cyber ethnography

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A relatively new method of data collection that involves applying the techniques of classic anthropology and ethnography to the online world. It has developed over the last ten or so years since the Internet has become such a widely used tool of social research, both as a means of gathering data and as an object of study in its own right. Cyber ethnographers conduct largely qualitative studies of online communities and of the kind of interaction that goes on in cyberspace. This might involve participant observation in chat rooms, multi-user domains, email distribution lists, forums, and bulletin boards, as well as techniques of online interviewing, conferencing and other types of computer-mediated communication.

The overall aim of cyber-ethnographic studies is to immerse oneself in the virtual world that the participants have created, in order to understand how they experience social interaction and devise ways of regulating social order. Some examples of this are ward's work on two feminist online communities (in Sociological Research Online, 1999), Paul Hodkinson's study of Goth: Identity, Style and Subculture (2002), and a study by Nicholas Pleace et al. an alcoholics’ support group (Sociological Research Online, 2000).

The unique position of the cyber-ethnographer in relation to their informants makes this method quite distinct from ethnographies of social settings in the offline world. Katie ward (sic) identifies some of the methodological differences between the two and their implications for social epistemology. First, the environment in which the researcher is immersed is not pre-determined and stable; online communities are constantly redefined as members enter and leave, and so tend to have a fluctuating membership. This means that the researcher may have only a transitory relationship with their participants and must be reflexive about the way that their own presence throughout the study might change the dynamics of the group. Secondly, the more anonymous character of interaction in cyberspace and its ephemeral nature over time may mean that participants become ‘disinhibited’, disclosing more personal information than they would in face-to-face interviews. It also opens up the possibility of identity deception, both by participants (see Judith Donath in P. Kollock and M. Smith (eds.), Communities in Cyberspace, 1996) and by the researcher, who can ‘lurk’ invisibly in virtual communities while ‘harvesting’ their data. Both of these issues have serious ethical implications, and there is an ongoing debate about the perceived privacy of some online encounters versus their public accessibility (see S. King in The Information Society, 1996). Nevertheless, cyber ethnography has created an original and effective way of finding out about interaction online, and so has increased our understanding of a relatively new phenomenon of social life.

Subjects: Sociology.

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