Researcher explores 'Life Online'

August 31, 1999

Blacksburg, Va.-- Annette N. Markham felt as if she were in the dark when she decided to go online to try to understand people who spend a great deal of time in virtual space. She had no idea what she might find there. As a result, her book Life Online (Walnut Creek, Calif.: Altamira Press, c1998.) can serve as an eye opener to the uninitiated as well as an in-depth sociological study.

Markham, assistant professor of communication studies at Virginia Tech, conducted her ethnography of cyberspace by using chat rooms and other virtual spaces to meet online users and to conduct synchronous interviews by computer. She met many people who thought nothing of spending as much as 16 hours a day online. She talked to students, professionals, hackers and an online personality who let Markham use her own virtual room in which to do her interviews. She toured virtual places with virtual people, opening doors to find others "sleeping" or "standing" in virtual rooms. She played frisbee online.

Markham, who earned a Ph.D. at Purdue University in organizational communication, went online to conduct this ethnography because she "wanted to learn how heavy users make sense of their online experiences."

"The popular press talks a lot about internet addiction," she said. "I wanted to know what it felt like from the user's perspective." To fully engage the context of her study, Markham spent a great deal of time online, interacting with users and learning their language. She lost herself in online life so much that she wondered if it was as real as her life in her physical body.

"When I spend a lot of time in disembodied spaces, I forget my body," she wrote. "Often I don't remember it until the physical pain is extreme, and then I resent my body's intrusion on my life online, and my online life's impact on my body."

Markham details the process of doing research in virtual contexts and also presents the dialogues of several interviews to illustrate how these users frame their experiences online. The interviewees conceptualized the Internet in many different ways, from a tool with which to communicate to a real place to exist to a way of being with others.

Some of them separated their "real" selves from their online selves, but others saw their Internet personality as an extension of their bodily personality. Some saw the computer as a way to get closer to others, even as others saw it as a constant reminder that they were not with the person joining them in conversation. While some used it to reach out and touch other people, some used it to limit others' access to themselves physically and psychologically.

While online communities gave some people a support they needed, Markham ultimately discovered that "an online hug can satisfy for only so long" and that even the most constant users of the Internet felt the need to rejoin life offline at times. She discovered that online people were not always who she thought they were. For example, when she conversed with one person, she assumed by the language and reactions that she was talking to a female; but the person later identified himself as a male. Markham had no way to verify either as a more valid label.

She, too, could project different aspects of herself online. "Once I engaged in conversations online, I realized I could act out a number of personalities," she said. "Every time I described myself differently, others responded to me in particular ways, based on innumerable stereotypes and preconceptions."

If she logged on as Annette, she said, "I was often called and pestered by self-described male users wanting me to talk dirty with them, or wanting to know what I looked like and if I had the capacity to transmit audio or, preferably, video. When I logged in as Markham, many users mistook me for a male. Once, after working up my nerve for several hours, I logged into an IRC {Internet Relay Chat} as 'Bambi.' Within two minutes, I had several requests for private conversations."

One of those requests simply asked, "wanna cybersex?"

Markham began to question truth. "Truth is an elusive term in any context," she wrote. "However, because truth is always tentative online, it doesn't make sense to dwell on it too much. It's really more about faith and acceptance."

Knowing that her own feelings about the Internet affected the way she asked questions, she also realized that the answers she received began to change the questions, her methods, and the project as a whole. It was a project in which she was both researcher and participant. The result is a book that discusses research methodology as much as the study itself and gives a picture not only of the veterans online, but also of Markham as a novice participant. It allows the reader to see virtual life from many perspectives.

As for the future of the "technological whirlwind" that allows such interaction and probably will develop more and more ways of connecting without actually being connected, Markham says she has few answers. "I think the Internet is both blown completely out of proportion and completely underestimated regarding its capacity to change us and our world," she said. "I don't think it will take away our humanity, but I think it has the capacity to take us away from a grounded, bound-to-the-earth sort of understanding of what it means to live a full and healthy life. As much as technology connects us, it also isolates us, with or without online forms of communication. This has serious implications for traditional notions of community, family, and the environment, but it isn't the technology that does it to us. We engage it. We live it. We use it. We choose."

In the book's forward, William K. Rawlins of Purdue University says the book, subtitled Researching Real Experience in Virtual Space, "raises numerous personal, practical, ethical, and philosophical issues concerning being with others." It is, however, he said, "energetic and funny," "written with a sense of humor and fallibility, a sense of anguish and limitation." "I should warn you," Rawlins said, "that this is not an easy book to put down. It grabs you, involves you, and intellectually engages you. It lives."

Virginia Tech

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