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Using Facebook as a Research Site and Research Tool

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This project explored the everyday use of the social network site Facebook by first-year undergraduate students in their transition to university. I did this by using a longitudinal study over one academic year. A connective ethnographic approach was used, which involved being with and observing the student participants on Facebook and face-to-face, within the university environment. Participant observation, field notes, screenshots of Facebook, questionnaires, interviews and focus groups were the main methods of data collection. Data were analysed using content analysis and based upon themes from literature and emerging themes from the data. The findings were presented as a set of six ethnographic stories, which were written based on data from the six main ethnographic participants. The project explored Facebook as a research field site and as a research tool.

Learning Outcomes
  • To understand the concept of connective ethnography
  • To see how Facebook could be used as a research tool
  • To understand some of the tensions surrounding the use of the terms online/offline when used in ethnographic study
  • To explore sampling decisions when undertaking an ethnography
  • To understand how the different parts of Facebook can be field sites
Facebook Use by First-Year Undergraduate Students

This case details and explores the methods I used and methodological choices I made when studying how first-year undergraduate students in the United Kingdom use Facebook in their transition to university. The study took a multi-case approach using ethnographic methods to observe student Facebook use, and then looked at whether Facebook helps or hinders the transition into university life.

This case study draws on data from a study of undergraduate students at a university in the United Kingdom. It explores the cultural practices of their use of the social network site (SNS) Facebook in the context of their university experience. This site is ubiquitous in a great many of the lives of young (18–21-year-olds) undergraduate students in the United Kingdom, and research in this area shows that Facebook is a key tool used for social support and supporting academic study.

The focus of the study was to look in-depth at the individual students, their Facebook profiles and how they used them in everyday life. I focused my view on the role Facebook plays broadly in the student experience of university. I was interested in the changes that go on when a student joins university, the challenges they face in becoming an undergraduate student and the part Facebook plays in this transition. The participants could be described as heavy Facebook users. Facebook may not be central to a young student's life when they start university, but it more often than not becomes essential to them to be able to function socially and academically.

Question Formation

This study is a PhD research project and is a follow-on study to research I did for my MA dissertation. That study explored the use of a Facebook Group (usually a separate, private, members-only space) by a lecturer and his students for learning and teaching purposes. That study focused on a small group of students and was based solely online on Facebook. I undertook all the data collection online. On reflecting upon this data, I realised I had rushed into my focus of learning and teaching use of Facebook before really understanding how students use Facebook more generally. I decided to take a broader view of Facebook use and chose to start at the beginning of the university career with the first-year students. This choice came about because of my interest in why young people decide to go to university, and I wondered how the use of Facebook supported or hindered this experience. I had a base of literature and my own findings from my MA study as a starting point, and from these, my research questions developed.

Research Questions

I started with the following research questions:

  • What are the students' experiences and perceptions of Facebook usage?
  • How and why do students use the site?

At the start, these questions were specifically simple in order to try to understand the realities of Facebook use. As the study developed and I started to analyse the data, I began to understand the importance of the relationship between Facebook and the first year at university. I drew on the concept of ‘transition’ to represent the first year through reading literature from the Higher Education Studies research area, and then more focused research questions emerged. These were in the main influenced by the data and helped me to describe and analyse in more detail what I was seeing. These were as follows:

  • What role does Facebook play in the lives of transitioning students?
  • Can we get an understanding of transitioning students from looking at their Facebook profiles?
  • What is the nature of the relationship between Facebook and the student lives?

Although I foreground these questions here in this write-up, I acknowledge that the first two questions were the ones that guided me when I entered the field site. I was interested to learn about what the students felt about their Facebook use as well as what activity they undertook on Facebook.

