In any ethnographic study, in order to be able to interpret the research setting, prolonged exposure is desirable, with the ethnographer, where possible, engaging in the activities as a fellow participant. In addition to winning trust, this also allows the researcher to both observe and experience the nuances of participation, to develop themes and interpretations and discuss them with participants, then where necessary, revise and reinterpret them.
Where the setting involves multiple, perhaps diffuse sites, both on- and offline, extended immersion in each of those spaces may prove difficult. Nevertheless we should remember the goal is to spend long enough to develop and revise emerging theories; to be able to recognise what is normal or unusual. Perhaps ‘immersion’ needs re-viewing in terms appropriate to mediated communication across multiple, connected spaces?
In ethnography, the field site can occasionally be clearly specified and its boundaries mapped. In an ethnography of the Internet, the field site may initially simply be an entry point to explore an interesting phenomenon; one with fuzzy boundaries which dematerialise then reappear elsewhere when engaged in activity with participants. Given the interconnected nature of Internet mediated behaviours, some have chosen to conceptualise the field as network. Their entry point may be spatial, focused on an activity, or on a group of people, but they need to make choices about which connections to follow and the practicality of doing so. The interconnections may take the form of emails, SMS, hyperlinks, exchanged documents, products or financial transactions. Hine encourages researchers to embrace the diversity, rather than attempt to tame it:
“By refusing to decide in advance what will be the most interesting to explore in the setting, the ethnographer remains open to novel discoveries about the unique ways that a particular way of life might be organised and to the prospect that activities may make sense in surprising ways.”
Having established our setting, the question then is one of entry. The choices an ethnographer makes at this point will be crucial in allowing relationships with participants to flourish … or not. Maintaining consistency can be increasingly complex if the study traverses different platforms and this can be exacerbated where a researcher has a pre-existing Internet presence; they should be aware of the potential of it bleeding into the ethnographic field and what the consequences of that might be. As activity moves from place to place, it may be necessary to develop new skills on different platforms. The ethnographer is then learning both how the activity is done, whilst also attempting to ascribe meaning to it. Whatever the case, an ethnographer will be observing behaviour, making field notes, reflecting and interpreting, sometimes in situ and sometimes subsequently. It is increasingly common for ethnographers of the Internet to make their activities, reflections and emerging findings public using social media. Here a degree of prudence is called for and it is important to be wary of potential consequences of sharing half-formed, possibly contentious, tentative thoughts. However, if undertaken sensitively, sharing openly may provide an opportunity for negotiated meaning and refinement of interpretations with participants or the wider research community. Another clear advantage the online ethnographer enjoys is that they will often be able to refer back to activity that they may have struggled to record ‘live.’ There are a multitude of tools available for retrieving, managing, analysing and visualising Internet activity and data, though whether that is in a form appropriate to the particular study will depend on the questions being asked.