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Online ethnography

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Online ethnography refers to a number of related online research methods that adapt ethnographic methods to the study of the communities and cultures created through computer-mediated social interaction. As modifications of the term ethnography, online ethnography and virtual ethnography (as well as many other methodological neologisms) designate online fieldwork that follows from the conception of ethnography as an adaptable method. These methods tend to leave most of the specifics of the adaptation to the individual researcher. Netnography suggests the use of specific procedures and standards, and argues for consideration of particular consensually-agreed upon techniques, justifying the use of a new name rather than a modification of the term ethnography.[1][2]

Introduction Edit

All ethnographies of online cultures and communities extend the traditional notions of field and ethnographic study, as well as ethnographic cultural analysis and representation, from the observation of co-located, face-to-face interactions to technologically mediated interactions in online networks and communities, and the culture (or cyberculture) shared between and among them. In doing so, these techniques are founded in the sense that traditional notions of a field site as a localized space are outdated. They suggest that ethnographic fieldwork can be meaningfully applied to computer-mediated interactions, an assertion that some have contested,[3] but which is increasingly becoming accepted.[4][5]

Almost since their inception, ethnographies of online cultures and communities have been conducted that are purely observational, in which the researcher is a specialized type of lurker[6] or non participant observation in online communities.[7] However, other researchers have emphasized a more participative approach, in which the researcher fully participates as a member of the online community. This latter approach is closer to traditional ethnographic standards of participant observation, prolonged engagement, and deep immersion. In many of its renderings, netnography, online ethnography, or virtual ethnography should maintain the values of traditional ethnography through providing a Geertzian sense of "thick description" (1973 [8]) through the immersion" of the researcher in the life of the online culture or community (Hine 2000[9] , Markham 1998 [10]). This focus on participation and immersion makes these approaches quite distinct from Web usage mining or social network analysis, although ethnographers may use similar techniques to identify or map networks.

The key question for the researcher is "how can ethnography be pursued in computer-mediated social settings"? Researchers have attempted to create computer-mediated counterparts for many of the basic ethnographic concepts but whether they can appropriately be applied to technologically mediated interaction is still open (Howard, 2003). For example, if a researcher simply reads some emails or participates in chat rooms, does this represent an ethnography? The key is participation. Can the researcher still be said to have immersed themselves in the life of the community and to have engaged in the culture as a full-fledged member? There is debate in the online research community to what extent participation is required, with completely observational articles published as a type of ethnography of online cultures.

The Range of MethodologiesEdit

There are a range of different ways that ethnographers have attempted to study the internet. The methodological approach of virtual ethnography has been broadened and reformulated through a variety of other terms. Most of these terms and the techniques they represent seek to maintain their own dialogue with the established tradition of ethnography. Each formulates its relation to the established anthropological tradition in different (and sometimes inconsistent) ways. There are those who consider that ethnographies conducted online involves a distinctive methodological approach. There are also those who consider that researching the Internet ethnographically forces us to reflect on fundamental assumptions and concepts of ethnography, but that it doesn't mean a distinctive form of ethnography.[11]


The term netnography has gained currency within the field of consumer research to refer to ethnographic research conducted on the Internet. It is a qualitative, interpretive research methodology that adapts the traditional, in-person ethnographic research techniques of anthropology to the study of the online cultures and communities formed through computer-mediated communications (“CMC”).

At least four aspects of online, computer-mediated, or virtual, interaction and community formation are distinct from their in-person, real life (“RL”), or face-to-face (“F2F”) counterparts. First is the textual, nonphysical, and social-cue-impoverished context of the online environment. Second is an unprecedented new level of access to the heretofore unobservable behaviors of particular interacting peoples. Third, while traditional interactions are ephemeral as they occur, online social interactions are often automatically saved and archived, creating permanent records. Finally, the social nature of the new medium is unclear as to whether it is a private or public space, or some unique hybrid. Ethnography adapts common participant-observation ethnographic procedures—such as making cultural entrée, data collection, analyzing data, and conducting ethical research—to these computer-mediated contingencies and provides sets of specific guidelines (see Kozinets 2002 for a detailed development of the process; see also Kozinets 2006).

