. Once registered, an individuals status moves from Guest to Member, which bring the privilege of being able to contribute to discussion threads. Guests (unregistered) and Members (registered) are collectively termed Users.

    Defining community membership

  • The site itself offers no obvious background to the genesis of the forum therefore we are left with a difficulty in determining the boundary fence for the forum community: should it include all Users or simply those who have registered?

    It is common with this type of downloadable forum for the administrator to determine whether the ability to post messages should be restricted to those completing a membership form. In the case of the SBAi, the administrator may have determined to set community membership on the basis of an individuals intention to contribute to discussion (this, after all, is advertised as an interactive forum). An alternative reading however is that the site creator introduced a registration before posting feature in order to reduce the potential for spam or flaming.

    For the purpose of this exercise,

    it is tempting defer to the

    definition of community

    membership as those individuals

    listed under the tab of the same


  • The Community tab allows anyone to examine the profile of individual members. It is also possible to rank forum Members based upon the number of forum posts they have made. Of the 185 Members, 89 have yet to contribute towards discussion. In terms of interaction, the only thing that distinguishes these Members from Guests is that the former have registered with the site.

    Activity in the SBAi hostel

  • Perhaps a pragmatic way of defining the membership of the SBAi community is to try and visualise the relationship between Guests, Members and the Administrator as a physical dwelling place. The forum itself could be seen as a hostel, managed by the Administrator and inhabited by Members.

    Guests are welcome to visit the hostel, however they will be regarded as just passing through until such time as they intimate a desire to take an active involvement in the community. They can follow what takes place in the hostel, but they cant participate in any of the activities (which isnt to say that all of the Members necessarily contribute very much to daily life in the hostel).

  • Once a User has signed in at the hostel door, they are given a name badge that denotes their place within the community, beginning with Junior Member (although if Robert Kozinets is at reception when they arrive, hell give them a Newbie badge instead).


    The new arrivals might not appreciate the connotations of being an apprentice community member, but unlike the users outside (known inside the hostel as Lurkers), they at least have a voice.


  • Assuming they take an active part in discussion around the dinner table, the Junior Member will graduate to become a Member (or Mingler or Devotee depending on the nature of their interaction), the qualification for which is having made between 30 and 99 forum posts). Finally, after making 100 posts they will earn the status of Senior Member (or Insider).

  • Out of 185 SBAi Members, 7 are Senior Members, 8 are Members and 172 are Junior Members. In fact 25 Members have never posted, while 44 almost a quarter of the entire community - have posted only once or twice. It is clear that levels of immersion and investment within the community vary dramatically.

    A community within a community

  • Of 2501 forum posts, 1498 (60%) are attributed to the six Senior Members of the community. In effect, there is a community within a community, with a reasonably small hardcore of around 10-15 particularly active participants, surrounded by a much larger, almost dormant (in terms of interaction) group of users on the periphery.

  • The hierarchy that exists however seems appropriate considering how the site is used. Many Members consult the forum with a view to harvesting advice on beekeeping or to have a specific bee-related question addressed. They are drawn to the site in search of an individual or community of experts. As the SBAi is based around a physical world activity, newcomers might naturally defer to perceived experts as they would in real life.

    This automatic determining of

    status based upon interaction

    establishes an apparent hierarchy

    within the forum. The advertised

    distinction between Member status

    challenges what Kozinets (2010)

    describes a status equalization

    effect within the online community.

    Status & hierarchy

  • As this is a mini-project I narrowed my ethnographic gaze to consider three themes: what membership means within the context of this community; the presence and impact of status and hierarchy within the community, and; whether a short lexical analysis might offer an insight into the community.

    It should be noted that the presence of a hierarchy should not necessarily be seen as negative in this context. On the contrary, the regular input of a hardcore of Senior Members seems to offer the forum momentum. Put simply, without the enthusiasm of Gavin, Jon, Stromnessbees and other regular contributors, there is no forum.

  • As part of her ethnographic study of the Schome Park community in (Teen) Second Life, Gillen (2009) carried out a lexical analysis of virtual world discussion. For my small-scale exercise I chose to interrogate the text by pasting the content of one months worth of discussion into Wordle, with the intention of creating a diagrammatic representation of discussion. This would also provide a frequency list of words (p67). In contrast to the experience of Gillen however, the numerical frequency of words reveals relatively little about the group (see below).

    A (short) lexical analysis

  • The second part of my lexical analysis (on the next page) is more informative. The Wordle diagram which automatically excludes smaller words displays the size of words based upon their frequency within forum discussion over the month.

    However, by ignoring the smallest words (it, and, the etc), it is possible to identify a tendency towards language centred on enquiry: how, when, why. This is consistent with the idea of the forum as a digital space for increasing individual and collective understanding of beekeeping.

  • Also worthy of note is the

    presence within the diagram of

    the names of some contributors

    (Gavin, Eric, Jon). This again

    emphasises the dominant role

    within discussion of a

    committed hardcore of Senior


    The Wordle diagram highlights the major topics of discussion: brood, colonies, sugar, bees, honey. This is significant as it demonstrates that the community is concerned with the topic of beekeeping rather their own status as an online group there is little mention of the forum itself within discussion.

  • We might also learn about the community from the overall tone of discussion, which could be described as friendly, polite and correct. It is possible to detect a general sense of warmth and positivity in the forum. The enthusiasm that users have for beekeeping in the physical world seems to merge into their online discussions, supporting Gillens view (2009: 66) that, we might not necessarily locate a hard-and-fast boundary between the virtual and real world.

    The atmosphere of positivity may be linked to the dominance of a relatively small number of contributors who have a strong investment in the forum. As Kozinets (2019: 24) suggests, when me