Thesis: Digital Places: Attachment, Identity, Sense

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.

8.5 Digital Places: Attachment, Identity, Sense

Schwartz, discussing online place attachment, focusses upon the locative social media platform Foursquare. Though this relies upon members of the participant group actively logging their movements (checking in) in physical situ, there are interesting observations made in regard to how the digital and non-digital combine to facilitate a feeling of ownership of a place, specifically through the creation of “mayor” roles created and managed by the platform:

[T]he feeling of ownership and the status of the title creates a unique tie between the user and the place – a link that separates them from everyone else.

(2014, p.92)

This model of place attachment – facilitated by a specific social media platform – is one which can be applied to the current research study, regardless of the fact it centres upon a social media platform augmenting a reality for a user in physical situ. From the analysed data, I would suggest it is entirely possible for an individual to have place attachment facilitated by the online environment even when they have never physically visited a place in the physical environment. Given the role that folklore (and anthropology) have played in the development of place attachment theory to date, it is suggested that digital folklore and folklore understood and experienced digitally offer a perfect prism through which to investigate this further. Gunnell, discussing the role personal narrative, epic, and myth play in adding dimension(s) to space, states:

All of these, uttered in space, passed through space, attaching themselves to objects in space alter the overall conceptions of the space that people inhabit. Furthermore, just as they live in time, so too do they alter concepts of time.

(2006, p.18)

It is not surprising that, in the field of digital humanities, the approach which is currently being investigated to understand concepts of place attachment in a digital sense relates specifically to digital storytelling (Drought Risk and You 2015). Storytelling – digital or otherwise – creates and defines space. The digital environment offers spaces for research in which boundaries and the accompanying implied dichotomies associated with defining parameters can be redrawn, overlooked, or ignored. Such an environment – always fluctuating and developing – would hopefully impress upon the researcher the need to move away from the linguistic pitfalls of associating the virtual with terminology relating to geography and distance and allow for a more inclusive and open approach to studies relating to identity and place, whether by insisting upon considering space and place always in the multiple, or by acknowledging that a virtually filtered place is, by definition, subjective. This could solve several issues relating to ethnographical studies, as noted by Low:

One reason is that for ethnographers it is difficult to discuss ‘‘place’’ or ‘‘space’’ in a way that does not confine the inhabitants.

(2009, p.21)

The digital environment also offers perfect opportunities for ethnographic research: allowing for immersion in the space(s) or place(s); facilitating multi-method studies, and; providing, via research site accessibility, big data and a variety of scraping tools, an opportunity for longitudinal studies.

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