Thesis: Conclusion

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.

Chapter 9: Conclusion

This thesis has approached the consideration of an online Orkney place, and the extent to which folklore plays a role in the creation of this place, by using digital ethnographic methods to analyse data collected from the social media platforms of Facebook and Twitter. As a result, the approach to investigating this online Orkney place and its relationship to folklore has referenced a number of theories across a wide range of disciplines, including (but not limited to) humanistic and phenomenological interpretations of place, place attachment, space and place as understood from an anthropological perspective, code/space theory, mobile interface theory, and a variety of folkloristic and island studies approaches and theories. This thesis therefore benefits from an interdisciplinary approach to considering how place can be defined by folklore in the twenty-first century.

9.1 Folklore and Place in the Digital Environment

Though folklore has been historically focussed predominantly on place over space, the places it had traditionally focussed upon are clearly identifiable in a geographical (physical, material) sense. With the still (comparatively) recent proliferation of social media and the acknowledgement across a number of disciplines that the physical environment can no longer be clearly differentiated from the digital environment, folklorists need to consider how these two environments interact in relation to existing bodies of folklore, and how the digital environment can transmit and even create complementary bodies of folklore relating to specific geographical places.

The creation of space is facilitated by the platform-specific functionality utilised by users on social media platforms (both within platforms, and cross-platform). Applying Low’s anthropological theory of space and place (2009) and Dourish’s computer-supported cooperative work perspective on space (2006), these parameters of potential space – made possible by digital platforms – are further defined by the social constructs that are imposed upon them to create space in which, applying a digital approach to embodiment, place can be created. It is within these spaces and places that approaches and theories relating to folklore can then be applied. Arguably, folklore helps dictate the social constructs that impact upon these spaces and places (consider the earlier discussion on chain letters or the sharing of GIFs and memes), providing a code which users may adopt or reject depending on their personal worldview.

The digital environment offers unique spheres of space which, though perhaps incapable of being defined in terms of boundaries and parameters, nevertheless provide the researcher with evidence of features of cyber/digital/online/virtual places. Depending on the nature of the study, these may apply solely to digital spaces and places, or may apply to geographically identifiable places. In such instances, the concept of virtually filtered places – subjective in terms of personal understanding and themselves created by compounded subjectivity, and multiple in nature – provides the researcher with the potential to understand a physical place by the way in which it is considered – and even created – in the digital environment. In such hybrid environments in which place is considered, Agnew’s proposal that place requires a location, a locale, and a sense of place (Agnew 1987) should be revisited. As has been noted by a number of academics, there is no clear definition of what place is; and place and sense of place are, at times, used synonymously (much as sense of place and spirit of place are). The further that digital ethnographic techniques are applied to research questions relating to place – interpreting locations and locales in terms of digital spaces and places – the further the concept of place as defined by Agnew calls for further cross-discipline discussion.

A series of themes relating to an online Orkney place were identified by analysing data collated from a hosted Twitter Hour, three separate Hosted Hashtags on Twitter, and from Facebook Groups and Pages, and the extent to which folklore played a role in the creation of the resulting online place was investigated. By iteratively analysing the data from these three case studies, the methodology was allowed to develop over time responding to early identified themes and observations regarding user engagement. It should be noted that the participant groups of the three case studies – even the Twitter Hour and the Twitter Hosted Hashtags, despite the platform remaining the same – were different, with little or no overlap in participants. This offered a more robust insight in the various ways in which Orkney was discussed on the selected social media platforms. This methodological approach allows researchers to make inroads into the qualitative analysis of big data, providing a potential direction and insights into digital ethnographic research, a developing field in both anthropological and folklore studies.

The combined nature of the methodology and outcome of discussions relating to a sense of place created by online discussions in digital environments, and the importance of folklore in creating this sense of place, offers a basis for potential ethnological studies into similar environments and places with similar characteristics. In relation to island studies, this could mean investigating the extent to which digital platforms allow islanders to better control the narrative surrounding the islands they inhabit, and challenge the two-dimensional romanticised view of islands as something either backward-looking or physically isolated. In relation to studies relating to rural areas, this may provide a basis through which to reinterpret the substantial body of literature relating to place studies of urban areas and further develop specific theory relating to digital environments in relation to rural areas.

