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Netnografi/etnografi på nettet

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Noter til gæsteforelæsning om netnografi på Aarhus Uni. 2012

I’m here to tell you about my online Fieldwork, Netnography. Please fell free to interrupt and ask questions if something is unclear.

I did my fieldwork last year and am now working on my master thesis.

The unpredictable fieldwork:

2/3 of my fieldwork toke place on the internet.

I didn’t plan on working so much with the internet, but that is just typical for fieldwork.

You never know exactly how its going to turn out.

Online Social Networks or Communities. We all know and many of us uses forms of online social networking like facebook, twitter, MySpace ..

Online communities are growing fast in numbers all over the world. The technology today has made it possible for us to be online all the time almost every where.

Writer and internet researcher Howard Rheingolds working with digital communication.

An online community forms, when enough people share discussions and forms personal relationships of some kind in online social communities

Netnography can be used to study social behavior. Social networks represent webs of personal relationships, where people interact, make social ties, communicate, and express them self in various ways.

How is Netnography different from traditional fieldwork?

I have found that, doing fieldwork in cyberspace isn’t so much different from doing it in the physical world. Where ever you interact with people, you need to have some sort of trust toward the other.

Ethnographic research challenges: entry, exit, and membership role have to be negotiated.

The anthropological traditional method is Participant observation, so how about online ethnographi?

Some will argue that in order to do proper participant observation or interviews you need face to face contact, the object must be physical social phenomenon.

And there can be no doubt, that there is a loss of many additional layers of meaning added to the purely verbal exchange, such as the tone of speech or body language such as gestures and facial expressions. Online communities are mobile and dynamic structures almost without limits.

Some will argue that online communities are para-worlds, a simulation of the physical. the word virtual reality is used to show that the online world is imaginative one, only existing in the mind or inside the computer, not in the physical reality. This ontological discussion is complex, and if you interested I brought some books you can look at during the break.

Traditional ethnographic practice is: participation, and observation. Both things are, in a limited form possible in netnography – and a real big advantage is, you get to do it at home in your pyjamas drinking coffee.

I chose to combine online research with personal visits and face to face interviews

Online communities work in many ways like any other form of physical communities.

People share certain opinions or problems and social rules and ethics guidelines for online behavior emerges and forms the online interaction in the community.

Just as in the physical world, rules are not always written. Some you can find on the community’s website, but some rules you have to learn along the way. Its learning by doing, and mistakes do happen. I made plenty

So here comes my first advise based on a personal experience at the beginning of my fieldwork:

If you want people to share personal information with you, you have to share some of your own. It’s a very good idea to consider just how much of your self you are willing to expose online before you join the community.

I believe it’s time for a short introduction to the online community I joined and used a lot during my fieldwork.

K10 is an online social network, a group of very different people who all have had or still is in some form of contact with the social system in Denmark.

Some might be on sick-leave, disability pension or some other form of passive income, social benefit – or they are fighting for, what they believe to be their right to receive these kinds of payments. I also met a few professional social counselors there as well.

The site serves different purposes, exchanging legal advice, discussions, socializing and support. Private personal groups exist within the community.

I wanted to find participants for my study and perform online interviewing, perhaps chatting. I hoped to make people talk about their experience of prolonged waiting time. My purpose was to gather information about, how waiting for years had affected their lives.


To gain access to this network, I of course wrote a letter to the webmaster and told, who I was, what my intentions were, and asked if I could have permission to join the network and perhaps advertise for volunteering participants to my research

He or she didn’t answer, but passed my letter on to an old member, who had the time to write to me. That woman, or I think she is, (you can never be sure) became my gatekeeper and guide to the first steps of my journey into the unknown world of K10.

At this point I thought, I had cracked the lock and gained access to a large group of people, who were willing to share their stories with me.

I was soon to get wiser!

A couple of weeks passed, and only a few people had responded. I started to get a bit worried.

Then a personal message/mail arrived, and it wasn’t really a nice one.

In my ad I had tried to be honest but neutral. The users of K10 interpreted that like this…

They saw a prying academic outsider.

To understand this reaction, you need to know that the users of K10, in many ways are very fragile people, who feel used and betrayed by the public welfare system and any representative of a government institution are met with distrust and skepticism

I was of course aware of this, but as I think of my self as trustworthy person,

I thought they would gain trust in me, by me insuring them of my seriousness and academic position.

But I forgotten the rule: don’t just tell it, show it!

I wanted them to tell me their stories, but in order to achieve that, I had to share my own story with them.

So I did, and suddenly plenty of volunteers wanted to participate in my study

The opening key to K10 simply was:

In order to get something, you have to give something. And this an ongoing demand.”

As a result, I had to update my thread as often as possible, and constantly send information emails to my informants, telling how my work was progressing, remember to ask how they were doing and most important ask if anything new had occurred in their case.

Rule number 2: they might use 1 or 2 months to answer your questions, but you have to answer back within a week.

Rule number 3: know the rules. Example:

Never write anything in your thread with only CAPITAL letters. That’s called shouting and considered to be very rude! Luckily most people know that by now.

How to make people stay in touch

Another problem I came across during my online fieldwork was: in the beginning most people/members are very interested to talk/write, but as soon as I started asking questions, I never heard from them again.

This is really a weak spot in performing interviews and starting debates online.

They can always log off, and there is nothing you can do about it.

An answer to a question might take days to get, and on a really bad day, nobody’s gone answer at all.

It is easy not to feel the same obligation towards the other, as when you meet in person.

In an attempt to avoid that, I used emails or personal messages online.

I mailed or posted all my questions to my online-informants and they returned their answers or in some cases, their questions.

Online interviews have some advantages over face to face.

In my case, all my informants were sick in some way, some suffering from mental disorders.

Written interviews gave them the time they needed to answer and thereby the possibility to anticipate. You may argue that, the spontaneous answer was lost using this method, but this was the premise.

On the other hand. It was their answer on the paper, not my interpretation of their words and of course it spared me the extra work of transcription.