In my second year of anthropology at the University of St Andrews, we were given free rein to conduct a two-week-long ethnographic project. The year was 2010 and I was (and still am) spending too much time online.
ChatRoulette (“an online chat website that pairs random users for webcam-based conversations”) was just becoming popular and I was intrigued to find out more about the social processes at play. This was my first time doing a project and writing a paper that wasn’t a direct response to something I’d learned in class, and I really took advantage of that sense of freedom.
‘What is a nice girl like you doing on ChatRoulette, anyway?’
The first time I heard about the randomized video-chat, an acquaintance was boasting on Facebook about having encountered a ‘real pedophile’ on the site. Soon afterwards, a few other friends started talking about ‘going on ChatRoulette’ sporadically. As a burgeoning anthropologist with a special interest in the social aspects of cyberspace, my interest was piqued. One night, I covered my webcam with a crumpled napkin and began my journey into the relative unknown.
For my first ethnographic project, my goals were modest—find out how humans interact in a new and original (at that time) online playground. My main research questions focused on identity performance and rules and control on the platform.
I was eager to immerse myself in this new, ‘exotic’ world, but not to reveal myself, so I spent most of my time on ChatRoulette with a covered webcam. This was part of what I envisioned participant observation to look like. Sometimes I would reveal my face, but keep my audio off, forcing us to chat in text, while other times I would use both video and audio to communicate with my ephemeral informants.
I spent quite a few nights chatting with strangers on ChatRoulette, but I also interviewed my informants (or friends) about their own experiences with the platform. Finally, I conducted a couple of group sessions—using the platform with other friends present and then talking to them about the encounters we had shared.
My two-week-long online ethnographic exploration of identity-play within the now-defunct ChatRoulette was quite a success, earning me top marks. Moreover, it was later published in the university journal of undergraduate papers.
The full paper is available here.
The most important part of this project for me, however, was learning to merge my love for writing with the academic world. Whereas my previous papers had been appreciated by tutors, this was the first time I felt like myself while writing at university. I’ve been chasing this feeling (of using my own voice to communicate something enlightening and, perhaps, even entertaining) ever since, with occasional successes. It remains a life-long endeavour.
In 2010, digital ethnography was not yet the buzzword that it became 10 years later, and the academic literature was scarce. Additionally, for a very short undergraduate project, I felt like I’d barely scratched the surface of what was to be explored and communicated about this new (digital) community. Lastly, my biggest regret is not incorporating more audio-visual material in my research and writing.