Netnographic MethodologyEdit

There are a range of methodological prescriptions involved in conducts a netnography. This entry will provide an overview of them, but interested researchers should consult other methodological texts for details (e.g., Kozinets 1998, 2002, 2006a). However explicit ethical codes are essential to improve public trust and understanding of online privacy in netnography research. Creating social media guideline such as NPR News Social Media Guidelines, 2009 [12] highlights privacy in ethical code and enhance the importance of confidentiality in ethical research.

Gaining Entry to Online Communities and CulturesEdit

Given the wide range of choices of online communal forms, including blogs, web-rings, chat, SMS, gamespaces, bulletin boards, and mailing lists, researchers should spend the time to match their research questions and interests to appropriate online forum, using the novel resources of online search engines such as Yahoo! and Google groups, before initiating entrée. Before initiating contact as a participant, or beginning formal data collection, the distinctive characteristics of the online communities should be familiar to the netnographer. In netnographic entree, following ethical standards such as full and accurate disclosure of the presence of the researcher is critical (Kozinets 2002).

Data CollectionEdit

In a netnography, data takes two forms: data that the researcher directly copies from the computer-mediated communications of online community members, and data that the researcher inscribes. Reflective fieldnotes, in which ethnographers record their observations, are a time-tested and recommended method in netnography. Although some netnographies have been conducted using only observation and download, without the researcher writing a single fieldnote, this non-participant approach draws into question the ethnographic orientation of the investigation.

As with grounded theory, data collection should continue as long as new insights are being generated. For purposes of precision, some netnographers closely track the amount of text collected and read, and the number of distinct participants. CAQDAS software solutions can expedite coding, content analysis, data linking, data display, and theory-building functions. New forms of qualitative data analysis are constantly being developed by a variety of firms (such as MotiveQuest and Neilsen BuzzMetrics), although the results of these firms are more like content analyses of than ethnographic representations (Kozinets 2006). However, some scholars dispute netnography's distance from content analysis, preferring to assert that it is also a content analytic technique (Langer and Beckman 2005).

Data AnalysisEdit

Distinct from data mining and content analysis, netnography as a method emphasizes the cultural contextualizing of online data. This often proves to be challenging in the social-cues-impoverished online context. Because netnography is based primarily upon the observation of textual discourse, ensuring trustworthy interpretations requires a different approach than the balancing of discourse and observed behavior that occurs during in-person ethnography. Although the online landscape mediates social representation and renders problematic the issue of informant identity, netnography seems perfectly amenable to treating behavior or the social act as the ultimate unit of analysis, rather than the individual person.

Research EthicsEdit

Research ethics may be one of the most important differences between traditional ethnography and netnography. Ethical concerns over netnography turn on early concerns about whether online forums are to be considered a private or a public site, and about what constitutes informed consent in cyberspace (see Paccagnella 1997). In a major departure from traditional methods, netnography uses cultural information that is not given specifically, and in confidence, to the researcher. The consumers who originally created the data do not necessarily intend or welcome its use in research representations. Netnography therefore offers specific guidelines regarding when to cite online posters and authors, how to cite them, what to consider in an ethical netnographic representation, when to ask permission, and when permission is not necessary (Kozinets 2002).

Advantages and Limitations of NetnographyEdit

Compared to surveys, experiments, focus groups, and personal interviews, netnography can be less obtrusive. It is conducted using observations in a context that is not fabricated by the researcher. Netnography also is less costly and timelier than focus groups and personal interviews.

