Developing Netnography

netnography social insights from social media

Today, I completed an encyclopedia entry on Netnography for the new revised International Encyclopedia of Digital Communication, edited by Wolfgang Donsbach and published by Blackwell-Wiley. My involvement was the result of a kind invitation by my colleague Shenja van der Graaf, who I know through my affiliation with the MIT Comparative Media Studies group. That encyclopedia will likely be published in about a year.

Writing this encyclopedia entry got me thinking further about streamlining and developing netnography as an approach. In fact, looking back on many of the things I have written about netnography, I feel that they need a lot of updating. When I read The Field Behind The Screen, it is glaringly obvious that the world today is a completely different place that it was when I researcher and wrote that paper (in 1999-2000) in terms of social media and its pervasiveness, impact, and the tools available to understand it. The basic principles may hold, but so much has changed.

To give you a flavor for some of the changes, let me share a little of my thinking on the matter. If this is interesting or useful, let me know with your comments and I am happy to share more. In fact, it would be outstanding if we could use to blog to test and develop new ideas, which I hope to develop into another book on netnography, one that would continue to build on the principles of the first book.

First, my thinking to date has failed to really engage with the novel and altered ontological, epistemological, and axiological positions that social media and the Internet raise for ethnography. A much closer reading of the anthropologies of technology and the Internet has led me to want to be much more specific in this foundations.I now see this set of philosophical positions leading to particular guidelines for data analysis, interpretation, and representation in order to address the differentiating characteristics of computer-mediated communications, social media and online culture.

netnography word cloudFrom the practical beginnings of netnography, I have always emphasized how netnography adapts a range of extant ethnographic practices—such as making cultural entrée, keeping fieldnotes, interviewing participants, using hermeneutic interpretation, and ensuring consent and a fair cultural representation—to new internet-mediated contingencies. These play out in repeated, fairly standard listings that recur again and again in my writing about netnography: entrée, data collection, data analysis, ethics.

However, these topics are not really what makes netnography unique. After teaching the method for over a decade, it is very clear to me that where there is confusion about netnography, and where the guidelines need to distinguish particular research practices and offer specific guidelines are in several areas.

  1.  How to formulate appropriate questions for a netnographic investigation, or how to know which questions can be studied netnographically?
  2. How to locate data from communities and topics online?
  3. How to know which communities or topics to focus on?
  4. How to handle huge amounts of digital data?
  5. How to narrow data appropriately?
  6. How much software to rely on?
  7. How to navigate online research ethics and procedures?
  8. How to handle researcher immersion?
  9. What is participation in netnography?

As I continue to develop netnography, my writing will rigorously detail these matters and address them with specific procedures. It is crucial to continue developing the method and attuning it to the needs of researchers.

Is Netnography Just a Synonym for Online Ethnography?

netnography_artAt the risk of turning this blog into an advice column, I want to share an interested letter I just received. This sort of correspondence is actually fairly common, and I think the question and answer may be of wider general interest to the readers of this blog.
“Dear R. Kozinets,

My name is Maria Luisa Malerba and I am a PhD student at the Open University of Catalonia (Barcelona, Spain). I am writing because I am currently writing my PhD thesis after the field work and I have a problem of terminology. Despite having read your book, which I found extremely helpful for my investigation, I am still confused about the correct meaning and the exact difference (if any) existing among the following neologisms:

  • netnography
  • virtual ethnography
  • online ethnography
  • digital ethnography
In my investigation I conduct an analysis of informal second language learners on online communites” designed for language learning, such as Livemocha and Busuu. Being this study about learners’ behaviours, the online aspect plays a fundamental role and this research has a primarily netnographic focus. I conducted participant observation, I submitted an online survey, I interviewed learners online and I analyzed the online interaction occurred through the chat that learners submitted to me.My question is: is there a clear distinction among the aforementioned expressions? If I use the term “netnography”, how do I justify that I do not adopt the other expressions, which to me sound like synonyms?Thank you in advance. Looking forward for your answer.

Maria-Luisa Malerba”

In my answer, I tried to be brief but to the point.

“Dear Maria-Luisa:

Thank you for your question. A lot of people ask this, so I will write more about it.

Online ethnography and digital ethnography are generic terms for doing any sort of ethnographic work using some sort of online or digital method. When you use those terms, it is unclear what you have done in terms of what procedures you used, what the methodology is, such as what ethical guidelines you used for example. The literature base you will cite is also a bit amorphous.

Virtual ethnography is the term coined by Christine Hine, and it refers to a method that sees online work as only partial and incomplete. I would expect that if you called your online ethnography a virtual ethnography, then you would adhere fairly closely to the research attitudes and practices, in fact the methodology of combined research philosophy and actions, of Professor Hine as she demonstrated them in her book.

Netnography refers to a specific set of online ethnographic procedures characterized by a particular methodology, including an epistemological background, analytic frameworks, and a consistent and evolving set of guidelines for entree, observation, data analysis, ethics, and so on.

Does that help?

And at what point is something not a neologism? Ethnography, as I write in the book, was a neologism at one time. Netnography is now 18 years old, old enough to vote, drink, marry, and drive in many nations. Hey, netnography, pass me a beer.

Regards,
Rob.”


To my mind, you can say you are a healer, or you can say you are a cardiologist, or an acupuncturist, or a chiropractor, or an energetic healer. When you link yourself with a particular practice, you do more than simply adopt a neologism. You link yourself to a rigorous set of practices and a set of related literatures. Certainly, there is room for innovation. But clarity is very important in the social sciences. And clarity is something that has not been particular well-served by the rapidity of change and silos present in the social media research field.
Is that clearer?

Let It Never Be

As I posted in my last post, at the July 2012 CCT conference in Oxford I presented a few of my poems, which are now collected and published in a volume called “Clarence Clobbers Tenderly.”

One of the poetry readings was captured on mobile phone video by my friend and colleague Ingeborg Kleppe, who generously shared it with me. I recently posted it to Youtube and link to it here.

Because the background sounds are a bit loud, and the recording begins partway into the reading, it is difficult to make out some of the poem. Following is the written version of poem, which is called:

Let It Never Be

And it is said

by those

who find philosophy

in the smashing

of strange

quarks, hadrons, and baryons

with even stranger consciousness

that the mind is

the world’s author

that awareness surgically bifurcates

and every decision we make

cuts a fork into reality

splitting spacetime

like a ribbon.

 

And so with each choice

we make

we break

apart

and leave

behind living

shards shadow

beings who did not

so choose.

 

And through our life

times of choosing

these twin beings

grow to crowds

to villages and cities

whole worlds perhaps

of yous and mes

built of decisions

created of collisions and in

some automatic

and undecided way

they still exist

continuing

following roads

we long abandoned.

 

Let them have them.

 

Let us never feel that urge

to gaze out

across this sea of broken paths and pasts

to peer into the eyes

of all the relinquished yous and mes.

 

And let us never wander to that shore

and never feel compelled to call out

a reminder across this vast ocean

of forsaken lives

whose remainder in sum is life

our life still living not lived yet

and never ever have to say

let it go

let it go

let it go.

 

And let it never be said

that together we did not

create universes.