Mark's E-learning and Digital Cultures Blog

part of the MSc in E-learning at the University of Edinburgh

Mark’s Online Ethnography

A brief Adult Fan Of Lego (AFOL) online ethnography……

Despite reference within some of the core and secondary readings with regards to the nature of “community” (and indeed online “community”), I must admit that at the beginning of this brief study, the concept still seemed to be somewhat nebulous. My intentions therefore, were to explore my chosen subject as I went along and flesh out some of the reasons why it may be considered as a community as opposed to, for example, Baym’s conceptions of a divisive or “task-orientated” group (Bayme 1998). That said however, in her Flickr ethnography study, Clari cites Hamman (1997) in defining “community” in sociological terms as; a group of people, who share social interaction and some common ties between themselves and other members of the group, and share an area for at least some of the time. For me, this definition provided a useful starting perspective. 

My choice of online group happened after a brief examination of various Flickr forums. The number of groups devoted to Lego led me to examine this genre further, and the ethical need to avoid the involvement of chidren (as far as possible within a virtual environment) encouraged me to focus specifically on the AFOL “community”. With a subject area in mind, my internet searches revealed an extremely large and vibrant online AFOL “community”, with numerous subgroups and categories. The following Vimeo link was one of my early finds, and outlines the genre and the global  sense of “community” quite nicely: AFOL A Blocumentary

MOC (My Own Creation) Paramedic Unit - in joining an online AFOL forum, I may have gone a bit native !

The Vimeo link makes reference to the AFOL online global ”community”, and one thing that I have noticed is that many AFOL sites use the term as a form of self-description. When referring to creating links (in the form of “ambassadors” with AFOLs, represenatatives of the Lego group also use this term (click on image below). The Vimeo link also interestingly makes reference to the hobby as an “art form”, and that members consist of Engineers, Computer Programmers, Artists,  and Computer Gamers. 


According to Bayme (1998), this could be one indication of the “community” potential of AFOL groups in terms of members being part of an imagined “community”. However, once the sheer size of the AFOL following became apparent, I wondered as to whether a  global “community” could really exist. In this respect, I was reminded of Bell’s car driving community metaphor, and the suggestion that a community could not exist on such a large scale, with only one common (if not mundane) feature (Bell 2005:100). In this respect, the AFOL community could perhaps be subdivided further into smaller groups (with specific interests such as Lego tanks, Lego trains, or Lego Star Wars), or perhaps more localised geographical groups (such as the Australian and New Zealand AFOL “community”, or indeed the Texas Leggo Users Group (Tex Lug)). 

Whilst LUGNET (The International Lego Users Group Network) does provide a global network for international AFOLs, and provides links to the various online forums that are available (including the LUGMAP, which enables users to locate specific groups), one online article - ”Looking at the AFOL community with Serious Play” (Renee Shull n.d.) - suggests that AFOL groups are fairly fragmented, and that a more socially based forum is require to unify and encourage a greater love of the hobby. 

In terms of global (and indeed local) “community” formation, AFOL groups do have features that have been identified elsewhere as being important.  Bell’s conception of “boundary-drawing” and the formation of cohesion  (Bell 2005:110) can be seen in relation to the abhorrence that is displayed within many AFOL groups towards Mega Bloks – an alternative construction toy that is very similar to Lego (please click on this link for comment from AFOL “brickbender” re Mega Bloks). In this respect other communities are perhaps “bounded out”, but another cohesive factor (I would hypothesise) is provided by the very Lego blocks themselves. As I have mentioned within other forum posts, Lego is not particularly maleable as a construction medium – and this may well provide a vital challenge to AFOLs in creating an original model/sculpture. Indeed, prior to my investigation, I could not understand why such a large “community” could form with such a toy as a focal point - afterall much more realistic models could be constructed from plactic or balsa wood. This perhaps relates to Rheingold’s (1998) assertion about community members feeling the need to band together to share ideas and consult with more experienced “experts” in the field. 

