Internet · Technology

Virtual Ethnography

(from a 2005 paper)

The Internet is a significant piece of technology that is reorganizing social relations in the larger society.  Researchers have identified three categories of proposed effects that the Internet is having on modern culture and society: it is changing the role of time and space; it is changing communication and the role of mass communication; it challenges the dualisms of representation and reality, the authentic and the fabricated, and technology and nature (Hine, 2000:5).

There are two prevalent theoretical approaches to studying the Internet’s effects on social organization, representation and formation and interpersonal communication.  The first approach assumes that the Internet is a social context in its own right (Hine, 2000:9).  Howard Rhinegold (1993) was instrumental in bringing this apporach to Internet studies.  He argued that the Internet could provide a venue for “real” community formation.  He brought the notion of the “virtual community” into the foray of a variety of disciplinary studies.  Further systemaatic studies used ethnographic methodology to establish that the Internet was a site for “rich and sustained interactions”:

Cyberspace is now crowded with ‘researchers swarming over the virtual landscape, peering around at the virtual natives and writing busily in thier virtual fieldnotes (Stone 1995:243).

The second approach to the Internet is by viewing it as a product of the culture.  This perspective sees the Internet as being a set of programs that allow for expanded forms of communication and information sharing (Hine, 2000: 27).  The Internet is studied in the context of the individuals’ uses of the technology in their day-to-day lives, rather than with the assumption that the computer provides them with an alternative reality.  To study the Internet from only one of these perspectives without the acknowledgement of the other is problematic and has lead to a fragmented picture of the Internet as a whole.

Traditionally the aim of the ethnography has been to develop a deep understanding of a culture through participation and observation (Hine, 2000:41).  The introduction of ethnographic inquiry on the Internet was inevitable, as anthropology increasingly expands into alternative, modern, industrial settings and the ethnography assumes a variety of new forms. 

There are a number of issues that need to be addressed in the design of the virtual ethnography, including the boundaries of the research site, how the researcher “travels” to the field site, and how the researchers plans to interact with the subjects of the research.

Traditional ethnography generally occurs in the context of a physically bounded field site; therefore the absense of physical boundaries in Cyberspace can be problematic for the ethnographer.  However, interactions, and the cultural representations that arise from them, occur in identifiable bounded spaces of the Internet, even if they are only perceptual.  Web sites, newsgroups, MUDs, chatrooms, and social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace are all examples of spaces available for ethnographic inquiry.  In many cases, the boundaries of the field site will not be established a priori: “The challenge of the virtual ethnography is to explore the making of boundaries and the making of connections, especially between the “virtual” and the “real” (Hine, 2000:64). 

Travel to the virtual field site does not occur by traditional means.  This is possibly the reason why it’s becoming so popular among desk-bound academics.  The term “armchair anthropologist” assumes a new status through the establishment of the virtual ethnography.  The field site can be accessed from anywhere that there is Internet access.  It is not even necessary for the researchers to share the same time frame as the participants, as many online discussions are achieved and can be accessed after they’ve taken place.  This feature offers many possibilities for the scope of the inquiry.  Researchers are able to go back and review all the participant interactions, not just the ones that occured in the same temporal location.  However this feature can also be problematic for the researcher, as it can question the authenticity of the participants’ identities.

Some researchers prefer to combine online interaction with offline interaction to minimize the effects of identity play on  the study.  Baym and Correl’s (1995) study of newsgroups consisted of real-time online engagement, general postings, email exchanged and electronic or face-to-face interviews with the participants.  The need to verify online identity will largely depend on the goal of the study.  Hine notes:

The decision to priviledge certain modes of interaction is a situated one.  If the aim is to study online settings as contexts in their own right, the question of offline identities need not arise (22).

All online settings are heterogeneous; therefore no single predetermined methodology will likely be implented.  Hine notes that the same is true of ethical considerations such as the negotiation of consent, which should be viewed as an ongoing process rather than something which is conducted at the beginning of the study.  The guidelines set out by the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) in “Ethical decision-making and Internet research” (Ess, 2002) reinforces the notion of continual negotiation.  It is presented in Section II, A. of the document under the heading of “Timing”:

Determining not only if, but when to ask for consent is thus somewhat context-dependent and requires particular attention to the “fine-grained’ details of the reserach project not only in its inception but also as it may change over its course.

The AoIR document was published as a set of universal guidelines for researchers, ethicists and students in the social sciences interested in conducting online research.  The document recommends that consideration of the venue should assist researchers in establishing ethical expectations:

The greater the acknowledged publicity of the venue, the less obligation there may be to protect individual privacy, confidentiality, right to informed consent etc” (Ess, 2002).

There are many futuristic predictions about the Internet’s role in society.  Some believe that the Internet is the tool which will bring about the utopian global village; others are much more cynical and believe the Internet promotes individualism and corporate control.  Regardless of the background of extreme predictions, it is certain that a rapid level of population penetration is occuring. 

There should be no further need to doubt that the Internet is having an impact on current social and cultural relations.  Ethnography plays an important role in the discourse on the technology as it exists in both of its forms; as a cultural context and artifact of culture.  The Internet forces us to reexamine traditional ways of thinking about culture and society including the way we approach social research.


3 thoughts on “Virtual Ethnography

  1. this is really interesting. how do the demographics of society as a whole and the internet society play into this kind of ethnographic research? The “communities” are not entirely self-selected by common interest, nor are they selected by physical proximity – but they are selected by economic status.

    check out the briefs from Center for Media Research (an ad firm, I believe – still very interesting) like this one

    and this one below:

    Offliners Not Interested in Subscribing

    According to Parks Associates’ National Technology Scan, twenty-nine percent of all U.S. households (31 million homes) do not have Internet access and do not intend to subscribe to an Internet service over the next 12 months,. This project found the main professed cause for non-subscribers is not economic but a low perceived value of the Internet. Forty-four percent of these households say they are not interested in anything on the Internet, and just 22% say they cannot afford a computer or the cost of Internet service.

    Reason For Not Subscribing to Internet Service (Q1/07 US Households without Web access and no intention of subscribing)

    Not interested in anything on the Internet


    Not sure how to use the Internet


    Have Internet access at work


    Can’t afford computer


    Can’t afford service


    Not available for my home


    Source: National Technology Scan, 2007

  2. Ethnographic methodology is different than those quantitative methods of social inquiry. It is a research approach that is more concerned with individual narratives and discourse rather than demographics. It’s more anthropological than sociological (think Margaret Mead). It is concerned with specific contexts… and doesn’t usually claim to be generalizable to any group other than the one it is inquiring about.

    But… it is true that there are still persistent structural factors that influence access (in the West rurality is probably the biggest factor). Thanks for those links though… the last set of US national stats I looked at was from 2005. Although 29% seems high the rate of penetration is phenomenal. Between 2000 and 2007 the penetration rate in the US has increased by 121%

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