9.2 Orkney

This study is important to Orkney, taking a step towards the analysis of big data and using datasets not previously mined to provide evidence of those elements relating to Orkney which are considered key to defining Orkney as a place by those discussing Orkney online.

The physical environment of Orkney is integral to its sense of place but, in many ways, it acts simply as a baseline, or a starting point by which Orkney is defined by those affiliated with Orkney and active members of the participant group. The broad landscape of Orkney – including natural phenomena and extensions to the landscape, including man-made non-permanent features – undoubtedly play a key role in defining Orkney, but the role that the human environment arguably plays is more significant in the creation of an Orkney sense of place. Whether by demonstrations of community and tradition by both residents and visitors, interpretations of Orkney in the work of creatives based on the islands, or the use of Orcadian dialect in comments and place names, Orkney as a place is defined by those who have shaped its past and present. It is not surprising that the way in which people refer to ‘national character’ is at times presented synonymously with how others speak of ‘sense of place’.

In many ways, the virtual Orkney as evidenced within the data is always a place of two halves. Orkney is somewhere clearly proud of its archaeology and history, yet is keen to be seen as a place with a thriving economy fit for the twenty-first century. The visual and aesthetically pleasing presentation of Orkney focussing on the islands’ past, especially understood by those beyond the shores of Orkney, is tempered with a desire for Orkney to be considered as a place filled with opportunities for contemporary creatives as well as industry and education. Orkney has been successful in promoting a contemporary focus to the islands, complementing the more traditional notion of Orkney as a romanticised archipelago. Likewise, Orkney is seen as somewhere peaceful and as an inspiration; but there is also a suggestion of tensions relating to the isolation caused by the very nature of the physical environment, and the exclusivity of some Orkney communities.

The biggest concern for Orkney, however, relates to the increase in tourism-related traffic, specifically the number of tourists arriving on cruise ships. Though traditional tourism is widely acknowledged as a core element of Orkney’s economy, there was a clear differentiation in how such visitors were discussed and how cruise liner tourists were considered by the participant group. There was evidence of specific concern for Orkney’s landmarks, with a general consensus that the increased footfall did not equate to a sufficient enough boost to the local economy.

Orkney’s culture as evidenced within its folklore, however, is likely to continue to thrive, building on increased interest in all things Nordic. The online environment, offering increased opportunity for sharing Orkney’s folklore with a significantly wider audience, also provides anybody with an affiliation with Orkney a platform (or platforms) upon which they can share their thoughts and opinions.

9.3 Limitations

The methods employed were chosen to provide a research design which suited the purpose of the study and provided appropriate data for analysis, but the data only allowed for a single iteration of a virtual Orkney to be discussed.

Though the researcher’s dual role as invisible observer in relation to the Facebook data complemented the role as participant observer in the Twitter data, this approach means that contextual information about individual members of the participant group in relation to Facebook could not be clearly ascertained. Therefore, while the method allowed for the natural engagement of a number of users to be observed, this may have been further complemented by more traditional ethnographic techniques which would have allowed for demographic details and personal affiliation with Orkney of individual users to be explored.

Though attempts were made throughout to be as objective as possible, the researcher’s background in relation to the subject matter (Orkney) and knowledge of the participant group (several members were personally known to me) may also have unconsciously influenced the manner in which the data was analysed and presented.

Aside from digital ethnography potentially excluding a more traditional cohort, the methodology also means that the data collated is dependent on the technical facilities available to users. Developing a mixed method approach including analysis of metadata may have allowed the researcher to consider to what effect the data may have been affected by the availability of online connectivity in rural areas such as Orkney.

Finally, given the visual nature of the data analysed, there are limitations to a purely textual analysis as conducted in this research. A methodology involving more visual approaches would have changed the nature of this particular study, but is something which should be considered as social media platforms increasingly encourage users to share visual and multimedia content.

