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...Methodological Madness? You, Me and Virtual Ethnography

Gordon Fletcher
Paper presented at the annual Australian Anthropology Society conference, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of New South Wales (July 1999)

This paper commences with the claim that cyberculture is the culture of us. This premise introduces a range of questions, from the definitional issues regarding what 'us', 'culture' or 'cyberculture' may actually be, to consideration of the manner in which these qualities can be meaningfully interpreted. A recurrent theme in this discussion is the utility of considering the boundaries to 'doing' ethnography. Ethnographies necessarily and inevitably present a bounded impression of cultural life. Selecting boundaries for a project, however, that are too narrow may describe a 'sub-culture' and stand as a metonym for a broader range of cultural situations. Similarly too expansive a boundary may only produce descriptions of the most homogenised cultural constructions. While neither approach is 'better' or closer to an imagined 'absolute truth', each, in isolation, represents a 'whole' culture in deeply contrasting ways. It is these concerns and the manner in which ethnographic methodologies are currently being used in anthropology - and other disciplines - for examining the 'virtual' upon which this paper focusses. These attentions arise from my own efforts to solidify and formalise a sustainable methodological approach to research that considers the exchange practices and artefacts found in cyberspace. This paper also reflects my dissatisfaction with the manner in which the received corpus of knowledge found in anthropology and other disciplines is currently being tacitly, rather than critically, discarded in the name of conducting 'virtual ethnography'. I do not, however, argue for a return to a 'bad old days' of methodological imperialism in which only one 'right way' could be condoned or institutionally supported. These concerns are a result of the combined effects of a relatively brief received history of cyberspace and the immediate proximity of the 'gifts' of convenience and communication provided through the presence of cyberspace to those people most likely, and most capable, to critically review its significance - such as academics, graduate students and IT professionals. It is these groups, in a very specific - possibly subcultural - way, that represent the 'us' of cyberculture. Analysing cultural formations that are so 'close' to that of the researcher is a notoriously - in anthropology, at least - fraught task. However, while this factor is clearly a serious influence on any critical discussions of cyberculture, this paper takes a more expansive definition for 'us' to argue that cyberculture represents a cultural milieu that is closely intertwined with the current experiences of globalisation and pervasive commercially motivated technological determinism. This situtation is the cultural and intellectual beneficiary of late modernity and postmodernism. This paper also recognises this 'broader', more vaguely defined cyberculture as 'mainstream' culture and consequently it is only loosely, at best, articulated, and identified with by, its participants.

Defining Cyberculture and Cyberspace
Much of the available literature concerning cyberculture, and particularly cyberspace, follows a 'boundary-first' approach (cf. ). This research defines the parameters for the examination of a particular cultural phenomena at a claimed boundary between 'virtual' and physical actuality. In other words, much of the research that has been conducted into cyberculture almost arbitrarily delineates the field of study as being 'all that is virtual'. The 'virtual ethnography' then sets out to describe a series of situations and interrelatioships that, in the most extreme cases, treat the 'virtual world' as a distinct but single culture in itself. So while this research acknowledges the significance of cyberspace as a significant cultural formation it does not identify or perceive different 'parts' of cyberspace, nor does it consider the possibility that elements of cyberspace may not be integral parts of cyberculture. There is a clear historical analogy here to the increasing subtlety with which anthropology has discussed indigenous Australians. Rough coverall descriptions have given way to more sensitive and acute readings that, as a consequence, provide for more insightful understanding of specific cultural arrangements. Perhaps not surprisingly, these more sophisticated readings have developed with the increased contributions of the 'reaserched' in the antithetical role of researcher. In a subtle reversal, less refined readings of cyberspace mirror an historically specific moment in the earliest development of cyberculture - an environment in which even the most experienced researched could only be an inexperienced 'researched' - a 'newbie'. Cyberspace, however, - as a wholly humanly defined construction - was, and is, increasingly articulated as a consequence of this research as well as a result of its increasingly broader popularity. Contrawise, the experience of the 'virtual' cannot be reduced, or theorised, as simply 'just another' aspect of everyday actuality. The presence of cyberspace as a viable space for human interaction, communication and transaction is distinct from, but related to, previous forms of spatial arrangements and introduces a different combination of experiences, information and influences to 'our' daily lives. This paper does not offer any 'new' methodological approach to the perennial problem of interpreting culture (or cyberculture). Perhaps more practically, this paper argues for a greater level of subtlely and particularism in the interpretation of cultural phenomena in cyberspace. This raises the possibility that an ethnography is better considered as an ethnography on multiple criteria and not just solely as a consequence of the methodology that it employs. Cyberculture as the culture of 'us' presents a wide-ranging and extensive landscape of phenomena which cannot be considered in toto - in detail. This reduces the capacity of ethnographic research in cyberculture to specific practices or sub-cultural group that can be distinctly identified. Arguably, no methodology with an ethnographic inspiration has ever had the capacity, despite claims to the contrary, to present a cultural holism in anything except the most abbreviated terms.