The top image of my Lego ambulance creation and my introductory message to the Lego 16+ group (see below), hopefully display the (albeit small) ethnographic journey that I have made during my investigations. Although new to ethnography, I felt joining an AFOL forum was an important step, in terms of Hine’s descriptions of “travelling” to the site of investigation, and having the “authority” to comment (Hine 2000:47). I was also unsure as to the ethics of observing an online group and passing comment in a public forum with the group members having no idea of my intentions. 

My introductory message to the Lego 16+ Flickr group

My decision to join this group focussed upon the number of members (581) and the number of discussions that were underway – elements that I felt were likely to reveal “community” formation. There were some simple rules and parameters, and evidence of policing by the administrators (please see below) – although I was warned at the point of joining that the 16+ nature of the group often led to some forthright, if not blunt commenting ! 

"Policing" buy the group administrator

In terms of communication, the boundary formed by the 16+ age rule and the policing of the administrator when comments became derogatory within one forum, do help to define this site as a “community” (Bell 2005:104). The use of emotive language on occasion also perhaps moves this forum beyond being purely functional and ”task orientated”. 

If I put on my objective head - I can see that the thought processes behind the taking of this image may display a lack of impartiality !

Moving back to the broader aspect of the global AFOL “community”, the creation of a specific variance of language that is unique to the hobby is likely to be a further cohesive factor. Brickipedia (a list of Lego jargon) is, as the name suggests, a glossary of terms that are specific to the AFOL community. Such terms(or rather abbreviations) include MOC (My Own Creation), BURP (Big Ugly Rock Piece), SNOT (Studs Not On Top) and LUGS (Lego User Groups). The use of this specific language (and group norms) is also used within Lego 16+, which according to Kozinets (2010:27) may be important in the creation of group relationships and the formation of a communal entity.   

 A further interesting feature of the AFOL “community” is that much of it is centred around the real life interaction between members. As mentioned above, Lugnet has a feature that allows members to join local clubs that are based in physical locations around the world. Much of this is so that members can swap parts and compare their creations (it is mentioned that it usually takes a fellow AFOL to fully understand the work and effort that has gone into a particular display). Before the establishment of online forums, AFOL clubs were in existance, and hobbyists enjoyed building with Lego in the privacy of their own homes. Nowadays however, large exhibitions such as Brickfair (which has a dedicated facebook site) and Brickcon allow thousands of AFOLS to congregate and exchange ideas. In this respect, the creation of an online “community” for AFOLS is likely to be a useful unifying addition to a hobby that has been established for many years. This runs somewhat contrary to Rheingold’s conception of an online community that has grown “organically” in response to the demise of a traditional Gemeinschaft community (Rheingold 1999 – cited within Bell 2005:99) 

At this point, it is probably fair to drop the quotation marks that I have been placing around the word “community” throughout this blog, and say that being an online-active AFOL is likely to mean that community membership is available to you – at least by the measure of many accepted written sources. With that said, notions of community are more likely to be identifiable within smaller more focussed forums (such as Lego 16+), although membership will of course be dependent upon the individual’s desired level of imersion (an element of choice that is made possible via the very nature of the online medium).

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(thank you !)


Bayme (1998) cited within Bell, D. (2001) Community and cyberculture, chapter 5 of An introduction to cybercultures. Abingdon: Routledge

Bell, D. (2001) Community and cyberculture, chapter 5 of An introduction to cybercultures. Abingdon: Routledge. pp92-112

Hamman,M. (1997) Cited within Clari, M (unpublished, 2009) A Flickr ethnography

Hine, C (2000) The virtual objects of ethnography, chapter 3 of Virtual ethnography. London: Sage. pp41-66

Kozinets, R. V. (2010) Chapter 2 ‘Understanding Culture Online’, Netnography: doing ethnographic research online. London: Sage. pp. 21-40

Rheingold,H. (1999) A Slice of Life in my Virtual Cimmunity. Cambridge MA: MIT Press. Cited within Bell, D. (2001) Community and cyberculture, chapter 5 of An introduction to cybercultures. Abingdon: Routledge

Rheingold,H. (1997) The virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electric Frontier. Cambridge MA: MIT Press