Thesis: Virtually Filtered Places

This post is one of a serialisation of key (edited) extracts of my thesis, “Digital Ethnography and a Virtual Orkney: The Role of Folklore in Creating an Online Orkney Place”, submitted and completed in 2018. You can download the full text below, with all footnotes, full data quotes, and list of references. I have left the original numerical chapter navigation in this post, for ease of reference.

8.4 Virtually Filtered Places

This thesis purports to discuss a virtual Orkney, analysing data collected via online platforms to ascertain to what extent folklore plays a role in creating an online Orkney place. Throughout discussion, I have repeatedly described this ‘Orkney’ (sense of) place: so is there any difference between Orkney and the virtual Orkney of the title?

As has been outlined by the literature discussed, digital, online, and virtual places – which could be said to exist within (a) cyberspace – have their own unique qualities. There is no doubt that such online places can indeed be considered places for the purposes of academic research.

It becomes more complicated when considering virtual places whose very existence revolves – and, indeed, evolves – around the fact that there is already a geographical place to which such virtual places cannot help but be explicitly linked. Describing such virtual places as mirror images of existing geographical places would be inaccurate, as a mirror implies an accurate reflection. Though there may well be a great degree of accuracy in the reflection between these geographical and virtual places – and, in most cases, the geographical place would certainly be identifiable from its virtual counterpart – the latter is not necessarily a faithful depiction of the former. Such places are not exactly hybrid places, either: they exist separately in their own right as well as (at times) being associated by geo/locative technologies

Miller and Slater, approaching the digital environment from an anthropological point of view, state that digital media should not be considered a separate social space, as it is embedded in an existing, more traditional understanding of social space:

But by focusing on ‘virtuality’ as the defining feature of the many Internet media and then moving on to notions such as ‘cyberspace’, we start from an assumption that it is opposed to and disembedded from the real.

(2000)


Schwartz’s research on the social media platform Foursquare, explores the links between the digital environment and the physical environment, facilitated by locative technologies (2014).

There is a difference, however, between digital space accessible and embedded within existing physical social spaces, and digital spaces and places which focus upon a physical (or material) space or place. It is possible, technology and understanding permitting, to access the digital whilst in the physical; it is not possible to access the physical through the digital in the same way. This is an important distinction when considering to what extent separate, linked, and conjoined realities should be considered in terms of anthropological-related research. In the former, the physical location of members of the participant group is a defining feature; in the latter, it is not necessarily a defining feature (though social and political factors will still influence and structure the overall space(s) in which members of the participant group find themselves).

Instead, it is more apt to think of such virtual places as being filtered, with any sense of place being created by content filtered by individuals and through digital technologies. An increasing amount of research into online platforms focuses on the self, and the presentation of the self in the online environment. It is widely accepted that what is presented on social media by individuals is in fact a carefully constructed narrative of themselves, one which is not necessarily an accurate depiction.

We recognize the display of physical activities on social media as particular expressions of the “spatial self.” The spatial self refers to a variety of instances (both online and offline) where individuals document, archive and display their experience and/or mobility within space and place in order to represent or perform aspects of their identity to others.

(Schwartz 2015, p.1644)


Schwartz describes the spatial self as being “shaped by the character of a physical place and the ways users associate themselves with physical place. The character of a place is a social construct that is continuously created and adjusted by the plethora of visitors to that location and the connotation of that place” (2015, p.1649).

Virtually filtered places are created in much the same way; except instead of being individual in nature, they are collective. It is no surprise that, throughout the data analysed, only one instance of a selfie was prominently shared and enthusiastically received (and this was accompanied with a detailed post on farming in Orkney): the focus remains the place, not the person.

The framing of such places as being virtually filtered seems appropriate. The term ‘filter’ has been historically used to described techniques relating to photography, and has in recent years been adopted by social media platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat, which offer pre-set filters which can be applied to photographs prior to sharing them with other users. The concept of something which has been filtered to publicly present a more strategically manufactured view, with meme-esque reference to its usage in social media, has entered the public consciousness in its own right, aside from its more literal meaning.

The creation of virtually filtered places is the legacy of digital technologies. Virtually filtered places call for a rethink of much which has been written about places. As Schwartz and Halegoua note, “studies concerning the combination of social media or location-based social media, identity performance, and place are still rare” (2015, p.1645). This is true even beyond location-based social media and place studies: though there has been an increasing amount written about space in terms of digital environments over the last several years, the research relating to places as understood geographically in the context of digital environments lags. As a result, some definitions of space versus place sit uncomfortably in the context of digital environments.

