One of the key texts for anyone considering an ethnographic study in which the Internet plays a role, has for a while now been Christine Hine’s ‘Virtual Ethnography,’ 2000. With few others covering this ground at the time, this book remained the ‘go to’ guide for some considerable while. However, the pace of change of the Internet and the ways we have come to accept and adopt it (and be influenced by what it offers) has meant that the themes covered (though still somewhat relevant) appear dated and are no longer comprehensive. Fortunately Hine has produced a completely new interpretation which extends what was learned earlier through more recent, relevant examples.
There was much in ‘Ethnography for the Internet’ (Hine, 2015) to inform the way I think about and approach my own study. In the following posts then, I’m going to attempt to summarise the main points that Hine covers, so that should I have the need return to them subsequently, I’ll have some point of reference. (Perhaps I should buy the book?)
Perhaps it’s sensible to open with a quick introduction to the reason why the book is needed. Ethnography is far from new, but the Internet as a place to conduct it, is. Multi-spatial with connections spanning geographic spaces which may be around the world or in the next room, the internet has both reach and interconnectivity at a scale never previously available. The latest technologies mean it can be accessed from almost anywhere, enabling us to in effect take it with us wherever we roam. Our engagement with it can be short-term, fleeting, or long-lived & persistent, meaning temporarility is a property with particular significance. Participation might be intense or casual, viewed as a distinct activity or an integrated aspect of our everyday lives. This diversity and heterogeneity will require an ethnography which is both adaptable and flexible.
Turning to ethnography, as Hammersley and Atkinson (1983: 2) have it,
the ethnographer participates, overtly or covertly, in people’s daily lives for an extended period of time, watching what happens, listening to what is said, asking questions; in fact collecting whatever data are available to throw light on the issues with which he or she is concerned.
Hine challenges the view that some proffer in which the Internet is not amenable to an ethnographic approach. Prolonged exposure, participation, interaction and obtaining a first-hand understanding of how people live their lives is still possible within online spaces. The socially mediated communication facilitated through the Internet is part of people’s lives and should be studied, but we should neither forget nor ignore that this is interwoven within their offline world. This should not be viewed as a boundary between two places, but as an integrated whole where the ethnographer follows the connections wherever they lead. The challenge then is navigating this multiplicity of places of doings and being. Ethnography is however a flexible and adaptable approach, amenable to a changing landscape and shifting set of circumstances, where the ethnographer needs to be agile and and capable of making active choices
The changing Internet since Virtual Ethnography, where the notion of the virtual, as a form of other, lesser, more ephemeral, ‘not quite’ place, asks that we reposition our perspective. This book is about ethnography for the Internet; not of or through it.
Hammersley, M. and Atkinson, P., 1983, Ethnography: Principles in Practice. London, Routledge
Hine, C., 2000. Virtual ethnography. London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE.
Hine, C., 2015. Ethnography for the Internet: Embedded, Embodied and Everyday, Bloomsbury Publishing.