Cyberspace is not Cyberculture
Ethnographic methodologies are de facto seen as one identifying hallmark of anthropological research. For this reason alone, it is not surprising that anthropological research regarding cyberculture and cyberspace have employed this approach in a variety of interesting and innovative ways. Anthropology, as the study of culture, is well suited to take up the study of those phenomena collectively labelled as cyberculture. Its founding anthro-centrism, the sensitivities to locality and spatiality as well as its capacity for particularism provides an intellectual tradition that is accustomed to interpreting the 'strangeness' found in situations like cyberspace and cyberculture. However, to successfully undertake these tasks it is necessary to avoid the reification of specific technologies or to describe a technology as concomitant with a cybercultural phenomena. This is a tendency that is found in the earliest texts of cyberculture and one that is still perpetuated. Cyberculture is not, however, confined to computer-mediated - but socially constructed - cyberspaces. Cyberculture is multi-located and multi-sited. As a consequence, cyberculture, as a whole, can only be described in the broadest most vaguely inclusive terms in the same 'meaningful' manner that 'Western culture' or 'modern culture' might be used - in this sense 'cyberculture' might be better described as a superculture. A 'virtual ethnography' that arbitrarily delineates its field of study on the border between virtual and 'real' may only be telling half of a complex story. A relatively straightforward example of the limitations of considering only the virtual aspects of a cultural phenomena is found with the development of e-commerce. An increasingly common trend among 'virtual stores' that are managed from the United States is their refusal to ship outside the continental 48 US states. The development of these policies are unrelated to the increasing popularity of 'virtual malls' and online shopping but to more 'physical' problems such as the cost of shipping, credit card fraud and the inability to meet demand. An examination of only the virtual aspects of e-commerce - an admittedly unlikely approach - would present the apparently incongruous juxtaposition of the popularity of online shopping with restrictive shipping policies. E-commerce also must deal with the ethereal presence of money. An artefact that is already simultaneously 'virtual' and real, it does not clearly manifest itself but must be represented through artefacts that stand for it, for example; coins, credit cards and e-gold (.com). Other situations take the complex provenance of 'money' even further. The auctioning of characters and 'tools' for use in various online role playing games through the ebay.com auction house emphasises the 'reality' of the virtual. Participants choose to spend money on goods and even 'experiences' which are only useful or 'meaningful' in the context of a specific online gaming 'world'. Similarly, the rudimentary discussion of 'hits' to a web page often raises more questions than can possibly be answered within this narrow 'virtual' perspective. Analysing these statistics reveals little of the contexts, pathways or rationale that generated any particular hit to a web page. There is not even a guarantee that a hit can be equated with a human viewing of a page merely that the hit was the consequence of some remote, but possibly deferred, human activity - such as a 'web robot'. 'Hits' in this way span 'virtual' and physical actuality in ways that make them representative of both virtual and physical action.

An ethnography should not reify the technology of electronically mediated cyberspace but persue the intricacies and vagaries of particular cultural activity that these technologies imply and represent. Few traditional ethnographies are satisfied to conclude with the discovery of artefacts of human activity. The 'classic', and rapidly aging, works of cyberculture such as Rheingold's Virtual Community and Benedikt's Cyberspace: First Steps, despite being criticised for their evangelical positions, all point to the historical continuity between the contemporary cultural formations of what is described as cyberculture and those cultural formations that have both preceded and informed them. Historical continuity must be considered alongside spatial continuity. The meanings of cultural activity do not conveniently exist inside the often arbitrary boundaries of 'different' spatial formations.

