The Netnography Debates: A Standard Name = A Name for Standards

Smelling like…


“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
–William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

I don’t know if one posting with one comment really constitutes a ‘debate.’ I seriously doubt it. However, I think this topic is important and I feel compelled to finish the line of thought. However, as always, I welcome hearing your opinion. Thank you to Pilar (and Pablo) for your comment, which raised some interesting points I hadn’t thought about before and made me think.

Netnography. Online ethnography. Virtual ethnography. Digital ethnography. Electric anthropology. Networked ethnomethodology.

As the Bard, put it so sweetly, what’s in a name?

Ethnography has been applied to online communities and culture for well over a decade and, along the way, different researchers have used different terms to describe their research. Shelley Correll (1995) simply called her study of a “Lesbian Café” bulletin board system an ethnography, perhaps in an attempt to demonstrate that the method of ethnography remained unchanged whether you used it to study Trobriand Islanders or lesbians interacting through an online bulletin board. So too did Annette Markham (1998) and Nancy Baym (1999)-ethnography is ethnography, the prefix digital, online, net, or web is entirely optional. This was the view I wrote about in the last posting: ethnography is ethnography.

In her important book of the same name, Christine Hine (2000) called her study a “virtual ethnography,” with the virtual meant to tell us that this is a different kind of ethnography, an ethnography that is partial and inauthentic (because it takes place online). In recent years, I’ve seen a large umber of new names given to the method of online ethnography, including webnography, techno-anthropology, digital ethnography, and cyberanthropology. More neologisms can and no doubt will be invented and popularized.

So: why netnography? What does it add? What does it indicate?

My early writing on the topic captures the idea that the online environment has meaningful differences from the face-to-face context of ethnography. Because of these differences, researchers of this new arena of interaction would benefit from guidelines and procedures particularly adapted to those unique characteristics. In particular, I can elaborate three dramatic differences, and each one is quite complex.

  1. Entering the culture or community is distinct. It’s different in many ways. ‘Participation’ means something different in person than online. So does ‘observation.’
  2. Gathering data and analyzing has particular challenges (and opportunities, too) that are new. The idea of ‘inscription’ of ‘fieldnotes’ is altered.
  3. There are few, if any, ethical procedures for in-person fieldwork that translate easily to the online medium. The abstract guidelines of informed consent are open to wide degrees of interpretation.

As well, we weren’t sure how to apply ethnography online. What exact methods were covered? Which were recommended? What were the ‘principles of engagement’? What amount of time (or was that data?) was sufficient, or not? How did we mix online data with in-person data, or did we? When did we use one rather than other? When was ethnography conducted online a wise choice, and when was it silly? What are the standards of evaluation for an ethnography conducted online? Were they the same, or different? How did we judge it? As a ‘good ethnography,’ period? Did that work? Did it work in terms of methodological adaptation?

My stance in 1996 was that, in order to perform as scientists, as researchers, as scholars, as ethnographers, we need to collectively understand the medium we are working within. And also we need to agree upon some standards for the conduct of our research. We need to be speaking the same language. If we aren’t even making sense to each other, then how in the world can we make sense to others?

In the ensuing years since that initial work I started in 1994, wrote in 1995, presented in 1996, and published in 1997, I have sought to incorporate the methodological lessons learned by scholars in every other discipline that have used ethnography in a computer-mediated environment. I’ve been delighted to see this burgeoning of work. And I’ve used their insights as well as my own to develop and refine this approach that I termed ‘netnography’ because I saw it as both different from and yet still related to ethnography.

My objective in suggesting some researchers may find using the term ‘netnography’ to be useful is relatively simple.

If we use a single term to refer to our research, then we can set standards around it as academics and researchers. We can agree that certain research decisions are up to the discretion of the researcher. We can agree that some are not-such as questions of research ethics, for instance-and they should be standardized, so that anyone who uses the term follows the procedures captured in the term. We can argue that some procedures of data collection (such as using a Research Web-page and participating in pertinent online conversations) are acceptable and recommended, and some (lurking on bulletin boards without revealing oneself), are not.

