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Posted by on Oct 27, 2010

The Tools do not make the community, but they do contain them. Aka, being bound by a nutshell.

I should start this post by saying I am slightly miffed at myself and that may or may not be warranted. In regards to the ethnography we are pursuing, specifically the decentralized nature of my subject, eLearning Africa, I find myself giving excessive consideration to the way I present this ethnography (technologically and aesthetically) at the expense of what is actually in it (observations and reflections about community).

I have spent time searching for tools and not for stories, for containers and not fluid interactions mediating communal knowledge. Martin helped quite a bit with his recommendation of Vuvox, which seems the front-runner in terms of presentation.

So, I lost sight (momentarily) of the tool as a vehicle for narration, rather than an end in itself. I will let metaphor speak to this phenomena a bit with my favorite poet, Yeats in his reflection in old age on the themes of his youth (Circus Animals’ Desertion):

Heart-mysteries there, and yet when all is said
It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.
Players and painted stage took all my love,
And not those things that they were emblems of.

So in this search for a perfect narrative tool, I lost sight of what these tools, the images, narrations, videos, were emblems of. These are all emblematic of community, a community I need to refocus my efforts on to get to the heart of the matter. Was it hubris, an arrogance where I told myself that I know this community so it is merely a matter of representation? Perhaps.

Perhaps my search for the perfect tool, the perfect container is merely in line with ethnography’s reliance on bounded locations, rather than fluid community (Hines, 60). Perhaps I need to pursue connectivity rather than holism, as Hines mentions. I am intrigued by this quote from Hines, which sounds more like a cautionary tale than a mantra:

Sites have a tendency to focus our attention on the ways in which things are kept together as part of a cultural unit. We focus on the local, the contextual, the interrelated, and the coherent. (61)

For digital communities, perhaps my search for tools was an attempt to ground them, even unnaturally so, in a place. Africa is a place, so my notion of a digital African community is one that is equally bounded by location. I am starting to suspect this has been a mistaken approach. While the geographical entity known as Africa is indeed bounded by oceans, seas, and natural impasses, its counterpart in the digital sphere, of which eLearning Africa is an instance of, is not bounded by location, merely by sentiment and shared goals.

This eLearning Africa community appropriates whatever tools it is provided with; it is decidedly non-denominational technologically. eLearning Africa, merely in its professional (official) manifestation, can be found across

  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • Flickr
  • Blogs

This is not to mention the subcultures and groups that have sprung from the larger entity, all carrying on communal activities in a narrower perspective, all appropriating tools at their disposal. Their have been appropriation of non-African tools for educational purposes (Facebook, Flickr, for instance, showing exponential growth across the continent; further39% of Facebook users in Africa have a Bachelors or Masters degree, well above the continental average. Hi5 still has impressive penetration on the continent). Further, there have been development of African specific tools (EastAfricanTubeSembuseGnaija, andAsanja, which is one of the first attempting to be completely pan-African). All of these have been appropriated by educational organizations and this has always been a common theme at the eLearning Africa sessions.

So perhaps the tools do not make the community; maybe they merely bound it a bit.

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  1. If it’s any consolation Michael – I’ve been doing exactly the same thing! Spent a lot of time trying to find a tool to tell the story of my virtual community and considerably less time thinking about or putting together a focus or my narrative. I’ve finally found the tool – well I’ve stopped looking anyway and settled so now I really need to get on with the story – starting tomorrow!

  2. Good to know I am not alone there, Noreen. I was thinking more on it and I do believe that this search for the perfect tool is reflective of our community here in #ededc. That we care that much about creatively and comprehensively presenting what we know and have learned says a lot about this team. We seem to like challenges collectively and these classmates spur me to greater heights, certainly. Perhaps we should have done the narrative on us!

  3. Michael, I too really enjoyed the section where Hine talks about data flow, connection, and even incoherence in relation to community. You post has really got me thinking about how I might represent my chosen area of study, and I am reminded of the multi-modal discussions in previous weeks.

    Hine’s principle that virtual ethnography is essentially mobile was useful for my thinking. If these community exist ‘across’ various tools, as you say, our study should perhaps consider and document multiple web services.

    I was thinking that it might be useful to say that the community transcends the tools, that in existing across them, it transcends them, But having read your last thoughts in this post, I am realising that the situation is more complex. I think the technologies/tools are also the community itself, representing it as well as altering it, yet no one web service can encapsulate it. Need to think abiut this some more. Thanks Michael.

    • I was thinking that it might be useful to say that the community transcends the tools, that in existing across them, it transcends them, But having read your last thoughts in this post, I am realising that the situation is more complex. I think the technologies/tools are also the community itself, representing it as well as altering it, yet no one web service can encapsulate it. Need to think abiut this some more. Thanks Michael.

      As always, great going back and forth with you Jeremy. You expanded quite a bit on anything I might have stated. I agree wholeheartedly with the above. I wanted to, perhaps needed to, reaffirm the authority of the human at the sake of the technology, but it is more complicated than that. Rather than merely serving as vehicles for an existing pattern of communication and network structure, these tools actually actively shape the conversation and, in my community in particular, they actually are the conversation. We identify learning with the tools, rightly or wrongly, and their imprints are found everywhere. I text you, tweet, poke, post, etc. All terms appropriated from the tech itself. Its language becomes our language, part of the fabric fo the community itself. There is no divorcing the tool from the community, in my opinion.

  4. Hi michael, really enjoyed your internal debate here!

    I agree with you – perhaps the tools bound community a little. My community exists in many ‘spaces’ too but its not easy to pick out whether the same people appear in all spaces. I am sure this will be the case for some but others may prefer to stay within one or two tools/groups

    Isnt looking across all these platforms, taking a stab at being holistic rather than focussing on one manifestation of your community?


    • Good points, Ali.

      I think looking across all these platforms is indeed a take on a holistic representation rather than focusing on one manifestation. It is taking a stab at accurate representation, in my opinion, as the community in these cases are bounded by the conversations and the tools used to facilitate these conversations. It seems our duty as ethnographers to follow this trail in order to map the scope and reach of our communities. Good observation.

  5. There is no divorcing the tool from the community…

    sounds like you are aligning with the sociological notions of socio-material networks rather than social networks … something I fell across this morning – see the delicious links in my lifestream and tweets this morning as most are on this I think? – Have either of you come across: The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory ISBN 9780415228145 , particularly… chapter on ‘Objectual Practice’ by Karin Knorr Cetina which presents academic argument about object-centered sociality


  6. Thanks for that, Alison. I hadn’t heard of that work you referenced (Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory) so will look into it.

    In regards to social objects/socio-material networks trumping social networks, I suppose I view the tools not as objects themselves (or at least not predominantly so) but agents in the process, agents that transform and interpret on their own accord. I am thinking in terms of language here. My eLearning Africa network communicates via tools and the tools frame the messages (140 characters for twitter, etc.). They contextualize it in a way that lends something to its meaning (and interpretation by the people conversing).

    The tool becomes a node as a social object, perhaps.

    “social objects are nodes around which social objects are built. Social object comes before network: community as ideas notion”

    I suspect the node can come as well before the network. Two people conversing equal a node but not yet a community. Can the connection between these two people represent a social object?

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