Research Design

I believe technology and particularly SNSs have much to offer Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and the students studying there. There is much that is unknown, not least the cultural developments in digital life, and in response to these, a range of authors have called for a development of thick descriptive ethnographic accounts of the present day use of SNSs in situ as opposed to offering research into the potentials of these software. The ‘thick description’ is referred to in Clifford Geertz's seminal work An Interpretive Theory of Culture, and I talk about this in more detail in a later section in this case. This idea of writing thick descriptions of how students were using Facebook was a driving factor in my research design. To be able to write a thick description of someone, I needed some participants to take part. I knew I wanted the study to last the whole academic year to be able to see whether the students' Facebook use changed at all. I also knew I would want to be Facebook Friends (FbF) with the students so I could see what they did on the site as well as interview them about their practices. This led me to adopt an ethnographic approach to the study.

Ethnographic Approach

This study took an ethnographic approach to study the everyday lives of undergraduate students and their use of Facebook while they were at university. Ethnographic practice involves being an observer or a participant observer in the real-life setting of the participant. A wide range of sources are used to collect data. These range from spending time and observing in the ‘field’ (the place of the ethnography) to interviewing participants. ‘Field notes’ are detailed descriptive notes about what the researcher sees and experiences in the field. They are often written shorthand or as ‘scratch notes’ in the field and then copied up in more detail later, so as not to miss what is going on or unnerve the participants. These scratch notes can be quickly written away from the participants as having a researcher note down your every move could be unrealistic and off-putting. See the work of Sanjek for a detailed discussion of field notes. These observations and field notes are what form the basis of the thick description of the participants and their lives. The output of the thick description is the presentation of original data, and in this case refers to the final write-up, which is an ethnographic story. I discuss this in a later section of this chapter, data presentation.

Ethnographies of the Internet

Over the last 15 years, there have been an increasing number of scholars undertaking ethnographies of the Internet, the online and digital spaces, from Judith Donath in 1999, looking at the notion of ‘virtual community’, to Daniel Miller in 2012 with his Tales from Facebook. There have been many discussions around whether the digital practices are seen as real interactions as opposed to virtual. The general consensus today is one of an understanding that digital spaces are as real as the physical spaces we inhabit and that viewing the two together can offer researchers much insight into the everyday lives of the participants we study. The terms virtual ethnography and online ethnography are still in use within the research community, but I find them problematic. The use of the terms online/offline to describe behaviours and practices is particularly troublesome. The idea that one can be ‘offline’ on Facebook supposes that your Facebook profile lays dormant when you are not interacting with it, which is far from the case, as your Friends will post on your Wall (a space on every user's profile page that allows friends and users themselves to post messages for all to see) and interact on your Profile whether you are present or not. While in this case I find the terms problematic, it is possible you will see them used to describe ethnographies that only use data from digital, ‘online’ spaces as compared with other ethnographies, which entail only physical presence with participants.

Connective Ethnography

A connective ethnography, a term coined by Christine Hine and also used by Kevin Leander, among others, is one that places equal importance on the digital space/site being researched alongside and equal to the physical space. It understands that the online and the offline are often simultaneous. In this project, a multi-sited, connective, ethnographic approach allowed for observation both on Facebook and face-to-face to go beyond the online/offline dichotomy, which can sometimes exist when researching SNS. This explored the complex relationship of the embedded and ubiquitous nature of Facebook in a sample of undergraduates' lives.


This study took place over the academic year 2010/2011 and worked with a sample of first-year undergraduate students from a university in the United Kingdom. The study consisted of two stages of data collection: stage 1 was an online survey questionnaire of the full population of new undergraduate students (approximately 4700 students); stage 2 was a connective ethnography of a small sample of these respondents (n = 6).

First Stage: Questionnaire

The decision to undertake a full-population census survey as opposed to a random sampling approach was in response to the aim of the questionnaire which was twofold: one, to allow participants to self-select themselves for the longitudinal ethnographic study, and two, to give contextual background data which will enable me to discuss a little about what first-year university students do on Facebook and compare these data to similar national and international surveys.

