The Websphere and a Comparison to Ethnography

The Websphere and a Comparison to Ethnography

The “Websphere” implies an interesting set of methods to think about boundaries, ontology, and in web-space in order to pull out behaviors that are specific to the websphere of choice. One of the primary difficulties of web-space is realizing its beginnings, ends, and relative placement of developments on the space. Geography of the web is notoriously difficult to map, even though domains are often particular to country of origin 1 or the fact that infrastructure of the physical Internet can be mapped.

Because of this, using the “Web” (the spaces we see online as opposed to the infrastructure of the Internet) as a definable “space” where academics can develop informational and social theory, claims, and usable heuristics has some ability to defend the method for supporting repeatability and generalizability relative to say much of the body of ethnographic work. This occurs because in most ethnographic work, much of the experience is based on the notions of volatile community, changing site infrastructure and policy, etc.

Meanwhile, Websphere studies choose to define their spaces based on things that might be said to be more immediately observable. It has been pointed out that defining and using a “Websphere” as an object of study requires almost immediately recognizing -1 the emergence of a kind of space, or their “Anticipatory” nature, -2 “Predictability” of the kinds of actors in production of web materials, and -3 “Stability” of a site’s infrastructure in terms of say links or objects.2 Additionally, third-party tools such as the Wayback Machine allow those using this method to potentially see archives of these spaces even after the site disappears.3

It seems that some of the primary objects of study in these works are links and site infrastructure. In fact, in many ways, it seems somewhat similar to “inverted” web ethnography.4 The idea there is similar. The researcher studies a culture, community, or collective of people relative to the objects on a site such as its affordances, the links on a page, etc as opposed to a direct assessment of the people themselves. It seems however, that the difference is that the questions or hypotheses are not quite the same. In Websphere studies, it would appear that the interest is in understanding how to, sort of, geo-locate parts of the web, or how “close” online activities relative to their perceived away-from-keyboard counterparts. With ethnography, the goal is almost always to understand people in some way, and not specifically how they locate themselves in a space. Certainly there is some overlap in goals, such as in a consideration of memorializing after the September 11 attacks on the U.S. World Trade Center.5 This study seems as though with a few slight changes in approach, it could have easily been an ethnographic study.

For example, had the developed more of the kinds of activities that people partake in during memorialization, or more of the reasons for why these people showed up in the first place, it would have been more ethnographic. Instead, the questions were more related to how closely affiliated online and offline memorial spaces. Still, the study did mention these interests were tangentially important to their study. However, the objects were more as a matter of observing differences between the affordances of online, public, private, and vernacular memorials. Indirectly, the study still considers the behaviors of people, but it is not from the perspective of the people themselves. It is from the space they reside in.


Image Attribution: Alexander O. Smith

  1. Rogers, R. (2013). The link and the politics of Web space. In Digital Methods. 

  2. Schneider, S. & Foot, K. (2005). Web sphere analysis: An approach to studying online action. In Virtual Methods. 

  3. Rogers, R. (2013). The Website as archived object. In Digital Methods. 

  4. Geiger, R. S. & Ribes, D. (2011). Trace ethnography: Following coordination through documentary practices. Proceedings of the 44th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS). 10.1109/HICSS.2011.455 

  5. Foot, K., Warnick, B., & Schneider, S. (2006). Web-based memorializing after September 11: Toward a conceptual framework. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11, 72-96. 

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