Marketing Communication Anthropology: Social Branding, Media Machines, Netnography The blog of Robert Kozinets, USC communication/marketing professor

February 22, 2009

The Netnography Debates

Filed under: Academic Life,Marketing Research,Netnography,Qualitative Research Methods — Robert Kozinets @ 12:36 pm

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?

February 7, 2009

Article Summaries and Word Clouds: Comparing Texts

We got some great comments and suggestions following those word cloud postings. Thank you, Lois, Pablo, Magda, Domen and Bob. If you, Gentle BlogReader and Devoted Brandthroposophist, are interested in this topic, you may want to check out these comments for some excellent sites, software, and truly fascinating (and very *kewl,* too….) things that people are doing with word clouds.

I was continuing my curious curiousity, investigating to see how we might be able to get a textual snapshop, a visual-verbal comparison of comparable texts if the texts were articles (not, as before, inauguration speeches)? So just for fun, I plugged in three of my more well-known articles. Those articles are the one on online communities I wrote for the European Management Journal, the one I wrote about netnography for the Journal of Marketing Research, and the one I wrote about Burning Man for the Journal of Consumer Research.

Let’s look at the abstracts of the articles first. If you are interested in digging further into these and don’t have access, I also provide the citation and a link to a pdf copy of the article so that you can read it.

  • Kozinets, Robert V. (1999), “E-Tribalized Marketing? The Strategic Implications of Virtual Communities of Consumption,” European Management Journal, 17 (3), 252-264. I’ve already linked to this one from this prior posting.
    • Abstract: On the Internet, virtual communities structured around consumer interests have been growing rapidly. To be effective in this new environment, managers must consider the strategic implications of the existence of different types of both virtual community and community participation. Contrasted with database-driven relationship marketing, marketers seeking success with consumers in virtual communities should consider that that they: (1) are more active and discerning; (2) are less accessible to one-one-one processes, and (3) provide a wealth of valuable cultural information. Strategies for effectively targeting more desirable types of virtual communities and types of community members include: interaction-based segmentation, fragmentation-based segmentation, co-opting communities, paying-for-attention, and building networks by giving products away.
  • Kozinets, Robert V. (2002), “The Field Behind the Screen: Using Netnography for Marketing Research in Online Communities,” Journal of Marketing Research, 39 (February), 61-72.
    • Abstract: This article develops netnography as an online marketing research technique for providing consumer insight. Netnography is market-oriented ethnography conducted on virtual communities dedicated to marketing-relevant topics. As a method, netnography is faster, simpler, and less expensive than ethnography, and more naturalistic and unobtrusive than focus groups or interviews. It provides information on the symbolism, meanings, and consumption patterns of online consumer groups. Guidelines are provided that acknowledge the online environment, respect the inherent flexibility and openness of ethnography, and provide rigor and ethics in the conduct of marketing research. As an illustrative example, a netnography of an online coffee newsgroup is provided and its marketing implications discussed.
  • Kozinets, Robert V. (2002), “Can Consumers Escape the Market? Emancipatory Illuminations from Burning Man,” Journal of Consumer Research, 29 (June), 20-38.
    • Abstract: This ethnography explores the emancipatory dynamics of the Burning Man project, a one-week long anti-market event. Practices used at Burning Man to distance consumers from the market include discourses supporting communality and disparaging market logics, alternative exchange practices, and positioning consumption as self-expressive art. Findings reveal several communal practices that distance consumption from broader rhetorics of efficiency and rationality. Although Burning Man’s participants materially support the market, they successfully construct a temporary hypercommunity from which to practice divergent social logics. Escape from the market, if possible at all, must be conceived of as similarly temporary and local.

And here are are word clouds:

e-tribalized cloud

I think it’s pretty easy at a glance to tell which article is which.

Is this proof of ‘face validity’? Cloud validity?

Field cloud

Which one could that be?

burning cloud

Now, these are all solo-authored pieces that I wrote while I was an assistant professor at Northwestern University in Chicago. You would think that my style wouldn’t change that much between them. The different journals and their editorial stances and policies, even their copy-editors, of course, would have an impact on the word choices. I know that EMJ kept my dradt mainly intact, without adding or taking away very much at all. With the netnography article for JMR, there were a lot of “helpful” ‘suggestions’ by reviewers (I think I will post about the process for this article soon), and in the end they insisted that I put the word “netnography” in quotes throughout the entire article, which seemed pretty intrusive to me (I’m surprised those quotation marks aren’t the biggest things in the word cloud!). The key seems to be in the topic matter, which was quite different, and those nouns, that topical content, does seem to be what “floats to the top” with this method.

Playing and thinking with these word clouds has been interesting and it’s delightful visual fun, too. It’s cool that you can almost see my “research stream” and focal theoretical concerns–community, culture, social, consumption– in the common words among the three clouds. The differences come out, too–emancipation, marketing, research, relationship. I wish I’d had this insight (and the tool that brought it) when I was struggling to write my research statement.

I welcome your analyses of these article clouds. Bring em on. Are there silver linings, or even ‘golden nuggets,’ in these clouds, do you think? Or are we just ‘cloud-gazing’?

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