Questionnaire Details

The questionnaire was written using Google docs, a free, online survey creator. This allows for the questionnaire to be emailed directly to the students, and I propose this made them more likely to respond to it. The questionnaire was specifically as simple and as short as possible to get as many people as possible to complete it, to hold their attention. The questionnaire began with the question ‘Facebook makes you feel___ because___?’ The questionnaire then followed a split of questions between the answers ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the question of Facebook usage. If ‘yes’, it requires the participants to self-report their Facebook usage, that is, how many times and where the site is accessed. If the respondent answers ‘no’, then the questionnaire asked why not and gave the opportunity for the respondent to report whether he or she uses another SNS. The use of a mix of open and closed questions was seen as appropriate to answer the research questions to provide a mix of data that could be used for descriptive statistics and free response answers to use for narrative exploration. From both strands, the questionnaire ended with a set of generic demographic questions, sex, age and ethnicity, and then gave the respondent a chance to leave their contact details to self-select to take part in further research. This self-selection element is where the participants for the ethnographic study came from. The aim of the demographic questions was to give a contextualised picture to the ethnographic data and to enable a rough and ready comparison and benchmark attitudes against other studies where age, sex and race are relevant, and to have an understanding of which sections of the population have not taken part.

Second Stage: Connective Ethnography

The ethnography used volunteer sampling to allow participants to take part in the study. The students who left their contact details therefore volunteered and self-selected to take part in further research. I then got in contact with these volunteers via email with further information regarding the research project and the nature of the ethnography.

From the students who I emailed, I requested that if the participants were interested in taking part further in the study they were to email be back with the following details: name, name of course due to start in September 2010 and their best contact email. The students who responded with this information were then asked to provide suitable times for meeting with me face-to-face to be fully briefed on the research project and the commitment it entails. From the responses to this, I was left with a sample size of n = 6, my six ethnographic cases which I call my Facebook Friends. Ethnographies often have small sample sizes and a few key participants, so six students was an ideal sample for this stage of my study.

Meeting My Facebook Friends

There were many challenges in meeting my FbF for the first time. The students' timetables were full and they had many other commitments. I had to persevere for a few weeks before finally securing a meeting that was suitable for all my FbF. The success of this meet up, I believe, hinged on the choice of venue. I visited the students in their residential university halls of residences. I recorded the focus group using a digital Dictaphone so I could transcribe at a later date. The focus of the focus group interview schedule (questions) was open-ended and began with, ‘please tell me about how you use Facebook’. I used email to contact and communicate with my FbF before they added me as a Friend on Facebook.

Data Gathering

The methods for data collection were both digital and face-to-face, and the practicalities and key issues are discussed here.

First-Stage Methods
  • An anonymous digital questionnaire
First-Stage Practicalities
  • Contact was made with the university admissions department, and they kindly agreed to help out. They emailed the questionnaires to all students who received a place in August 2010.
  • The Google docs software collated all the responses.
  • The questionnaire was live for a month.
Second-Stage Methods
  • Screenshots of the participants' Facebook profile, status, wall and photos, looked at once a week and field notes of these to look at patterns of use
  • Semi-structured interviews using Facebook Messages and Facebook chat to discuss Facebook usage
  • Face-to-face semi-structured interviews and focus groups to discuss Facebook usage
Second-Stage Practicalities
  • I met the group of six participants as a focus group in November 2010 to introduce the study and discuss the schedule of research and ethical implications of taking part and the consent forms.
  • The consent forms were left with the participants and they posted them back to me.
  • The students added me as a friend on Facebook to accept the invitation to take part in the study.
  • We met three times over the year for face-to-face interviews in November, January and June.
  • Field notes were taken once a week of the Facebook profiles. These included screenshots and handwritten notes.
Gaining Access to the Field

For both studies, I got the participants to add me as a friend on Facebook, and they did this by searching my name and ‘add friend’. I did this so that the participants had agency over taking part in the study, they did not have to add me if they decided not to take part and they could delete me from their friend list whenever they wish, I was not controlling the access to their profile.


