Deenport Ethnographic Study

Ethnographic Study of www.DeenPort.com


Introduction

This report summarizes my ethnographic work on www.deenport.com a virtual community with membership exceeding 1500. I start of with a description of my membership experience in the community, followed by a detailed sociological analysis of this community, questions of membership, power structure, shared behavior of members and understanding of membership. After qualifying my findings by pointing out the beliefs I carried into this research I conclude with a brief discussion of some methodological questions.

 

1. In the field

 

With a steaming cup of coffee within easy reach, I started my daily cruise of the World Wide Web. I started at my favorite website, which is a website of an Islamic Institute based in California. As often happens, one website leads to another, and in no time I was browsing through articles on another website. Presently, I found myself on a website with an attractive and simple user interface. I browsed through some of the sections on the front page and was impressed; the website in addition to a messages/discussion section offered a variety of articles, lessons, audios and pictures. This additional material was written by western Muslim Scholars I already knew of and ascribed to a similar position on Islam as purported by these scholars.

 

This initial exposure made me curious and I felt an urge to know more about the members of this forum. With this purpose in mind I started reading the contents of the discussions on the forum. The discussions were interesting and the contributions were articulate and intelligent. One particular thread caught my attention; the topic of the discussion was University life. Being a student myself I felt my contributions would be useful, and therefore tried to reply to the latest comment. At this point I was told that I needed to login in order to post a reply.

 

I did not have lots of work for the week and nothing special planned, therefore I decided not to be lazy and followed the easy steps required to become a member of the forum. The first click on the ‘register’ link directed me to a page that said: ‘I agree to post with adab InshaAllah.’ I was impressed once again. The word adab is an Arabic word which approximates in meaning to ‘good manners’; most discussion forums I have been part of do not emphasize this point and I appreciated the emphasis. The next click lead to a form that asked for some personal information.

 

With the information submitted I moved onto another website, and did not think of visiting that web forum again until I checked my email after a few hours. I received a short email from DeenPort with my user name and password. The discussion was still fresh in my mind and I wanted to contribute to it. I clicked my way to the form where I could type my response and post it; on that page I was welcomed by a message saying: ‘Hello, My name is DeenPort. I Love you.’ I composed a few lines and submitted my contribution to the discussion. I was curious to read comments on my contribution, this meant waiting – I decided to spend sometime on the other sections while somebody posted a comment. The other sections featured information on Islamic events taking place in the United Kingdom, links to articles written by scholars and political analysts, featured blogs written by Muslims and audio/video lectures. All these features were of interest and waiting for a comment did not feel as burdensome as I had imagined.

 

Over the next few days I regularly logged onto DeenPort. Although, I contributed occasionally, I spent a reasonable amount of time reading articles and following the discussions, past and current. I became familiar with the names of fellow members, especially those who were regular contributors.

 

I had been a member for a few weeks when I started thinking about conducting an ethnographic study on DeenPort. I contacted the moderators of the website, who showed interest, but stated that I had to seek the permission of the users. I posted a message seeking their permission. No member objected, those who commented, displayed some excitement.

 

With this additional incentive in visiting the website, I started spending at least an hour a day on the website, sometimes three or four hours. Initially, I spent most of my time on the website browsing through previous discussions on the website aiming to get a sociological understanding of the community. Later, though, I would spend hours on the website without a specific objective in mind. I would login and read all the articles updated on the website, visit blogs linked through the website and follow discussions that were of personal interest.

 

I had been a member for a few weeks when the site was temporarily closed down. The reason for this was a discussion that had gone awry. In the past a few discussions had taken such a direction but then because of the insistence of the moderators things had settled down. According to Islamic principles backbiting is considered a sin, in addition at DeenPort criticisms of scholars was taken very seriously. The discussion in question produced comments from a few members that were guilty on all three counts. In short these comments completely disregarded the caution to adab that was emphasized by the moderators. The founder of the web forum posted a message stressing that as the founder he was morally responsible for the activities on the forum. He hinted that he was considering closing down the discussion section. In response to this message members made emotional pleas to the moderator to reconsider his decision.

