How does one do ethnography of the Internet? In the early days of anthropology, stepping “off the veranda” to experience life from the native’s point of view offered a new holistic approach to studying society. Is it appropriate, or even possible, to transfer that approach to study how social interactions manifest themselves online?
The immediate danger would be imposing an artificial separateness between the virtual and the real, a widely acknowledged drawback of attempting to integrate digital media into studies of the social. Yet despite the near ubiquitous rejection of the online/offline divide, the practical exigencies of designing research that treats the Internet as “embedded” within social life is less than straightforward.
I tend to adopt the view that Internet-based social media should be studied as part of, rather than as external actants upon, unbounded, yet locally specific social spaces. For this reason I decided to experiment with the method of netnography; what Robert Kozinets has dubbed a “specialized form of ethnography” (2010:1) adapted to the Internet.
I disagree that the purpose should be to investigate how social groups turn out online because that relies on the assumption that bounded groups reproduce their culture online. I prefer instead to emphasize, as William Mazzarella (2004) does, how all cultural forms are mediated, and that the Internet is one of many such media. For example, just as ritual simultaneously produces and represents an aspect of culture to its onlookers and participants, so does social media produce and document cultural meaning to its interlocutors and observers.
Practically speaking, this means that I have had to adapt my year of ethnographic study in Indonesia’s Kampoeng Cyber to incorporate systematic gathering of Internet-mediated social data. I have also come to the conclusion that any contemporary ethnography should also take the approach of gathering data from all media that feature prominently in the lives of one’s informants, be it television, cell phones, social media, or music.
For purposes of documentation and discussion (in fact I hope that readers can contribute to this in comments), I have roughly outlined my data gathering techniques below.
Apart from spending days interacting with Kampoeng Cyber residents as they work, socialize, and attend official events and ceremonies, I dedicate a significant portion of my time gathering data on the most frequently used social networking site here: Facebook. Although this was never intended to become and ethnography of Facebook, its consistent use by residents necessitates that I pay attention to how it mediates sociality.
On days when time permits, I take print-screens of the first ten or so Facebook status updates of residents of Kampoeng Cyber, whether or not they seem ethnographically “interesting.” I crop out the unnecessary background information to make space for comments and translations, which I add to a text box inserted to a simple “Paint” software.
Following this I upload the print-screens to the Atlas.ti software that I purchased for the purpose of archiving, coding, and analyzing the qualitative data that I have gathered. The software allows me to select the areas of the images I wish to code, add codes and definitions to those selected areas, and save them to a database. I always code the entries according to the date they were uploaded so that in the future I can also connect the Facebook posts to any field-notes that I have written on that day, which frequently document the relationship between the posts and day-to-day interactions. The field-notes are also uploaded to the same Atlas.ti “project,” and also coded, so that anytime I wish to explore a specific theme for dissertation or article writing, all I have to do is look up a code, like “marriage,” and see which field-notes and print-screens pop up. I have also done the same for Twitter posts and profiles, though these are much less frequent.
What I have found to be crucial in this style of gathering online data is that it permits me to make connections and discover patterns that would otherwise be lost without archiving and coding. The typical “oh, no, it’s raining” post, for example, might go unnoticed as boring and irrelevant if not coded as a “complaint.” But after finding that many such posts often engender long comment threads mostly unrelated to the original post, it becomes clear that they sometimes act as conversation openers.
More potently, this method allows me to observe how a particular conversation topic circulates through segments of the community, sometimes even revealing who feels excluded. For instance, after someone gave birth and posted photographs of the mother coddling her child in hospital, one photo comment revealed a pre-existing fissure in the community exacerbated by the geographic separation of its two main parts. A resident located farther away from the mother wrote: “You gave birth already, why didn’t you tell us?” Seeing this interaction online hints at who has been left of out of “big news” circles after I witnessed the family of the newborn hand out traditional food-and-flower baskets meant to announce the birth, evidently forgetting to notify some residents. Coding that particular comment as “Community – Fissure” will allow me to later investigate other instances of such an occurrence.
The point of this post is to show how I have been thinking about using method as a way to remedy the persistent problem of artificially dividing the virtual and the real, by treating Internet-mediated data as one of many forms of mediation that both produce and express culture.
By Jessika Tremblay
Kozinets, Robert V.
2010 Netnography: Doing Ethnographic Research Online. London: Sage Publications.
2004 Culture, Globalization, Mediation. Annual Review of Anthropology 33:345-367.
Miller, Daniel, and Don Slater
2000 “The Internet: an ethnographic approach. New York: Berg.