Christine Hine talks about conducting research online
On methods and musings
One key element of ethnographic approaches is the interview, which can be a powerful way of shedding more light on the emerging data. Through the Internet, this can be in the form of a traditional, more formal one-off event, or as an ongoing conversation with participants with whom one might have developed a trusted relationship. Although conducting an interview in the participant’s offline environment may be important for some studies, and whilst a face-to-face interview may be possible, participants could be geographically distant from the researcher. Here the Internet becomes a saviour, offering a variety of mechanisms through which different types of interviews may be conducted; however, the medium chosen should not place restrictions on the interviewee, nor influence the feedback they might be likely to provide. Where a researcher is seeking a breadth of understanding rather than specifics, a survey instrument provides an alternative means through which to solicit feedback. Here however, one is faced with the difficulty of not knowing how representative of the target population the respondents are, especially where the field has become spread across multiple sites.
Given the degree to which the ethnographer has chosen the point of entry and the connections to follow as action unfolds, it is clear those choices will have had a major influence on the data which emerge and what is subsequently revealed about the phenomenon. It is important therefore to acknowledge the choices made in a reflexive way, making it plain what factors played a part, but also to highlight the consequent uncertainties and subjectivity which suffuse the findings. As the terrain over which the ethnographer roams becomes increasingly complex, their experience is likely to become increasingly individualised. In some circumstances, an autoethnographic approach may prove particularly rewarding, yielding embodied insider information on the affordances and restrictions encountered, enriched with emotional detail. It may also assist in making meaning of data gathered from diverse streams into a more aligned account, but crucially the ethnographer must seek to balance their intimacy with the data with a reflexively critical perspective.
Hine goes on to provide detailed accounts of three cases from recent research in which we begin to see some of the issues previously mentioned begin to unfold. Although chosen as appropriate to their context, some of the techniques and strategies have wider applicability. In the first, whilst investigating the exchange of goods sites Freegle and Freecycle, some might argue the brief postings are too thin for ethnographic engagement. As the means through which the exchanges are mediated, they nevertheless form the backbone of the sites, so merited a detailed, systematic interrogation of their construction. Though not specifically ethnographic in the sense of being immersive and participative, discourse analysis can nevertheless help focus on the meanings within the texts themselves. (I can see clear parallels here with Twitter exchanges, constrained as they are by their 140 character limit). In order to move beyond the simple mechanics of the process and begin to explore how the exchange lists were embedded within people’s lives, interviews were also used. Conventional face-to-face interviewing was complemented by email interviews where participants were emailed questions, sometimes in a single mail and sometimes over a period of time. Conducting interviews by email, whilst lacking contextual clues and the capability to foster rapport, has the advantage of allowing the respondent time to reflect and formulate responses at their convenience.
An area suggested as being a strength of ethnography for the Internet is the ease with which it is possible to observe unobtrusively. We should draw the distinction between this form of observation, where the ethnographer is in plain sight but backgrounded by the participants, and the ethically questionable practice of covert observation. Here the ebb and flow of activity can be actively observed, whilst refraining from participating and perhaps affecting potential outcomes. Whilst on the topic of ethics, Hine sees this area as emergent, as new spaces, applications and activities present themselves. This is especially true when the the ethnographer moves across sites, where visibility, interaction, the consent of the participants and the nature of the data may change. Rather than adopting a specific ethical stance and set of working practices from the outset, this needs to be flexible and adapt to the circumstances the ethnographer finds. Having an ethical sensibility if you will. Whilst I would agree with that, I think that having a documented set of general principles appropriate for research you intend to undertake, together with an agreed set of working guidelines for the point of entry at least, would be the minimum an ethics approval board would allow. But perhaps Hine takes that as read.
Anyone brave enough to take on an ethnography for the Internet is likely to face a few challenges, including but not limited to: the need to develop skills in working across platforms; managing a huge mass of data, possibly in multiple formats and the need to store it securely, but enable quick retrieval and analysis; and develop capability in the use of new tools to analyse and interpret that data.
In summary then, an ethnography for the Internet needs to be adaptive, open to following connections within a fluid field. It needs to accommodate the Internet being embedded in multiple ways in the lives of participants and that their experiences will be embodied ones. The researcher needs to prepare for and embrace uncertainty and multiplicity, then be able to deal with them as they arise. In short, it might be a bumpy ride!