The time I spent in the ‘field’ of Facebook was an intense weekly occurrence. I would look at what each of the participants had posted, and I would take screenshots of their profiles. I would take field notes of what I was seeing and being involved in, for example, when my participants posted on my Facebook Wall, when my participants were involved with a specific Facebook practice and when uploading and tagging photos from a night out. Although I intended to only check the participants' Profiles once per week, I ended up viewing posts on a daily basis as the participants' Status updates (a Status update allows users to inform their Friends of current thoughts) would be visible in my News Feed (the News Feed highlights what a user's Friends post). This made the separation of my personal Facebook interactions and my professional, research interactions fairly difficult. At times, it felt like I could not leave the field, and this was tiring. I could have tried to prevent this by setting up a Facebook research alias, but I chose not to as I viewed this as false and I discuss the reasons for this in more detail in the following ‘Ethical Decisions’ section.

Participant Observation

My participants did interact within my Profile and comment on my Status updates and so forth, and this required me to be reflexive about my own Facebook interactions. To begin with, this level of interaction surprised me, but then I came to understand that continuous interaction with other Friends on Facebook is part of the cultural practices of the site, and this interaction was expected of me. This moved my initial ‘observation’ into ‘participant observation’ as I was joining in with my participants. I made sure I always communicated my intentions to my participants. For example, during the analysis of the study, I deactivated my Facebook account for 2 months so I could remove myself from the field and the cultural practices within. This was to allow the process of getting space from the subject and making the familiar seem unfamiliar. When deciding to do this, I made sure I informed the participants what I was planning and why I was doing this so they did not think I had just disappeared.

The Boundary of the Field Site

When undertaking an ethnography, it is sensible to define the parameters of your study from the outset but to allow for a level of flexibility to follow the flows of the participants. Facebook has many different sections within the architecture of the website. I made the decision to stick to the participants' personal Profile as the boundary of the field site. I focused my observations only within this space for the majority of the participants. One participant invited me to join a private Facebook Group, which was set up by his classmates to discuss issues relating to the course they were studying. I decided to join this Group as I saw it could offer me an interesting case to explore. This process is called snowballing. The Facebook Group then became a field site in addition to the personal profiles I was already studying.

Snowballing and New Participants

Snowballing is a term to describe sampling whereby new participants enter the ethnography through an introduction by an original participant. In this project, I was introduced to 80 members of a Facebook Group as I discussed above. I was also introduced to some of one of my participant's flatmates, and I met them for a short focus group to talk about how the flatmates used Facebook with each other in the context of being flatmates.

Ethical Decisions

As a researcher of Facebook, decisions have to be made regarding the use of your own Facebook profile and whether to set up a different ‘researcher’ profile. I decided early on to use my own profile. I had the expectation that my participants would let me see their profile so I felt it was only just for them to see mine. My approach was one of participant observation not just observation. Ethnographic practice is about being embedded in the practices of the cultural group being studied, not merely observing from afar. I wanted to experience the culture alongside my FbF. If I had used a researcher profile, I would have had limited other FbF and a very empty Wall with no interactions. Using my full Profile has influenced and developed my understanding of my participants' Facebook practices. Ethically, I have been mindful of the types of data my participants have access to through my Facebook Profile. I have made changes to the privacy settings of my profile, reflexively, particularly with references to the photographs that my participants can see. For example, I have changed the privacy settings so that my participants cannot see photos of my Friends' children. In the main, my profile looks as it would to any of my Friends. Decisions relating to the use of a researcher's own profile would be influenced by the presentation of self within the digital environment by the researcher and could be linked to the research question and the reason for the researcher to use Facebook as a research site.

Being Reflexive

Reflexivity is a central part of any research, which involves interactions with participants, but especially in this case, where decisions were made about Facebook Profiles. Research is not value free, and to be reflexive is to be aware of your analytical approach to the study and how this may influence your behaviour in the field and to acknowledge this throughout and in the write-up particularly. The aim is to be authentic within and about the culture being studied. For further reading on being reflexive, see the work of Finlay and Gough.


My approach to data analysis was one of interpretation and iteration. Content analysis was used based on the themes I identified from my literature review. These were notions of temporality, spatiality and social support. Time was the main analytical framework, whereby I examined the elements of time within the Facebook posts and the interview data. The data were analysed in the two stages which followed the research design.

