What is the “field” in virtual research contexts?

Annette Markham

Sep 8, 2011


This is an old topic. And in fact, an old excerpt from a talk I gave in Trondheim, Norway, in 2002.  But I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately and I wonder how this gets modified when applied to social media contexts, beyond the obvious shift from virtual-only contexts to more hybrid forms of connection.

Talking with anyone formally or informally marks a significant shift from observer to participant, or more forcefully, accomplice. Online, once we participate in the context, we begin to co-construct the spaces we study (Markham, 1998). This is not a minor point. Our interaction with participants are not simple events in these online spaces, they are organizing elements of these spaces. In other words, we participate in constructing the very phenomena we label later as the object of analysis. Furthermore, we participate in constructing the Other with whom we are interacting. The social reality of online culture is an ongoing, negotiated accomplishment of conversation. In a place where the boundaries of self and other are created and sustained solely through the exchange of information, we begin to exist as a persona when others respond to us; being, as many theorists note, is relational and dialectic (e.g., Buber, 1958; Bakhtin, 1981; Blumer, 1969; Gergen, 1991; Laing, 1969).

Participation is the fundamental and necessary means through which existence is possible. As MacKinnon keenly notes in 1995, once we shift from physical to digital contexts, the common phrase “I think, therefore I am” is woefully inadequate. Even “I speak, therefore I am” is not enough. The more appropriate phrase in digital contexts is “I am perceived, therefore I am” (p. 119). Every time researcher responds to another in a digital context, the researcher contributes directly and actively to the development of the other’s identity. By extension, our participation in this dialogue creates the field in which the study occurs.