Fieldwork and the Internet: the Gatekeeper to the Gatekeeper

The internet is a tool of communication – of information and ideas. It is also brimming with conflicting opinions and seemingly useless (yet nonetheless entertaining) videos. With one wrong step you can be met by trolls, another can lead you down a dark, and seemingly endless video hole. I succumb daily to video after video of kittens, trick shots, and food porn. It is an internal conflict – but one that I gave up trying to fight some time ago. The Internet is the battleground of debate, not simply as the medium through which the debate takes place, but also as the subject of debate. It is – and will continue to be – a subject of discussion within anthropology; from Chikako Ozawa-de Silva’s ethnography of online suicide forums in Japan; to blogs like this on the role of the internet and fieldwork. In a discipline where it takes substantial time (fieldwork, transcription, analysis, write-up) to publish, the Internet is utilised as a medium through which many anthropologists are able to publish more frequently. The precedence this sets however, is not without opposition. But this is not what I wish to speak about. This blog is about the role of the Internet in my recent fieldwork. More specifically, about the Internet as a tool for recruiting participants. A gatekeeper to the gatekeeper so to speak.

The Internet has been extremely important for my current research, which focuses on suicide prevention in New Zealand. Suicide, understandably, can be tough to speak about. Talking to friends and family about my research often receives the same reaction – one that I have seen time and time again. First comes the look of surprise, an uncomfortable joke, and then an acknowledgement that it must be difficult to listen to people’s stories again and again. Don’t get me wrong, it is difficult. And because of this, I presumed it would be difficult to enter a field filled with stories of despair, anger, and confusion.

In preparation for my research, I created a website and Facebook page, The Existential Elephant. It was intended as a place to share and perhaps help shape my ideas, but when I began my fieldwork four months ago, little did I know my field had already been created – I had unknowingly stepped into my participants’ world. My task was to realise it.

Near the beginning of my fieldwork I took a weekend trip up the coast, thinking I would be able to come back on Monday with fresh eyes and fresh ideas. The day I left on my trip, however, I received Facebook messages from three mothers, whose sons had all died by suicide. This startled me, both because I was hoping to keep my research in a dark, isolated corner of my mind, but also because I was pleased that I had already found three participants from a group that I thought would be largely inaccessible. The following day I was contacted by three more who also have experience with suicide; the next day, another two. In less than a week I had been contacted by, or put in contact with, 12 participants, all willing and wanting to speak to me about their experiences with suicide. These people are from all over the country – Auckland, Hamilton, the Hawke’s Bay; down to Dunedin. I was a little confused as to how my name was getting around – and at such a rate of knots. It was down to the Internet.

My name and the details of my research were making their way through online communities and networks of those bereaved by suicide. These ‘suicide bereaved networks’ were used to make therapeutic connections with others who had lost loved ones to suicide. They were run via Facebook, with titles espousing both hope and loss. On these sites people trade their stories, sharing empathetic and compassionate words, and voicing their dissatisfaction with the system that had been charged with the care of their son, mother, or husband.

The role of the Internet in facilitating these online communities is profoundly significant. It has allowed those bereaved to create communities based on a topic that more often than not hides behind a veil of secrecy – the suicide taboo. Something that through the course of my fieldwork my participants have since portrayed to me as something they feel very keenly, particularly in smaller communities where news travels fast. The isolation felt by those bereaved by suicide can be transcended by online communication. After coming across these networks, of which there are many, it became obvious as to why I had been contacted by people not restricted by any geographical locale. These networks truly functioned at a national level. For my participants, the Internet has thus been an extremely powerful actor in their lives, and in their healing.

For the ethnographer, the Internet as a fieldsite must be treated as any other geographically-defined, temporally-defined, or institutionally-defined site. The communities that are created online do not limit themselves to online communication, they too visit one another if space and time permits, they call one another, and they at times congregate in social or political gatherings. Therefore, rather than treating the Internet and online communities with skepticism or allowing them to be dropped down the hierarchy of ‘true’ fieldsites, we must acknowledge the salience and pertinence of the Internet as a socio-politico-cultural space where people hold a position.

FB_IMG_1472420385088Tom Loffhagen is an MA student in Cultural Anthropology at VUW.  His research focuses on preventative care of suicidality in New Zealand, examining the tensions and contradictions visible at the intersections between professional and intimate care.


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