The cyberculture around us
Tangible evidence for the extent and form of cyberculture pervades our daily lives through various artefacts and interactions. Broadcast media has assumed the "look and feel" of the "interfaces" into cyberspaces. The Australian televisions programmes Burke's Backyard and Totally Wild, for example, have had navigation bars for a long time yet both shows still utilise linear broadcast media. News and current affairs shows gain feedback about their stories through web-based discussion sites. Bands and entertainers get audience response about their recent shows through fan sites and, sometimes, modify their subsequent performances. Major web search engines advertise on the sides of buses. Packaged foodstuffs, and even fast foods, carry web addresses on their packaging. Many Australian and international institutions of higher education persue "virtual" and flexible teaching and learning options. The rapid uptake of digital cellular phones provides us with an ever-present 'nearly imminent' form of cyberspace that intercede in our daily lives on buses and trains and in lifts and movie theatres. These developments all serve to increasingly blur the already arbitrary boundaries of physical and 'virtual' experience. 'Our' culture is cyberculture irrespective of our personal connection - or its lack - to the Internet and other cyberspaces. The technologies which enable the presence of cyberspace and the practices that these spaces engender exert influence on cultural activities conducted 'outside' cyberspace. Perhaps most significantly it is this influence that helps to define the boundaries of cyberculture. Ethnographies traditionally looked towards a complex of arrangements in order to identify distinct cultures. Language, cultural practices and geographic proximity all help to define a cultural boundary. Despites these demarcations, debate still develops over the classificatory accuracy of any ethnography. The boundaries of cyberculture are equally 'fuzzy' in their capacity to be readily defined. A number of factors can be identified as contributory, however globalisation and the colonising impact of computer-based technologies are among the most significant. As a consequence, traditional markers of cultural difference such as distinct language boundaries are less important as a form of written (or more accurately 'typed') 'net' pidgin based on English, various keyboard symbols and other languages finds its way into emails, message boards and chat rooms as well as the text of web sites. Increasingly aspects of this 'net' pidgin encroach upon other forms of communication that are ostensibly unrelated to any specific cyberspace but are embedded in the wider experiences of cyberculture, examples of software manuals and goods bought via the internet or elsewhere all reveal that while the English alphabet is a commonly used set of symbols the meanings ascribed to particular combinations of symbols can be highly transitory. The capacity to communicate generalised meaning rather than the ability to speak a specific language becomes a more important criteria for participation within cyberculture. This is perhaps one advantage of a primarily textual web-as-cyberspace, as written text can more readily be deciphered by speakers of other languages and translation tools such as babelfish(.altavista.com) can approximate a level mutual comprehension. As with language, while geographic separation has not been effaced by globalisation its significance a basis for defining cultural difference has been altered. This contraction of physical distance has also contributed to the homogenisation of cultural practices and is further reinforced by the way in which computer technology restricts the acceptable range of cultural practice to a known subset of possibilities. The use of particular software technologies, such as Microsoft Word to compose documents or Internet Explorer to surf the Web has an impact on the form of digital cyberculture artefacts that can be manufactured. A web page that will not render in Internet Explorer cannot be seen by a majority of web users. The methods for navigating through a non-linear text such as a web page is a culturally specific skill yet it is a skill that is assumed to be possessed - to some degree - by all users of the Web. A document composed with Word can only be written and presented in a finite number of ways - without the most labourious editing - because it is primarily designed for correspondence compatible with North American business sensibilities. It could be observed that these conditions make cyberculture an imposed culture with few viable alternatives. However, while this claim have some validity (particularly in light of the Microsoft anti-trust case) and the use of technological is never politically passive, other criteria - including the use of the Web for cultural survival - suggest that such a coverall definitions for cyberculture is only applicable in the most generic terms. The definition and articulation of cyberspace does however increasingly implicate cyberculture as the culture of hegemonising power and the culture of the mainstream. So while we are not all geeks, nor spend inordinate amounts of time online, we feel the impact of cyberspace through a range of cybercultural activities. The blurring between what might be understood as contemporary mainstream culture and cyberculture becomes increasingly less definite with the transformation of our own household material culture into 'wired' objects. Westinghouse, for example, is claiming that it will offer a fridge onto the consumer market that incorporates a web server in its componentry and which will be able to interface with other appliances. It is claimed that the fridge will monitor its 'input' and 'output' and automatically order groceries from the local online grocer once the contents of the fridge are depleted. Cyberspace, or at least the means with which to interface with it, is to be found in the most unexpected places and, in the case of the wired-fridge at least, will give more tangible anthro-centric meaning to the logging of 'hits' on a web server.

