Dicks and Bruce
for Messenger Morphs the Media
The Production of Hypermedia Ethnography.
There is a world beyond hyperfiction. We hope.
Dicks and Mason are one year into a
year research project to investigate the usefulness of
hypertext/media in ethnography. Our remit covers
both the usefulness of hypertext in helping to analyse
social science research and its ability to communicate that
research in novel ways to others. In this presentation
we will briefly outline some of the challenges we face and
the opportunities we perceive. We will also consider
some of the implications for hypertext scholarship that our
work seems to be engendering.
So what exactly is ethnography?
At it's simplest ethnography is the "thick" description
of culture. As an active process it is the act of the
researcher participating in/observing some self defined
community in order to understand it. As a product it
is a, written, text of the ethnographer's findings.
Unlike statistical analyses produced through quantitative
research, ethnography focuses on the more implicitly
interpretative, and subjective, interpretations derived from
qualitative research. Unsurprisingly ethnographic
texts share as much in common with travelogs and novels as
they do with academic reports....
Nyakanjata is weary after twenty-two episodes as Bill has
counted them. Her very weariness dissociates her,
makes her quit her superficial efforts... and lets the
deep effect, impelled by the accumulative power of the
medicines and the communications with the spirit, take
place. The Sakutoha tooth slips quietly out into
the horn, and is safely held by Singleton." (Edith
Turner, Experiencing Ritual, p.105. The end
of chapter 5.)
Unsurprisingly also, ethnography has been taken to
task by the same post-modern, post-structuralist critiques
that fiction has. (If you really want to know more
article in Sociological Research Online,
particularly sections 2.2 - 2.5.) One response to this has
been to widen the range of rhetorical forms, so we see
ethnographic poetry, montages, fragments, performance art
and so on. Our intent is to investigate the
possibilities of ethnographic hypertexts, our to coin a
term, Ethnographic Hypermedia Environments (EHEs).
So where is this going?
The questions we are exploring deal with how do we use a
hypertext environment to adequately portray ethnographic
findings? The exploratory rhetoric of hyper fiction
can be quite usefully adapted to ethnography. To quote
Hypermedia potentially favours an expanded and more
complex object of study, as well as inviting an experimental
mode of authoring. These potentialities are enshrined in two
principal advantages that hypermedia can offer the
ethnographer. Firstly, there is the possibility of creating
all kinds of multiple links between both the data assembled
and the interpretative texts which comment upon these data
(Howard, 1988). This facility allows the object of study to
breach the boundaries of the research setting itself, since
connections can be made with all kinds of intertextual
resonances in mind. Different types of interpretation can be
accommodated, so that both the voices of participants and
the author's commentary can be more creatively integrated.
For example, most hypertexts allow the creation of 'paths'
through the hypertext with appropriate labelling, so that
the linkages and ruptures between interpretation, the data
presented and the potential 'intertexts' of the ethnography
itself can be more explicitly foregrounded. Whilst these
pathways are designed to guide the reader in the direction
of authorial argumentation and/or suggestion, the very
accessibility and 'proximity' of the data texts may
open up channels for innovative interpretation and
reinterpretation - both in the analytic phase and in the
Secondly, there is the provision for readers to trace
their own paths through these chains of links. As soon as
one introduces multiple links into a hypertextual document
(rather than merely having a linear sequential link from one
'page' to the next), the author can no longer control how a
reader will progress through the environment created, and
which directions s/he will choose to pursue (although the
hidden hand of the author can be somewhat heavier than the
reader realizes). Associations and lines of enquiry can
thereby emerge in the act of reading that may not be
predicted in advance by the author. Although there is
nothing inherent to the provision of multiple pathways or
trails in EHEs that will push the reader into constructing
pathways of their own, the presentation of interlinking
avenues of enquiry and the facility for switching among them
aims to encourage readers to approach the ethnographic
environment as a shifting matrix of connections rather than
a fixed grid of self-contained narratives. However, the
actual usage that readers make of such potential remains a
matter for empirical investigation, and we hope to make use
of technical facilities for mapping and recording the
directions that actual readers take.
Thus, hypermedia, potentially, enables both the
complexity of the object of study and the mode of its
representation to be more fully and flexibly articulated. Of
course, a writer can never control how a reader will
interact with a traditional printed book either, so we are
not suggesting here that a radically new form of
communication is enabled by hypermedia environments. Any
text is capable of being read in a non-linear mode. In fact,
one can argue that a computer-based hypertext is more
limiting than a written text. With the latter, one can
physically 'link' from any word in the text to any word in
any other text whereas a reader of a computer-based
hypertext can only follow the links created by the author,
rendering the reader less free to create their own
interpretations (see Aarseth, 1997: pp. 77 - 78). What is
innovative about ethnographic hypermedia environments
(EHEs), however, is that the potential for cross-referencing
and for multiple linkages is integral to the medium itself,
and can inform all phases of the research process.
and Mason 3.4 - 3.6)
So what's the problem?
We are encountering several difficulties. Firstly
there is no adequate software that does what we want.
Part of the aim is to develop hypertexts that require the
minimum in technological competence from author and
reader. Currently we are building the links in
StorySpace which does not handle any media but text and
basic images. Yet our interest is in integrating
various media, we have over 25 hours of video footage to
include. So we will need to convert the whole package
over to Authorware at a later date, a clunky solution at
best. Then, having chosen StorySpace for its ease of
use and sophisticated linking we discovered that it's most
advanced feature, the "path browser" does not support "text
links." This is crucial because....
EHEs have big, big nodes.
The major part of our EHE is the data. It contains
55 transcribed interviews (over 1500 paper pages) in
addition to the video footage we would like to include,
specifically about 10 hours of documentary style "fly on the
wall footage" which is untranscribable. Naturally we
need each transcript to be a node, as the represent single,
whole, entities. However our longest are nearly 200K
in size as plain text files, which means that StorySpace
needs six nodes to hold them. The question is how do
we make such big nodes easy to navigate for the
reader? Rather than excerpt quotes from people and
including it in interpretative text we would like the reader
to follow trails which take them directly to the relevant
part of interview so that the reader may then choose how
much of the interview to read. However a 200K long
plain text file is a nightmare on a computer screen.
Handling big nodes is proving one of the more problematic
aspects of the endeavour.
Finally, how do you author academically rigorous
hypertexts? A simple question, with a difficult
answer. It is a question of academic rhetoric and the
construction of argumentation in hypertext. Academic
argumentation follows 2000 years of linear
disputation. How do we, as academics, present
non-linear argumentation. We do not want to fall into
the limiting Computer Assisted Learning paradigm that seems
to have dominated non-fiction hypertexts, rather we want to
explore the innovative, if not always successful, fictions
that have attempted to push the boundaries of hypertext.
Our interest then is in learning how other hypertext
authors have dealt with cognate issues. From our
perspective, we suspect that some of the issues we have to
deal with in authoring EHEs will be of interest to those
authoring hypertext fictions..