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Notes on the 4th digital ethnography reading (Gehl 2014)

October 30, 2015

by Katya Tokareva
PhD Candidate
RMIT University, Melbourne

See other posts on the digital ethnography reading group (DERG)

In the fourth session of the monthly Digital Ethnography Reading Group at RMIT we discussed the article by Robert Gehl, 2014, ‘Power/freedom on the dark web: A digital ethnography of the Dark Web Social Network, New Media & Society, pp.1-17. Here’s the abstract:

This essay is an early ethnographic exploration of the Dark Web Social Network (DWSN), a social networking site only accessible to Web browsers equipped with The Onion Router. The central claim of this essay is that the DWSN is an experiment in power/freedom, an attempt to simultaneously trace, deploy, and overcome the historical conditions in which it finds itself: the generic constraints and affordances of social networking as they have been developed over the past decade by Facebook and Twitter, and the ideological constraints and affordances of public perceptions of the dark web, which hold that the dark web is useful for both taboo activities and freedom from state oppression. I trace the DWSN’s experiment with power/freedom through three practices: anonymous/social networking, the banning of child pornography, and the productive aspects of techno-elitism. I then use these practices to specify particular forms of power/freedom on the DWSN.

We started with how Gehl constructs the article. The author has done ethnography on the Dark Web Social Network, observing users’ interactions and conducting online interviews with anonymous social network admins. To analyse the ethnographic work he uses power/freedom ‘categorical lenses’. The choice of the lenses is influenced by the works of Michel Foucault and Wendy Chun and also by the prevalent media discourse of the Dark Web. Drawing on the digital ethnography literature Gehl seeks to find localized manifestations of power/freedom in this particular site.

Whilst some group members enjoyed the style of the article, which uses simple language to broach complex matters, others were concerned with the theoretical foundations of the study. Notions of freedom and power are not explained in detail and at times it seems that the article has only a light touch of theory.

We then focused on methods and discussed how ethnography is used in the study. It was noted that the author does not give much information about the time spent on the Dark Web Social Network or about the approximate number of participants he observed and talked to. This lack of transparency about the methods makes it hard to evaluate how robust and systematic the analysis of the data was.

That brought us to the similarities and differences between ethnography and journalism. Does an ethnographer need to be concerned too much with numbers? What about the robustness of the analysis? Would numbers add anything to this study? And if ethnographers don’t need to, or are unable to talk to, a large number for participants and adhere to robust analysis procedures, how then is ethnography different from investigative journalism? Can ethnography be described as theoretically informed journalism?

We discussed further the relationships between the article and journalism which seem complicated. The author uses a journalistic narrative of the Dark Web (as a space of illegal activities) as a departure point and seeks to disrupt it by bringing in the data from the field. Yet,the new narrative Gehl constructs is somewhat too smooth, excluding any contradictions among participants, admins and the ideology of the site that, we assume, occur.

We then turned to what we actually learned about social networking on the Dark Web from the article and how this relates to our prior readings within the group. We discussed the censorship rules established by admins (no child pornography, no commercial activities, no sharing of any private data that can identify social network users in offline world). We agreed on the hypothesis that DWSN admins are likely to be techno-libertarians not dissimilar to some members of Anonymous studied by Gabriella Coleman (2014). Yet, the participants of the network seem to be more diverse than the admins.

This led us to the theme of techno-elitism and potential gentrification of the Dark Web. Whilst a certain degree of technological proficiency is needed to join DWSN, the fact that academics and journalists have started to write about these phenomena signifies that the Dark Web is becoming more accessible and gentrification of the space is inevitable. The questions for us are: How do we document and analyse this process as researchers? What kind of theories would we draw on to understand these phenomena?

Next reading (11 November 2015, 12 to 13.30 pm, all welcome):

Murray, S. (2008). Digital Images, Photo-Sharing, and Our Shifting Notions of Everyday Aesthetics. Journal of Visual Culture7(2), 147–163. doi:10.1177/1470412908091935


Gehl, RW. (2014), ‘Power/freedom on the dark web: A digital ethnography of the Dark Web Social Network, New Media & Society, pp.1-17.

Coleman, G. (2014). Hacker, hoaxer, whistleblower, spy: The many faces of anonymous. Verso Books.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan permalink
    November 2, 2015 5:36 pm

    Is there a digital option for joining the reading group (Skype/Hangout/etc.)? I’ve been keeping up with the open source reading and following the posts with interest – would love to sit in on the full conversation if possible!

    • November 3, 2015 12:09 am

      Thanks Dan. We haven’t had such options for remote participation till now but will discuss it with the others and announce it here if we decide to change this.

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