 

For me this proved to be quite stressful. Not only would the research, I had carried out for a few weeks, be rendered useless, but I would also feel dejected because I would loose DeenPort. I had become used to spending time on the forum.

 

After taking almost four weeks to think things through the moderator announced that the discussion section would not be closed and would continue with a few changes made to the moderating procedure.

 

The discussion forum was up and running soon after the announcement. I continued contributing to the discussions and using the other functions of the website. My typical session on the website started at the discussion section, I would browse through all the threads, commenting wherever I felt a need to comment. While I waited for replies to my posts, I would read some of the articles linked through the website and visit the featured blogs. Then I would check the updated discussions and comment again. An average session involved repeating these steps at least three times, depending on the workload I had for the day.

 

Taking the lead from other members of the forum who often asked fellow members for advice/tips on a variety of issues, I would too often seek advice from members of the forum. Once I was traveling to London and wanted to find out about bookstores where I could get books on Islam, members replied promptly to my query and I was able to find the books I needed from the suggested bookstores.

 

During a discussion on the difficulties in finding a suitable spouse in United Kingdom one of the members offered to help members who were looking to get married. I had contributed to the discussion voicing my concerns and sharing the difficulties I had encountered in the project of finding myself a suitable wife. I was asked to submit a profile via email. I did send her an email and followed up on the leads provided by the member but so far nothing has transpired.

 

The first offline interaction I had with members of the community was when in one of my posts I suggested the creation of a website for Muslim students. This thread was received with enthusiasm and many members contacted me via email, offering their assistance. The responses I received in this thread were qualitatively very different to those I had received earlier. This time my existence in DeenPort was acknowledged by some of the senior members and they too offered to help.

 

Members would often post detailed notes from Islamic events they had recently attended for the benefit of those who could not attend. Owing to my busy schedule I often missed events I otherwise would have attended and I read these posts regularly. Many members made meticulous notes and would post the notes soon after the events. I found these posts very useful. Towards the end of February I attended an event in London, it was a talk sponsored by the RMW (Raddicle Middle Way). Renowned scholars of Islam from the Western world spoke and many members of DeenPort attended the event. I took detailed notes, something I had never done before, and as soon as I got access to a computer I typed them up and posted them on DeenPort. I received many comments in response from members thanking me for the notes I had posted.

 

Apart from occasional absences I have been a member of DeenPort for four months now. I contribute to discussions often, although most of my time on the site is still spent using other features of the forum.

2. Membership

DeenPort is an online community inhabited by Muslims primarily from the UK, USA and Canada. The website is divided into various sections: News, Blogs, Messages and Gallery, all sections except one are open to non-members. Membership is required if one wants to post on the Message board. Members are able to start new topics of discussion and contribute to discussions initiated by other members. Most of the interaction between members takes place in this section.

 

This is only the basic kind of membership, my experience revealed that a hierarchy of membership existed, but not in an explicit form. Beyond the basic membership that allows participation in discussions, there is one more level, those members who have submitted a picture of their desktops/laptops. This membership offers a variety of features that are not available to the non-desktop picture members. These users can add links to the uFind section – a section where members can post links to other material from the internet – and vote to delete a thread or save it.

 

The official types of membership ends here, but these are not the only kinds of memberships.

 

DeenPort members can be divided into the following kinds of memberships:

 

First Generation DeenPorters (FGDPers)

This group consists of the earliest members of DeenPort. These users over the years have developed strong friendships as a consequence of knowing each other for such a long time. A few of these FGDPers are active in the media and their opinion on matters pertaining to Islam carries some weight owing to the positions they occupy offline – this means that some of them knew each other even before they joined DeenPort.

 

Second Generation DeenPorters (SGDPers)

The common attribute of the first and second generation DeeenPorters is that both of them are committed to DeenPort. They post regularly and DeenPort is something special for them. In a sense it is part of their extended self. The difference between the two is that these users joined much later. One clear point of difference is that they obviously don’t share the same history as the first generation does.

