Digital Ethnography

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Definition

Digital Ethnography describes the process and methodology of doing ethnographic research in a digital space. The digital field site is sometimes comprised of text, video or images, and may contain social relations and behavior patterns strewn across many nations, cities or intellectual geographies. The field site may be composed around a singular belief, such as a brand following, or can be a network of dozens or even thousands of different belief patterns, social customs and actions. Large networks such as Facebook and Twitter have their own subgroups and sets of cultures that gravitate towards each other. Like a traditional anthropologist, the main concern of a digital ethnographer is locating the field site and learning the language of the natives. The difference is that the anthropologist may be able to access the field site without physical travel. In many cases, the fieldsite may be a mental construct created by a group of geographically distributed nodes on an information network.

Traditional and Digital Ethnography

Traditional ethnography includes kinship studies, proximal relations, tool use, cultural language and customs, geography, philosophical beliefs and patterns of behavior in work, play, intimacy and social class. This same toolset can be applied to the digital space, as long as the anthropologist is technical enough to understand the digital field site.

The difference between digital ethnography and analog ethnography is that the site is not purely analog, but can be composed of both digital and analog, or purely digital parts. Unlike a traditional anthropologist who might go to another country, city, or place to do their research, the digital anthropologist must travel through the Internet to locate the field site. And just as a traditional ethnographer has their set of tools (tape recorder, field notebook, videocamera, kinship diagrams) the digital ethnographer must have a set of tools for understanding and recording the digital space. Screencapture software, website archiving tools, servers, blogs and content management systems are common tools of digital ethnographers. They are the equivalent of the audio recorder and journal.

To date, there are no seminal works collecting and describing ethnographic or anthropological methods for digital researchers. As the discipline becomes more mainstream (in line with the great number of users adopting digital devices and practices) we will likely see one of these guides. Russ Bernard's Research Methods In Anthropology.[1] is a solid starting point for learning analog research methods. The savvy anthropologist will be able to easily apply these methods to the digital space if they are so inclined. The key is to remember that humans are still human, and that technology only connects and sometimes even amplifies that humanness. Aside from the technological interface structuring the field site, ethnography in the digital space is no more bizarre and strange than field work in the vast and varied human territories of real life.

New Tools for Digital Ethnography

Just as exploratory anthropologists in the 1800-1900's developed their own sets of practices and methods for field research, digital ethnographers must do the same. There are no standards in either sector, but there are some best practices. The field of digital anthropology is quite new compared to traditional anthropology. It is also often tied to corporate research and less of it is shared in the methodological sense. Some anthropologists such as danah boyd work with programmers to create ways of locating and determining communication patterns in digital fields. This creation of custom tools for research signals a new set of digital anthropologists, matching their tools or creating new tools based on the field they are researching.

References

  1. Bernard, Russ. Research Methods In Anthropology: Qualitative And Quantitative. Altamira Press. December 22, 2005. http://anth.ro/2xR