“Virtual Ethnography,” Hine, 2000

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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.

Netnography #1. Communities?

flickr photo by ianguest http://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/19962447788 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Now I have Associate Membership of the Library, I’m able to borrow books. Yipee! I’ve decided to open with a few volumes which might inform my methodological approach or methods and have just completed ‘Netnography’ by Kozinets (2010). Whilst a post providing an overview and reflection on the messages therein might make sense, I felt I needed to get some of the thoughts it had provoked out of my mind. I suspect there might be one or two more posts to follow on this theme.

Kozinets opens by making the case for netnography being a special instance of, or subset of ethnography. As with conventional (is there such a thing?) ethnography, netnography has at its core a study of communities and cultures which Kozinets uses to provide the framework within which the remainder of the book is set.

He distinguishes between a ‘pure’ netnography as one in which all explorations are conducted online, gathering data solely through online techniques and interactions. A ‘pure’ ethnography would be undertaken offline through data gathered in face-to-face interactions, be they interviews, surveys, observations etc. A blended approach unsurprisingly is a combination of the two. My study will clearly begin online, but this set me thinking whether it might require a blended rather than pure netnographic approach. Kozinets helpfully differentiates between research into ‘communities online’ and online communities. The former are extant communities which conduct some of their interactions online, whereas the latter are communities forged online and who only ever interact online. A pure netnography would be appropriate with an online community whereas in order to capture a more holistic picture of the nature of a community online, a blended approach might be better. Unless of course in the latter case, it was only the online behaviours that provided the focal point of the study.

I can immediately see a possible banana skin for me. Kozinets clearly has communities in mind when providing these distinctions. I’m not sure yet that what I’ll be dealing with could be considered ‘a community’ and need to think more about the concept of community and how that might inform my approach. Moreover, I’m far from clear whether my approach will even be “netnographic,” so I need to delve further into whether ethnographies conducted wholly or partially online are distinct from one another, or if it’s simply semantic sparring.

Observation – although some of these issues swirled around in my brain for a while, I feel like I make better progress if I take the thoughts ‘out of my mind’ in order to hone them and see where they might lead. Writing seems to offer a different mechanism through which to reflect; perhaps it’s the attempt to structure the words in a particular way that encourages different viewpoints?

Kozinets, R.V., 2009. Netnography: Doing Ethnographic Research Online. SAGE.

Being online – Dinosaur poo?

The video which seeded this post provides a rich source of points for consideration, both theoretical and methodological. In addition to presence, there are the notions of place and space and where ‘online’ actually is. A useful introduction to the principles of virtual ethnography and some of the ethical issues to take into account.

In the pICTure

I’ve begun preparing for starting my PhD in October later this year. Whilst scouring the Web for articles, papers and other resources on areas I’m keen to explore, a video on virtual ethnography bubbled to the surface. (Writing the research proposal and application, preparing for interview, then the initial forays into the field following confirmation that I had been successful have all contributed to me being less prolific on here than I might have preferred. Apologies.)

During the presentation, a suggestion by Jen Ross, brought me up short; that nowadays, it’s unlikely that we can ever truly be considered to be offline. After my initial reaction of what a ridiculous notion, I immediately began to wonder how if could possibly be true, yet swiftly acknowledged that of course it was.

From the moment we first interact with the Web, as opposed to simply browsing it, we commit ourselves…

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