 

The relationship between the first and second generation DeenPorters is a result of the policy that DeenPort followed in its’ initial years. Registration at DeenPort was suspended for a one year period after it’s’ inception. During that year only the existing members (the first generation) could post on the discussion forum, the second generation consisted of individuals who had followed the discussions for a while, but were not allowed to post. The opening of the membership was an important event in the history of the forum, the second generation DeenPorter’s had waited patiently and membership in DeenPort for them had become very important. The second generation DeenPorter’s knew the first generation through their posts and in a sense looked up to them as mentors. This relationship would be visible throughout subsequent years.

 

These two groups form the core, inner circle of DeenPort. These are the individuals for whom DeenPort is important. They represent the core values of DeenPort. When the founder thought of closing the discussion area down these two groups responded immediately, urging him to reconsider. The responses differed significantly, the first generation spoke of the benefit DeenPort had provided to the Muslim community at large, whereas, the second generation spoke of the importance of DeenPort for them individually. When asked what DeenPort meant to them? The first generation spoke about DeenPort as a place that allowed them to connect with Muslim thought; the second generation spoke about DeenPort as a personal space that enabled them to experience a sense of community. These responses hint at an underlying difference between the two generations of deenport members. The hierarchy existing in this community is similar to the hierarchy that is apparent amongst Doc and his boys as described by Whyte in Street Corner Soceity, (Whtye, 1993). There too, Doc was surrounded by a more committed group of individuals, who showed unflinching loyalty akin to our first generation members, and another cadre of younger partners, not as close to Doc because they did not share the same history with him, akin to our second generation members.

 

Scholar DeenPorters

DeenPort from its’ earliest days boasted membership from recognized scholars. Overtime DeenPort has become a popular website for western Muslims and religious scholars have taken keen interest in the progress of the website. The number of scholar members has increased over time and it is not uncommon to see their posts on DeenPort. These members are not part of the inner circle, though they are members who command a lot of respect from the individuals belonging to the inner circle.

 

Functional DeenPorters

After the first generation deenporters who had been members since its inception and the second generation deenporters who had joined at the reopening of the membership, after following the discussions for a while, others joined Deenport like me. Unlike the first generation members who participated in the development of DeenPort, and the second generation who had followed it for over a year, these individuals are not part of the inner circle. They are members who primarily use the non discussion oriented areas on DP and very rarely post a comment. They appreciate the functional benefits of the forum without feeling a substantial emotional attachment to DeenPort. They do not know the first generation or the second generation DeenPorters because they have not followed the discussions over the years.

Moving from the periphery into the centre

The categories of membership are not static and it is possible for new users to move from the periphery into the inner circle. The possible membership position that can be attained is that of the second generation deenport members, the first generation membership seems closed off to new members. This move manifests the difference between becoming a member of the organization and being accepted by the members. The means to this upgrade of membership is constructive contribution to the life of the community. Following the successful inclusion of some new members into the higher form of membership provides evidence for this theory. New members who actively contribute to the activities of the community have been accepted into this cozier inner circle. An alternate route relies on legitimacy derived from activities that are outside the forum but belong to categories of approved achievements. For instance an intellectually simulating blog could possibly legitimize the individual, or in my case the research work I am carrying out could assist me in making inroads into the inner circle.

 

3. Activities

Although, DeenPort is a virtual community, there is no clear online/offline boundary. The activities of the members often escape the constraints of the online environment and various offline activities are organized by the members. The network of the inner circle extends beyond the ‘virtual’ into the ‘real’.

 

Over time the inner circle has developed a high level of trust and the first generation have helped the second generation in establishing activities that enhance the cohesiveness of the inner circle. Although, it is not possible to enumerate the entirety of such activities, but a few illustrative examples should suffice:

 

The DeenPort Quran Khatam – This activity is modeled on its’ equivalent in offline communities. Muslim families often divide parts of the chapters in the Quran (30 in total) between extended family members, and finish the reading of a complete Quran in a week. The DeenPorters established this during its early days, members took the responsibility of reading a chapter a week and in this way a Quran was completed in a week. The second generation DeenPorters on joining the community, quickly started participating and the activity continues to this day.

