Editors’ note: The next post for our Ethnographies of Objects edition is by one of the people who inspired it when he talked about an ‘ethnography of robots’ for EM last year. Stuart Geiger (@staeiou) is a PhD student at UC Berkeley’s School of Information and long time Wikipedia editor who has been studying Wikipedia bots for many years and who has brought us really great insights: not only into how Wikipedia works but also on new ways of thinking about how to do ethnography of largely-online communities. In this thoughtful post, Stuart talks about how his ideas about bots have changed over the years, and about which of the images below is the “real” bot.
A few weeks ago, Heather Ford wrote to me and told me about this special edition of Ethnography Matters, focusing on the ethnography of objects. She asked me if there was something I’d like to write about bots, which I’ve been struggling to ethnographically study for some time. As I said in an interview I did with EM last year, I want to figure out how to ethnographically study these automated software agents themselves, not just the people who build them or have to deal with them. Among all the topics that are involved in the ethnography of objects, Heather briefly mentioned that she was asking all the authors to provide a picture of their given object, whatever weird form that may take for bots.
At first, I started to think about the more standard epistemological questions I’d been wrestling with: What is the relationship between the ethnographer and the ethnographic subject when that subject isn’t a human, but an autonomous software program? What does it mean to relate an emic account of a such a being, and what does ethnographic fieldwork look like in such an endeavor? How do classic concepts like agency, materiality, and the fieldsite play out when investigating what is often seen as more of an object than a subject? What do we even mean when we say ‘object’, and what are we using this term to exclude? I could take any one of these topics and write far too much about them, I thought.
As always, after jotting down some notes, my mind started to wander as I entered procrastination mode. I shelved the more ‘theoretical’ questions and moved to what I thought was the easier part of Heather’s request: to provide a photo of a bot. I thought that finding an image would be a fun diversion, and I had so many great cases to choose from. There were humorous bots, horrifying bots, and hidden bots. There were bots who performed controversial tasks, and bots whose work was more mundane. There were bots I loved and bots I hated, bots that were new and bots that were old. There were bots I knew backwards and forwards, and bots who were still a mystery to me. I just had to find an image that I felt best encapsulated what it meant to be a bot, and then write about it. However, I didn’t realize that this simple task would prove to be far more difficult than I anticipated — and working out how to use imagery rather than text to talk about bots has helped me come to articulate many of the more complicated issues at work in my ethnography, particularly those around materiality, multiplicity, and memory.