As a methodological discussion, we can also urge not only that some procedures are ethical and others are not, but also that some approaches are more efficient, and others are not. We can build an approach that, while maintaining the inherent flexibility and adaptability of ethnography, also has a similar sense of procedural tradition and quality standards.

here come the…

So if you say you conducted an ‘online ethnography’ what exactly does that mean you did, beyond the obvious, and we are now in 2009 way beyond the obvious? If you say you did a virtual ethnography, does that mean you used participation techniques? Of course, you could call your research anything you like-electrodynamic-tribal-technological anthropology has a nice ring to it-and then simply describe your procedures anew each time. That might be a little time-consuming, but it would work. But it would also mean that everyone wrote their ethnographies a new way, their own way, and that the procedures would be carefully explained and examined by those who were reviewing them. But evaluating them would still require that, even with a new name, they would have to be compared against something. What, then would be they be compared against? What would be the standard form of computer-mediated ethnography and what would its procedures be?

The methodological need doesn’t go away. It’s really the terminology we seem to be wrangling about.

For this new field of online community and culture studies, a field that has been and continues to be challenged by those who believe it to be intrinsically inauthentic, partial, or lacking sufficiency, having a set of standards confers stability, consistency, and legitimacy.

Rather than confusing those

What happens if we greet those who are interested in the topic online community and culture studies with a dozen or more different names to indicate the approach? It’s like a fallen Tower of Babel.

If they each signal something significantly different, well then that’s needed. Critical ethnography is different from realist ethnography. Those are useful demarcations to make and to have. But if we’re just trying to signal the same thing with a bunch of different names, then this is needless confusion.

I think that’s what the antro design post from last week’s blog posting was trying to say. That there are too many confusing names for the same thing. And if that’s what was meant I am totally on board. I was being a little feisty with the headline and the entry because I think the topic needs some airing. I think Jerry Lombardi’s comment just indicated that he hadn’t heard of netnography, and found the portmanteau to be unnecessary. But I’m guessing. I really don’t know what he meant, or what he knew. Maybe Jerry meant that he thought each name signified a different approach, with Hine associated with Virtual Ethnography, and this carrying with an emphasis on visual information, and the assumption of partiality. If that’s the case, I think we all would benefit with a good, clear map of this terminological terrain. By Jerry, or someone else who can offer one up.

But in the place of the Fallen Tower of Babbling Network-Ready Digital Online-Communal Cyber-Techno-Anthropologists imagine instead that we had a pool of people using and sharing, for the most part, one technique, one set of guidelines. One set of standards. If they wanted to deviate from them, they would explain how they were deviating from them, and why. They wouldn’t need to ‘reinvent the wheel’ and talk about all the other techniques that they weren’t altering. If they wanted to improve upon it, they would simply do this, and suggest where this contributes to our methodological understanding-and this would be normal science working, as it does so nicely in other fields, at the methodological level. If we wanted to compare different studies, we would know that, if they used closely related methods, their findings are probably comparable. The differences in them wouldn’t be due to different forms of method error and method noise. Consistency in this area will provide much-needed clarity and, in the end, greater recognition for all scholars working in this area.

In my field of consumer and marketing research, this is largely what has happened. Most of the work written and published in my field is called a ‘netnography’ and most of it uses the guidelines and techniques that have been published about the approach. Different scholars have suggested adaptations, for instance, of the rigorous ethical standards. Some other scholars have opted to use those adaptations, and cited the adaptive work. Others have not. The system has worked, on the whole, quite well in my field, and this successful development of procedures and standards has led to a situation where the top-tier journals are all receptive to netnographic methodology. They know which reviewers to send it to, what citations to look for, how to evaluate it. If the method is reputable, then the reviewers and editors can concentrate on the utility and novelty of the theoretical findings. That’s the role of methodological standards in normal science in action.

The book about netnography that I just completed for the Sage Research Methods series attempts to do exactly that. Its title is “Netnography: Researching Cultures and Communities Online.” I’ll be talking much more about the book as it gets closer to publication (expected this Fall).

The book is the latest manifestation of my hope that, in terms of our research approach, having common terms and terminology will only help us to be better scholars, and will help to further the larger goal of increasing understanding of this changing world, where online cultures and communities are important phenomenon, and are intermingled with so many other aspects of human social interaction.

It’s an exciting time to be doing this work. And whether you want to call it netnography, or want to call it Electronic-Neotribal-Quantum-Switching Fieldwork + Web-Committed Youtubally-litigated Representation, it’s an area undergoing a lot of growth, and presenting a lot of opportunity.

One Response

  1. jerry March 5, 2009

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