The limitations of netnography draw from its more narrow focus on online communities, its inability to offer the full and rich detail of lived human experience, the need for researcher interpretive skill, and the lack of informant identifiers present in the online context that leads to difficulty generalizing results to groups outside the online community sample. However, these limitations can be ameliorated somewhat by careful use of convergent data collection methods that bridge offline and online research in a systematic manner (Kozinets 1998, 2002). Researchers wishing to generalize the findings of a netnography of a particular online group to other groups must apply careful evaluations of similarity and consider using multiple methods for research triangulation.[13] Netnography is still a relatively new method, and awaits further development and refinement at the hands of a new generation of Internet-savvy ethnographic researchers. However, several researchers are developing the techniques in social networking sites, virtual worlds, mobile communities, and other novel computer-mediated social domains.


To the extent that online ethnography is similar to ethnography in a localized space, it will raise similar ethical considerations. However, the nature of the online space does raise new ethical issues, including those related to informed consent of human subjects, protections of privacy or anonymity of research subjects, and whether online ethnography might be a form of “electronic eavesdropping.”[14] In spite of these differences, the American Anthropological Association has yet to include any specific recommendations regarding online ethnography in its Code of Ethics.[15]

Advantages and Limitations of Ethnographic Research in Online Cultures and CommunitiesEdit

The advantage of online ethnography is seeing the Internet as a means of practicing and upholding a culture. When online, members of a culture to "attempt to make themselves a(t) home in a transforming communicative environment" and "find themselves in this environment and at the same time mould it in their own image."[16] In their work on the online Trinidadian community, anthropologists Daniel Miller and Don Slater note that "Trinidadians--particularly those living away--invest much energy in trying to make online life as Trinidadian as they can make it, to see the Internet as a place to perform Trini-ness." [17]

Related Wikipedia Entries Edit


  1. Kozinets, Robert V. (2002), “The Field Behind the Screen: Using Netnography for Marketing Research in Online Communities,” Journal of Marketing Research, 39 (February), 61-72.
  2. Del Fresno, Miguel (2011) Netnografía. Investigación, análisis e intervención social. Editorial UOC, 1ª edición, Barcelona, España
  3. Clifford, J. (1997). Spatial Practices: Fieldwork, Travel, and the Discipline of Anthropology. In A. Gupta & J. Ferguson (Eds.) Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 185-222.
  4. Bishop, J. (2008). Increasing capital revenue in social networking communities: Building social and economic relationships through avatars and characters. In C. Romm-Livermore, & K. Setzekorn (Eds.), Social networking communities and eDating services: Concepts and implications. New York: IGI Global. Available online
  5. Garcia, Angela Cora, Alecea I. Standlee, Jennifer Bechkoff, and Yan Cui (2009), “Ethnographic Approaches to the Internet and Computer-Mediated Communication,” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 38 (1), February, 52-84.
  6. Kozinets, Robert V. (2006a), “Netnography 2.0,” in Handbook of Qualitative Research Methods in Marketing, ed. Russell W. Belk, Cheltenham, UN and Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, 129-142.
  7. Del Fresno, Miguel (2011) Netnografía. Investigación, análisis e intervención social. Editorial UOC, 1ª edición, Barcelona, España
  8. Geertz, Clifford (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic Books.
  9. Hine, Christine (2000). Virtual Ethnography, London: Sage.
  10. Markham, Anette (1998). Life Online: Researching Real Experience in Virtual Space, AltaMira Press.
  11. Domínguez, Daniel, Anne Beaulieu, Adolfo Estalella, Edgar Gómez, Bernt Schnettlerand Rosie Read. (2007). "Virtual Ethnography." Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum Qualitative Social Research, 8(3).
  13. Clark. L, Ting. I.-H, Kimble. C, Wright. P and Kudenko, D.
  14. (2002). The Anthropology of Online Communities. Annual Review of Anthropology 31: 449–467.
  16. Miller, Daniel and Slater, Don. The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach. Berg Publishers, 2001, p. 1.
  17. Miller, Daniel and Slater, Don. The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach. Berg Publishers, 2001, p. 7.

Further reading Edit

External linksEdit

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