Cyberspace Communities
Irrespective of these near-future developments cyberspace is regularly defined as analogous to, and an extension of, broadcast and mass media. However, this definition is a restrictive and misdirected one. The drift towards a communications-based understanding of virtual communities, cyberspace and cyberculture is one that founds many works that describe themselves as virtual ethnographies. The phenomena of cyberspace is not solely a new communications strategy but rather a complex of cultural practices that occupy multiple locations - virtual and physical. These virtual ethnographies are often focussed upon the use of a particular 'site' (and often a MUD or a MOO) and the observed interactions between the participants. The consequence of this focus is a resultant, but possibly unintentional, detachment from the machinations of cyberculture 'beyond' the boundaries of the research site. This raises the question regarding the boundaries of the ethnography and of the culture being examined, and whether these two delimitions should be parallel. These are boundaries imposed by the researcher, in reference to a particular cultural landscape, which demarcates the flow of people, artefacts and communication between various sites from the inside to the outside. Examining cultural phenomena in this locationally bound manner also raises the possibility that this research concerns the sub-cultural practices of a much broader, less definite, culture. As a consequence, the discussions and conclusions concerning a sub-culture of the mainstream cyberculture may be better understood in a metonymic relationship to this broader phenomena. The specific sub-cultural differences that might be observed and discerned are spectacular anomalies against the wider backdrop of a 'whole' cultural phenomenon. Reducing, to some degree, the extremes of practices in cyberculture to the sub-cultural, superficially appears to efface traditional distinctions, and animosities reducing their significance to the status of museum curiosities. The homogenising effect of globalisation encourages this reduction within cyberculture as readily as it is in economics, capitalism and politics. It is the differences within the practices of cyberculture that are indicators of cultural resistance and persistence. For cultural groups who have embraced cyberspace as a means of survival, they must chart a path between their impetus to political and cultural action to maintain a separate identity against the pervasive influence of an increasingly mainstream cyberculture which promotes an almost robotic uniformity. In this context, it is also necessary to consider what defines cultural survival in the age of cyberculture. The persistence of cultural identity in this situation must represent a series of political decisions regarding the choosen associations to mainstream culture, the technologies of cyberspace and one's own culture.

Described, simplistically, in this way, the work of the virtual ethnographer can sound like a commendably focussed and politically acute piece of research. However this would have us understand the research location as a cultural formation 'in itself' or at an extreme an entire culture. The ommission is not of everything external to a particular culture but of the 'rest' of the culture itself irrespective of whether the culture in question is one resisting the mainstream or the mainstream cyberculture itself. This is an oversight that potentially obscures the rationale for the research itself. To draw on the media analogy once again, it is of the same order of magnitude as attempting to wholly or accurately describe amphorous "Australian" culture through an examination of "Neighbours". While the television programme is perhaps seminal to this culture it provides a condensed, abbreviated and privileged vision of the culture that inspires it, This problematises what is meant by 'ethnography' as analyses of 'Neighbours' such as this have been completed under different rubrics - namely media and cultural studies. Similarly, studying the 'site' of the 'online' household fridge may give new impetus to the garbage studies of the 60s and 70s but only with the broadest definition could such a study be contemplated as ethnographic.

These competing claims do not necessarily place urgency on the manner in which ethnographies are conducted, the wide range of research activities that could be completed under the title of ethnography was already vast before the 1980s. More importantly, and particularly with the arrival of the 'virtual' ethnography, is the need to re-examine the intended of object of examination implied for this methodology. The closely bound associations between the discipline of anthropology and the ethnographic methodology as well as, to a lesser degree, the interpretation of culture can obscure specific intention with an indefinite and ill-defined impetus to merely catalogue the visible traces of cultures and cultural practices. Examining the communicative transactions between the participants of a "chat space" or a MOO would appear to exhibit the worst excesses of the modernist imperative to obtain information for information's sake. Knowing everything that occured over a finite period in a specific location may not tell us very much about cyberculture or the communities that we ostensibly are examining. An analogy might be found here with the anthropological examinations of the earliest forms of written culture. While occassional pieces provide broad illumination of the cultural practices of the period much preserved written history records land tenure and other legal contracts. Clearly closer research into these documents are revealing but only to a point beyond which lies the educated inference of the anthropologist. In the case of the 'chat space' or the MOO what is actually being inferred is contemporaneously present beyond the virtual 'pale' - in the physical actuality of 'real life'. 'Logging' the use of any of the number of the Web's 'online Coke machines' is certainly possible but in an ethnographic sense understanding the ways in which the consumption of Coke and the ways that the associated office or university culture may have altered would probably provide a more bountiful ethnographic work. Yet the resultant work would still remain a study of an aspect of cyberculture. Despite the apparent certainty that is implied by regular use of 'ethnography' in academic literature, it has a range of meanings and applications as a methodology. The common inspiration for ethnographies, however, appears to be remarkably similar: to 'know' a culture or community. Many virtual ethnographies perhaps as a result of the early booster literature not only start with this inspiration but also with the assumption that 'community' is both pre-existent and present in the spaces that they are examining. For some works, the assumption is also that these community of associations are independent constructions that have, in effect, developed spontaneously in cyberspace. This may possible with groups such as ICQ users or Napster users but the plausbility of categorisations such as this is unlikely when most online groups define themselves in terms of a relationship that was initiated and is defined beyond the virtual, for example, Metallica fans, Jungian Psychologists or Welsh Nationalists. There is also a need to disentangle the use of particular software as the sole basis for the conventional classification of common cultural practice that is implied by the discussion of the 'Napster Community'. The working of Bronze and Iron has been used as a meta-description of historical periods that shared common technological traits but maintained separate cultural identities. The individual cultures are delineated as distinctive because of the different methods they employed for working the metal, the different artefacts that they crafted from the metal and the manner in which these artefacts were then utilised. The difficulty with this analogy to software is that it is not a 'raw' material or alloy from which artefacts are crafted. Software is itself an artefact (or even a complex of artefacts) that represents a condensation of human labour as well as the meanings lade onto it by its designers and its users.