First Stage
  • Descriptive statistics were used for the questionnaire data.
  • The responses to the open questions were open-coded.
Second Stage
  • Field notes were open-coded.
  • Facebook profiles were downloaded and open-coded.
  • Interviews were transcribed and open-coded.

The open-coded data sets were iteratively explored using the constant comparison method, whereby data were compared, until key repeating themes were identified. These were then cross-analysed between the Facebook and face-to-face data. I used the website to create ‘wordles’ of the participants' open responses. These are visual representations of the frequencies of the words used in the participants' responses (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. An example of a ‘wordle’ of responses to the question ‘Facebook makes me feel___?’
Data Presentation

The findings were presented in two sections – first, the questionnaire data were presented as a set of contextual background data, and the second section, which is six ethnographic stories, represents the six ethnographic participants and six different key moments of time within the academic year. These ethnographic stories are in essence, the thick description of which Geertz advocates, and my aim to fully describe the actualities of Facebook use. In the first section, information graphics (visuals of data) were used to visually show the descriptive statistics. For example,

  • how often the participants checked their Facebook?
  • on what device they check their Facebook? (see Figure 2)
Figure 2. An example of the visualisation of ‘What device did you check your Facebook on?’

The ethnographic stories of my FbF were written using direct quotes from the interview data and the Facebook postings (see Figure 3). Some of the key themes, which are presented as ethnographic stories, are ‘meeting in the digital before starting university’ and ‘the use of a Facebook group for academic support’.

Figure 3. An excerpt of one of the ethnographic stories.

These different data sets offered a multidimensional view on the phenomenon of Facebook use. They were integrated to create a detailed understanding of Facebook in this context in the discussion section of the thesis, which preceded the presentation of data chapter.


The techniques detailed in this case offer some views of the use of Facebook in undertaking an ethnography of students in Higher Education in the United Kingdom. The cultural practices of students' Facebook use across the digital and physical environments were studied, and Facebook was used as one of the methods of data collection. The focus of my study was Facebook, and therefore, this was my predominant ethnographic field site and starting point for exploring the culture of undergraduate students. This subsequently and reflexively moved across and back and forth between the digital and the physical environments my participants inhabited. A key lesson I learnt was that Facebook can be a successful research site, but that the researcher must have an understanding of the architecture of the site and the privacy settings before starting to research there.

Exercises and Discussion Questions
  • Why is it important to decide the boundary of your field site?
  • Within a small-scale research project, is it possible to undertake ‘an ethnography’?
  • Can the interactions, which take place on Facebook, be regarded as real life? Why might it be problematic to take or to not take this view?
  • Some of the data are presented using alternative visualisations to standard graphs; discuss other ways data could be presented.
Further Reading
Boellstorf, T., Nardi, B., Pearce, C., & Taylor, T. L. (2012). Ethnography and virtual worlds: A handbook of method. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Markham, A., & Baym, N. (Eds.) (2008). Internet inquiry: Conversations about method. London, England: SAGE.
Markham, A., & Buchanan, E. (2012). Ethical decision-making and Internet research 2.0. Retrieved from
Donath, J. S. (1999). Identity and deception in the virtual community. In P.Kollock & M. A.Smith (Eds.), Communities in cyberspace (pp. 29–59). London, England: Routledge.
Finlay, L., & Gough, B. (Eds.) (2008). Reflexivity: A practical guide for researchers in health and social sciences. Oxford, UK: Wiley.
Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Hine, C. (2000). Virtual ethnography. London, England: SAGE.
Leander, K. M., & McKim, K. K. (2003). Tracing the everyday ‘sitings’ of adolescents on the Internet: A strategic adaptation of ethnography across online and offline spaces. Education, Communication & Information, 3, 211–240. doi:
Miller, D. (2011). Tales from Facebook. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Sanjek, R. (1990). A vocabulary for fieldnotes. In R.Sanjek (Ed.), Fieldnotes: The makings of anthropology (pp. 92–121). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Stirling, E. (2009). We all communication through Facebook: A case of undergraduates' use and non-use of the Facebook group (Unpublished MA dissertation). The University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK.

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