The Netnography Debates

Jerry takes a run at Netnography

Let the games begin.

<Phew!> I am finally emerging from under the big pile of writing I’ve been doing. Since December, I have completely written the draft of my new book for Sage, two chapters for the upcoming Wiley International Encyclopedia of Marketing, a co-authored introduction to the upcoming Special Issue of Consumption, Markets, and Culture on Anti-Consumption, and a chapter on Fans and Brands in the Age of the Internet for Tracey Tuten’s interesting new book, Enterprise 2.0 (a follow-on to her other book, Advertising 2.0).

Obviously, the Netnography book from Sage took up the lion’s share of my time, and I found researching and writing it to be, for the most part, extremely stimulating and interesting. It was fascinating to revisit my old ideas about netnography and online ethnographic methods and see how they have been developed by others across the fields of consumer research, sociology, cultural studies and anthropology. Actually, it’s a little surprising how little anthropology is doing with these ideas so far, but that’s a story for another day. Although maybe connected to some of the strange comments I cite below…

In this post, I wanted to draw your attention to the debates that are gathering around netnography and related techniques, and to comment on them a little bit. There’s a provocative post on a new blog called Planetnography (short for “Planet Netnography”: a portmanteau of a portmanteau!) that you can see in its entirety here.

I’ll quote the salient part.

“On a list-server I belong to (anthro-design) I read the following question: Much like word association. . . When you hear the following what are your first thoughts? Netnography, virtual ethnography, online ethnography, remote ethnography, digital ethnography. I suppose I’m jaded, but mucking about with this exercise gives me gas. We don’t need more hyphenated ethnographies. But the idea of doing ethnography in and on and around the Interwebs is interesting.”

I am interested in the way this postings starts with a conclusion: “We don’t need more hyphenated ethnographies.” Ethnography is ethnography is an interesting point, and has been around a while. I will pick it up later.

I think the comment also relates to a conversation I had with a friend yesterday, where he said that he resented all the terminology that “insiders” who know the web foist on the unsuspecting public, all the acronyms and new terminology. For those of us on the inside, terms like “blogs,” “twittering” or “SNS” are, I think, just descriptions. They describe what it is we’re talking about. There isn’t another word for “blog” is there? Web page? Personal, frequently updated web-page? Except some people do needlessly complicate their writing and speech, for sure, using terms like “Interwebs” (do you mean “Internet”?). Others find those terms exclusionary, and I think something like that might be going on here.

The blog quotes one “Jerry Lombardi, an anthropologist who knows what he is about,” who wrote this response to the post:

“What a fun idea. Here are mine: Netnography — meaningless and also terrifically awkward, on a par with “webinar” 🙂 . We can see how the English language has fallen since someone coined “docudrama” and “Manwich”.”

I like the comparison to a Sloppy Joe-that has methodological resonance for me. Now, the remark seems on the most part to be seems to be commenting purely on the sound of the word, as “terrifically awkward” in the way it rolls off the tongue. I haven’t heard that before, but okay, I’m cool with people’s taste in words being different. If you’d rather say “web log” than “blog” or “Internet ethnography” rather than “netnography” I’m good with you burning the extra half a calorie.

But the term “meaningless” places a bit of a burden on the commenter in a public forum such as a blog posting (and maybe even a in professional listserv reply). And I think it deserves a little response. Of course, no one is required to investigate netnography before they offer an opinion on the word. That’s really up to the individual. But it’s also my job to patrol these waters….Meaningless means it doesn’t have any connections to anything significant. The commenter is eliding the numerous articles (over 90 at last count), book chapters, thesis dissertations, encyclopedia entries, and so on about netnography. The wikipedia entry on online ethnography certainly has enough data to send even a mildly interested readers to some source materials and to those vital connections that can add meaning to the meaningless.

A search of the term Netnography yielded 8,860 hits on Google this morning, and 478 on Google Scholar. Here’s a touchgraph I did this morning of the term Netnography on the Internet. There’s actually quite a bit of connectivity and a lot of connection. Connection and association are, after all, the source of meaning.

Touchgraph of the term netnography

So I find the “meaningless” comment to be careless, uninformed and, well, kinda meaningless.

As a former VP of Ethnographic Research for GfK, and Researcher for Sapient, (Ph.D. from NYU in cultural and linguistic anthropology)–a guy who takes ethnography to industry–and an aspiring ethnographic consultant, Jerry might also be interested in keeping up with the latest marketing research techniques and terminologies, like the use of the term “netnography,” which many find flowing easily and beautifully off their tongues and their listserv postings…and many companies are finding of interest. I’m hoping that upon investigation, people like Jerry will find that netnography is actually quite meaningful and worthwhile.

And his comment leads me to back to that earlier point, a bigger and much more salient point, which is why we need this term netnography at all.

What does Netnography signify in a unique sense, beyond ethnography? Is it needed at all? Does it signify anything special that isn’t already covered in that panoply of other terms like online ethnography, virtual ethnography, digital ethnography, and so on? Is there really a point to adding this neologism into the vocabulary, or it is just needless territorializing, ridiculous babble, useless verbiage?

I have had to grapple with that valid and important set of questions, developing in various incarnations, throughout my academic career. So when I sat down to write this book and state my position, I was very specific about formulating an answer.

I’ll tell you my answers in my next post. But I’m happy to hear from all of you in the meantime. What do you think?


  1. pablosan76 March 4, 2009
  2. EliaMorling March 30, 2009

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