The problem of defining the limits of a culture are not, however, inherent in the space of 'cyberspace' but a consequence of studying 'ourselves'. The 'ourselves' and 'us' of cyberculture are among the most fraught of categories. They encompass the rhetoric and impact of 'globalisation' as well as the difficulties of defining a community for the purpose of research. The classification of what does or does not constitute a community in contemporary culture is also itself a rich source of debate. These are not new problems brought by the presence of cyberspace. Rather, the presence of cyberspace within contemporary academic discourses accelerates 'our' own awareness of the potential meaninglessness of these terms and the concepts that underpin them.

It is both a curiousity and reassuring that cyberculture is discussed within an anthropological context. Other disciplines are also staking claims to the analysis of cyberspace and its associated cultural conditions (specifically cyberspace in its manifestation as the World Wide Web.). Brown-Syed outlines an information systems approach...

" The overall aim of the current research is to identify header and text elements [of a web page] which will assist researchers in determining quickly the relevance, authenticity, and value of digital artifacts, as well as information about the credentials of their creators."

Beyond the veil of cyberspace this research would probably be received with a degree of caution. If it were not digital artifacts but artifacts in toto that were being examined would the authenticity of the artifact or the credibility of the creator be questioned? It is a phenomena of cyberspace and cyberculture research that researchers hear alarm bells when their artifacts acquire the status of being digital. Yet, do they believe everything they read in the newspaper while also considering the credentials of the manufacturer of their Froot Loops and environmental impact of using Asian rainforest woods in their table and chairs? Add one of Westinghouse's wired fridges to this scene of domestic bliss and the point at which cyberspace begins and ends is increasingly indistinct. Will reaching into the fridge for the milk constitute an excursion into cyberspace?

Brown-Syed continues...

"We contend that the absence of editorial control, coupled with the alarming tendency toward deliberate skewing of Web search results by profiteers, will stress network bandwidth resources, contribute to a crisis of confidence in the Internet, and if unchecked, may potentially have far reaching consequences for the growth of scientific and scholarly knowledge, and for its dissemination to the public."

A related example that similarly responds to Brown-Syed's concerns that should be familiar to anyone involved in tertiary education has been the exaggerated fears related to the Internet and plagiarism. Increasingly, however, it appears that the power of Web search engines makes it easier to locate plagiarised work but not necessarily any easier for students to plagiarise. Often the task of verifying a blatant case is simple - a case of typing a select phrase from an essay into a search field and perusing the resultant matches. In some chases tangible evidence against the perpetrator is only two or three clicks away and located in the same manner they too located 'their' work.

The point to stress here is the absence of 'serious' efforts at contextualising in many works that 'tackle' cyberculture and cyberspace. Context is not bound by the arbitrary delineation of a spatial position, including that of the 'virtual', yet this is treated as the primary bounding parameter for much research. In spite of these methodological fancies, 'real-time' chat sessions such as ICQ include obligatory introductions that generally attempt to geographically locate the participants - not necessarily to ensure a commonality or to reaffirm communality but to reassure each participant of the relatively safe physical and conceptual distances from one another. The distance provides the confidence to rapidly alternate between being a 'Norwegian Cindy Crawford' or 'short and solid' as one person variously insisted to me in a single ICQ conversation, although admittedly this may have been intended to imply the same physical features. The postmodern penchant for playfulness is clearly an aspect of cyberculture. Yet it is only the form of playfulness that is confined to cyberspace - and this wouldn't be found at all within cyberspace without the awareness and acceptance of this playfulness in a broader cultural context.

