What is the value of ethnography on the Internet? What are the main debates in netnographic practice?
The Internet has been attracting researchers’ attention for long. As a relatively new territory, it presents a methodological challenge. For anthropologists as well. On the one hand, it involves new forms of communication, on the other, it gives origin to new categories of communities which follow the laws of local ones, but oftentimes also those which act globally. Moving ethnographic tools online is one thing, but the Internet and, above all, social media, offer completely new research opportunities which call for a new approach. Not only for the Internet per se, as a social phenomenon, but also for work on data as a product generated by network users.
Ethnography and the Internet
Nearly 20 years ago, in Virtual Ethnography Christine Hine said that as a subject of social science research, the Internet was theoretically developed in two ways:
- as a form of culture – refers to the Internet cultures as forms of culture appearing on the Internet, e.g. hackers or fashion bloggers, where the Internet is strongly responsible for a sense of belonging and communication within a particular group.
- as cultural practice – refers to the Internet seen as a cultural artefact, i.e. we are dealing here with not necessarily online phenomena, which, for example, could be given a specific form by social networking sites, such as, for example, sharing travel photos on Instagram.
Many changes have happened since this analysis. Although every third person on the planet still does not have access to the Internet, there are about five billion people who spend a considerable part of their time online. New forms of user activity are strongly influencing changes in social relations and creating new habits. However, as the Internet´s presence in our lives is increasingly stronger, Internet users are no longer a self-contained group. It is safe to say that if something exists in the traditional discourse, it is also present on the Web. What’s more, with its constant and global availability, the Internet has a very strong impact on the reality of the digitally inactive or indeed the digitally excluded. We can actually wonder if there is still a point in drawing any boundaries.
Netnography for the third time
The third edition of Robert Kozinets’ book titled Netnography has just been published. Each edition was a particular evolutionary step, which now has culminated in the present edition with a revealing subtitle “The Essential Guide to Social Media Qualitative Research”. The first edition of 2009 had the subtitle “Doing Ethnographic Research Online”, and at first glance, you might be tempted to think that it refers to netnography as simply ethnography used online. Nevertheless, the evolving Internet environment and the rapid growth of social media that facilitate the use of massive amounts of data have fuelled the development of netnography.
In the introductory part of the new edition, the author himself focused on explaining the differences between various approaches and definitions. So he reserves online ethnography for ethnographic research carried out electronically. To me, this could be an individual interview conducted via an online messenger or providing the respondent with a smartphone with the survey-support app. In turn, in relation to virtual ethnography as understood by Christine Hine, a lack of specific guidance is noted. He describes it by comparing it to a recipe book. As an experienced chef, you can experiment with a recipe any way you like. However, when you have just begun your cooking journey, you need a specific recipe to get your dish right. This is what the book is meant to be: a recipe for newcomers to conduct netnography. And it is based on three key pillars: data collection, data analysis, and data interpretation.
Browsing Facebook is not netnography
Until now, netnography has frequently appeared as synonymous with virtual ethnography, and this type of research has been approached in many different ways. However, Kozinets’ recent work will help better define certain aspects of qualitative online research. It will also ensure that netnography is not reduced to social media listening applications, something that I have encountered in the world of marketing. Observing a dashboard that collects posts, photos, videos, etc. for particular keywords is still very far away from netnography. Although by just looking at social media sites you may come to many conclusions in their own right, but it will have precious little to do with outlined research method.
By the way, it is the benefits that companies might gain from tapping into social media data which are within their easy reach that has greatly influenced the recent popularity of the concept of netnography. For example, when I mentioned this methodology in Poland two years ago, I had to explain what exactly I meant. Currently, companies themselves draw up briefs clearly saying that they are interested in ethnography on the Internet or netnographic research. At this year’s Congress of Researchers, which was recently held in Warsaw, netnography as a source of research was referred to in four speeches.
Business is already convinced
It is worth noting that the interesting cases of netnography being used in research for various brands wishing to develop and communicate their products have similar effects as in the case of traditional ethnography. It is about identifying attitudes and habits towards products, often unconscious strategies or problems. For example, Nivea, despite initial concerns whether it would be possible to find people engaging in an online discussion about deodorants (and as we agreed earlier people talk about everything on the Web), appointed Hyve which used netnography to define very different groups of people who exercised in the gym, sought advice on washing and discussed health matters, all of them being united in a discussion about yellowish stains on clothes attributed to poor-quality deodorants. This led to the development of Nivea Black & White Invisible Deodorant, which addressed the problem of stains on clothing. The cosmetic became a success, and the manufacturer itself hailed it as the most successful market launch of a new deodorant in the company’s more than 100-year history.
As customer-centric approach is being developed by more and more departments in organisations which deal with designing or managing customer experience, netnography has ceased to be confined to the realm of research only. This is like in the case of traditional ethnography. Similarly, in both cases, anthropological tools do not need to be resorted to, but may definitely be helpful, while a specific anthropological perspective is in fact necessary. In the coming years, we will have many chances to see the power of insights coming from netnography.
What will follow netnography?
As an approach complementary to qualitative social media research, netnography can be used to address certain problems. However, with the constantly growing social impact of the Internet and the amount of data generated, two more challenges have emerged, for which some solutions have already been proposed that make use of ethnography.
Connectivity ethnography responds to the issue of an increasingly smooth transition between offline and online activities. This type of research is to follow the user between these two activity forms. This concept was proposed by Leander and McKim in 2003. What is important to note here is how electronic communication espouses traditional forms and their context, and vice versa.
How to deal with the increasing amount of data available for qualitative researchers? We can start by exploring the concept of quantitative ethnography proposed by David Williamson Shaffer. Quantitative ethnography is a methodology that combines qualitative and quantitative approaches, and it seeks to mend the weaknesses of both methodologies. Quantitative ethnography sees large datasets as evidence of discourse across cultures. Here also a reference had to be made to Geertz’s thick description to make this evidence meaningful and thus to better understand the culture. Understandably, the process grows difficult with the amount of data we have. Quantitative ethnography proposes a solution to this problem by using statistical techniques to substantiate claims regarding the quality of thick description. This is expected to result in a more harmonised mixed-method approach, which is a unique combination of the evidence we gather and interesting cultural phenomena.
However, looking at each new label that places ethnography in a particular context or scope, we can safely say that the features of this approach that are immune to devaluation include the way of thinking and the research attitude open to knowledge and understanding, which could well constitute a common denominator for the work of Bronisław Malinowski and the current netnographic projects.