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
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 (EastAfricanTube, Sembuse, Gnaija, 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.