9.4 Futures

Throughout the research, I have identified several interesting possibilities for future studies, using similar, complementary, or more expansive datasets. A mixed method approach incorporating quantitative data, making use of available location-based metadata, would offer an opportunity to investigate how this virtual Orkney has been created, identifying from where users interact with Orkney as a place online. Such a dataset could also be used to visually map Orkney’s online community (noting the complexities of using the term community as discussed in Chapter 2), and would be complemented by analysis noting Wellman’s research on the role of distance in the creation of community. Similar datasets, further enhanced by alternative digital ethnographic techniques such as video-calling and interviews would enable the researcher to investigate to what extent an Orkney diaspora exists and engages with Orkney as a place online. From a more theoretical perspective, this could in turn provide a basis for a more philosophical discussion on to what extent it could be said that the concept of a diaspora, as it commonly understood in a geographical sense, could be said to exist for places which exist online (either as online places, or virtually filtered places). In relation to Orkney specifically, this might include consideration of to what extent a virtual Orkney is considered either an island or an archipelago.

This research also highlights the benefits of a methodological approach which could be considered for further studies into diaspora (especially, given the political environment of this first half of the twenty-first century, relating to refugee culture), and the concept of home. The articles which have investigated the extent to which places interact with digital technologies have focussed predominantly on the urban environment – most often specifically cities – and the role of the rural environment and engagement with digital technologies is often overlooked in favour of choosing such subject areas with more easily obtainable (or more substantial) datasets. There is a need to consider the development of theory relating specifically to the rural environment beyond simply investigating to what extent rural communities have access to digital facilities. Future studies more specifically focussing upon residents of specific areas could investigate the extent to which the view of places as presented in digital environments – including responses to place branding – is skewed by users who have less of an affiliation with the place itself.

The extent to which social media platforms and social networking have influenced twenty-first century life was not predicted and has, in many ways, caught the world by surprise to the extent that social media has substantially changed how society operates and functions. Academia is no exception. Increasingly, alternative metrics are monitored and promoted alongside traditional citation metrics. Blogging allows for academics to share thoughts and developments much sooner than waiting for the peer review process to be completed. Though it is exceptionally unlikely that blogging platforms will replace the traditional academic publishing route, for good reason due to blogging lacking the academic rigour traditionally associated with peer review, the use of blog post citations alongside media articles has increased exponentially in recent years. Methodological developments can be shared much sooner than previously, and the wider social media environment has changed academic networking in general; facilitating, and even creating opportunities for, collaboration. The landscape of research publishing may not change substantially as a result of blogging, but in the field of internet research, especially social media research where the nature of the wider research site changes so quickly, the potential to share details of methodological approaches and to share datasets and data visualisations enhances the possibility for research developments in real time. Ironically, an increasing amount of disciplines are starting to take note of the opportunities available for qualitative research via the means of digital ethnography just as the world is professed to be moving into a post-social era.

9.5 Closing Thoughts

The changing online environment has altered the way in which individuals act and communities and groups interact. The availability of social media has changed the way in which branding exercises and local media are managed as companies and institutions adapt to the changing online context, with public perception and engagement being a more important element of the overall process than it perhaps had been previously. This has resulted in a clear power shift in recent years, in terms of the developing narrative of specific places.

For many people in the western world, their immediate environment now also includes an online aspect, with society and how it functions becoming increasingly hybrid in nature. Via increasingly less transparent algorithms, dictating how users engage with online content, social media platforms in particular have significant power over controlling narratives, whether they relate to current affairs and political developments throughout the world, or hyperlocal discussions relating to geographical places. Though this is most clearly demonstrated by growing concerns internationally regarding the proliferation of ‘fake news’ on a global scale, these same principles have the ability to shape places online.

Even without platforms strategically guiding users toward or away from specific content, individual users help create virtually filtered places to correspond to geographical places by the way in which they share and engage with online content. Geographical places may often be identifiable by such virtually filtered places, but they should not be considered accurate reflections.

There are parallels between the opportunities for augmented and hybrid realities afforded by developing digital technologies and the value which they may potentially add to a place, and that which could be said to be added to a place by its folklore. Folklore, it could be said, is the true tool of augmentation: adding meaning to places, and layering them with additional human context. Now is the time for folklore to take the lead in establishing how and why such places are created, and the role that digital platforms play (and will continue to play) in representing and shaping twenty-first century society.

At the beginning of this thesis, I quoted Warren Ellis:

Folklore as operating system. Language as spell. Landscape as definition of life.

(2015)


Analysing the physical, human, and online environments of Orkney, as evidenced within the research, a revised version of this statement seems more appropriate:

Landscape as operating system. Language as spell. Folklore as definition of life.

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