Doing Ethnography in AirSpace


I’m here to talk about what I think is a fascinating phenomenon: AirSpace. AirSpace is an aesthetic, but as we shall see it’s much more than that: it informs how we experience the world as Ethnographers. You’re probably wondering what is AirSpace exactly? To explain it I will start by telling you about my holiday this summer.

I was on holiday with my family in Pembrokeshire. A remote part of the Welsh coastline. My friend grew up nearby and recommended a ‘secret’ beach: Barafundle Bay. He said it was a local secret and took 20 minutes to hike to from the nearest road. But when we arrived there were hundreds of people there! I heard people speaking German and French. I spoke to a Dutch person and asked her where she had heard about the beach: Instagram of course! The Guardian subsequently published an article about the crowding of previously quiet beaches, driven by social media.

Destinations, in turn, are increasingly aware of the influence platforms like Instagram and are shaping their products and customer experience accordingly. Dirty Bones restaurant in London provides an ‘Instagram Kit’ to their diners to help them improve the photography.

The result is that destinations converge to the aesthetics that are rewarded on these platforms. Here are 4 independent coffee shops with the same ‘hipster’ aesthetics: raw wood, industrial decoration, well-groomed baristas. Any idea which city these coffee shops are in? 4 different cities in 4 continents! It’s a global phenomenon.

And it’s not just Instagram. AirBnb defines how many of us find accommodation. Yelp – how we find restaurants.  Google Maps – how we navigate. Uber – our default mode of transport. Because each platform seamlessly adapts to every market around the world, your user experience becomes increasingly standardised and in turn destinations respond to the specific incentives of these platforms, as defined by their UI affordance and the preferences of their users. So the standardisation reflects both the user experience of the platform, and the converging aesthetic experience of the world itself, as destinations adapt to reflect the incentives of these platforms.

Kyle Chayka coined the term ‘AirSpace’ to describe this homogenizing phenomenon. And it’s more than a matter of aesthetic convergence. The standardisation of both “what we will find” and “how we find it” is comforting because it feels very familiar: we know what to expect. AirSpace reduces the friction of travel.  It’s how brands like McDonalds have always worked. But these platforms are extending this to familiarity across diverse, independent destinations. This makes it tough to figure out when you’re in AirSpace or not.

Now for a confession: I love AirSpace! It’s made our lives as researchers so much easier. It means:

  • a comfortable independent coffee shop to write-up notes
  • workshopping emergent findings in your Airbnb
  • using Google Translate to make sense of incomprehensible signs
  • travelling around town in an Uber or DD at a click of a button

But there are down sides, I think. On a recent trip to  Shanghai we used DD to get from the airport, Apple Maps to find a local restaurant, Google Translate to decipher road signs. I realized the first “local” person I interacted with (other than the translators and Airbnb host) was at my first 3 hour in home interview. The ’friction’ that is removed is dealing with local people and local contexts. AirSpace helps to reduce ethnography to user interviews, and, in doing so, contributes to the “Uxification of research”, as my colleague Simon Roberts puts it. It does not cause it, but creates the conditions for its acceleration.

Of course friction is often the source of the best insights. A colleague told me about a highly stressful project for a chemicals company in Germany. The fieldwork involved going into busy environments and interrupting people at work. There was no time for planning. Sometimes she would turn up a fieldsites and no one could speak to her, leaving her empty handed. But there was a benefit: it made the fieldwork more spontaneous… ended up speaking to workers that were crucial to the challenge, but hadn’t been identified as important beforehand. Simply because she stumbled upon them. It turned out they were the key influencers on the product the project centred around. This lateral insight would not have emerged if the interviews had been pre-planned.

Another benefit of AirSpace is it makes culture feel increasingly available. Search Airbnb for Mongolia and a stay with a nomadic family is only a click away! This is a big opportunity for ethnographer. As culture gets mapped with greater fidelity the shortcuts will be ubiquitous. Every destination, object, experience is pre-labelled ready to be consumed.

Niantec, makers of Pokemon Go, and others are leaders in making the world ‘readable’. As culture gets mapped with greater fidelity the shortcuts will be ubiquitous. Every destination, object, experience is pre-labelled ready to be consumed. There is no aspect of culture that isn’t accessible – should be a great opportunity to ethnographers.

But there are dangers! One recent example: we were trying to understand knowledge workers in Zurich. To understand their lifestyle we searched for a ‘local restaurant’ on Yelp and selected top result without much thought. By using Yelp found myself at a restaurant designed for tourists and travellers. It was taking the ‘easy option’ rather than do the (harder) work of finding more representative locations. This despite the fact Yelp presents itself as neutral interface: “to connect people with great local businesses.”


EPIC contributor Tricia Wang recently encountered ads for the Google Maps Explore feature in Brooklyn, and reacted strongly against it as a local resident. Wang contrasts the perspective offered by Google Maps with the richer perspective of people who try to understand the world through “direct experience” (by interacting with other people spontaneously and pro-actively). As a resident of Bed-Stuy, Wang can delineate between these perspectives. But as a visitor seeking “direct experience” can make us feel vulnerable, and occupying AirSpace is certainly more convenient. The danger is we start allowing these platforms to frame our perspective and frames of reference, and assume equivalence

Basically, stick to the principles of good ethnography: question everything, including how we are operating as researchers.

How can these platforms make us more spontaneous? Removing the ‘right’ kind of friction, but allowing space for the good kind

How can we use cultural shortcuts as a starting-point for deeper exploration? Help us to get further, faster – rather than be the end point

How can we situate AirSpace as an object of study? Recognise it as something that informs the way we research as well as the people and places we are studying

And a final thought: many of us are also shaping these platforms – how do we design them to make them to help people avoid making the issues I’ve discussed?