The concept of virtually filtered places also allows for an understanding of the subjective nature of such virtual places. A sense of place created by any geographically identifiable place is subjective in nature: the definition of what constitutes the place itself (arguably) might not be, but any sense of place is experienced on the individual and personal level. It stands to reason, therefore, that any sense of a virtually filtered place is created by compounded subjectivity. That is not to say, however, that the broad themes linked to a sense of place – such as those identified throughout this thesis – would not remain the same, or at least similar.

The phrase ‘alternative reality’ is one of many related phrases which have entered the public consciousness via the medium of science fiction. The digital environment, to many, can be seen as offering a form of alternative reality to those who inhabit it (noting the frequent criticisms of using the embodied term ‘inhabit’ and all it implies): virtually filtered places offer users the opportunity to create their own versions – their own realities – of places in a digital environment. Much as Schwartz states that “[p]laces are no longer only appropriated for a specific group” (2014, p.88), such places are no longer created for and by a specific group. The many possible iterations of a virtual place – or a virtually filtered place – can be seen in parallel to the comments calling for cyberspace to be discussed in the multiple. This is best demonstrated by the conflicting views of Orkney as discussed by members of the participant group: those which see Orkney as a place to be preserved and fixed in time, and those which see Orkney as a place striving not just to survive but to thrive economically in the twenty-first century, in full knowledge of the changes that will inevitably bring to the physical landscape.

As mentioned above, I have used the term ‘Orkney’ (not ‘Virtual Orkney’) to discuss the place described following analysis of the data, and have focussed on the role of the folklore of Orkney in this (sense of) place. This is not simply lazy shorthand (though an interesting future study might be to investigate how the sense of place of Orkney created online interplays with the sense of place experienced in Orkney as geographically understood). Any geographical place discussed in a digital environment must reasonably be deemed to automatically potentially have a complementary (if not always complimentary) virtually filtered place. What is important is the extent to which this place is given agency by being embodied:

Social relationships are the basis of social space, yet these relationships necessitate materiality, in the form of embodied space and language, to work as a medium of discussion or analytic device.

(Low 2009, p.34)


Referring back to Farman’s statement that “embodiment does not always need to be located in physical space” (2012, p.21), we can identify virtual places (and virtually filtered places) by reinterpreting Creswell’s statement that “[i]n any given place we encounter a combination of materiality, meaning, and practice” (2009, p.169). A virtually filtered place (in the online environment) is influenced by the material (the physical environment), but is created by meaning and practice (the human environment).

8.4.1 Towards A Definition of Virtually Filtered Places

Though this research has applied a digital ethnographic methodology in investigating the role that folklore plays in relation to the creation and maintenance of an online place, the concept of virtually filtered places is one which is capable of being applied and developed in relation to multiple disciplines and lends itself to – and encourages – interdisciplinary study, drawing from complimentary cross-discipline theoretical approaches.

Virtually filtered places, then, have two criteria: firstly, the way in which places are created mean they are subject to compounded subjectivity. Secondly, all virtually filtered places must, in some way, have an understanding of their role as being one of a series of possibilities, or multiples. The element of compounded subjectivity takes into account the fact that virtually filtered places are created by the actions and representations of multiple people, whereas a virtually filtered place as something which is capable of having many possibilities and multiples takes into account the plurality of the nature of online places and spaces and the impossibility of having a single definable virtually filtered place which takes into account all potential platforms and online focal points.

The concept of a virtually filtered place not only draws together theory relating to both digital and non-digital places across a variety of disciplines, but also draws together theories relating to both space and place. A place is something which is usually presented as something identifiable and singular, whereas theoretical approaches to space are more likely to reference plurality. At times, there is a lack of clear distinction between space and place – particularly when discussing online engagement – to the point where the two terms appear almost to be used synonymously cross-discipline. Encouraging consideration of virtually filtered places as a concept plural in nature allows for theoretical developments to borrow and develop from relevant theories relating to both place and space, allowing for and building upon developments across – and of potential relevance to – a variety of disciplines which focus upon research in digital environments which are, in some form, tethered to non-digital environments.

8.4.1.1 Compounded Subjectivity

Virtually filtered places are more than just technology-mediated places, as they are defined by the way in which the technology is utilised and applied by a potentially unidentifiable body of users. These users are individuals: the focus is the place, not the people, and as a result virtually filtered places are not (necessarily) created by cohesive communities.