 

The DeenPort Manchester Caravan – Islamic events that invite the most renowned scholars of Islam are more common occurrences in London than any other city in the UK. Therefore, when such events take place Muslims from across UK try and attend. Female members of DeenPort from Manchester organize to travel together. They hire a bus and 20-30 DeenPort members travel together to these events. This activity has allows the virtual community to interact in ‘offline’.

 

The DeenPort Library – This initiative is another example of the offline interaction of the members. The Deenport library is in the developed phase and on completion it will allow members of Deenport to borrow books from other members. This initiative utilizes the high trust that has already developed between the members; it has not been initiated by the founders of Deenport and is being carried out independent of the forum under the supervision of first and second generation members.

 

Gender differences in the uptake of Activities

 

There is also some difference between the female and male members of DeenPort. This difference is primarily visible in the offline activities that are organized. The male members are not as active as the female members in the offline interaction. Female DeenPort members in the past have successfully organized group travel, lunch and dinner meetings, among other activities. A telling instance of this disparity in the ability to organize offline activities was the failed attempt on the part of the men to replicate a successful female activity. The female members pitched in to buy a female moderator flowers and a gift to show their appreciation for her efforts. One of the male members initiated a thread to encourage the male members to arrange something similar, the discussion had a single contributor from the male members and the idea was dropped.

 

4. Power and Policy

The most important rule at DeenPort is that the contributions to the discussion forum should be sensitive to the feelings of other members. Argumentation is discouraged and

the members who make offending remarks are in extreme cases banned from the forum.

DeenPort started off with a small group of committed people, but it soon became very popular and the number of users multiplied exponentially. In this situation monitoring the discussions on the forum became an arduous task for the moderator of the website. There was great emphasis on posting with manners, not getting into arguments that would lead to personal attacks on past scholars of Islam. DeenPort policy was to avoid such topics. The number of moderators was increased to three and these three were responsible to keep people in line, those who did not respect the rules at DeenPort were banned, and controversial threads were deleted. As I described earlier the founding moderator was so disappointed by the responses that were generated on one such controversial topic that he decided to close down the discussion section. His understanding was that because of the sheer traffic to DeenPort it was not possible for three people to moderate. Initially, he thought about asking people he knew to provide help in moderation, but finally he decided on decentralizing completely. All members who had submitted a picture of their computer would be allowed a vote on each discussion thread and in this way the members would moderate. Also only the committed members would go the distance to providing the image. After this policy had been in place for some time, another rule was added, the moderator said all threads would be deleted by the members except in the extreme cases, if one of the scholars requested the deletion of a thread; it would be deleted immediately without any delay. The members of DeenPort completely understood this and the new policy was in place. Within a few days, though, even this rule was changed because of a tug of war that took place between two scholars. The deletion system as it stands is that all threads will be voted in our out by the members with the desktop images, barring one situation, when all the moderators who had moderated the forum for over 3 years decided that a discussion needed to go.

 

Throughout this evolutionary process members were never asked to give advice, or comment, or vote for a preferred system through the discussion section. What I gleaned from the few comments made by the founder was that some members were consulted; these members belonged to two groups – the first generation and the scholar deenporters. These two sets of members carried more weight than others. Their legitimacy derives from in the case of the first generation, friendship that had developed over the years and for the scholars their religious ascendancy. This influence is visible in the decentralized environment too – every member who has submitted a desktop image can vote but what seems to matter is the opinion of the moderator and the first generation. I witnessed the quick death of one post following a negative evaluation from a first generation member. Once the member had openly voiced his opinion the second generation members were quick to follow and the thread was immediately put to the sword.

 

Apart from this most important rule of arguing with etiquette, other equally important rules exist. These rules are not explicitly mentioned but are known, the members uphold strong religious morals, by implication. This includes the rules that govern interaction between the two sexes, rules that prioritize constructive discourse and avoidance of offensive wasteful topics. These norms are shared by almost all the members.