The development of a contextual understanding (what might even be argued as an ethnographic understanding) can too readily be deferred to the construction of a specifically located description of a particular place. In my own examination of the chat space that I also, not uncoincidentally, maintain such a specific locating of the 'ethnographic' would appear to be plagued with difficulty, if not completely impossible. Many of the participants do not confine themselves to any particular 'topic-based' chat space. They literally wander between the 'theology', 'anthropology' and 'architecture' spaces. As a consequence of a recent request, the generically labelled 'music' space has also become part of this repetoire. The regulars in each of these spaces often conduct their conversations in an almost random manner so that a linear description of any one space does not encapsulate the entirety of the conversations that any of the regular participants had - as they may have added comments and discussion elsewhere at the same time.

This being said, as I was writing this paragraph a message appeared in the music chat space...

um, looks like everyone has a page except me... eva has her art
page, roch has his theology, firpo has his philosophy and d, mira, and
calaf have their music page but....(music) What About Me.... sniff..

by: g

This comment and my fleeting exposure to this range of people increasingly suggests that these particular spaces are better understood as a form of social intersection. However, the current form that the discussion takes at this chat space does not deny the possibility for the construction of some form of community or at the very least a sense of affiliation. There have been individual efforts by participants to soldify a community around this particular space. The most successful effort was dubbed 'the blob' by some regular participants of the architecture chat space. One participant packaged up some of his work (some sketches and plans) and mailed the material to another participant. This participant added material and then posted it onwards to yet another regular. The intention was to add new people and as 'the blob' completed a complete circuit the original 'blobee' would remove their first round of material and add something new. Unfortunately to the best of everyone's knowledge 'the blob' disappeared somewhere on its way from Jamaica to Australia.

Although these events are clearly setbacks this collection of spaces appears to have been successful in bringing together a collection of people who share interests which extend beyond their own capacity to use a computer and it has helped to maintain those interests. This success appears to be at least partly related to the relatively non-commercial form of the site - the participants aren't attempting to stand in middle of the electronic equivalent of a 'theme park' or 'shopping mall' - places where these form of conversation are both rare and subsidary to the primary purpose of the space. Yet 'stickiness' - the e-commerce people's term for a web site that keeps users - is the very quality desired by the online malls and portals such as Yahoo, Lycos and Netcenter. Just as in other techno-social spaces you are in a wholly build environment which is constituted with a narrow purpose. Unlike the electronic shopping mall however, the more conventional environment of the mall is prepared to eventually concede a 'human' need to exit the mall albeit for other techno-social spaces.

Elsewhere on the web somewhat more concerted efforts are being undertaken to build virtual communities without a commercial impetus. One of the theology chat space regulars pointed me to the bishopric of Partenia (www.partenia.org) whose website describes the circumstance for the creation of this electronic community...

In January 1995 Jacques Gaillot abruptly received his resignation [his notice] from his office at Evreux. In a rather surrealist way, this eviction was transformed in an appointment at an ancient and fictitious see, Partenia in Algeria. This made him a kind of virtual Bishop of which his potential parishioners were spread all over the planet... A year later, he decided to take the institution at its word, he opened a web site to dialogue with every body in the world. It was immediately successful: thousands of Internet users from all over France, Canada, Australia and dozens of countries, laymen or clerics, Christians or non Christians, for or against, conversed on many various subjects.

Partenia has clearly the potential to develop some form of communality. The means to undertake this may be electronically mediated but the inspiration for the community is founded upon much more traditional forms of association that anthropologists and others would be quite familiar with.

As I have watched the ebb and flow of the chat space I have worked with I am increasingly convinced that virtual ethnographies should not represent a reification of provenance. This approach reflects a particular technical moment in the development of cyberculture and in it becoming 'our' culture. One of the people closely involved with the development of flexible learning at Griffith University often claims that 'flexible' will soon not be in the title of his position as this is the way all teaching and learning will be conducted. I make a similar claim for virtual ethnographies and cyberculture. Those who conduct ethnographies that include and attempt to comprehend virtual spaces are conducting the anthropology of 'us' and facing all the problems that self-reflexive methodologies introduce. We are facing the 'other' of cyberculture and find a mirror.