“Virtual Ethnography,” Hine, 2000

flickr photo by ianguest http://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/20287595152 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

One of the first books about ethnography conducted ‘in, on and through the Internet’, this is an oft cited text. The book makes the case that ethnography conducted online requires a different methodological approach, it describes how and why the ethnography for a particular case was designed as it was, then covers the case as it unfolds and discusses the findings.

The Internet now is a very different place than it was at the turn of the millennium, having expanded in scope and capability, become far more integrated into the people’s lives and has moved beyond simply a place we ‘go to.’ There is a gulf between the Web 1.0 Hine researched and the Web 2.0/Web 3.0 we currently use. Mobile technologies provide ubiquitous and often invisible access to specific locations and the services the Internet delivers. The Internet is now relegated to the background, serving as the infrastructure we use to ‘Google’ something, post a status update, ‘Snapchat’ a photo or look something up on ‘Wikipedia.’

Previously ethnographers had largely studied either the online or offline worlds of Internet users. Hine argues that the Internet can be viewed in two ways. As a:

  • culture; a bounded space within which social interactions are played out
  • cultural artefact; a product of culture “…shaped by social processes in production and use.”

She cautions that this should not be seen as a distinction which is perceived by users, nor as a reflection of an online/offline boundary, but as a spur to undertaking an ethnography which accounts for both and the connections between and across. One that moves away from the narrow traditional conception of ethnography seen as taking part within a bounded social space and where immersion is replaced by the ethnographer developing sensitivity through becoming mobile across a heterogenous landscape. S/he would follow meaningful connections, people, things, narratives and conflicts in order to elicit meaning.

Even when restricting one’s explorations to just the online, Hine discussed how challenging it can be tracing information flows across locations and the degree to which it’s even possible to build a complete picture. Now that the Internet has become so much more extensive, the online world is so much more complex, with actions and interactions straddling the increasingly blurred online/offline boundary. Even with the sophisticated tools being developed, tracking those flows becomes even more challenging.

It’s not difficult to conceive of situations in which professional learning is taking place offline or online, or indeed both at the same time for a single individual. They may be also simultaneously connected with, but spatially distant from someone else who is learning about the same topic or a different one. Or indeed they may be also be temporally separated. Hine suggests that Castells’ (1996) concepts of the space of flows (emphasises connection and flow, rather than location) and temporal collage (an alternative view of time as a jumble of tenses from asynchronous interactions, rather than an orderly sequenced chronology) might provide a framework from which to examine those involved and how they connect and interact. It’s only a small leap then to see how and why actor-network theory and social network analysis might be so important here.

Castells, M., 1996. Rise of the Network Society, 1st ed. Blackwell Publishers, Inc., Cambridge, MA, USA.
Hine, C., 2000. Virtual Ethnography. SAGE Publications Ltd.

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