One of the reasons for trying this format of fieldnotes is the chance to get immediate feedback. This is going to become increasingly important as I approach both Michicago and completing my thesis. What I’m saying is that questions are good. Please feel free to ask them, because they help me to construct my ideas. For example, this was a comment that was submitted about the previous post:

Have you considered using the typical “Subject A”, “Subject B” progression in place of the usernames?

Also, analyzing a user’s username for its meaning would be rather invasive to the individual. It’s sort of like publicly analyzing the names people chose for their sons and daughters and then publishing it, thusly divulging their identity.

The question of how to handle Usernames is a tricky one. The IRB doesn’t want Usernames used verbatim because in many cases they can be linked to an e-mail address. It is my responsibility to protect my subjects anonymity (within limits) to ensure that they do not come to harm as a result of their participation in my research. In more traditional forms of ethnography that would be done by simply assigning them a pseudomyn or referring to them as a subject as suggested in the comment. However there are subtle differences between a username and a given name that problemitize that strategy.

First and foremost, usernames (screennames, handles, etc.), unlike given names (here in refered to simply as name(s) for the sake of simplicity), are almost always self selected. Therefore there is data to unpack in what someone calls themselves online. For example, on forums that I’m active on, my username is “Matt Bernius”, because I feel that if I’m going to express an opinion then I should be confident enough to connect my name with every post that I make. That’s just one, albeit simple, reading of name selection.

It’s also something that a typical name doesn’t lend itself to. While it is the case that you can analyze why my parents chose to name me Matt, the fact that I’m named Matt tells you very little about me. I’m sure that some Freudians would suggest that being given the same name as my father has profound effects on me. But that’s the type of unsubstantiatable claptrap that gives the social sciences a bad name.

The analysis of usename becomes more important when you consider the interaction genre the usename is used in. In chat rooms, every time you speak your username is displayed. This means that the username is a fundamental part of the interaction, marking each of your comments. Thus, that name is constantly reinstantiating something in the mind of the viewer. Here’s an example that has popped up in my research (mom, you may want to skip the next section). I was in a room once with a guy (I’m assuming) whose username was something like: “8InchesForYou1.” So 8, as I’ll refer to him from this point on, was hitting on everything that moved, including the bots. His username was clearly chosen to get an idea across. And that idea both reinforces and is reinforced by every post that he makes.

This means that simply neutering the username to “subject a” for example is an unsatisfactory solution. Doing that removes contextual information from the interaction. So instead what I will do is create a close enough name that the subtext isn’t lost.

1. In keeping with IRB regs I’m protecting the names of the innocent (or guilty in this particular case).