 

The rules in place are generally not open to change, unless the founding members feel they do not serve the purpose they are in place for. To test this hypothesis I tried convincing the moderators to make an exception. Only members who had submitted their desktop pictures were allowed to vote to delete or save a thread, I tried to get these rights without submitting the desktop picture.

//

DP:Desktops

 

Although, my use of the internet provides contradictory evidence, I genuinely am against unnecessary use of technology. As a result of this stubborn, some may say unjustified, bias I do not own a digital camera. Taking a picture of my computer will involve borrowing a camera etc; taking a picture using google images will be lying. So can I be allowed to save/delete threads, contribute to uFind without submitting the DP:Desktop picture.

 

 

Me*

11.04.2007 IPinSight

if($dp_desktop == “nope”) {

$allowed_to_vote = “nope”;

}

 

 

Moderator*

11.04.2007 IPinSight

if($dp_desktop == “nope”) {

$allowed_to_vote = “nope”;

}

exception.handler(accentric.user())

{if(user.id==”my name”) then allowed_to_vote=”yupps”;

else as_above;

 

accentric.user()

{allow room for accentric behavior; adds some flavor to DP;}

 

 

Me*

11.04.2007 IPinSight

if($user_doesnt_know_how_to_spell) {

exit;

}

 

Moderator*

11.04.2007 IPinSight

 

///

The exchange I had with the moderator revealed two additional norms the community shares. The first is the ‘spell check’ norm; members at DeenPort never let a spelling error go by, this was initiated by the first generation and picked up by the second generation. Second, is the good natured banter that is often displayed by members.

 

5. Idiosyncratic Practices

 

The Events that never happened

An unusual ritual that the DeenPort members share is the enactment of the mythical event – these are events that are talked about and never actually take place. One of the members comes up with an idea and the other members respond with enthusiasm. The idea is discussed in detail, various details thought out, responsibilities divided, tasks assigned and eventually the idea is dropped. The DeenPort awards discussion is initiated almost every year, lively debate ensues on categories and winners, and awards – to date no such awards have been announced. Similarly, the DeenPort Dinner was talked about for days but nothing materialized. The difference between the successful and not so successful initiatives seems to be the utility of the proposed initiative. Whereas, these project seem destined to die out, the DeenPort Library which has been under discussion for a long time seems to be headed for successful completion. The difference is also apparent in the discourse about these ideas; the less useful ideas are taken very lightly by the members while the useful ones are taken seriously. Looking at these discussions it almost seems that the members are playing a game, they understand the rules, and they enjoy it, too. They know from experience that the idea will not reach fruition but they like playing with the thought anyways.

 

Language Correction and its consequence

The unusual norm of correcting individuals for their spelling and grammar may have an unintended consequence. This norm may discourage individuals who are not as eloquent or proficient in english; it can be argued that writing skills are dependent on the social class of an individual and this requirement for a higher content of social capital makes this virtual community class sensitive.

 

6. The Layout of the Forum

So far the discussion has been limited to the content of the messages posted by members with little mention of some of the other features of the website. In this section I will analyze some of the other features of website. The website is divided into six sections: DPuFind, Events, Gallery, DPTV, Messages and Blogtracker.

DPuFind is a section where members can provide links to articles of their choice.

Events is the section that provides news of events across UK, these are also posted by members.

Gallery & DPTV are sections that feature pictures and videos recommended by the moderators of the forum.

And Blogtracker provides updates on blogs that are selected or approved by the moderators.

 

Content analysis of these sections gives us information about the members of this community. The content in these sections pertain to the religious beliefs of the members and touch upon three themes within their religious identity: Traditional Islam, Tasawuff & arts. Members of this community ascribe to the traditional school of thought in Islamic Law, this position implies that they refer to the religious scholars for questions on law, scholars who derive their positions from the Quran (the divine book), the Sunnah (the actions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) and the opinion of scholars before them. The members also approve of Tasawuff (Islamic mysticism). Finally, the members show keen interest in Islamic arts, such as calligraphy.

