Although I have yet to become better acquainted with the principles of ethnography through some of the standard texts, Kozinets (2010:60) provides a useful starting point:
… to undertake an immersive, prolonged engagement with the members of a culture or community, followed by an attempt to convey their reality through a ‘thick’, detailed, nuanced historically-curious and culturally-grounded interpretation and deep description of a social world that is familiar to its participants, but strange to outsiders.’
He then goes on to outline the generic steps to be followed when undertaking an ethnography.
To be able to adapt ethnographic techniques to serve the needs of a netnography, Kozinets (2010:88) offers four critical areas in which social interactions differ:
- Alteration: the ways in which people interact are changed by the nature of the media which mediate those interactions. This can at times be constricting (lack of audio/visual cues, bandwidth issues, time-lag, specific symbolisms) but in other ways liberating (continual connectivity, closure of spatial separation).
- Anonymity: (and its close relative, pseudonymity) enable online actors to perform flexible identity management, causing difficulties for research where demography is important. Some would say however that this enables some people to portray a side of themselves which in face-to-face circumstances might remain hidden.
- Accessibility: once the initial hurdles of access to the Internet have been overcome, the spaces, places and people that become accessible to online actors (and researchers) are far wider than those in the face-to-face world. Mass membership on a global scale is possible, though undoubtedly lack of communality results in segmentation into linguistic, gender, geographical or ethnic sub-groups.
- Archiving: online interactions tend to persist long after the exchange has been concluded. This durability makes observation, recording and retrieval of data far easier than in a face-to-face context.
With these differences duly noted then, we need to adapt our strategies to accommodate, or even profit from, the affordances of undertaking an ethnography using the Internet.
Observation: In this post I’m taking Kozinets’ assertion that the online world demands a different set of tools and techniques – netnography – at face value and that a ‘traditional’ ethnography is somehow not appropriate or in need of adaptation. I need to think more about the fundamentals of ethnography and the distinctions between online and offline worlds. Was most of his work done at a time when the Internet and the ways we dealt with it still emerging, or in the few intervening years, have we moved on to integrate it as just another part of being?
Kozinets, R.V., 2009. Netnography: Doing Ethnographic Research Online. SAGE.