McNeill, introducing the concept of portable places as places attached to a physical object which moves in the offline world, discusses passarounds and serial collaborative creations such as roaming gnomes and geocaching. Unlike virtually filtered places, portable places are created by using digital technology to track physical objects, thus creating distinct bodies of folklore. McNeill likens such objects to spontaneous shrines. Though not the same, parallels can be made between the “place-holding” objects and the concept of virtually filtered places as outlined here, especially in relation to this role that physical objects (or environments) play in creating place which is understood in the digital environment:

The creation and use of a movable “place-holding” object, a mobile locality, reassures people that the other beings they interact with ephemerally are still present and real – as tangible and as solid as the objects sent out. Participation in serial collaboration allows for a physical, vernacular, culturally meaningful, and, most importantly, local experience to become tangible in any given location, or in multiple distant locations.

(2007, p.297)


Digital technologies play a unique role in relation to such places – whether portable or virtually filtered – offering a platform (or platforms) upon which places can be created. It should be noted, however, that such places are dependent on the digital technologies available to users:

The global network space and the affordances of social media platforms provided online users anywhere in the world with the potential to imagine Tree in different places, or their very own place – but again note that many people without internet access remain excluded.

(Zebracki 2017, p459)
8.4.1.2 Possibilities and Multiples

All space must be potentially multiple in nature, if only to understand its own parameters in terms of other spaces. Wollan highlights Heidegger’s theory of the spaces which ultimately, create world-space:

In BT Heidegger differentiates between three space concepts: ‘world-space’, ‘regions’ (Gegend) and ‘Dasein’s spatiality’. The first type, ‘world-space’, discusses a common concept of space; cf. the container metaphor, where something is in something else, for example, the benches are in the reading room, the reading room is in the university, the university is in the town, until something is finally ‘in world space’ (Heidegger).

(2003, p.36)


Parallels could be drawn between this approach and the opening paragraph of Dundes’ ‘Defining Identity Through Folklore’:

In the introductory section of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, first published in 1916, the protagonist Stephen Dedalus turns to the flyleaf of his geography textbook to read (Joyce 1964: 15-16):

“Stephen Dedalus

Class of Elements

Clongowes Wood College

Sallins

County Kildare

Ireland

Europe

The World

The Universe”

This traditional, written form of self-identification moves from the individual, as signalled by the personal name, out through a series of identity sets ending with the totality of all things that exist.

(1989, p.1)


Dundes subsequently identifies such flyleaf inscriptions as “part of the folklore of literature populations” (1989, p.2).

These two quotes are included alongside each other for two reasons. Firstly, they demonstrate how everything – from identity to place – is multiple in nature, and is formed not only by what it is but by its role in relation to other things. In this way, this supports Agnew’s theory of two of the necessary identifiers of a place being locality and locale (Agnew 1987). Orkney as a place has been identified throughout this research as being a place of multiples: somewhere forward looking, yet being aware of, and comfortable with, its historical significance. Here, parallels can again be drawn with Rogers’ comments, quoted earlier, about Lefebvre’s concept of third space being one of simultaneous opposites (2002); and with Gunnell’s comments regarding performance and spoken folk narrative:

Unlike the web-text or copy lore, spoken folk narrative of whatever kind it is lives, breathes and functions as a multi-dimensional phenomenon within a multidimensional space, and can never really be separated from this space which gave birth to it and can also be changed by it.

(2006, p.21)


In their editorial to ‘Hybrid Space and Digital Public Art’, Freeman and Sheller call for more academic interrogation of how artists “proliferate myriad hybrid spaces of analog-digital experience that give us many new handles for the interpretation of contemporary existence” (2015, p.3). Once again, we return to the concept of hybrid, multiple opportunities for identity, space, and place as facilitated by digital technologies.

The second reason for detailing the Wollan and Dundes quotes above is simply that the quotes, once again, highlight the role of folklore in investigating phenomena otherwise commonly bracketed as belonging to other academic disciplines. Folklore is everywhere and describes everywhere. Many disciplines – including architecture and art – have expanded their focus in recent years to include substantial consideration of digital technologies and the opportunities that investigation of hybrid space offers such disciplines, yet folklore still appears reluctant as a discipline to make anything but tentative steps towards toward doing so. If, as Wilson stated, folklore is what it means to be human (1981), then the discipline needs to consider, seriously and broadly, the role which folklore plays in the creation of place, especially in the increasing hybrid environment(s) in which we live. Bendix states that:

The greatest strength of folklore studies is the perennial finger they hold to the pulse of what human beings, through their expressive culture, crave or fear most deeply.

(1997, p.21)


Social media has changed the way we communicate. Folklore as a discipline needs to be at the front of understanding what it is people are creating, developing, and communicating.

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