 

These three things taken together imply a positive affirmation of their religious identity on the part of the members of this community. Their religious past, a past of a culturally, spiritually, and intellectually rich civilization, forms an integral part of their identity. This is affirmed through the intellectually challenging content of the articles (DPufind and Blogtrack), the regularity of spiritual retreats featured in the events section, and the focus on creative Islamic art in the sections DPTV and Gallery. This shared understanding of who they are seems to be the rallying point around which the members unite.

 

7. The observer revealed

Sorry too personal to share 😉

 

8. Questions of methodology

Theoretical perspective

According to the theoretical perspective of my choice I see reality as a social construction. I believe that the social world is created by individuals through the medium of language, labels, actions, and routines. Human beings do this to make their world intelligible to themselves. More importantly this constructed reality is a subjective construction dependent on the members who create this shared reality (Morgan, Gareth & Smircich, Linda 1980).

In the light of this theoretical stance, DeenPort, is constructed by its members. These members find themselves in a position where their religious identity is constantly under threat and their need for belongingness to a community is unfulfilled (Muniz & O’Guinn, 2001). My account of DeenPort is informed by this understanding that focuses on the members – who construct their ‘reality’ to make their world more intelligible – in order to develop an understanding of this virtual community.

 

The issues of a virtual ethnography

The community I chose to study is a virtual community and diverges from the traditional subject of ethnography. The virtual ethnography therefore on top of the problems it shares with the traditional form of ethnography, poses challenges that are peculiar to this kind of ethnography. Owing to the limited scope of this study I intentionally eschewed some of the issues relevant to virtual ethnographies. Questions pertaining to the influence of the technology in shaping the organization of social relationships and the dilemmas users face in reconciling ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ life, were considered questions beyond the scope of the current study. Where relevant, though, some issues have been discussed briefly. The discussions I have chosen to construct an account of the community constitute a very small percentage of the total discussions that have taken place on the forum; the choice was made out of necessity. I admit that this study has significant limitations, but here I would like to refer to one of the principles of virtual ethnography Christine Hine lists in her book, that “Virtual Ethnography is necessarily partial” (Hine, 2000).

 

References

 

Albert Muniz, Jr. and Thomas C. O’Guinn (2001), “Brand Community,” Journal of Consumer Research, 27 (4), 412-433.

 

*Hammersley, M. & Atkinson, P. (1995). Ethnography: Principles in Practice. London: Routledge, pp. 16 (1995, 2nd ed.)

 

* Hine, C (2000) Virtual Ethnography. pp. 65 Sage: London.

 

Morgan, Gareth & Smircich, Linda.(1980) The Case for Qualitative Research , . Academy of Management Review, Oct80, Vol. 5 Issue 4, p491

Whyte, W. F. (4th edition, 1993) Street Corner Society, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

 

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3 Responses to Deenport Ethnographic Study

  1. Farah says:

    As-salaamu alaikum,

    Gosh. You eventually managed to write it up. Subhan Allah.

    “Female members of DeenPort from Manchester organize to travel together. They hire a bus and 20-30 DeenPort members travel together to these events. This activity has allows the virtual community to interact in ‘offline’.”

    I think there’s a slight error here. It’s the Birmingham DP’ers who arranged the caravan! Bless them.

    Mancunians are proper fuddy duddies, praise be to God. Then again one cannot speak on behalf of all. In this particular case many Mancunians went with the clan (immediate family) as in there had to be a male member present from the family to fix the tyre incase it burst on the motorway and God forbid any other mishaps. I know in this day and age you can be a member of various roadside recovery clubs to help but its much more fun with someone from the family – helps you bond a little too. Nice to eventually meet up with the rest of the DP’ers at the destination in one piece. All’s well that begins and ends well.

    Many of the community do meet outside event hours too as in a visit to each others home, etc. More relaxed. Amazing.

  2. dilsenomad says:

    Thankyou, sister Farah for your comments 🙂
    I hope I have not stepped on any toes .. my intention was to paint a favorable picture of DP 🙂
    I think it is great.

  3. Farah says:

    🙂

    Makes one wonder what other research takes place without people even knowing. The net still doesn’t present the complete picture though. Wondering how the meetings with the members went. How were they presented in the study above.

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