The Netnography Debates, Part III: Jerry’s Turn

I have to say it. It’s an old expression, and maybe it hasn’t carried. But Jerry Lombardi is a gentleman and a scholar.

When I write these blog postings, particularly the headlines, I try to be a little bit provocative, to polarize things a bit, to keep it interesting for everyone. This isn’t necessarily good science, but a blog entry isn’t a journal article, and after almost 2 years of doing this, I’ve found a type of voice I’m comfortable with.

So after Pablo Sanchez Kohn flagged the anthro-design entry for me, it triggered some thinking that had been percolating for a while, and that I had written about in my book recently, and had started to think about clarifying on Wikipedia (more on this in my next entry). So I cooked up my posting with a little bit of pugnacious pepper added in. To add a little bit of spice. I assumed that Jerry Lombardi’s comment was well meaning, but maybe a bit offhand. He had entered it in reply to a list (or listserv) and almost certainly hadn’t expected it to drift into the blogosphere and become spotlighted as controversial.

So I was sort of expecting Jerry would eventually reply. And he did. I thought he might be a bit reactive and angry at my comment being taken out of context and spotlighted (I probably would have been). And he wasn’t. I’m delighted that his response is so, well, gentlemanly and scholarly.

I don’t really like the way comments are hidden in this WordPress layout, so I’ll follow past convention in pulling them out and using them as my entry here to get them wider leadership. Eventually, I’m going to get this blog set up the way I like it. And that will include comments automatically appearing on the page, given equal weight to my own entries.

So here is Jerry’s posting:

A friend alerted me that a comment I made in another venue – to the effect that the term “netnography” is meaningless – was cited in the 22 Feb posting on that topic. Permit me to explain:

I had aimed my barb at the neologism, the label, not the research practice itself. I should be the last person in the world to deny the value of netnography, since I owe my Ph.D. to it: a large portion of the dissertation research I conducted between 1995 and 1997 in Brazil took place entirely online among groups that had constituted themselves as virtual communities, and in which the nature of the online realm was itself a major topic of interaction. The standards I applied to the work, and the way I experienced it, were consistent with Rob’s description of what makes this kind of research different – and I’m glad he (you) has specified the nature of the practice more systematically than anyone else so far.

Still, there are two reasons I might resist, if not reject, the neologism.

(1) At the time of that first netnographic research of mine, anthropologists were struggling to come to terms with something I took for granted: if there’s no such thing as unmediated interaction, then there’s a sense in which face-to-face talk and online life are just different registers of the same thing. Being the same thing essentially, I didn’t see a need to invent a new term for the methods and theories employed to capture and analyze the data. But I’m a lumper and not a splitter, so that reflects nothing more than my personal predisposition.

(2) I also wrote my “meaningless” comment with the peculiarities of the business world in mind. Think of the short lifespan that such words and their associated practices have: at the risk of sounding cynical, I’m afraid that the snappier a neologism sounds, the less likely it may be to stick around long enough to become an accepted – AND understood – part of the toolkit. I’ve been using netnography in conjunction with other approaches for business clients for several years and am very happy to not portray it to them as anything particularly worth naming, in the hope that by lying low it will enjoy some staying power. Maybe I need a Robert Kozinets guest lecture appearance for some of my clients.

Anyway, that is the context in which I opined that the word “netnography” is meaningless: to me personally (without making any claim about its meaningfulness for anyone else), and as a label that is unfortunately prone to rapid transformation into the word of the month.

I am enjoying the postings on this subject and am surprised that it hasn’t generated more comments.

– Jerry Lombardi (posted as comment on brandthroposophy, March 5, 2009)

The core of Jerry’s argument is nicely packaged and summarized in the way he has organized his comments. If I can paraphrase, and interpret a little bit, I would sum them up in these two ideas:

(1) All social interactions are mediated in different ways, therefore face-to-face talk and online interaction are intimately related; and ethnography is ethnography, we don’t need something different to designate what we already have as a flexible, constantly-altered, dynamic, and adaptable technique.

(2) When you coin these neologisms, they make the practice seem trendy and superficial. They become abused. They also become transformed and stretched far beyond their original meaning.

These are two excellent and very valid points, and I’m grateful for the way Jerry has brought them out into the light. Number two is new to me as such; point number one I’ve been contesting pretty much since I began doing this work. Let me provide my own orientation to them.

First point. Yes, all social actions are mediated. But the argument here is that, when the mediation is different enough, it requires different guidelines. I agree that a larger parts of the ethnographic approach still pertain to the study of online or virtual communities. This isn’t a new method per se. But the question is how different is computer-mediated communication and social interaction from its face-to-face variant. We are charting new waters here.

By being systematic about it, I’ve tried not to jump to the “revolutionary” conclusion. In many ways, telephone and letters are just as much about “technological mediation” as online communities. But we have procedures (specialized procedures, I might add) in place for dealing with these sorts of interactions and communications in ethnographic work.

So, if the mediation is important, and manifests consistently, and if the alteration and adaptation of ethnography in this new ‘environment’ or through this form of mediation can also be consistent and would benefit from being consistent, then it seems justified to have a new set of standards that applies to the relevant aspects of ethnographic procedures in this novel context.

When I think about something like research ethics, it become absolutely clear to me that these are not “just different registers of the same thing” but something new and different, that is like face-to-face in some ways but radically different and new in other ways. The old guidelines just don’t work. Although there are other possibilities for why it is happening, the fact that we are getting so much literature in this domain, and so many different names and terms for it, suggests to me that a similar conclusion is being reached by many of the people who are studying these phenomena.

Second point is exactly right.

It’s very interesting to me to see the ‘slippage’ of the term netnography in my field of marketing and consumer research already. Jean Baudrillard and others have taught us that this tendency of signifiers to float free of their moorings is a tendency of language itself, not just a matter of netnography’s trendy status and its spreading activation of different interpretations.

In fact, I’m currently working on a research project with Daiane Scaraboto to chart these differences and catalog them. And then there’s the world of business, where netnography as a term is being used for a lot of different purposes, many of them related to data mining and content analysis, which are not participative or particularly ethnographic techniques at all. Some, like, are using the term in a way closer to how I have written about it. Some appeartto have trademarked the terms, or terms using the term, something I have steadfastly refused to do (it’s like trademarking the term interview, sheesh, give me a break!). The URL has been taken and is filled with meaningless techno-job filler.

But all of this simply points to the need for more active education about what the term netnography means. More information out there about what netnography is and what it can do is the way to tighten the boundaries of the word, to add in the right associations, to draw attention back to the roots of the term and the technique it has been founded on. Otherwise, without a few guiding terms that have meaning and rigorous development behind them, we have a cacophony of different terms signifying very little to anyone beyond the researchers advocating them as methods-of-the-day.

So, although I agree completely with Jerry that this has happened and will happen, I see this as a necessarily and worthwhile challenge, rather than seething to avoid. And if point 1 is correct, and we as a field will benefits from specific procedures and particular quality standards, then the work of clarification and education motivated by #2 is good, worthy, and fulfilling work indeed.

And doing this work is what these blog entries have been about so far. Thank you, Jerry, for that very thoughtful response. I hope we have a chance to meet in person some time soon and continue the discussion face-to-face.


  1. pablosan76 March 12, 2009
  2. jerry March 13, 2009
  3. earnould2 March 18, 2009
  4. mridula March 23, 2009

Add Comment